Predictably, an event as consequential and colossal as the onslaught of COVID-19 has triggered a variety of reactions on the part of religious leaders and their respective communities. While most clerical authorities have encouraged adherence to the guidelines established by medical experts, even emphasizing that communal safety is a supreme value upheld by faith itself, some fundamentalists—both Jewish and Christian—have been in denial over the efficacy and seriousness of the disease, to the point of rejecting scientific criteria and refusing to adopt public health measures. While there may a political dimension to the repudiation of the seriousness of the virus in this country, particularly in White evangelical groups aligned with Trump, the broader issue relates to a matter that has been debated for centuries, the relationship of religion and science, faith and reason.
What I want to concentrate on here is a response that has surfaced in several ultra-orthodox Jewish communities informed by kabbalistic and ḥasidic lore. In some circles, the pandemic has unleashed an apocalyptic sensibility, leading many to view what is happening as a sign of the imminent coming of the messianic era. The virus, on this score, is portrayed as the cathartic punishment for human transgression, the suffering that is known traditionally in Judaism as the birth pangs of the messiah (ḥevlei ha-mashiaḥ). Such a reaction to the coronavirus is, of course, understandable, and it is hardly the first time that a catastrophe has served as a catalyst for messianic speculation. While I am skeptical about such an approach, , I am sympathetic to the psychological and emotional underpinning of this reaction. In times of great anguish, we should expect predictions of a messianic redemption to increase in volume and intensity as people desperately seek an antidote to the malady with which they have been inflicted.
In this brief excursus, I want to share a remarkably prescient and hopefully relevant discourse of Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the seventh master in the Ḥabad-Lubavitch dynasty. The messianic fervor of Schneerson’s teachings are well known and have been the subject of a number of scholarly essays and monographs. Much of the academic and popular attention in the last years of Schneerson’s life and in the decades after his death has been on whether or not he identified himself as the long-awaited savior. However one answers this question, there is little doubt that the messianic oratory, which intensified in the late 1980s, when Schneerson’s wife passed away and he likely began to confront his own mortality, was essential to his worldview from the beginning of his assuming the mantle of leadership in 1951. Indeed, even in years prior to that date he was already preoccupied with the image of messiah, as can be seen from several key passages in his diaries, which span the period from 1928-1950.
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In the discourse on the first yahrzeit of the death of his father-in-law, the sixth rebbe, Joseph Isaac Schneersohn delivered on 10 Shevat 5711 (January 17, 1951), called Ba’ti le-Ganni (based on a verse from Song of Songs) Schneerson interpreted a crucial passage in the discourse of his predecessor (known by the same title) in which a rabbinic tradition is invoked concerning the seven righteous men from Abraham to Moses. From Schneerson’s exposition we can deduce that these seven biblical figures correspond to the seven Ḥabad-Lubavitch masters, from Shneur Zalman of Liadi to himself, and hence the seventh is correlated with the figure of Moses. While it may have taken some time for Schneerson to feel comfortable assuming the role of leadership, we can surmise that when he did finally accept it, he did so out of the conviction that he would complete the task of the sixth Rebbe by leading the seventh generation, which he characterized in the traditional locution as the “footsteps of the messiah” (iqveta di-meshiḥa),” sometimes more emphatically as “the footsteps of the footsteps of the messiah” (iqveta de-iqveta di-meshiḥa), or as the “end of the footsteps” (siyyuma de-iqveta).
Schneerson’s appeal to this symbolism bolsters the inference that he imagined himself to be the equivalent of Moses; that is, he was the final redeemer who would be in the likeness of the first redeemer. To be sure, Schneerson regarded each of the Ḥabad-Lubavitch masters to be the “Moses of his generation,” but in line with his enumeration of the seven righteous men, he occupied a special connection to Moses. The seventh Rebbe thus fully embraced the sixth Rebbe’s signature slogan le’altar li-teshuvah le’altar li-ge’ullah, “forthwith to repentance, forthwith to redemption,” a saying based on the rabbinic idea that the agency for redemption is repentance, since all the calculated times have come to an end (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b). From this vantage point, it is correct to delineate the Rebbe’s objective as completely dedicated to instilling a messianic awakening by promulgating the form of worship apposite to this era, the worship of repentance (avodat ha-teshuvah), which is linked to the pietistic ideal of self-sacrifice (mesirat ha-nefesh), a mode of worship that occupies a higher level than the normative worship of the law and the commandments (avodah de-torah u-mitswot), insofar as it is beyond all measure and limitation. Using rabbinic precedent (B.Talmud Yoma 86a), Schneerson emphasized that this worship of repentance transmutes evil into good and transforms curse into blessing, thus instantiating the coincidence of opposites, the paradoxical logic pertinent to the messianic state of consciousness.
In the text I explicate here—the penultimate set of addresses that Schneerson delivered publicly—touches once more on the messianic theme that dominated his teaching more generally. The nuance of this particular exposition, I submit, may provide a model to consider the spiritual potential of the plague we are facing without succumbing to radical pronouncements about the end of the world, on the one hand, or on promulgating a false but dangerous bifurcation of science and religion, on the other hand. Of particular significance, as we shall see, is the importance of the image of the veil of Moses and the role it plays in mediating the relationship between humanity and nature, an image that strikes me as directly applicable to the issue of the mask that has become decisive in our current crisis.
My analysis will focus on the written version of Schneerson’s exposition of the section Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:35) based on oral talks he delivered on 14-18 Adar I 5752 (February 18-22, 1992). The poignancy of these talks is enhanced by the fact that several weeks later, on 27 Adar I (March 2), Schneerson suffered a stroke while praying at his father-in-law’s gravesite, which left him paralyzed on the right side of his body and unable to speak for the rest of his life.
The series of talks begins with the observation that this section of the Pentateuch is organized around a tripartite structure: (1) the giving of the first tablets; (2) the sin of the golden calf and the breaking of the tablets; (3) the rectification and atonement for the sin by means of the prayer of Moses followed by his seeing the divine glory, the invocation of the thirteen attributes of mercy, and the receiving of the second tablets. The narrative concludes with Moses coming down from Mount Sinai bearing the tablets, unaware of the fact that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with God. Although the Israelites were fearful of this radiance, Moses called them to approach and instructed them about all that was imparted to him on Mount Sinai. When he finished speaking with the Israelites, Moses put a veil over his face. The final two verses relate a more general practice on the part of Moses: whenever he went before the Lord he would remove the veil, and after communicating to the Israelites what he had been commanded, he would cover his face again with the veil (Exodus 34:29-35).
From Schneerson’s point of view, the threefold structure of Ki Tissa “comprises in itself the entire order of concatenation [seder ha-hishtalshelut] from beginning to end … the entire Torah from the beginning of the Torah to the conclusion of the Torah, and thus this section comprises all of these matters.” The structure is signified by the first three letters of the Hebrew alphabet: alef, which begins the word anokhi, the first word of the decalogue (Exodus 20:2), represents the Torah that preceded the world or the light of the infinite prior to the act of contraction (tsimtsum); the beit, which begins the word bere’shit (Genesis 1:1), represents the creation of the world in the vacuum (ḥalal) or empty space (maqom panuy) that arose as a consequence of the light’s withdrawal for the sake of its disclosure; and the gimmel, which begins the word ge’ullah, that is, the redemption, heralds the completion of creation and the purpose of the Torah, namely, to make a habitation for the infinite in the finite, the limitless in the limited, the spiritual in the material.
Schneerson also correlates these letters with the three main events in this scriptural section: the alef refers to the first tablets, the beit to the sin of the golden calf and the breaking of the tablets, and the gimmel to the second tablets. Prima facie, one would think that the first tablets were superior to the second, since the former were written by the finger of God (Exodus 31:18) whereas the latter were carved by Moses (ibid., 34:1). Schneerson argues, however, that the second tablets were, in fact, superior, for they contained the Oral Torah, providing the means to rectify the breaking of the first tablets. By means of the second tablets, Moses merited to comprehend the inner and essential wisdom of the Torah that was even higher than the revelation of the first tablets. As a consequence of this attainment, moreover, he merited that “the skin of his face was radiant,” ki qaran or panav (Exodus 34:29), a verse that is linked thematically to the adage “A man’s wisdom lights up his face” (Ecclesiastes 8:1). Moses merited to be illumined by the wisdom that preceded the creation, the light of the infinite, which is the essential light above any delimitation denoted by the image of garbing (hitlabbeshut). According to Schneerson’s bold, if not subversive, reading, the illumination of Moses does not arise from his having spent time with the divine, as the literal sense of the verse would suggest, but rather from the fact that he descends back into the world after the ascent. From this we can extrapolate one of the central points in Schneerson’s messianic teaching, often expressed by the saying ha-ma‘aseh hu ha-iqqar, “the deed is the main thing,” which is based on the rabbinic maxim transmitted in the name of Simeon ben Gamliel, “the essence is not study [midrash] but deed [ma‘aseh]” (Pirqei Avot 1:17). For Schneerson, the emphasis on action relates more specifically to the fact that the purpose of fulfilling the commandments (mitsvot) is to bring redemption to the world on both the universal and particular planes, and this takes place through the aspect of Moses, the messianic potential that dwells in every Jew. The redemptive charge of tiqqun—designated by the technical Lurianic term as “the work of purifications” (avodat ha-berurim)—is facilitated only by the second tablets. With this we return to the issue of the radiance of Moses’s face and the sequential donning and removal of the veil. The fact that Moses’s face became radiant with the essential light that is above investiture by means of the second tablets, signifies the larger cosmological point that the immaterial light assumes the form of the material world only as a result of the lapse of idolatry (the golden calf) that led to the breaking of the first tablets, and the need for Moses to carve the second tablets from stone. On account of his capacity to effectuate the rectification, Moses merited that his face became radiant, and therefore he had to put on a veil “to conceal the disclosure of divinity in the Torah from the investiture in the matter of the purifications, but the concealment of the veil does not relate to the people of Israel with respect to their essence, for thus [it is written] ‘Face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of fire’ (Deuteronomy 5:4).” Paying careful attention to the language of Scripture, Schneerson emphasizes that when Moses spoke to the Israelites, he removed the veil and thus they beheld the radiance of his face (Exodus 34:33-35). Only when Moses was concerned with mundane matters did he don the veil and not because the Israelites could not endure the brilliance of his illumination. The veil of Moses symbolically conveys that the finite world could not receive the disclosure of the infinite light without its existence being nullified in its splendor. The purpose of the veil, therefore, “is not concealment (he‘lem) but rather so that the disclosure can be received in the world.”
With this we come to the pivotal shift in Schneerson’s teaching and one that may have special relevance to our moment when masks have become a vital part of our way of being in the world. I speak not only social distancing and isolation but now the fact that we are urged to go about in the world hiding part of our faces. Moses, we are told, put on the veil so that the world could endure the light. With regard to the messianic mission, however, the role of the veil is inverted; that is, the veil itself is the radiance of the face occasioned by those who undertake the purification and refinement of the world. Each Jew has the aspect of Moses in virtue of which he or she merits the crown of kingship (keter malkhut) and the rays of splendor (qarnei hod) that empower the individual to fulfill the messianic vocation alluded to in the words “and he will raise up the horn of his anointed one” (1 Samuel 2:10). Schneerson’s reading thus extends what is applied exclusively to Moses to every Jewish person.
But what about the status of the non-Jew? This vital question cannot be ignored intellectually or morally even though in the particular text I am examining this matter is not dealt with explicitly. Some practitioners and scholars alike have exaggerated the extent to which Schneerson ameliorated the ethnocentrism he inherited from previous Ḥabad masters, a prejudice that has deep roots in the soil of the kabbalah. In my opinion, he never relinquished the belief that a special ontological status is bestowed on the Jew, the very status that distinguishes the people of Israel from all other nations and allocates to them a unique responsibility in bringing tiqqun to the world. This proviso notwithstanding, there is no question that Schneerson did seek—probably due to the political climate of post-war America and all the social changes that were underfoot—to confer a more active role on non-Jews in the messianic drama, both in terms of the campaign to encourage adherence to the seven Noahide laws and also in depicting the future as a time when the material, embodied in the non-Jew, would be elevated to the spiritual, the allocation of the Jewish people. The second of these themes is most germane to our analysis. The end-time is marked by the paradoxical disclosure of the light that issues from the essence that is above disclosure, and as a result, not only will Jews be enlightened, but non-Jews, too, will be transformed into holiness and their natural powers will become divine, an idea linked to the verse “For then I will make the peoples pure of speech, so that they all invoke the Lord by name and serve him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9).
The change in rank of the non-Jew concurs with Schneerson’s insistence that the true and perfection redemption is achieved not by abrogating the material world but by converting it into the space where the light is revealed allegedly without any covering. The description of the eschatological vision is buttressed by the verses “Your master will no longer be covered and your eyes will see your master” (Isaiah 30:20) and “The glory of the Lord shall appear, and all flesh, as one, shall behold that the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (ibid., 40:5).
In the future, the essential light, the light of the essence that is without essence, will be manifest in the world. Inasmuch as there is no way to envision the formless but through the form that is the world, we can conclude that the vision appropriate to the messianic state is one in which we see nature as that which hides and thereby reveals the light of infinity. To see the light unmasked, therefore, requires one to wear the mask, the purpose of which is not to conceal but to enhance the ability of the concealment to be revealed. Reversing a hierarchy that prevailed for centuries, Schneerson taught that in the eschaton there will be a naturalization of the supernatural such that the soul will be sustained by the body. As a consequence of human wrongdoing, the holiness of the world has been concealed, but in the messianic future the matter will be rectified, and the spiritual essence of the corporeal will be manifest as the corporeal essence of the spiritual.
Here we come upon one of the deepest dimensions of Ḥabad messianism that partakes the paradoxical logic of which I spoke above: the removal of the veil results in the unfurling of another veil to be unfurled. The apocalyptic notion of the final veil is to discern that the final veil is the veil, or illusion, of thinking there is actually anything to lift. When properly decoded, this is a moment where we can apprehend that God is present in the world to the extent that God is absent from the world.
In these days, when we are compelled to wear masks to combat a pathogen that is invisible and thereby minimize the spread of infection, it is well to be guided by the wisdom enunciated by Schneerson and to regard the mask not as an obstacle that blocks the light but rather as the medium through which it can appear. Unconcealment is not revealing the naked truth but disposing of the garment in which truth is attired. That there is no truth denuded of the vestment of untruth accords with the assumption that every configuration of the imageless is an imaginal disfiguration of the image. When we grasp the translucency of this insight, we experientially fathom, as Schneerson concluded this discourse, that “the last moment of exile is the first moment of redemption,” rega ha-aḥaron fun galus vert der rega ha-ri’shon fun ge’ullah.
 Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, Sefer ha-Ma’amarim 5710–5711 (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1986), part 1, p. 111; Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson, Torat Menaḥem: Hitva‘aduyyot 5711, vol. 1 (Brooklyn: Vaad Hanochos BLahak, 1994), pp. 194–195, 202. For an exposition of the messianic implication of this critical passage, see Elliot R. Wolfson, Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), pp. 10-12.
 Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson, Sefer ha-Siḥot 5752 (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1993), p. 423; Hebrew translation in Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson, Torat Menaḥem: Hitva‘aduyyot 5752, pt. 2 (Brooklyn: Lahak Hanochos, 1994), p. 341.
 Schneerson, Sefer ha-Siḥot, p. 426; Torat Menaḥem, p. 344.
 Schneerson, Sefer ha-Siḥot, pp. 426-427; Torat Menaḥem, pp. 344-345.
 Schneerson, Sefer ha-Siḥot, pp. 432-433; Torat Menaḥem, pp. 349-350.
 Schneerson, Sefer ha-Siḥot, pp. 433-434; Torat Menaḥem, p. 351.
 Schneerson, Sefer ha-Siḥot, pp. 433-434; Torat Menaḥem, pp. 351-352.
 Schneerson, Sefer ha-Siḥot, pp. 437-438; Torat Menaḥem, pp. 354-355.
 See Wolfson, Open Secret, pp. 229-231.
 Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson, Torat Menaḥem: Hitva‘aduyyot 5726, vol. 1 (Brooklyn: Kehot, 2010), pp. 205-207.
 This idea is repeated throughout the Ḥabad-Lubavitch corpus, but one striking articulation can be found in Shalom Dovber Schneersohn, Be-Sha‘ah she-Hiqdimu 5672 (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1992), pp. 235-236.
 Schneerson, Sefer ha-Siḥot, p. 439; Torat Menaḥem, p. 356.