Chabad Messianism

Messianism in Chabad-Lubavitch challenges Jews of all denominations to consider the limits of Jewish theology.

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The original version of this article appeared in the Canadian Jewish News on January 17, 2002.

Our long-awaited messiah and redeemer arrived! Most Jews failed to recognize that he was the messiah, but we, his disciples, did. Tragically, he died before completing the redemptive process. But he will soon be resurrected and will continue and complete his messianic tasks.

Until just twelve years ago, this profession of faith was easily recognizable. It was the distinctive formulation of the Christian credo. In an amazing development, a significant number of pious, Sabbath-observant, religious Jews--ostensibly "Orthodox" Jews--have now adopted this worldview and attempted to declare it kosher.

Death of the Rebbe

The death of one of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, (pictured) the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, left the Lubavitch movement without any central, recognized authority. Rabbi Schneersohn had been an inspired and inspiring leader, who made Lubavitch, which used to be a small hassidic group, into a major player in the Jewish world. In the last years of his life, and especially after he suffered a stroke, many of his followers insisted that he was the long-awaited messiah, and that all Jews were obligated to recognize him in that role.

The rebbe groomed no successor. After his death in 1993, Jews all over the world, both friendly to Lubavitch and otherwise, wondered how the movement would cope. The movement has not had one unified reaction. No one in Lubavitch is openly looking for a new rebbe. "The rebbe"--Rabbi Schneersohn--is still the rebbe.

Judaism has known of movements centered around a dead rebbe. The Bratslever hassidic movement found no replacement for Rabbi Nachman after his death in the 19th century. That movement still flourishes (and its adherents are often called the toyte [dead] hassidim). Messianic fervor about a living hassidic rebbe also has a few precedents in the last three centuries. But there is absolutely no precedent for Jews to continue to consider a person the messiah after his death. Before 1993, no Jew, other than a Jew for Jesus, affirmed that a specific individual who had initiated a messianic mission and then died in an unredeemed world was actually the messiah.

Lubavitch Leaders Respond

It is hard to know how many Lubavitchers actually believe that their dead rebbe is really the Messiah. But the number is significant. It includes a few of the more important rabbis in the Lubavitch movement in North America, and a higher percentage of Lubavitch leaders in Israel.

A few years after the rebbe's death, a letter containing a psak halakhah [religious ruling] appeared as a paid advertisement in many Jewish newspapers. Signed by a large number of rabbis associated with the Lubavitch movement, the letter stated that according to halakhah [Jewish law], all Jews were required to profess the belief that the late Rabbi Schneersohn was actually the Messiah. The rebbe, it was claimed, was without doubt a prophet. The rebbe himself had confirmed (according to the letter) that he was the messiah. Since Halachah obligates Jews to believe the words of a prophet, every Jew was required to profess the belief that the rebbe was and still is the messiah.

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Martin I. Lockshin

Martin I. Lockshin, Ph.D., is a professor at the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. He received rabbinic ordination after studying at the yeshiva founded by Rav Kook in Jerusalem.