Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sanity Rears It's Head

The following article was written by the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivah Gedolah in Melbourne, Rabbi Binyomin Cohen. As usual Rabbi Cohen's practical and logical analysis of the situation gets to the heart of the matter. Even though he says in the article that Yeshivah Shul is somewhat unique, I believe that this article gets to the heart to one main aspect of the "Yechi matter" and would apply to many Lubavitch mosdos around the world.

[Warning: This is a long article.]

6 Shvat, 5768


The following remarks reflect only my personal opinion. Nevertheless I believe their basic approach would be acceptable to nearly all of those who daven in or belong to the Shul.

It is important to appreciate that the Shul is, in fact, a part of the Yeshivah Centre – a name and title which indicate that the ethos and goals of this particular Shul are not necessarily identical with those of other Shuls.

Firstly, the name implies that the Shul is merely one part of a whole complex of institutions and organisations situated at 92 Hotham St. The Shul has thus always been inextricably connected with other Moisdos (institutions), and especially with the Yeshivah College. The fact that the Rov of the Shul has also been the head of the Moisdos merely serves to reinforce this point. The major implication and result of this connection is that whatever transpires in the Shul will not remain confined to the Shul alone, but will inevitably have an impact on all of the Moisdos which are part of the Yeshivah Centre. Thus, what happens in the Shul will also affect the pupils of the Yeshivah College and the Avreichim of the Kollel.

The second idea implied by the name Yeshivah Centre is that 92 Hotham St. is the centre of Chabad-Lubavitch activities in Melbourne. Fifty years ago, this was a simple fact of life which did not need to be emphasized. Nowadays, with a multiplicity of Chabad institutions and organisations spread throughout various parts of Melbourne, the name Yeshivah Centre says to each one of them, “This is where you started. This is the seat of the central authority. You are, in a sense, a branch of the central Chabad tree which has its roots at 92 Hotham St”. As far as I have understood over the years, this is, in fact, the way in which Rabbi Groner (senior) sees the situation. While it is true that different organisations enjoy varying degrees of autonomy, many of them functioning with apparently total independence, nevertheless, at the end of the day, the address of Chabad - Lubavitch and its Moisdos in Melbourne is 92 Hotham St and whoever is in charge there. The general, non-Lubavitch community certainly perceives things this way, and so do the majority of Anash.

In light of this, we should be able to appreciate that whatever takes place in the Shul of Yeshivah Centre is of importance to the whole of the Chabad community, and to all of those Moisdos functioning throughout Melbourne. It is, therefore, of crucial importance that this particular Shul – more than any ordinary Shul – be run in a responsible and consistently correct manner. Such a modus operandi will serve as a positive example and inspiration for all the other Moisdos, whereas a failure to meet such standards will unfortunately provide the wrong sort of example, to the detriment of all concerned.

The particular issue, which is at the crux of the present situation, is not new. The question of the public saying of Yechi etc, has been raised several times during the last fourteen or so years. More recently, a couple of Mispallelim, who feel very strongly about this matter, have decided that in addition to proclaiming Yechi after each Tefillah, they will also sing and dance at length. This now takes place in the Shul (after Ma’ariv) and in the Kollel (after Shacharis).

When considering the matter, it is important to be able to distinguish between the theological and practical aspects of the issue.

There have always been many Chassidim who have seen it as simple and obvious that the Rebbe is Moshiach. There have definitely been several Sichos of the Rebbe which could, at the very least, be adapted to support this view, and, given that the Rebbe implied this with regard to his father-in-law after Yud Shevat, it could be similarly argued that we can apply all of this equally to the Rebbe after Gimmel Tammuz . Whether Toras HaChassidus compels all of its followers to take this approach or not, is not for me to say. I would have thought that only someone of the stature of Reb Yoel Kahn, or similar, is qualified to interpret the teachings of the Rebbe in a manner which could be considered authoritative, but maybe there are others who view things differently.

At any rate, all of this is a question of interpretation, and relates to the theory and philosophy of Chabad. But even the Chossid who firmly believes today that the Rebbe is Moshiach and is about to imminently lead us out of Golus, does not need to go screaming this from the rooftops. He does not find it necessary to make declarations and proclamations about this, any more than he does about any other matter of his belief and convictions. He certainly does not interpret his own silence on the matter as some sort of weakness or doubt in his faith, and would be rather upset to hear others suggesting just that. As mentioned earlier, Chassidim have for generations believed that the Rebbe of that generation is Moshiach, but rarely did they speak about this. If one would have asked them, they would have doubtless stated their belief, but nothing more.

Far more recently; to be precise, after the Rebbe suffered his first stroke, there was born a more vocal school, who proclaimed Yechi after every Tefillah, one person saying it and the others repeating. At the time, most of us understood this to be a sort of a tefillah for the complete and speedy recovery of the Rebbe and his return to good health. Those, however, who carried on the declaration even after Gimmel Tammuz obviously had a different intention. Whether their intention was (and is) to say that the Rebbe did not in fact pass away, or whether there is some other meaning, is fairly irrelevant. It is no longer a mere Tefillah and wish. It is now a statement of belief being made publicly. What was till now the property of the individual henceforth belongs to the community. Something said out loud in the presence of a Kehillah, at the time and in the place of their Tefillah, becomes almost as much of a communal expression as the Tefillah itself. The obvious intention is that everyone present should participate in saying it, but it is clearly untrue to suggest that it should make absolutely no difference to those who do not participate. Anything being said in public is being imposed on all present. Some may be happy to have this imposed on them, while others may be distinctly unhappy about it. Some may be willing and active participants as they gladly respond and repeat. Others may be very unwilling participants, as they are forced to listen to a public recitation of that which they do not believe should be the subject of this type of proclamation.

If there would be some type of obligation to make this declaration, we could ignore the discomfort of the few, or maybe even of the many, as we proceed to do the right thing as per the command of the Shulchan Oruch or the instructions of the Rebbe. The truth is, however, that no such instructions exist. Nowhere does the Rebbe even hint at his desire to have this, or any other, declaration made at the time of Tefillah. Even in the well known Sicha of 2nd Nissan 5748, where he encourages the proclamation of Yechi Hamelech, he nowhere connects this, even remotely, with the time and place of davening. For four whole years after the Sicha no proclamation of any sort was made at the time of the Rebbe’s Tefillah, either before, during or after. In other words, the Rebbe davenned nearly five thousand Tefillos in public after saying that Sicha, but did not find it appropriate to institute or encourage any sort of announcement after even one of them. How then can anyone suggest that the Rebbe was encouraging that such a declaration be made at the time of davening?

Of course, this does not in itself invalidate such declarations. It merely removes from them the stamp of the Rebbe’s wishes or authority. Things can now be seen in their correct perspective. Those who proclaim, do so because of their feelings, and their belief that such feelings should be publicly expressed. They are not obeying any specific instruction of the Rebbe, because no such instruction, or even suggestion, exists. In light of this, the question now arises as to whether such individuals have the right to make such announcements when others who are present may:
1. not agree with the sentiments being expressed i.e. do not necessarily share their convictions about the identity of Moshiach
2. not agree with the introduction of proclamations etc. at the time and place of davening, even if they agree with the sentiments being expressed.

There are probably some Kehillos (in Eretz Yisroel or France) where the overwhelming majority of those present willingly participate in such declarations. If they have all so decided and are all of one mind, who can argue with their right to both believe and practice? Even though I do not personally share all of their views, I would not belittle them or denigrate them for behaving according to their beliefs. My experience, however, has been that in all places where I have davened during the last fourteen years, including downstairs in 770, only a small proportion of those present have demonstrated any degree of interest in the saying of Yechi. I would say that a maximum of one third of those present might respond when someone says Yechi out loud. The fact that the volume of the response might sometimes sound impressive, can be rather misleading. Given their fervour and the strength of their vocal chords, twenty young men can generate an almost deafening sound in an enclosed area. This does not change the fact that there may well be another sixty people present who are not responding with anything other than silence. Why should the sixty become part of the twenty? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? I repeat that I have looked carefully to assess the actual facts on many, many occasions. There can be very little doubt that the indifference of the majority has allowed a committed minority to flourish. The ultimate results of such a laissez-faire attitude are, as of yet, unknown. However, anyone who davens downstairs in 770 cannot help being somewhat surprised, and not in a positive way, by some of the things he sees. Suffice it to say that the declarations are merely a start. I do not believe that the minority themselves have any specific, fixed agenda, and this is even more disturbing, as they go wherever the impulse takes them.

In Yeshivah Shul in Melbourne there have always been those who have wanted to introduce the saying of Yechi after each Tefillah. There have been at least as many who are opposed to any such saying, and, in the middle, probably a majority who shrug their shoulders and say, “What difference does it make?” I am personally convinced that if the saying of Yechi is allowed to be introduced this will antagonize not only those who are opposed to it, but also, in the course of time, those who presently shrug their shoulders. They will gradually become more and more alienated as they see something which seems to generate a degree of enthusiasm by others, but with which they do not identify with or see any reason to participate in. Such feelings of exclusion and separateness are always dangerous, and in a Shul like Yeshivah, which has always striven for unity and inclusiveness, could prove to be catastrophic. The net results of this will be that the opponents will leave almost immediately, and the uncommitted will gradually drift away over the course of time. Do we want this, and is this what Anash over the years (including Rabbi Groner) were working towards? Would the Rebbe want that we should split and mortally wound a Moisod which has unified and strengthened countless Jews, in order that a minority should feel good?

Having said all of this, and being of the definite opinion that there should be no declarations at any time within the Shul itself, I nevertheless feel that some accommodation should be made for those who do wish to announce Yechi, despite the fact that I do not personally agree with them. There are some very fine and devoted younger members of Anash who have been brought up or have chosen to believe that such declarations are both desirable and necessary to hasten the Geulah. If there is a designated Minyan where such a thing is practiced three times a day, at least they have the option to daven there. This compromise has, in fact, been in place for many years. Yechi has been said in the Kollel and given that the place and times of Tefillah in the Kollel are distinct and separate from the main Shul, there is no need for this to be a cause of friction or dispute. If someone doesn’t want to be present in a Minyan where Yechi is said, let him daven in the main Shul, and similarly vice-versa.

No-one should have the right to interfere with an accepted and agreed-upon status quo, by trying to say Yechi in the Shul, or to stop it being said in the Kollel.

Of course the Hanholo of the Kollel will have to agree to the continuation of the above status quo, and also to the extent to which they are prepared to allow it. If for example it starts spiraling out of control, as has been seen recently, they have the right to completely withdraw permission for saying Yechi. You can make an agreement with people who behave rationally and are prepared to meet you halfway. This applies Boruch Hashem, to the overwhelming majority of those who would wish to have Yechi said.

However, nothing of what has been said above will make any difference to those who are totally right and who perceive all others as being completely wrong. They will do what they like, regardless of what anyone else wishes, and despite any number of requests to respect authority. Such an approach of Hefker will only serve to accelerate and intensify the harm and damage which could be inflicted on the Shul and all of its members. Such behaviour has no place in any Moisod of Chabad (or anywhere else) and if such people persist in ignoring the authority of a Rov, Hanholo, Dayan, Shul Committees or whatever, they may have to be dealt with by the secular authorities of the land i.e. the Police. One sincerely hopes that any such moves will be unnecessary, but, if it needs to be done, those in charge of the Shul should not hesitate to do it.

May Hashem help us go from strength to strength as part of the Moisdos established to unite and strengthen Melbourne Jewry in the service of Hashem and in accordance with the wishes of the Rebbe.

Rabbi Binyomin Cohen