Is the main Chabad Shule in Melbourne moving to the right?

Several months ago, I performed at a wedding in Melbourne, where the father of the חתן was Rabbi Chaim Rapoport. I originally met Rabbi Rapoport when he was a member of the Chabad Kollel. Subsequently, I have read a number of articles authored by him in a well-known learned blog. One is immediately impressed by both the quality of his writing and the material he presents. Rabbi Rapoport  is clearly a scholar and has tackled difficult issues, such as Homosexuality with both erudition and compassion. He is also an accomplished “defender” of Chabad having written a book in response to Rabbi Berger’s critique of Chabad Meshichism, and, more recently, a series of responses to the controversial book by Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman.

Rabbi Rapoport is also respected outside Chabad, as reflected by his status and place in Chief Rabbi Sacks’ cabinet, with responsibility for Jewish Ethics. This is a fairly unique position, as Chabad scholars tend, in my opinion, to be more respected inside Chabad and marketed to the outside world as opposed to being also respected outside Chabad with minimal Chabad marketing or “control”. Rabbi Rapoport is by no means at all comparable to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the latter having been effectively ostracised by Chabad over actions he took which went beyond those of even a left-leaning, card-carrying, member of Chabad.

It might be said, then, that Rabbi Rapoport’s personal status and place as a Chabad Chasid with a less fettered mind, results in him not being seen as a “pure” paragon of the official party line. Equally, there are those who strongly assert that he represents authentic Chabad, unfettered by a Meshichism born out of the passing of the last Rebbe. I am convinced that Rabbi Rapoport is a very committed Chabad Chasid. What perhaps sets him apart, and worries some quarters, is that he is not a propounder of the classic Meshichist line: the last Rebbe ז’ל is Moshiach waiting to be revealed. Rather, Rabbi Rapoport contends that the LR might be the Mashiach, and if he is, he’d be happy to see him in that role. Rabbi Rapoport perhaps controversially contends that most Chabadniks are not Meshichisten and that Chabad receives bad press as a result of a lunatic fringe, a minority of whom go further than identifying Mashiach.

With this background in mind, it would seem there should be no so-called control over what Rabbi Rapoport might speak about should he be invited to do so in the main Chabad Shule in Melbourne or indeed at any other official Chabad activities in Melbourne in private houses and elsewhere. My very firm advice is that this was not the case. Rabbi Rapoport was fettered. He was advised in clear language not to speak about certain controversial (read Mashiach) topics. Remarkably, a person of this stature didn’t feature prominently in the official activities of Melbourne Chabad despite him spending a week of Sheva Brachos in Melbourne.

Why was this the case? Is the main Chabad Shule and leadership at ease with a sign at the back of the shule stating the LR is Mashiach but uncomfortable with a Chabadnik who may well argue that the LR might be Mashiach?

Fast forward. Another prominent Chabadnik, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Wolpe  was in Melbourne last Shabbos. Rabbi Wolpe is a big Talmid Chacham but known for his very extreme Meshichist ideology and his uncompromising attitude to the return of any territories beyond the Green Line. There are many Chabad institutions who are wary of allowing him to occupy a pulpit because of the unpredictability of what he will say. In point of fact, Rabbi Wolpe roused the anger of the LR himself when he published a Meshichist treatise against the express wishes of his Rebbe.

I came across his writing, more recently, when researching the question of Indian Sheytels (wigs) for women, and whether they ought to be considered Avoda Zara (benefitting from Idol worship). I was struck by two things when I read Rabbi Wolpe’s response to this question.

  1. Rabbi Wolpe claimed in his introduction defending the use of Hindu Sheytels, that it is impossible that the Sheytels were from Avoda Zara because the LR would have detected this as women passed by the LR as he handed out “dollars”
  2. Rabbi Wolpe then justified his view on Halachic grounds

I came away with the view that point number 1, was his starting point, and point number 2, was the halachic-justification. I always thought that a Posek or Talmid Chacham should be involved in point number 2, first, and do so with a clear and uncluttered mind.

Rabbi Wolpe is a founder of SOS Israel. He published a radical responsa saying that it was forbidden for Israelis to study from text books which did not extend Israel beyond the green line! Rabbi Wolpe has also written polemics against Rav Schach and his views. The wikipedia article is a good summary.

Contrast the two speakers: Rabbi Wolpe is considered an extreme Meshichist, and nobody within Chabad or outside of Chabad would deny that. Rabbi Rapoport represents a more moderate Chabad. Rabbi Wolpe was apparently not fettered in any way. He could speak about any topic that he wished. The main Chabad shule did not issue him with any advice in this regard. Rabbi Rapoport, however, was muzzled somewhat.

Does this issue show that the new leadership of Chabad in Melbourne, have deftly transformed Chabad to be more Meshichist than when Rabbi Groner ז’ל was directing policy?

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