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Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson Hardcover – October 21, 2009

ISBN-13: 978-0231146302 ISBN-10: 0231146302 Edition: Fourth Edition

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Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson + Habad: The Hasidism of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 472 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press; Fourth Edition edition (October 21, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231146302
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231146302
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #682,276 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Elliot R. Wolfson's new work is a masterful exposition of the phenomenology and ontology of Habad thought, particularly its bearing on messianic mysteries and consciousness. This study is an extraordinary integration of precise philology, philosophical comprehension, and the inner course of Habad theosophy as it flows through the discourses of its seven masters. Wolfson analyzes the climactic position of Rabbi Schneerson within this complex with exemplary and original insight.

(Michael Fishbane, Nathan Cummings Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Chicago)

Elliot R. Wolfson's dark brilliance is itself an open secret, unfolding mesmerizing rhythms of chiastic paradox. The relevance of his commentary cannot be confined to the study of a particular movement, religion, or discipline. In this philosophical meditation on a controversial strand of recent messianism, a profound historical kabbalism appears edged with a postmodern Kafkaesque irony—in the legacy of a 'future that is already present as the present that is always future.'

(Catherine Keller, Drew University, and author of Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming)

This highly original reading of Menachem Mendel Schneerson's messianic doctrine renders irrelevant much of the ongoing speculation and debate on the question of whether or not the Lubavitcher Rebbe, like the bulk of his following, believed that he was the Messiah. The book argues insightfully that beneath his well-attested endeavors to demonstrate the imminence the messianic advent, and his resort to the traditional language of Jewish messianic speculation, lays the paradoxical 'open secret' of a totally impersonal Messiah who, reflecting the nature of the infinite kabbalistic godhead itself, can be revealed in the world only by way of concealment. His advent is conceptualized as a universal expansion of spiritual consciousness, a nonevent that continuously occurs, has occurred, and will occur 'immediately, without delay, in actuality,' which effectively means beyond measurable time.

(Ada Rapoport-Albert, University College London)

Wolfson's spiritual quest is contagious, and the intrepid reader will brave the many difficult passages in order to follow him

(Lawrence Grossman Forward)

Every researcher or enlightened reader should be interested in this profound construction, in order to understand the most significant Jewish messianic phenomenon in the Jewish world of the last two generations.

(Alon Dahan H-Judaic)

Wolfson has not only produced an excellent study of Rabbi Mena?em Mendel Schneerson's views, but he has argued convincingly that this work will serve as a paradigm for Jewish philosophic thought.

(H.D. Uriel Smith Philosophy East and West 1900-01-00)


A poetic blend of scholarship and philosophy unprecedented and often breathtaking in its boldness, Open Secret negotiates the vast range of Lubavitcher literature by and about Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. From an authoritatively learned but nonsectarian perspective, Open Secret reads the Rebbe's messianism seriously. Elliot R. Wolfson confronts the Rebbe as a major figure in the Jewish esoteric tradition. The Lubavitcher Rebbe's Messiah presents a challenge that is inescapable for anyone who seeks to understand a twenty-first-century globalized Judaism, and Wolfson compellingly engages that challenge.

(Steve Wasserstrom, Reed College)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Zvi M. Aranoff on January 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The fatal flaw in this dense, virtually impenetrable, book is that there's very little to connect Wolfson's ideas, however interesting, to the ideas of the person he purports to analyze, namely, R. MM Schneerson. In order to achieve this, he must first adopt a radical postmodern POV that rejects the validity of facts and sees them as mere subjective fabrications. Once that notion is established, he can sail easily into fantasy land, and claim anything he desires about Schneerson's "secret", which only he, a non-Hassid, was able to crack.

One only wonders why none of Schneerson's numerous disciples, including those who spend their entire life studying every scintilla of his work, have heard him live since he became Rebbe and even prior to that, and have a deep understanding of his and his predecessors' work - why none of them seem to grasp this "secret", and only an outsider, an academic, was able to. That alone should give you pause, that something is off in this book.

Here's the rub. The author's main thesis is that Schneerson did not really intend to preach the notion of the Messiah as an actual figure who will redeem the world. Schneerson's Redemption is not World Redemption but Personal Redemption, a state of mind that is achieved through the liberation of consciousness that allows one to see The Unity of Everything and does not fall prey to illusionary distinctions of good and evil. That's the big "open" secret his disciples didn't get.

Alas, virtually nothing in Schneerson's writings suggests that. Countless times throughout his speeches and letters, he refers to the Messiah as an actual, physical human being, he alluded numerous times that he in fact is that person, and that Redemption is World Redemption, not only Personal Redemption.
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20 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Religion Faculty on June 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've taught in the Religion Department of a highly-regarded liberal arts college for 23 years, and over that period have fought a constant uphill battle in my own teaching to avoid watering down material for students. This past semester, in a course on Jewish messianism, I decided to assign "Open Secret," a brilliant book that I myself was struggling through, in an attempt to puzzle out its thesis together with my advanced students.

I am rarely surprised by the intelligence and perspicacity of my students, indeed, I take it for granted. But I was truly amazed at how many in class really got into the book. We proceeded slowly and deeply and unpacked small enough chunks of Wolfson's thesis that they really got it. Earlier in the semester, we had discussed the idea of apophatic language--language that erases itself, like a person walking on a beach trailing a palm frond and obviating her footsteps--in relation to the Zohar, where the rose is and yet is not a rose, or a particular color is or is not that color (On apophasis generally, see "Mystical Languages of Unsaying" by Michael Anthony Sells). When Wolfson's language got tough (poetry can be difficult, as any English major knows) they pointed out to me the way in which the study itself was often couched in apophatic language that was performative or mimetic of the apophasis in the concepts themselves. As the title of this short review indicates, nothing truly good is easy, particularly when one speaks of concepts that are esoteric to begin with. This is a book worth going back to again and again in order to plumb its depths, which truly exist and which help counterbalance the heavily sociological approach generally taken with regard to Habad Hassidus with a true investigation of the "inside of the inside" of actual doctrine and theology. Kudos!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Divine Doctor on August 17, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
If you are looking for an easy read about the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his messianic aspirations, this would not be the book for you. The Rebbe by Heilman and Friedman or The Rebbe, The Messiah and The Scandal of Orthodox Indifference by David Berger is more your style. I highly recommend both of those books and even better The Seventh by Yitzchak Kraus (Hebrew only). Wolfson's book "Open Secret" is an amazing journey into the world of Hasidism and Kabbalah as understood by Habad and its Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. I found that in reading this wonderful book that I could only read a page and a half or two per night, as it was so deep and needed a great deal of concentration to mine the depths of what Professor Wolfson was writing. While one might think that the Rebbe was a great exponent of authentic Jewish orthodoxy, Wolfson, a master of ancient Asian religion and culture shows that in order to understand the Rebbe's teachings on Messianism and Mysticism, one best understand Mahayana Buddhism. Enough said. This book is a fabulous, but difficult read, well worth the time and effort.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
informative about the Rebbe, and also some of th emore interior aspects of Judaism. did find that i don't know the meanings of quite a few words the author uses-perhaps they are the usual within college philosophy circles, but still was able to get the general gist of what the Rebbe is trying to teach.
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