In the course of the last seven years, a revolutionary development has quietly overtaken the Jewish religion. Unless it is somehow rolled back, Jews will soon have to confront the fact that one of the key pillars of their faith has been thoroughly undermined, and even the most elementary primer on the differences between Judaism and Christianity will have to be rewritten. The matter at issue is what Jews believe about the messiah.
Faith in the coming of a redeemer is a basic component of traditional Judaism, and a rich literature records wide-ranging speculation about the end of days. But the essence of Judaism’s traditional messianic faith can be compressed into a single sentence: a king will arise from the line of the biblical David who will preside over a peaceful, prosperous, monotheistic world, with the Temple in Jerusalem rebuilt and the Jewish people—including at some point its resurrected dead—returned to its land.
Jewish history is strewn with several dozen identifiable, mostly inconsequential messianic figures whose followings dissipated almost immediately after their deaths. The only two significant exceptions—until recently—were Jesus and the 17th-century messiah Shabbetai Tzevi, whose movements were quickly separated from the mainstream of Judaism.
The reason that messianic movements have not lasted goes to one of Judaism’s central convictions about aspiring messiahs: failure is failure. In the definitive judgment of the 12th-century rabbinic authority Moses Maimonides, we may not know all the details of how the messianic scenario will unfold, but the basic conditions are clear:
If a king arises from the house of David who studies the Torah and pursues the commandments like his ancestor David in accordance with the written and oral law, and he compels all Israel to follow and strengthen it and fights the wars of the Lord—this man enjoys the pre-sumption of being the messiah. If he proceeds successfully, defeats all the nations surrounding him, builds the Temple in its place, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, then he is surely the messiah. But if he does not succeed to this extent, or is killed, it is evident [literally, “known”] that he is not the one whom the Torah promised; he is, rather, like all the complete and righteous kings of Israel who have died. . . . All the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth and the Ishmaelite [Muhammad] who came after him were for the purpose of straightening the way for the king messiah and preparing the entire world so that all will serve the Lord together, as it is written (Zephaniah 3:8), “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.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 11:4, in the uncensored version)
For Christians, of course, the messiah decidedly could die in the midst of his redemptive mission. Indeed, Jewish denial of this proposition became one of the central points of contention in the millennial debate between the two religions. Thus, in the most famous of medieval disputations, the Jewish representative, Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides), asserted that he could not believe in Jesus’ messiahship because the biblical prophecies of universal peace and knowledge of God had gone unfulfilled.
Incredibly, however, over the course of the last seven years, Orthodox Judaism has effectively declared that, with respect to this fundamental issue of principle, Christians were correct all along and Jews profoundly mistaken. I stress “effectively”: no one has pronounced these exact words, and the identification of Jesus of Nazareth as the messiah remains anathema. Nevertheless, this conclusion follows from two interlocking considerations.
First, a large segment—almost certainly a substantial majority—of a highly significant Orthodox movement called Lubavitch, or Chabad, Hasidism affirms that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was laid to rest in June 1994, initiated the authentic messianic mission and will soon return to complete the redemption in his capacity as the messiah.
Second—and far more important—Hasidim who proclaim this belief, including some who have ruled that it is a belief required by Jewish law, routinely hold significant religious posts with the sanction of major Orthodox authorities unconnected with their movement. These range from the offices of the Israeli rabbinate to the ranks of mainstream rabbinical organizations to the chairmanship of rabbinical courts in Israel and elsewhere, not to speak of service as scribes, ritual slaughterers, teachers, and administrators of schools and religious organizations receiving support from mainstream Orthodoxy. For much of Orthodox Jewry, then, the classic boundaries of the messianic faith of Israel are no more.
To a historian, the process culminating in this transformation is a gripping drama, the opportunity not of one lifetime but of many; to a believing Jew, it is no less fascinating, not as a datum but as a nightmare. In my twin capacity as a historian and a believing Jew, I have played a role in some of the early chapters of this story, as the following narrative will recount. The final chapter is yet to be written.
Hasidism, arguably the most vibrant religious movement in the history of modern Jewry, was born in 18th-century Poland with the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name or, better, Good Master of the Name). Emphasizing the centrality of joy in the service of God, the crucial role of prayer, and the opportunity to cleave to the divine through a tzaddik, or rebbe—a charismatic leader seen as a conduit between the heavenly and earthly realms—the Baal Shem Tov and his successors fashioned a message that energized and redirected Jewish piety, ritual, and social institutions.
The stream of Hasidism known as Chabad—an acronym representing the Hebrew words for wisdom, understanding, and knowledge—originated in the career of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, a towering figure in Jewish law and mysticism who injected a strongly intellectual component into a movement marked by pietistic enthusiasm. As a host of factors rendered the hasidic movement in general highly controversial within Judaism, the Chabad group, centered in Lithuania, soon found itself at the vortex of a campaign headed by Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, the greatest talmudist of his and all subsequent generations and the driving force behind a series of bans against nascent Hasidism in the 1770’s and thereafter.
With the dawn of the 19th century, Hasidism did more than weather these attacks. As a multitude of rebbes founded dynasties in towns and hamlets throughout the Jewish Pale of Settlement, the movement became the dominant form of Judaism in much of Eastern Europe, the heartland of 19th-century Jewry. Traditionalist opponents did not entirely abandon the field, but their efforts waned as they found themselves allied with Hasidim in resisting a shared enemy: the onrushing forces of skepticism, secularism, and acculturation that were working to erode the very foundations of traditional Jewish society.
The Chabad movement, now also known as Lubavitch from the town where the group’s leaders resided from 1813 to 1915, played a significant role in that resistance. This was true in the 19th century, when the rebbes of Chabad worked in tandem with other traditionalist leaders, and it was all the more true in the 20th, when resistance meant a heroic stand, fought for decades in lonely isolation, not against Jewish modernists but against a totalitarian Soviet regime bent on the complete eradication of Jewish observance. Only the hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by accounts of self-sacrifice on the part of Lubavitch Hasidim struggling to preserve tiny pockets of Judaism in the depths of Stalinist and post-Stalinist Russia—committing themselves against all odds to the exclusive maintenance of a kosher diet, to the avoidance of writing during enforced attendance at classes on the Sabbath and festivals, to months or even years of celibacy by married couples because of the unavailability of ritual baths necessary for the resumption of marital relations. I vividly remember the emotional impact of such stories as I responded to appeals for Lishkas Ezras Achim, a Chabad organization that shipped kosher food to observant Jews in the darkest days of the Soviet tyranny.
In the second half of the 20th century, this campaign and many others were spearheaded by the most recent rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who ascended to his position 50 years ago, following the death of his father-in-law. From the movement’s headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the Rebbe, as he was called in simple shorthand, established a world-wide empire of followers, spread Orthodox Judaism to places where it had never been known, energized Jewish education, led substantial numbers of irreligious Jews to observance, and much more. Indeed, he was a man of such extraordinary talent that most of the accolades heaped upon him by present-day messianists—a term widely used to characterize believers in his messiahship—are true.
The monumental importance of the Lubavitch movement, both before and after the Rebbe’s death, goes largely unrecognized even by knowledgeable observers. A journalist basing himself on official sources recently reported that Chabad boasts more than 2,600 institutions throughout the world, with 3,700 married couples serving as emissaries; over 500 of these institutions have been established since the Rebbe’s death alone. Even if the numbers are exaggerated, there is no question that the worldwide Chabad presence continues to grow at a stunning rate.
I was recently taken aback to learn, for example, that Chabad rabbis constitute 50 percent of the rabbinate in England. In Italy, Milan has a powerful Chabad presence, Venice boasts a Chabad center where many Jewish tourists eat and spend the Sabbath, and the most important ritual slaughterer in Rome is a Lubavitch Hasid. Any Jewish traveler to France, where the Lubavitch directory lists 35 major emissaries, will testify to the visibility and significance of Chabad institutions and services there. Thirteen of the 26 synagogues in Sydney, Australia are led by Chabad rabbis, and the kashrut authority in that city, in the words of my informant, “is supervised by one rabbi only—Chabad, of course.” A Dutch Jewish journalist informs me that more than half the major Orthodox rabbis in Holland are Lubavitch Hasidim. The head of the rabbinic court for the entire city of Montreal is a Chabad rabbi. The Lubavitch directory lists eighteen major centers in Brazil.
Then there are the United States and Israel. In a significant number of American communities, anyone seeking an Orthodox presence—sometimes any religious Jewish presence—will find it only in Chabad. As for Israel, the movement is disproportionately represented there among the country’s rabbis and religious functionaries, and its political influence testifies to its impact.
Finally, the role of Chabad in the former Soviet Union, a vast territory with a population of a half-million Jews, deserves special mention. The recently formed Federation of Jewish Communities has installed a Chabad emissary named Berel Lazar as the country’s chief rabbi. Although the existing chief rabbi has not relinquished his position, the new group enjoys the sympathy of the government, and the activities of Chabad dwarf those of all other Jewish religious movements. According to one very well informed Russian Jew, Chabad will before too long come to be seen in his country as synonymous with Judaism, and all other Jewish religious groups will be perceived as sects.
Theoretically, the Rebbe could have established this extraordinary empire without reference to any belief in the coming end of days. In fact, however, his activities took place against the background of acute messianic expectation. In a series of statements that have since been vigorously underscored by the messianists, he himself unqualifiedly proclaimed the imminence of the redemption; encouraged the cry, “We want moshiah [messiah] now!”; and strongly implied that he would be the redeemer. Among such statements were these: that his deceased father-in-law, whose soul he was believed to have shared and who was consequently understood as a surrogate or code for the Rebbe himself, was the prince (nasi) of this generation and would redeem us. That the prince of the generation was the messiah of the generation. That this was the generation of the redemption. That the metaphysical process of separating the sparks of holiness from the domain of evil had been completed. That the messiah had already been revealed, and all that remained was to greet him. That the messiah was coming right away. That “the time of your redemption has arrived.” That the final Temple would descend from heaven to a spot in Crown Heights adjoining Lubavitch headquarters, and that only then would the two buildings be transferred to Jerusalem. That the messiah’s name was Menachem.
Not that the message was unequivocal. The Rebbe refrained from any open, explicit proclamation of his own messianic identity, taught that public relations must be conducted in a manner that would win acceptance, and continued to encourage leadership roles for people who were known to oppose the messianists. A long-time aide has reported that the Rebbe once told him, “The man who is the messiah has to have this revealed to him from above, and at present this has not been revealed to me.” Though in his last years the Rebbe tolerated and even appears to have encouraged the singing of the formula declaring his messiahship—“May our Master, Teacher, and Rabbi the King Messiah live forever”—he also remarked that he should really leave the room when the slogan was sung and remained only because leaving would do no good. In the 80’s he expressed strong criticisms of people who published messianist material, and he made a similar remark as late as 1991. On one occasion, he is reported to have responded to a petition addressed to him in his capacity as the messiah by saying, “When he comes I will give it to him.”
In my own judgment, the Rebbe would not have wanted people to proclaim his messiahship after his death in an unredeemed world. Yet this is precisely what has occurred. Days after his death, a messianist newspaper in Israel compared nonbelievers to biblical worshippers of the golden calf who lost faith because Moses was absent on Mount Sinai longer than had been anticipated, and declared that the Rebbe “will appear with literal immediacy and redeem Israel.” Within a few months, two beautifully produced volumes, the first in Hebrew and the second in English, were published to explain the grounds for continued faith. The Rebbe’s strongest assertions concerning the imminence of redemption were now understood as literal prophecy.
When a prophet has spoken, no further evidence is necessary; all contrary evidence is null and void. Two thousand years of messianic literature were now scoured to find a handful of broadly relevant if, strictly speaking, inapplicable quotations—and several more irrelevant ones—to demonstrate that Judaism may countenance the belief in a messiah who returns from the dead. As the months passed, even this position did not suffice, and a growing number of messianists began to assert that the Rebbe never died, that he remained alive in the full sense of the word. In this reading, what happened on June 12, 1994 was an illusion, analogous to Satan’s stratagem when, just before the sin of the golden calf, he showed the Jewish people what appeared to be the coffin of Moses. The Rebbe’s funeral, like Moses’ coffin, was thus a
test for carnal eyes. . . . In truth, there was no passing away or leavetaking at all, God forbid. . . . What is special about the Prince of the generation is precisely that he is a human being in a physical body which must be a part of the world, and that is how he unites the world with the Godhead. We cannot say, we do not wish to say, it is entirely impossible to say that there was any “passing away,” God forbid. The Rebbe lives and exists among us now exactly as he did before, literally, literally.
As a historian of both Jewish messianism and Jewish-Christian debate, I had anticipated the possibility that some Lubavitch messianists might maintain their beliefs even after the Rebbe’s passing. But, as advertisements, prayers, banners, and books persisted and proliferated, I was stunned and disoriented by the indifference to this development being shown by my own community, the Orthodox. Each day, I expected to hear major rabbinic figures and organizations declaring any such belief unacceptable in Judaism, disqualifying its adherents from holding positions of religious authority, and prohibiting Orthodox support for institutions espousing it. But there was nothing—only silence. It was as if I had been transported into a Twilight Zone where the rules of Judaism had been suspended.
After much inner turmoil, I decided to confront the issue. In an article published in Jewish Action, the journal of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (Fall 1995), I warned that, by continuing to recognize open messianists as Orthodox Jews in good standing, “We thereby affirm the full legitimacy of this belief. We award victory to Christianity in a crucial aspect of its millennial debate with Judaism. We accept a fundamental revision of a cardinal principle of the faith. We must tremble before the judgment of God and history.”
Reaction to the article was swift, and varied. Expressions of support, while numerous, were largely confined—as they have continued to be confined—to the private sphere. As for criticism, Jewish Action received many responses from Lubavitch Hasidim pointing mainly to a single talmudic passage in Tractate Sanhedrin (98b) that, according to one interpretation, explicitly raises the possibility of a messiah who returns from the dead, and also to a few later authorities commenting on that passage. As we shall see, this criticism, to which I responded at length, not only rejects the firm Jewish consensus codified by Maimonides; it ignores key aspects of the messianists’ belief that go well beyond the affirmation that the messiah might come from the dead.
By the early months of 1996, the little tempest that I created had spent itself, and Chabad’s position in Jewish life continued much as before. Every once in a while, a messianist advertisement would arouse a flurry of discussion, the word “crazy” would be flung about by Orthodox Jews and others, and all would return to normal. In any event, there were more momentous issues for Orthodoxy to address. The Oslo agreement had launched a peace process in the Middle East that aroused intense concern, most acutely in the religious-Zionist community, over the permissibility of returning any part of the Land of Israel to non-Jews. In this atmosphere of ideological crisis, concentrating on the foibles of a few purportedly unbalanced Hasidim was itself liable to come under suspicion as an obsessive disorder.
Still, try as I might, I could not make peace with the transformed religion to which I suddenly seemed to belong. And so I turned to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a major association consisting primarily of modern-Orthodox rabbis. In a letter to those members with whom I was personally acquainted, I proposed a resolution to be considered at the annual convention scheduled for June 1996. By an overwhelming majority of the assembled membership, the key provision of that proposal passed. It affirmed that “there is not and never has been a place in Judaism for the belief that mashiah ben David [messiah son of David] will begin his messianic mission only to experience death, burial, and resurrection before completing it.”
This time, the messianists launched a furious counterattack, the most disconcerting element of which was a letter issued over the signature of Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, a venerable and highly distinguished figure in the non-hasidic Orthodox world. The letter both decried attacks on Lubavitch and cited five of the messianists’ favorite sources to establish that what was at issue was a “legitimate disagreement of interpretation.”
Both the style and content of this document, however, suggested that it had not actually been written by Rabbi Soloveichik, a conclusion confirmed for me by individuals familiar with the course of events who reported that he had agreed to nothing more than a statement opposing denunciations of Lubavitch. Indeed, just eighteen months earlier, Rabbi Soloveichik had asserted that this same belief (which he mistakenly considered to be held by a small minority of Lubavitch Hasidim) “was possible in the Christian faith but not in Judaism” and was “repugnant to everything Judaism represents.” Undoubtedly the rabbi’s infirmity prevented him from exercising rigorous control over this affair, and a weak second letter denying that he “was endorsing specific views or claims concerning mashiah” has not prevented messianists from citing the original letter to this day.
Despite this disturbing intervention, the RCA’s resolution stood, and I therefore began to wonder whether Orthodox leaders to the religious right of the RCA could also be persuaded to act. Committed to the authority of da’at Torah, or “the opinion of the Torah,” the traditionalist Agudath Israel has set up a group of distinguished rabbis empowered to decide issues of both Jewish law and public policy. This Council of Torah Sages and its equivalent bodies in Israel hold a position of unparalleled influence in a major segment of Orthodoxy, and the leading authorities in that community command great respect among modern-Orthodox Jews as well.
I had sent copies of the exchange in Jewish Action to members of the Council, and followed up with several letters in the wake of the RCA resolution. Finally, in the fall of 1996, I received a call indicating that my letters were not disappearing into a void. It was from Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel and one of the most effective Jewish communal leaders of this generation. Rabbi Sherer had written me the previous December to acknowledge receipt of the exchange in Jewish Action, which he said he had read with great interest. This time his message was both somewhat cryptic and encouraging. “You have been writing to the Moetzes,” he said, using the Hebrew term for the Council, “and have not received a reply. I want you to know that the members of the Moetzes are serious people who read serious material seriously.”
As of today, the Council has yet to issue a statement on this matter. One of its members, requesting anonymity, has written me that he himself remains silent only out of concern that a non-unanimous statement could be taken as indicating that some of the rabbis do not disapprove of the developments in question. He has also urged me to continue my public campaign, saying that he regards me as “a hero” who will be remembered as “a fighter of the wars of the Lord against sects of falsehood.” This rabbi is assuredly not alone in his views; but the impact of privately expressed positions is, needless to say, severely limited.
Thus far, we have been tracing the dissolution of a key distinction between the messianic faiths of Judaism and Christianity. What the messianists had done was not merely to affirm that a deceased descendant of David might theoretically be resurrected as the redeemer. By confidently claiming one such presumed descendant as the messiah, despite his death in an unredeemed world, they had abolished Judaism’s bedrock requirements for identifying such an individual. To make matters worse, this same individual had asserted that the cosmic process necessary for redemption was already completed.
The record in such a case leaves no room for ambiguity. Judaism unequivocally rejects the belief that God will send the real messiah to preach that the redemption is arriving “right away” (as the Rebbe certainly did), let alone to identify himself clearly as the redeemer (as the messianists believe he did), and then have him die before the fulfillment. The unambiguous criteria that Jews have applied in evaluating such a claim are rooted in the biblical prophecies that define the messianic faith itself. To affirm the messiahship of the deceased Rebbe is to deny a foundational belief of the Jewish religion.
But more was to come. In the fall of 1997, six prominent Chabad rabbis issued a formal ruling that was soon reprinted with a growing number of signatories; by January 2000, it had gathered 150 signatures. Since, according to this ruling, the Rebbe had exhibited the qualities of learning and character set by Maimonides for a prophet; since he had issued numerous correct predictions—about the Six-Day war, the Gulf war, and other matters; and since, for anyone with eyes to see, he had declared himself both prophet and messiah, one must accept his messiahship as a function of the obligation to obey a prophet.1
And still more—much more. From late 1996 through 1997, something began to emerge that many observers have found so difficult to digest that they refuse to believe the evidence before them. For a significant number of Lubavitch Hasidim, the Rebbe himself is nothing less than pure divinity.
In the autumn of 1996, a Chabad weekly in Israel printed a revised version of the standard messianist slogan. Instead of reading, “May our Master, Teacher, and Rabbi the King Messiah live forever,” it read, “May our Master, Teacher, and Creator the King Messiah live forever” (emphasis added). A few weeks later, the same publication, citing a mainstream Chabad work published in 1991, declared that it is permissible to bow down to the Rebbe because “his entire essence is divinity alone.”
In a French-language Chabad journal, the date of the Rebbe’s death was described as the day of the king messiah’s “apothéose” (i.e., ascent to heaven as a divinity), while an English article characterized the Rebbe as the “Essence and Being of God enclothed in a body, . . . omniscient and omnipotent.” Emphasizing that these were “neither wild exaggerations nor poetic parables,” the author concluded, “So who [is] Elokeinu? [our God?]. . . . The Rebbe, melekh hamoshiah [the king messiah]. That’s who.”
A messianist catechism, in a passage ascribed to a religious mentor in a major Chabad yeshiva in Israel, described the Rebbe as in charge “of all that happens in the world. Without his agreement no event can take place. If it is his will, he can bring about anything, ‘and who can tell him what to do?’. . . . In him the Holy One Blessed be He rests in all His force just as He is . . . so that this becomes his entire essence.” The same mentor wrote an article titled “I Don’t Regard the Rebbe as Basar Va-Dam [Flesh and Blood].” He asserted:
Yes, the Rebbe’s body is composed of flesh and blood, but as far as he’s concerned he is not compelled or limited by anything—not by physical limitations nor by spiritual limitations. He “is what he is” [cf. the divine name in Exodus 3:14]. Even as he is enclothed in a physical body, he remains limited by nothing whatsoever and he has the ability to do everything and be everything in an unlimited manner.
Another religious mentor, this one in a major Brooklyn yeshiva, wrote that the Baal Shem Tov, his immediate successor, and all Chabad rebbes prior to Rabbi Menachem Mendel revealed the “pure Essence of God,” but did so “within and by way of a particular sefirah” one of the ten emanations of the divine in Jewish mysticism. The most recent—or current—Rebbe, however, differed from his sefirah-bound predecessors by manifesting the unlimited essence of God in its full purity without even the subtlest concealment.
After reading some of this material, I wrote an article for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz under the title, “On False Messianism, Idolatry, and Lubavitch” (January 11, 1998). Fueled by the Internet, it aroused tempestuous reactions in many quarters. On the positive side, the Council of Torah Sages authorized the Jewish Observer, the magazine of Agudath Israel, to publish an article defending the normative Jewish view of the messiah, and the Central Committee of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis in the United States and Canada, an organization that is regrettably far less significant than its name implies, denounced the deification of any human being. On the negative side, an article in the messianist journal Beis Moshiach defended the full range of formulations that I had attacked, and in a variety of forums I was described as a snake, an ass, a pig, and a heretic. Other Lubavitch representatives denounced me for citing statements by a few marginal lunatics as if they were held by the Chabad mainstream—though one of these representatives added immediately that there is firm authority for the proposition that an extremely righteous man is “only God Himself, Essence and Being. That is a rebbe.”
This issue is especially sensitive because the Rebbe himself, referring primarily to his father-in-law, once described a hasidic rebbe as “the Essence and Being [of God] placed in a body.” While I do not believe he meant this with absolute literalism, even some Hasidim who refrain from language that calls the Rebbe “God” do so only because they think it would imply that he is a separate, independent deity, or that the essence of God is limited to a single human being. They do, however, believe that the Rebbe’s entire essence is divine. Thus, the difference between adherents of this theology who use a liturgical formula calling the Rebbe our Creator and those who do not is essentially semantic (though surely the reluctance to use such a term also stems from a deep-seated Jewish taboo).
In any event, all parties imagine that by denying that the Rebbe is an independent deity, or that the divine Essence has been limited to this particular human being, they have adequately distinguished their position from Christianity. In fact, however, they have distinguished their position only from a caricature of Christianity. As far as classical Judaism is concerned, even genuine Christianity, in which Jesus is a manifestation of one element of the single Creator God, is a form of “foreign worship” (avodah zarah), which roughly means the formal recognition or worship as God of an entity that is in fact not God.
There are, of course, differences between the specific Christian dogma affirming the incarnation of the second person of the trinity to form a God-man and the literal contention that the Rebbe is nothing but pure divinity, but I do not believe those differences are material from the perspective of Jewish law. A Jew who believes that God is literally manifested in all His force in the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and has even a fleeting thought of this manifestation while he worships, commits one of the cardinal sins in Judaism.
Many Lubavitch Hasidim take the rhetoric about Essence and Being metaphorically. Nevertheless, a literal understanding is decidedly to be found among mainstream figures teaching in the central institutions of the movement—and hence, one must assume, among their students. Noting such Lubavitch doctrines, a Christian missionary has recently commented on the irony of Hasidim who continue to be classified as Orthodox Jews despite their belief in a deceased, divine messiah—a classification based on their messiah’s being identified as Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson rather than as Jesus of Nazareth. Regrettably, this author continues, “they have pinned [their hopes] on the wrong candidate.” In this way—and setting aside the issue of Jewish observance—the deep theological divide between Judaism and Christianity has been reduced to a matter of mistaken identity.
There is a prevailing impression these days—one that has been furthered by some Lubavitch spokesmen—that the messianists are either a peripheral phenomenon or in retreat. This impression is seriously awry. Chabad Hasidism is dominated by the messianist belief.
Of course, there are genuine non-messianists in Chabad. The establishment leadership in the United States and Israel, whatever its inner beliefs, officially opposes overt messianist propaganda, and emissaries tend to be somewhat less affected than are the main population centers in Brooklyn, Israel, and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the central synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights—the hub of worldwide Lubavitch Hasidism—is indisputably the headquarters of a messianic sect, and there the messianist slogan is a regular component of the liturgy. The slogan adorns the headquarters of the Lubavitch Women’s Organization in Crown Heights. A prominent messianist directs the Lubavitch Youth Organization. Major schools in Crown Heights are shot through with messianism. In Israel, the rabbi of Kfar Chabad is a messianist.
In the fall of 2000, Beis Moshiach published a multi-part interview with nine messianist religious mentors from Lubavitch yeshivas around the world. The Chabad school system in Safed, Israel, which boasts 1,500 students, teaches the messiahship of the Rebbe. A powerful messianist presence is evident in France, Australia, Montreal, and many other centers. The Chabad rabbi who heads Montreal’s rabbinic court was appointed to that position after he signed the 1997 ruling obligating all Jews to accept the messiahship of the Rebbe. Seventeen of the most important emissaries in the former Soviet Union, including the new chief rabbi, are likewise signatories. So are nearly 70 Israeli rabbis, including many identified as chief rabbis of towns, cities, and settlements—so many, indeed, that Israel’s chief rabbinate was finally impelled to place a small advertisement in a religious newspaper declaring the ruling a dangerous stumbling block in a matter touching the foundations of the faith.
I do not dismiss the importance of this advertisement, any more than I do the RCA resolution for which I fought so hard, or the article in the Jewish Observer, or the delegitimation of messianists in a few Orthodox subcommunities such as the one led by Rabbi Elazar Menachem Schach in Israel. Nonetheless, these limited, episodic expressions of disapproval do not even come close to a genuine communal policy, which would have to include such measures as the refusal to appoint messianists to positions of religious authority and a prohibition on the use of certain foods and ritual objects produced by Chabad Hasidim whose beliefs have not been determined. Indeed, the key element in creating the present watershed in Judaism is the inaction of the mainstream community, if not its positive embrace of overt messianists.
The reasons for this inaction and this embrace are varied, numerous, and powerful. They include:
- the ideal of toleration, or the desire to promote unity and avoid strife;
- the difficulty of overcoming the impression of strict traditionalism created by the physical appearance of messianist Hasidim and their evident observance of the religious commandments of Judaism;
- the balkanization of Orthodoxy, which leads to almost exclusive concern with one’s own enclave;
- the fact that Orthodox Jews everywhere are deeply reliant on Chabad services;
- the waning of a Christian threat, which has weakened instincts that would once have recoiled instantly from doctrines smacking of Christology;
- admiration for all the “good things” accomplished by the Lubavitch movement;
- the conviction that the messianist development is a form of transient insanity that can be ignored;
- the difficulty of fighting a battle against a movement with financial resources, political influence, and deep reservoirs of sympathy.
To overcome these obstacles would require an extraordinary degree of determination and conviction—one that appears well beyond the capacity of this generation of Orthodox Jews.
To A greater extent than usual, the ultimate significance of this development depends on the perspective of the beholder. To a historian or sociologist, what we have here is a striking case study in the transformation of religions, in the persistence of millenarian convictions, and in the power of social forces to overwhelm belief-systems that have survived generations of untold pressures. Studying this movement has instructed me, as well, in the divergent ways believers respond to challenges arising from without and those arising from within, and also caused me to reassess some of my views about the historiography of early Christianity.
To believing Christians and Jews, the significance can be much deeper. For Christian missionaries, Lubavitch messianism—and its effective legitimation by mainstream Orthodox Judaism—is an unanticipated, unearned, but priceless gift. For non-Orthodox Jews, many of whom have long since abandoned the belief in a personal messiah, this affair raises other questions. The affirmation that a human being is pure divinity should be no less disturbing to Conservative and Reform Jews than to the Orthodox. On the other hand, it is difficult to become too exercised over the question of whether the messiah in whom you do not believe has already appeared.
Or is it? By this reasoning, it should not matter whether the messiah in whom you do not believe is Jesus of Nazareth. But in point of fact this matters very much to all committed Jews. The visceral Jewish opposition to such groups as Jews for Jesus, even when they declare some level of commitment to the Jewish people and Jewish religious law, is not generated solely by the fact that they affirm the divinity of Jesus. Evidently, even those Jews who have rejected the traditional messianic faith do not want those who retain it to permit its Christianization.
And so we conclude with those who have retained that faith. Most Orthodox Jews have not yet awakened to the mortal wounds inflicted during the last seven years upon the millennial Jewish idea of the messiah and the Jewish conception of God. When they do, it is remotely possible that they will act decisively, recognizing the threat to Jewish theology and Jewish practice alike. To this point, however, Orthodox reactions have provided few grounds for optimism. The classical messianic faith of Judaism is dying.
1 Setting aside the question of intrinsic persuasiveness, this ruling can generate an unintended consequence. The Rebbe’s predictions of redemption strongly implied that the messianic age should have already arrived. Since it plainly has not, insisting that they were intended as prophecies has the effect of turning the Rebbe into a false prophet.