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Elliot Wolfson’s Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson

Elliott Wolfson’s Open Secret offers valuable insights for those able to penetrate the book’s abstruse style. In the final chapter (coined “Postface”), Wolfson finally reveals his method and hypothesis. (Incidentally, he also reveals that this was the first part he wrote, which was supposed to be the introduction, but in the middle of writing he “realized” this was the ending.) Here is a key statement:

It would be ludicrous to deny that Schneerson’s writings and discourses are suffused with the jargon of the traditional eschatology; ostensibly, his conception of the “true and complete redemption” included the belief in the coming of the Davidic Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and the building of the third Temple. . . . The assignment I set for myself has been different, to investigate whether, beyond the didactic veneer, one can glimpse a postmodern posture that resonates with the satirical wisdom of Kafka: the Messiah will come on the day after he has arrived, on the day after he is needed, not on the last day, but on the very last day. . . .1

It is not for naught that Schneerson taught that Purim is the messianic festival par excellence. Building on rabbinic and kabbalistic sources, including most importantly the Habad-Lubavitch masters who preceded him, he depicts Purim as the holiday that venerates the turning of one thing into its opposite, and hence it is a foreshadowing of the redemption in which the true unity, the transcendence of dipolar opposition in the essence beyond all duality, even the duality of duality and nonduality, will be disclosed. The messianic truth is epitomized in the rabbinic directive to drink until one no longer knows the difference between “blessed is Mordecai” and “cursed is Haman.”2

In other words, Wolfson is drawing out of the classic religious messianic thought and writing of Habad (a Orthodox Jewish outreach movement birthed out of the Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty) a postmodern concept full of mystique and paradox. While the attention of those observing Habad from the outside is typically focused on whether or not Schneerson considered himself messiah, Wolfson brings attention to an aspect of Habad teaching that is rich soil for a postmodern worldview. The central idea is a sort of dissimulation, that everything visible would reveal what is non-visible and vice-versa, and that the secrets are actually revealed and that is the secret. Since the logic of the idea is itself nonsensical and ambiguous, the message of the book is naturally difficult.

In the introduction we learn that Schneerson does not speak and write alone but as the seventh and final member of the Habad dynasty. The seven all see themselves as part of a whole system together, and so each generational leader builds upon the previous rabbis, quoting and reusing the same ideas and material. This sequence is not just ideological but also nearly ontological, as well as a symbolic reflection or revelation of the kabbalistic spheres. Accordingly, Schneerson spoke of his father-in-law predecessor as yesod (foundational) and of himself as malkhut, the tenth sefira in the Godhead. In this sense, we should speak of the seven and of the seventh, not of Schneerson alone, who was playing out his part with great knowledge and skill, a genius who mastered his words and actions.

The first chapter, “Concealing the Concealment,” opens to us the motif of secrecy in kabbalistic tradition, which is continued by the Hasidut (Hasidic teachings about Judaism) and by Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe), the first of the seven. His approach combines or balances the intellectual and the mystical mind, and then delves, interprets and expounds the rhetorical significance of kabbalah theosophy, maintaining a tension or paradox between the secretive nature of kabbalah and the popular simplified method of the Hasidut. In the messianic generation, which can be seen as a process initiated by the seven or previously by the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidic Judaism), secrets are disclosed. So the Alter Rebbe discerns the disclosed, the secrets and then the secrets of the secrets. The Hasidut discloses the secrets, but the secrets of the secrets will only be disclosed in the world to come. Accordingly, for example, Purim becomes of messianic significance, as one drinks wine and things are overturned and secrets revealed.

The second chapter, “A/Voiding Place,” notably deals with the concepts of pantheism, panentheism, and monism. Behind various expressions of kabbalah we can barely distinguish between the three concepts. This theological background is critical for understanding kabbalah, Habad and the message of the book. Its holistic theology of the universe charts a course toward the ultimate messianic destination, fixing what is evil into what is good after seeing the potential good inherent in all things. The way that the knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth is as light upon all minds to see that all things represent or reveal him. The verse used most in context is “there is none but him” (Deut 4:35), interpreted and applied to the effect that the secret in the end is that “all is him.”

The third chapter, “Semiotic Transubstantiation of the Somatic,” deals with the paradox of essence versus form, for example, the eternal God is revealed in time and space, and letters give form to ideas. The material world and the human body also give form to essence and are seen in a positive light, which in the mind of Schneerson differentiates Judaism from other religions, namely Buddhist and Christian dualism. Israel and Diaspora are meaningful but in true essence are spiritual matters that are expressed and correspond with the concrete. The messianic would unveil the veil, showing that form is truly an aspect of the spiritual.

The fourth chapter, “Messianic Torah,” talks about Torah and revision of such in messianic terms. Torah is form to the spiritual, and the function of the Jewish people is to reveal Torah to the world, bringing light to darkness. There will be in the future redemption renewal and revealed essence, but not antinomism; rather, hypernomism. The midrash of the pig (hazir) that would be purified and returned (hazara) in the messianic era is considered to be a general symbol of the times, perhaps for the Gentiles, and not expected to be an actual halakhah. The Torah of Sinai is exoteric and like betrothal, while the messianic revelation of the esoteric is likened to matrimony.

The fifth chapter, “Female Encircles Male,” raises theosophic changes analogous to gender “transposition,” sporting the verses “female encircles male” (Jer 31:21) and “a woman of valor is the crown of her husband” (Prov 12:4). Mystical dynamics entail a mashpia (influencer, male) and mekabel (receiver, female): the channel and the vessel. In the messianic revolution, it will be revealed that though female is the vessel, it is also the makor (the origin, or spring). The lowest divine sphere is malkhut, which is female and expressed in the world of form, but the origin of yesod, which is male, is keter (crown), from which the water flows and is drawn. Schneerson himself was associated more with malkhut while his father-in-law Yosef Yizhak was associated with yesod. Schneerson therefore promoted the significance of women in Habad, encouraging them not only to study halakhah, but also mystical knowledge in the Tanya (the cherished book of Habad).

The sixth and final chapter before the Postface, “Apocalyptic Crossing,” touches the topic of Gentiles, and the philosophical “Other.” On the one hand, Habad continues the kabbalistic tradition that Jewish people are ontologically different and above others, with a divine neshama (soul) and not just animalistic being. Although Habad does not reach a clear assertion of what the status of Gentiles will be in the messianic era, whether equal or not to a higher level of being, the universal tension is acknowledged by logic in verses such as “And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one” (Zech 14:9, ESV); “then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve Him shoulder to shoulder” (Zeph 3:9, NIV) and “. . . the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isa 40:5, NIV).

Regarding the content, the reader should know that the book does not deal with the personal messianic identity or psychology of Schneerson himself, but rather with mystical paradoxical messianic thought of Habad through the myriad of texts, which the author finds tasteful and compatible with postmodern mystical and eastern thought. Overall, this book offers numerous insights to readers with background in philosophy who are looking to delve more deeply into the mystical worldview of Habad.

1 Elliot Wolfson, Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson. (New York: Columbia University Press, 29009), 288.

2 Ibid., 289.