Chabad Messianism

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

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.

Implications for the Rest of the Jewish World

Should the issue of the beliefs of a number of leaders (and an indeterminate number of followers) of the Lubavitch movement be of interest to those of us who are not Lubavitchers? According to David Berger, the answer is an unambiguous yes. Berger is an Orthodox rabbi who is a professor of Jewish history at Brooklyn College in New York. A few years ago he completed a term as president of the Association for Jewish Studies, one of the first Orthodox Jews ever to serve in that prestigious position. He is meticulously observant of halakhah, and is recognized around the world as a first-rate scholar. His area of specialization is the history of debates and polemics between Jews and Christians.

For the last few years, Berger has been on a tireless, and generally lonely, campaign against the legitimization of the Jewish belief in a dead messiah. He has been trying, with very limited success, to get leading Orthodox rabbis to speak out against this belief. He did have one impressive success in 1996 at the convention of the Rabbinical Council of America, the body to which virtually all modern Orthodox or centrist Orthodox rabbis belong. By an overwhelming majority, the rabbis at that convention passed a resolution reading: “In light of disturbing developments which have arisen in the Jewish community, the Rabbinical Council of America in convention assembled declares that there is not and has never been a place in Judaism for the belief that Mashiach ben David [the Messiah, son of David] will begin his messianic mission only to experience death, burial and resurrection before completing it.”

Berger’s Arguments

Berger did not expect to sway Lubavitch opinion. He knew that he would be the object of a vilification campaign; his only surprise was the ferocity of the rhetoric about him in Lubavitch circles and publications. But Berger did expect to have some success in isolating messianist Lubavitchers, or, at least, in convincing centrist Orthodox Jews that the messianist Lubavitch world view was a serious problem. This has not happened. Most Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews smile condescendingly about this new messianism and don’t get worked up about it. Berger feels that they should react more forcefully.

In September 2001, he published an article in Commentary magazine in which he outlined his concerns, as a rabbi and as a scholar, about Lubavitch messianism. An expanded version of that article later appeared as a book, entitled The Messiah, the Rebbe and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001). Three years later an expanded Hebrew version of the book was published.  The book has caused quite a stir. Sales have been surprisingly high.

In his book, Berger presents two different but related arguments as to why Lubavitch messianism is dangerous. First of all, he says, it undermines the traditional Jewish argument that the belief in a dead messiah is a Christian, not a Jewish, one. Jews have always deflected Christian claims by offering that distinction. Today, evangelical Christians trying to convert Jews have started arguing that if kosher Jews can believe that the dead Rabbi Schneersohn is still the Messiah, why don’t they give more credence to the claim that another Jew, who died around 2,000 years ago, is the real Messiah?

Berger’s second argument is more complex and controversial. He argues (to my mind, convincingly) that the belief in a messiah who is dead and is about to be resurrected to finish his job carries the potential of blurring the distinction between humans and God to such an extent that it can lead to avodah zarah, that is, “foreign or non-monotheistic worhip.” Berger cites some troubling statements in Lubavitch publications that lead us to believe that his concern is real, not, to be sure, about all Lubavitchers, and perhaps not about most. But, Berger argues, key Lubavitch educators in important positions have made statements that cannot be tolerated in a monotheistic religion. How are we to relate to the claim that because the Rebbe is actually “the essence and being [of God] placed [areingeshtelt] into a body,” he is without limits, capable of effecting anything, all-knowing and a proper object of worshipful prostration?

Berger has issued a challenge to all non-Lubavitch Jews to re-examine–indeed, to oppose–the exercise of broad communal authority by anyone who was a signatory on the psak. He even suggests that non-Lubavitch Jews withhold their suppport from the specific institutions where the signatories occupy positions of authority.

Berger’s arguments are sufficiently complex that a short essay cannot do them justice. But I think that they are worthy of careful reading by all Jews. I have admired Berger for 31 years, ever since I was a student in two of his undergraduate Jewish history courses, one on messianism and one on Jewish-Christian polemics. He is a pious and committed Jew and a great scholar. Before 1993, I never heard him take an anti-Lubavitch or anti-hassidic position. In fact, he has always shown tolerance for all and a great respect for rabbis who are Torah scholars, even for those whose worldviews are not his. But he is also eager to preserve Jewish monotheism and Jewish identity by fighting against any blurring of the boundary between Judaism and Christianity. Berger’s campaign is not a quixotic crusade. It is a serious attempt to ask Jews of all denominations to think seriously about Jewish theology. Berger would say that serious changes have taken place in Judaism in the last twelve years and he challenges us to think about how we will react. 

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