2016-06-30
Excerpted and adapted with permission from the book "The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference," Littman Library, September 2001.

This book is a memoir, a history, a religious tract. It is an indictment, a lament, and an appeal. It records the shattering of a core belief of a major faith, and the remarkable equanimity with which the standard bearers of that faith have allowed one of its key pillars to be undermined.

Since the religion in question is my own, I do not write as a dispassionate observer. I write, rather, with the hope that this account will awaken believing Jews from their torpor, alert them to the catastrophe that has befallen their faith, and inspire them to take the simple yet difficult steps needed to transform this moment from a turning point into an episode. If we do not seize this opportunity, a nearly irrevocable transformation will have been effected.

As I write, two propositions from which every mainstream Jew in the last millennium would have instantly recoiled have become legitimate options within Orthodox Judaism:

1. A specific descendant of King David may be identified with certainty as the Messiah even though he died in an unredeemed world. The criteria always deemed necessary for a confident identification of the Messiah--the temporal redemption of the Jewish people, a rebuilt Temple, peace and prosperity, the universal recognition of the God of Israel--are null and void.

2. God will finally send the true Messiah to embark upon his redemptive mission. The long-awaited redeemer will declare that all preparations for the redemption have been completed and announce without qualification that the fulfillment is absolutely imminent. He will begin the process of gathering the dispersed of Israel to the Holy Land. He will proclaim himself a prophet, point clearly to his messianic status, and declare that the only remaining task is to greet him as Messiah. And then he will die and be buried without redeeming the world. To put the matter more succinctly, the true Messiah's redemptive mission, publicly proclaimed and vigorously pursued, will be interrupted by death and burial and then consummated through a Second Coming.

The vast majority of Jews instinctively recognize the alienness of these propositions, and the Rabbinical Council of America has declared that there is no place for such a doctrine in Judaism. But Orthodox Jewry effectively legitimates these beliefs. A large segment--almost certainly a substantial majority--of a highly significant Orthodox movement called Lubavitch, or Habad, Hasidism affirms that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was laid to rest in 1994, did everything above and will soon return to complete the redemption in his capacity as the Messiah.

Hasidim who proclaim this belief, including those who have ruled that it is required by Jewish law, routinely hold significant religious positions sanctioned by major Orthodox authorities with no relationship to their movement. These range from the offices of the Israeli Rabbinate to the ranks of mainstream Rabbinical organizations to the chairmanship of Rabbinic courts in both Israel and the diaspora, not to speak of service as scribes, ritual slaughterers, teachers, and administrators of schools and religious organizations receiving support from mainstream Orthodoxy. With very important exceptions, this support comes even from circles generally marked by zealous denunciation of minor deviations from their religious worldview. Shortly after signing a public ruling that Jewish law obligates all Jews to accept the Messiahship of the deceased Rebbe, a Montreal Rabbi was appointed head of the Rabbinical court of the entire city. For much of Orthodox Jewry, the classic boundaries of the messianic faith of Israel are no more.

Virtually all Orthodox Jews, whether they believe in the Messiahship of the Rebbe or not, belong to a profoundly different religion from the one they adhered to in 1993. Though largely ignored thus far, this is a development of striking importance for the history of world religions, and it is an earthquake in the history of Judaism. Judaism stands on the threshold--perhaps beyond the threshhold--of a fundamental transformation.

Orthodox Judaism should abide by the following principles:

No messianist should be treated as an Orthodox rabbi or functionary in good standing. No such person should be permitted to head or even serve on a rabbinic court. Every Jew must categorically refuse to appear before a court headed by a messianist even if only legitimate rabbis are hearing this particular case. This means that no one may appear before the court of Crown Heights or of the city of Montreal or the one presided over by Rabbi Gedalyah Axelrod in Haifa. Other rabbinic courts should interact with these courts or recognize their decisions only in cases of extreme emergency such as jeopardy to someone's eligibility to marry.

No messianist should serve as a communal or synagogue rabbi. Anyone with the authority to remove such a rabbi is obligated to do so. A resident of that community should not recognize its rabbi as his or her religious authority in any respect. An organization like the National Council of Young Israel must immediately expel a synagogue that refuses to dismiss a messianist rabbi.

No messianist should be appointed as Jewish Studies principal or teacher in an Orthodox yeshiva.

Messianist institutions, no matter how many "good things" they do, must be excluded from the Orthodox community. Orthodox Jews should not attend the functions of such institutions or raise money for them.

We confront, however, an even greater problem than "mere" messianist heresy. We must remind ourselves that mainstream Lubavitch has produced literature justifying prostration to a righteous man because he is pure divinity, mainstream figures quote this literature with admiring approval, and religious mentors in the major yeshivas in the movement from New York to Kfar Chabad to Jerusalem advocate a theology of avodah zarah [foreign worship]. Highly educated lay people are comfortable with the term "man-God," asserting that when you speak to the Rebbe you speak to God, and a sophisticated follower emerges from instruction in Habad principles with the conviction that there is no material difference between Lubavitch beliefs about the righteous and the Christian affirmation of the divinity of Jesus. To dismiss adherents of this theology as so marginal that they can be ignored.is to close one's eyes to reality.

The classic messianic faith of Judaism is dying. Most Orthodox Jews may still adhere to it, but their willingness to grant full rabbinic, institutional, educational and ritual recognition to people who proclaim the messiahship of a dead rabbi conveys the inescapable message that such a proclamation does not contradict an essential Jewish belief. Mainstream Orthodoxy now appoints heads of rabbinic courts, teachers and principals who conclude their prayers on the Day of Atonement with the passionate, twin affirmations, "The Lord is God! May our Master, Teacher, and Rabbi the King Messiah live forever!" By extending this recognition, Orthodox Jewry has repealed a defining element not only of the messianic faith but of the Jewish religion itself.

more from beliefnet and our partners