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Michael Jackson and the Lubavitcher Rebbe

June 30, 2009 – 7:24 pm26 Comments

By Yoram Symons

Both Michael Jackson and the Lubavitcher Rebbe died on the 3rd of Tammuz.  This much is fact. The rest of this piece is entirely speculation.

The first I heard of Michael Jackson’s death was when a lapsed Lubavitcher called me.  In a daze, an almost hallucinogenic tone to his voice was asking me: what was the significance that Michael had died on the 3rd of Tammuz, the exact same date that the Rebbe had passed from the world. He had been shaken, almost to his core it seemed. For while he is indeed a lapsed Lubavitcher, the memories of childhood can never fade and the phenomenon that was the Rebbe’s final mortal days left an indelible mark upon his soul.

I was never a huge Michael Jackson fan. I liked his music but I would never have thought of myself as a genuine fan, a devotee. And the same goes for the Rebbe. Not having been raised Lubavitch, observing the hysterical euphoria of the movement in the early nineties had a sense of watching something unreal and distant. It was not something that I was a part of, merely a spectator to.

Yet the deaths of both Michael and the Rebbe shook me somehow. For the past few days I have been trying to make sense of this emotion. Watching Michael’s video clips and interviews via YouTube, listening to his songs played over on the radio and reading bits and pieces about his life, gleaned from the Wikipedia and the fan-sites and the overwhelming number of blogs. Yet through it all my question remained – why am I upset over the death of Michael Jackson?

Michael Jackson’s death was a tragedy. There he was, so incredibly and almost inhumanly talented, yet at the same time so obviously and inconsolably sad. After watching countless YouTube clips and listening to endless playbacks, I began to have the sense that every time Michael spoke, in that soft, almost feminine voice, he was staring out from behind a mask.

Michael spent his lifetime wearing a mask. At first the mask was the same as all performers wear – the outlandish and flamboyant costumes of his Jackson 5 days. But by the time he released Thriller he was wearing a new kind of mask, a mask that had been sculpted into his very skin. And this mask proved too addictive. It never hid him quite enough, so he had it changed and enhanced and altered until by the end of his life he had taken to wearing a veil – the ultimate, most unsubtle and most obvious mask of all.

The Rebbe also wore a mask. In his final days he would appear before his followers from a balcony. While the crowd sang itself into a frenzy of yechi’s they would see only a veil. Then at the crescendoing moment the veil would be lifted and behind it was the Rebbe. For a few brief moments the Chassidim would bask in the glory of their master and then almost as quickly the veil was drawn tight and the Rebbe disappeared.

Chassidus teaches us that we all wear masks. We all hide our true selves behind layers and layers of a constructed personality.  The human is unable to deal with other humans face to face. Only from the safety of our personas can we engage with the world. Chassidus teaches that it is not only the Michael Jacksons who wear masks. We all do. And for the same reason. To escape the glare.

There was something messianic in Michael Jackson’s tone. From when his decision to cease being merely a popstar and enter the realms of philanthropy and activism, there became an almost palpable sense that he believed, through the power of music, that he could heal the world. Perhaps when so many individuals use you as a canvas on which to project their hopes and dreams, you begin to absorb it and then radiate those hopes and dreams back into the world.

The Rebbe taught that in every generation there is a messiah. Perhaps this means that the messiah isn’t just a single person, but an energy that is present in the world at any given moment, that finds individuals and coalesces around them. Perhaps messiah is the word for our collective longing for something better, something transcendent.  But it is a longing that we are too ashamed to openly declare, so we stand back and allow others to absorb our longings and let them declare them for us.

Celebrities embody that longing. They become focal points for masses of emotional energy. Whether their celebrity is won through incomparable talent or simply succeeding in a prime time cooking game show, celebrity always functions in the same manner, differing only in degree. While on the stage, in the glare of spotlight, the celebrity openly declares their ambition and desire – their longing. While under the spotlight they take off their mask. We need celebrities and leaders and messiahs. We need to see someone to take off their mask, because we cannot take off our own.

The Lubavitchers of Melbourne publish a newsletter called The Lamplighter. The symbolism is that the one who lights the lamps on the street takes a single candle and from it can light many others. I am told that the Rebbe saw his mission on earth like that, helping others to light their own candles. The tragedy of the Rebbe and indeed of all leaders is that we get so absorbed in the light reflecting from them, we fail to realize that the source of their light is from the light that is within us.

This blog has spent considerable time discussing the idea of communal leadership. And while no one would equate communal leaders to the Michael Jacksons and the Lubavitcher Rebbes of the world, in some ways they serve a similar function. They put themselves out there to do what most people will not.  And while the debate around the selection processes of a leadership body is worthwhile, the underlying reality of leadership – that a few must act in the name of the many – will not change, no matter how selection takes place, from the most clandestine to the most democratic.

If there is anything to learn from the passing of Michael Jackson, it is when we put so much of our hopes and desires into another human being, we diminish our own potential and force them to bear a burden that is too great. When all the individuals of a polity are willing to assume full responsibility for that polity that is when leadership will begin to change.

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26 Comments »

  • Almoni says:

    On both counts (Mr Jackson and Mr Schneerson, both mired in various controversies), this is where religion ends and paganism begins…[spoken from a hard rationalist, humanist, quasi-Marxist, Reform Pittsburg Platform, (1885) with a good dollop of Mordechiam Kaplan)], non-personal deity & highly sceptical viewpoint. Bring on Ethical Culture as well.

    But very nicely written.

  • Reluctant Dualist says:

    This is a wonderful post.

    I wonder if we should dichotomise between leader and follower. Isn’t the Messiah really chosen from the mortal pool by the mortals themselves?

    Questions:

    Was Jackson’s pursuit of transformation an effort to attain a normalcy that had always eluded him?
    Was he a reluctant focal figure, unsuited to the task, thrown in against his will from the beginning?

    If the answers to the above questions are yes, one wonders at the Rebbe’s attitude to the momentum surrounding his Messianic development.

    It reminds me of the flippant question beloved of young stoners: Is God so powerful that He could create a rock so heavy even He couldn’t lift it?

    Was the Rebbe’s followers’ belief in his proto-Messianic persona so powerful that even he, as the proto-Messiah could not fight it?

    To what degree was the Rebbe complicit?

    What they both share is the truism that their Messianic properties were conferred on them by their following: that they were of their following, and distinguishable less by deed (however great the deeds may have been) than by the adulation that elevated them beyond the spheres in which normal humans are expected to dwell.

  • Elder of Zion says:

    This post is Off The Wall

  • The Hasid says:

    Elder, don’t stop…

    ‘Til you get enough.

  • JL says:

    “Blame it on the Boogie”

  • Elder of Zion says:

    In their own way, they both tried to “Heal the World”

  • jewinthefat says:

    They couldn’t, so they decided to Beat It.

  • kugl says:

    This is offensive. How can you compare a child molerster to the Rebbe. People get excited over lots of stupid things. The comments are also really dumb. This place is becoming like a chat room. At least before there might be a couple of intelligent comments even when the posts were mostly a big whinge. I just dont see the point of this site.

  • yoramsymons says:

    Kugl,

    I apologise if you are offended. I understand that matters of faith can get highly personal. But if you do read my post, I am comparing them fundamentally because of the synchronicity between their yahrzeit dates and the fact that they both became focal points for large amounts of psychic energy, arguably messianic in nature for both of them.

    Judaism is fundamentally a time-centric religion. Dates do not occur in an onward progression, but return in a cycle. Times in Judaism have an almost corporeal quality as we return to them. There are not many different shabboses, but one eternal shabbos that we return to again and again.

    The Rebbe said that time was a spiral. I have understood this to mean that each time we go round the merry go round the events get tighter and tighter, the spaces shorter and the experience of time seems to move faster. A spiral view of time is inherently eschatalogic and teleological, positions entirely congruent with the Rebbe’s own messianic teachings.

    Therefore, it would seem to me that the Rebbe’s own ideology of time would recognise the signifigance of the confluence of the two dates and would thus demand a response.

    Michael Jackson may or may not have been the things that you suggest. However he was an indiviudal of great signifigance to an extraordinarily large number of people. Who are any of us to say why the great cosmic wheel of time moves in the way that it does, but we can observe the course that it charts and make our own conclusions about the destination that it might be plotting.

  • yoramsymons says:

    Reluctant dualist

    You raise some interesting points. I dont have a response as such but I will say the following:

    The concept of messiah from a kabbalistic (and hence Hassidic) point of view is located around the Sefirah of Kingship (malchut).

    For those who are unaware, the sefirot are qualities of both divine and psychic energy and present a model of understanding both the activities of the macrocosm as well as the internal mechanics of the human microcosm. There are traditinally 10 sefirot, although there are arguably 11. The sefirah of malchut is the tenth or lowest of the sefirot.

    Now the sefirah of malchut or Kingship is curious, because it fundamentally has no substance of its own. It is the point that mediates the existence of the preceding nine sefirot. That is to say, it acts as a conduit to allow consciousness recognition of the other sefirot.

    In more simple terms, the God-force attains kingship only when there are others to recognise it. The godforce may be many things on its own, but without a nation, or an audience, the godforce can never be king.

    From my own understanding this is true of the messianic concept as well. That the messiah comes into existence when that individual is recognised as such. Without that recognition an individual may great and wonderful and fantastic, but they are not the messiah.

    Thus your final conclusion – that their messianic properties were conferred on them by the adullation of their followers – i think is an observation consistent with the entire kabbalistic understanding of the messianic concept.

  • Reluctant Dualist says:

    Yoram, you seem to inhabit quite an ethereal realm today.

    As for my comment in any way implying a Kabbalistic bent, rest assured: it was entirely unintended.

    The rationalist is quite content with recognising that in times of crisis/change/name-your-pressure, the collective God-spot is likely to be tickled to the point of mass hysteria.

    At this point, what with nature and people alike abhoring vacuums, a suitable candidate is either thrust into the Messianic position, or the opportunist (Shabbatai Zvi, the Rebbe?) seizes his unique moment in history.

    Thus into a period of darkness, the light is thrust or seized (or maybe both). It illuminates – but never the original darkness that gave it birth.

    Instead, light is shone on an imagined, constructed darkness – ie: end of days – that mercifully allows adherents to ignore the true blackness from which they originally sought escape.

    This reluctant dualist finds ample satifaction in these more concrete explanations that are able to explain light and dark – and may even perhaps eventually confer the wisdom to distinguish between the two.

  • yoramsymons says:

    Reluctant dualist;

    You misunderstand me. I was not saying that your comment had kabbalistic implications, i was just pointing out that from a completely different value set you had arrived at a conclusion shared by the Kabbalah.

    The phenomena that you are describing, ie nature abhoring vacuums and hence people being sucked in, are precisely the types of psychic and psychological events that the program od Kabbalah is attempting to describe. It may seem highly esoteric, especially given its obtuse and archaic language, but as I see it, it is simply a model for explaining certain types of psychological behaviour, both in the microcosm, ie individual human beings, and the macrocosm, ie the collective consciousness.

    That these phenomena can be explained rationally comes as no surprise, as the Kaballah is entirely rational, provided of course, that one accepts the context and value system from which it comes. That being that human experience has as much validity as observable non-psychological events. But within said value system it is entirely rational.

  • kugl says:

    Who cares about yahrzeit dates? One coincidence doesn’t justify comparing Michael Jackson with the Rebbe. What you wrote after that is a lot of words that don’t mean anything.

  • yoramsymons says:

    Kugl,

    It would really help if you were able to better articulate exactly why you are offended, because it does seem as though you did not properly read my response. If you are here simply to agitate for the sake of agitation well so be it, but if you do have something of substance to contribute, please do so.

  • When someone on Facebook pointed out the significance of the date of Michael Jackson’s death, it seemed facetious so I made nothing of it, and didn’t think it was something worthy of discussion.

    For people who have a lot of respect for the Rebbe, mentioning the two characters in the same paragraph is highly undignifying, so I can really understand where Kugl is coming from. Surely there are boundaries where comparisons are inappropriate or in poor taste.

    A secular Jew may compare the cult of personality associated with the Rebbe with that of a hugely talented and influential yet flawed musician like Jackson. Anyone who has been close to the Rebbe (and many thousands were close in a way that could not be achieved with pop culture personalities) and/or learnt his teachings would see the gulf between the two is a vast one.

    That said, the Baal Shem Tov said that we can/should see a lesson in everything that happens, so Yoram takes artistic licence, draws an interesting comparison, and perhaps attempts to learn something.

    Almoni, I take issue with your lack of respect. At the very least, Rabbi Schneerson. How would you write about (lehavdil) the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury? Are they too just “Mr X”?

  • PS I’m in Jerusalem and it’s a sunny Friday afternoon here.

  • yoramsymons says:

    Thanks for that David.

    Obviously I was not comparing the Rebbe and Michael Jackson in terms of their personalities or their actions. That would be understandably offensive. Rather, as you pointed out, it was an artistic attempt to glean some meaning of this strange confluence of the dates of their passings. Hope you’re enjoying Jerusalem. :)

  • eli says:

    Perhaps a little off topic, but in a recent article “Fundamentally Freund” – Michael Freund questions why we (jews) even bother contemplating Jacksons death as anything more than the passing of another personality whose antisemitism were anything but worthy of all this hype let alone any comparison to a note worthy human bieng such as Rabbi Schneerson.

    He quotes Jacksons own words caught on tape

    “….Back in November 2005, Jackson was caught on tape in a voicemail to one of his former business managers calling Jews “leeches”. The tapes were played on ABC’s Good Morning America program, and Jackson was heard saying, “They suck…they’re like leeches. It’s a conspiracy. The Jews do it on purpose.”

    Read the rest here http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Blogs/Message.aspx/3652

  • Andrew says:

    David, what planet are you living on?? (Though hope you’re enjoying your stay in Israel too…)

    “A secular Jew may compare…”

    Their are plenty of “religious” Jews such as myself who can also compare.

    They can compare Chabad to Judaism and the former King of Pop Michael Jackson to the former leader of Chabad messianists.

  • yoramsymons says:

    Hey Eli,

    I dont agree. Deeming that someone is not a person of worth because they may have at a time in their lives harboured antisemitic feelings is not only a highly judaeo-centric and ultimately narcissistic view of the world, but would also leave so many people off a list of noteworthy individulas it would start to get embarassing. Yes many famous people have at some point in their lives mouthed off against Jews. This doesn’t necessarily make them antisemites and it certainly doesnt invalidate any other contributions they may have made to the world. If we are going to judge a person’s worth by whether or not they like us that just doesnt say much for us a people.

  • eli says:

    Hey Yoram,

    Why do you deem having a judeo-centric view of the world as being so perverse as to call it narcissistic. All of us , including yourself, I imagine, have some view of the world based on culture, ideology, religion etc. Why is your perception of the universe any more or less moral,any more or less fractured than mine?

    The worth of a person/society is not solely defined by their “contribution”,but surely should take character , intent, and the sum of their lives and actions into account. Human medical experimentation conducted in concentration camps, and the medical abuse of prisoners also provided “contributions” towards medical science from knowledge about Typhus thru to Dementia. In any view of the world judaeo or otherwise it does not redeem the perpetrators.

    “Mouthing off” as you put it, against Jews,certainly doesn’t make anyone antisemitic,it certainly doesn’t add to their creditability.

    That many “famous” people as you say have done so only points to the fact that ignorance and bigotry crosses all boundaries and being “brilliant” in one aspect of human endeavor doesn’t preclude you from being an asshole.

    If that’s embarrassing as you put it then I am embarrassed.

    My point about MJ is that, was his sole contribution in the area of pop music/dance so dramatic, so influential, so world shattering , that we are prepared to overlook his failings, his bigotry,his distorted sexual perversion towards children in his care.

    Does his death much less his life warrant any comparison to anyone in the context of the original article that was posted here, let alone the litany of postings about him in general.

    I don’t judge him or anyone else by weather they like Jews or not. But it does go towards defining a persons character, and what makes them worthy of our attention and adulation.

  • yoramsymons says:

    Hey Eli,

    You are right. Everyone’s world view is ultimately informed by their own culture and experience and thus there is an element of narcissism inherent in every ideology. Point taken. My feeling was that by deeming a person’s antisemitism as grounds for dismissing them as being a person of value was what was narcissistic. ie, i will only like you if you like me back.

    The posting about Michael Jackson was prompted by a feeling that he had left an incredible impact on many people in the world. This is not to overlook his failings at all but to accept the reality of how millions viewed him and then to attempt to understand how it is that an individual can take such status in the minds of so many others. IT is ultimately a post on how Michael Jackson’s fans viewed him, as opposed to being about him per se. IT was that element of his life that I found compelling enough to write about. The fact of his being worshipped, not necessarily the why of it. The fact that any human can inspire worship is compelling to me, and the phenomenon of idolisation as a cultural phenomenon in and of itself can yield incredible lessons about many things.

  • Icarus says:

    I’m a non-observant Jew who grew up on MJs music, but never purchased an album or CD or went to a concert. I’ve always intuitively felt that MJ was not of this earth, more like an angel or other advanced spiritual being. I do not believe he is guilty of the pedophilia charges, especially with no proof and no conviction as a result of the complete discrediting of his accusers in court.

    I believe he was completely asexual in practice, due to his advanced spirituality, and that he found the thought of physical sex disgusting. I believe he was attacked by greedy, ignorant people, including his father and the parents of his young accusers.

    I can’t explain why I’ve always felt such a deep psychic connection with MJ, and so believe these things about him. It just is. So, personally, I found the linking of MJ to Rabbi Schneerson extremely interesting.

  • Noah says:

    Yoram,

    It seems that in the name of “free journalism” one can write whatever the hell they want.

    How would you like me writing about your mother and compare her – even “artistically” – … to MJ?

    You mention Chassidus, well read the 2nd Chapter in Tanya, where he states that a Jew has G-dly soul, so how can you compare any Jew (again even artistically) to a non-Jew and especially the sainted Rebbe.

    This is utterly appalling and disgusting! No, I am not interested in your excuses, Apologize to the Rebbe!

  • Yoram Symons says:

    Noah

    Are you a complete moron? Please do your species proud and demonstrate even a modicum of intelligence before commenting in such an absurd and ridiculous manner.

  • Anonymous says:

    Yoram, I also found Noah’s comment really insulting and embarrassing.

    I am proud of my Jewish heritage and also proud of human achievement, talent, and spirituality. I would not do something to insult Judaism, and yet my only qualms about the religion is the notion of being ‘The Chosen Ones’. Although this is a fundamental believe of the religion, I do not think it should define us as so many try to make it.

    Michael Jackson was a beautiful and exemplary human being. Although he never conformed, and his life might have appeared to be less than kosher, his deep spirituality and love of (all!) humanity reached its arms around the whole planet. I think the comparison is profound.

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