Chabad Messianists, the Rebbe, and the Future of Judaism
On April 9 this year, some four thousand men and women crammed into Yad Eliyahu, the largest indoor sports stadium in Tel Aviv, in order to celebrate the 104th birthday of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, or, as he is known among believers, the Rebbe, King Messiah. A screen several stories high towered over the assembled crowd, displaying images and video clips of Schneerson who died in June 1994 at the age of 91. On a podium at the foot of the mountainous screen, a lineup of rabbinic speakers belted out fiery tributes to their master. “The ‘rebbe’ is greater than our forefather Jacob, greater even than Moses,” I heard one of the speakers declare.
Among Hasidim, members of the mystical, populist stream of Judaism founded in the 18th century by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, a great master's life is usually commemorated on the anniversary of his death. But the Messianic wing of Chabad-Lubavitch, the group that organized the event, does not recognize or admit that Rabbi Schneerson, the seventh and apparently the last Chabad Lubavitch Grand Rabbi, is in fact dead, despite the New York State Death Certificate made out in his name, and the tomb erected after his burial in a cemetery near the Brooklyn-Queens border.
Instead, the Chabad Meshichistim (messianists)—who are part of a theological conflict within the Chabad movement that has torn apart institutions, friendships, and even families--believe that the rebbe’s death is an illusion, a final testing of faith. The Rebbe is alive, say the Messianists, not just in soul, but in body as well, hidden—for the most part—from our physical eyes yet still an overwhelming presence in the world. Perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, the hiding will be over. The rebbe will reappear, signaling the start of a new era in human and cosmic history.
Not everyone in the crowd at the Yad Eliyahu stadium is a true believer. Some, like two Hasidim from the Tzchernobil sect I meet, have come for the entertainment—a lineup of popular ultra Orthodox singers and bands that have been flown in from America in order to ensure a full house at the event. “Behind their back, people laugh at the meshichistim,” one of the Hasidim tells me. During one tense moment, as one of the speakers mentions the rebbe, a group of yeshiva students who have come for the music burst out with a mocking Hebrew rendition of “Happy Birthday”—the version sung in Israeli kindergartens. The Messianists are used to bearing ridicule and scorn-- but not here, not on their home turf! The speaker loses his cool: he screams at the Yeshiva boys to desist.
But that is the evening’s single moment of discord. As the celebration continues, more and more faithful fill the arena, waving yellow flags emblazoned with dark blue crowns and the single word “Messiah”; they now clearly constitute the vast majority. The hour is late; an ecstatic energy, a whir of expectancy and unrelenting hope fills the arena, as if the guest of honor might just make a surprise appearance. As each of the speakers reach the crescendo of their address, they leads the audience in urgently chanting the proclamation that has become the mantra and catechism of what this freshly minted offshoot of Judaism, the magical formula whose words contain the power to transform reality forever: “Long Live Our Master, Our Teacher, Our Rabbi,” the audience shouts, “the King Messiah Forever and Ever.”
The notion of a Messiah who seemingly dies and then reappears is shockingly familiar. Some critics of Chabad, most prominent among them Jewish historian David Berger of Brooklyn College, author of "The Rebbe, the Messiah and The Scandal of Orthodox Indifference" have called for excommunicating Chabad Messianists for crossing a crucial line that defines Jewish belief, and in doing so obscuring the borders between Christianity and Judaism. How did Chabad, one of the most dynamic and influential of contemporary Jewish movements—and one of the most uncompromisingly loyal to tradition—find itself penetrated by such beliefs? What portion of the Chabad movement do the messianists comprise? And where are the messianists heading?
The very beginnings of the messianists’ story can be traced back to Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1699-1760), who founded Chasidism as a mystical Jewish revival movement. The Baal Shem Tov, as he is known, saw the dissemination of Judaism's esoteric, mystical tradition—which would enable the masses of ordinary Jews to directly cleave to the divine -as the key to catalyzing the redemption promised by the biblical prophets so long ago. From its beginnings, Chabad-Lubavitch founded by the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), a student of the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, Dov Ber of Mezeritch, took the messianic objective of Chasidism in earnest: the seven successive Lubavitcher rebbes, each in their own generation, saw themselves as the leaders of the entire Jewish people. They also perceived the Hasidic teachings as explicated within the Chabad tradition, starting with the works of Rebbe Shneur Zalman, as the most authoritative and potent articulation of Judaism’s secret, inner tradition—and their spread as a key component in the effort to bring the messiah.
The first major intensification of messianism in Chabad came during the terrible years of the holocaust. In 1943, Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneerson—Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s father in law and predecessor as rebbe, who escaped Europe and arrived in New York City in 1940--announced “le’alter le’teshuva le’alter le’geula”, meaning that the redemption, and thus the saving of European Jewry, could happen immediately if Jews returned to God and to his Torah. After Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson's coronation as rebbe in 1951, his emphasis on messianism in his teachings, coupled with the admiration he earned from his Hasidim, created periodic outbursts of speculation—which he discouraged--that he was the messiah.
In the 1980’s the rebbe began to teach his flock that it was time to demand that God bring the Messiah—from nursery school onwards, children were taught to sing “We want Messiah Now.” But it was in 1990 that the rebbe's mashiach "obsession", as he himself once called it, began to openly become the emotional and programmatic center of the Chabad movement. In August 1990, following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and his threat to “scorch half of Israel,” Rabbi Schneerson began to speak of the messiah's appearance as imminent. From then until his first stroke, in February 1992, in dozens of public teachings, Schneerson fired the imagination of his Hasidim as well as other Orthodox Jews by evoking a world—our world—on the verge of cosmic transformation.
With increasing urgency and boldness, the rebbe asserted that the Messianic era was imminent. “This is the last generation of exile and the first of redemption,” the Rebbe declared numerous times, and “The messiah has been found, he is present, we only have to open our eyes and see him.” The Rebbe’s words, delivered with characteristic authority and intensity, seemed to deliberately blur a crucial borderline. Where we on the verge of the messianic era? Or had we already burst through to the other side?
Although a naturalistic strain of messianism exists in Judaism, represented in Maimonides’ declaration that the laws of nature would not change with the coming of the messiah, in the rebbe's messianic vision, miracles abound and death is overcome. From the beginning of his tenure, while acknowledging his father in law's death and often visiting his tomb, the rebbe had also often continued to speak about him as if he was still alive. Now, he began to talk about the generation of Messiah—which he had already identified as the current generation—as one that might not have to die at all. The radical nature of Rabbi Schneerson's messianic view was at least partly the outcome of Chabad’s mystical, panentheistic understanding of the cosmos: in reality, all was already part of God; messianic consciousness would reveal that evil and death were illusory.
One month after the end of the Gulf War, the rebbe gave an impromptu address in which he said that he had done all he could do to bring the messiah—now it was up to others. For the camp that would later become known as the messianists, this speech was a watershed. Some of the rebbe’s followers, searching for the meaning of the his pronouncement, decided that he was calling for “an awakening from below”—a kabbalistic term for the catalyzing effect human beings can have on divine processes. It was up to them, his Hasidim, to clearly identify the rebbe as messiah—this, according to their logic, would be the final trigger enabling the rebbe to reveal himself. Some of his Israeli followers organized a “psak din”—a rabbinic legal decision—pronouncing the rebbe messiah, hoping to evoke a heavenly response. They also began to sing “yechi” (“Long Live the King Messiah”) in front of the rebbe, as a public declaration of their belief in him as the messiah.
According to Rabbi Zalman Shmukler, currently the official spokesman of the Lubavitch movement and an anti-messianist, on at least one occasion, the rebbe became livid on hearing “yechi” and threatened to leave the room. On at least one other occasions, as one of the video clips shown at the Yad Eliyahu birthday celebration shows, the rebbe seems to have encouraged the singing. Certainly the rebbe did little to restrain the messianic ardor he had unleashed. Without ever explicitly identifying himself as the messiah, the rebbe continued to make radical, messianic pronouncements—including declaring that God had already renewed prophecy, which the Talmud teaches had ended with the destruction of the First Temple 2500 year before, and pointing out that the numerical value of Bet Mashiach, Hebrew for House of the Messiah” was 770, the address of World Lubavitch Headquarters-- until the day of his stroke.
After the stroke, with the rebbe's power of communication hampered, maneuverings between the developing camps—messianist and anti-messianist—became more conspicuous. Of the rebbe’s two closest aides, one, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, while entertaining the hope that the rebbe was indeed the messiah, believed that this message should not be publicized or made explicit for fear of damaging Chabad’s reputation. The other, Rabbi Leibel Groner, was—and still is—firmly in the messianist camp. At one point, the messianists attempted to arrange a public, televised coronation of the invalid rebbe as the King Messiah--after threats from the anti-messianists, the ceremony was toned down.
The rebbe’s death shocked nearly all of Chabad, for a short time, into momentarily abandoning their messianic hopes—though approximately 30 hardcore messianists danced and sang “Yechi” at the funeral, certain that the rebbe would soon be resurrected. But by evening, copies of teachings in which the rebbe had referred to his father in law as “the messiah of the generation” even after his death were already circulating; new messianic scenarios and theologies were on their way.
770 Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights, Brooklyn--world Lubavitch headquarters--on a frigid February night: several thousand messianists have crowded into the cavernous basement hall where Rabbi Schneerson used to address his flock. It’s the 55th anniversary of Schneerson’s coronation as rebbe, and hundreds have flown in from Israel for the occasion. When Israeli messianists travel to “770”, they invariably say: “I’m going to the rebbe," who they believe still inhabits the building. Recently, the messianists, who are a powerful, perhaps dominant presence in the Crown Heights neighborhood, have begun to open a path within the sea of human beings crowded into the room for the invisible rebbe to walk through at the beginning of prayer services, as he did during his lifetime. The messianist celebration tonight is disorderly, anarchic—there’s plenty of free food and drink, and there is a speaker’s rostrum, where rabbis are taking turns at the podium, but nobody seems to be listening—a constant buzz of conversation fills the room. “Have a lot of people seen the rebbe in their dreams?” I ask a man in his twenties who I have cornered for a conversation. “In their dreams? That's nothing. Everybody sees him in their dreams. But there are a people who have seen the rebbe.”
Later, back in Jerusalem, at a Sabbath service of messianists, I speak to one of these. It happened on Tisha B’av, the mid-summer fast day in memory of the destruction of the Holy Temple. He was at the Western Wall, several years ago. All of a sudden, he saw the rebbe, big and real as life, right in front of him. Something distracted him; he looked away for a split second; the rebbe was gone. I hear more stories: a child of four, left alone in his house for a few minutes, was exploring the electric socket, trying to push a fork in. “But then a man stepped down from the picture and said to me to stop,” the child told his parents, pointing to a photo of the rebbe that happened to be on the wall. The family, which had been modern Orthodox, became Chabad. “Two women fainted on Simchat Torah this year at 770,” Rabbi Tamir, the leader of this messianist congregation relates. “They saw the rebbe dancing together with the crowd.”
Actually seeing the rebbe is still rare enough to shock, even for messianists, but communicating with the rebbe has never been easier. Every day, perhaps several times a day, messianists will write down a question on which they need guidance and then open up one of Rabbi Schneerson’s 30 published volumes of letters at random (for those that don’t have the books, this can also be done online on several internet sites). Often, according to messianists, the book answers their question with striking, even miraculous, directness.
Shlomo Schmida, a former secular Israeli who became religious and then, after an extensive spiritual search within the religious world, became a Chabad messianist about a decade ago, may open a volume of the rebbe’s letters a number of times in the same day. When we talk about the unprecedented, threshold state of the world today—a world on the verge of redemption, where the messiah is present but invisible, Schmida uses the ‘Letters’, and the constant miracles he experiences when opening them, as an example of the way the messianic reality has begun to penetrate into the unredeemed world. “Something has already changed in the nature of the world,” Schmida says, “That’s what the ‘Letters’ show.” Through the invisible, omnipresent rebbe, sacred prescience and guidance has become diffused, democratized—anyone can access it at home or on the web.
A small but vocal group of messianists have taken what some see as the logical next step for believers in an invisible, immortal messiah, and have declared the rebbe do be nothing less than a manifestation of God, confirming the worst fears of critics such as Berger. Enlisting quotations from Schneerson himself, such as one in which describes his father in law and predecessor as "the essence of God en-clothed in human flesh," this group, nicknamed "Elohists" from the Hebrew word Elohim, which means God, is estimated to include a few hundred adherents. A website created by one of the Elohists, Rabbi Ariel Sokolovsky of Portland, Oregon, called www.rebbegod.blogspot.com answers questions, such as whether it is permissible to imagine God, during prayers, in the form of the rebbe: "One is allowed to pray to G-d imagining G-d in the Rebbe King Moshiach's image," Rabbi Sokolovsky answers, "somewhat similar how one is allowed to pray to G-d imagining Him clothed in the Sefirah (divine manifestation) of Chessed (Love) or Chochma (Wisdom) etc."
I ask Schmida about the "Elohists". "They are not really wrong," he answers me. "God is speaking through the rebbe. He is the medium connecting the world of human beings to the world of the divine. But this is something that the world does not have the vessels to understand yet. The Elohists are wrong to shove it in people's faces " Many people—both inside and outside Chabad—believe that exactly this kind of strategy-based argument is what motivates many of those within Chabad who oppose the messianists. Melech Jaffee, whose website www.moshiachlisten.com includes a detailed history of Chabad Messianism, argues that "Lubavitchers uniformly believe that the Rebbe will return as Moshiach. The negligible handful of mainstream Lubavitchers who do not accept this are isolated and do not form any contingent."
Yet many within Chabad deny the existence of a secret messianic ideology within mainstream Chabad circles. "There was a potential possibility that the rebbe was messiah when he was alive," says Rabbi Menachem Danner, director of development for the Jerusalem-based "Maayanot" Chabad yeshiva. "Now that he is gone, that question is irrelevant. Their obsession with the identity of the messiah is making a laughingstock of Chabad. The messianist's ideology has nothing to do with Judaism." Danner, along with other Chabad insiders I spoke to, say that the majority of the messianists did not grow up within the movement and that many are from Sefardic backgrounds—which, together with their perceived fanaticism, has gained them the nickname "The Taliban" among anti-messianists.
Rabbi Shmutkin, Chabad's official spokesperson, says that the messianists comprise a small minority within Chabad, and that their numbers and influence are steadily diminishing. Other analysts from within the movement say that the messianists are prominent—and perhaps predominant--in Crown Heights, in Israel, in France, and in the Soviet Union, while in other parts of the United States and the world, they are far less significant. A recent Federal Court decision is also potentially damaging to the group's prestige and power: In late 2005, messianists destroyed a plaque in memory of Rabbi Schneerson that had been affixed to 770 Eastern Parkway because it referred to the rebbe by an appellation "May the memory of a righteous man be for a blessing" that Jews use only when a person has died—a blasphemous notion for them. Fistfights ensued, and in the ruckus, the anti-messianists called the police. The messianist faction sued for control of the building—but in March, 2006, the Court handed down a decision saying that the building legally belonged to two mainstream anti-messianist Chabad organizations. "Their days of having free reign [in 770] are over," Danner says of the messianists in the wake of the court decision. "They can't hijack our holy temple anymore."
The belief that the rebbe will return as the messiah would seem to have a built in limit. After all, the rebbe said many times that the current generation would see the messianic redemption. According to some of the messianists I spoke to, a generation is defined as a period of approximately 40 years. That’s a long time, time enough for new religious beliefs and directions to incubate and appear. And one of the possible directions for the messianists, one which they can certainly trace, if they desire, to the rebbe's teachings themselves, is to turn universalistic: to take their mission beyond the confines of the Jewish people.
Within Israel itself, the messianists uniformly support the far right, with many venturing so far as to vote for Baruch Marzel, a disciple of Meir Kahane, in the recent elections. And yet, even here, the universalistic strain inherent in Jewish messianism has emerged at times: a pamphlet about the rebbe's messianic identity and his message was translated into Arabic and sent to thousands of homes in Arab East Jerusalem last year.
In the United States, the idea of taking the messianic message to the gentiles is even more prevalent. The rebbe himself had begun to develop and emphasize a universal message during the years preceding his death; already in the 1980's, he charged his Hasidim with preaching the 7 Noachide commandmants—a universal ethic for all of humankind that the Talmud derives from the first chapters in Genesis—to the gentiles. Later, just a few weeks before his stroke, he spoke of the necessity of teaching non-Jews the mystical secrets of the Torah, and spoke of the United Nations and its activities in messianic terms. Several messianist websites I came across explicitly appeal to gentiles—one even seems designed to attract Christian evangelicals and "prove" to them that it is the rebbe, and not Jesus who is the real Messiah.
The day after the event I attended in Crown Heights, I was waiting for a train to arrive in the Times Square subway station, when I saw two young men wearing sport jackets and black hats get off an incoming train. They were handing out pamphlets to blacks and Chinese, to Hispanics and to Jews alike. I took one of the pamphlets, and found myself looking at a picture of the rebbe. Beneath the picture, one word was printed: Messiah.