2016-06-30
Reprinted from the January/February 2002 issue of Moment magazine with permission of the author.

Fill in the blanks in the following statement: "It does not matter at all if the physical pulse is active or not, and if various phenomena associated with physical life as we recognize them exist, the physical life of ---- never operated in the manner familiar to us, and that true physical life continues with precisely the same force as before. More than this: ... ---- is the 'master of the house' with respect to all that happens to him and all that happens in the world. Without his agreement, no event can take place, and if it is his will, he can bring about anything, and who can tell him what to do? It follows that if he wills it, he can at any moment cause his physical sense to act in a manner familiar to us, and his failure to do so is solely the result of the fact that it is not his will to do so."

The answer, surely, is clear: the missing word in the above statement must be "Jesus." Perhaps it is a Christian statement, or possibly a Jews for Jesus tract?

Guess again. The correct answer is "Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson," the Rebbe, who died in 1994. The quote is from Rabbi Levi Yitzchack Ginsberg, a religious mentor at the major Lubavitch center in Israel. It was published in a 1996 catechism in Safed, Israel, designed to provide answers about the Messiah and Redemption. (The source of the quote, according to the citation, was Ginsberg's book "Mashiah Akhshav", volume IV, published before the Rebbe's death.) Ginsberg's point needs little clarification: the Rebbe is the Messiah.

This quotation, and many more like it, can be found in a new book, "The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference," (London and Portland: Littman Library, 2001). Author David Berger, an Orthodox rabbi and a professor of Medieval Jewish History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has carried on a lonely battle to expose and denounce what he says is a mainstream belief among Chabad Hasidim that Schneerson is the Messiah--and that he will ultimately be resurrected to usher in the messianic era.

Berger describes his book as a memoir, history, religious tract, and indictment. It is also a call to arms. "I write...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," he writes. "If we do not seize this opportunity, a nearly irrevocable transformation will have been effected, and by the time the truth sinks in, it may well be too late to act."

Chabad-Lubavitch is a Crown Heights, Brooklyn-based Hasidic movement with roots in 18th century Poland. That's where the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, preached Judaism based on the omnipresence of God in all things: Even simple Jews could serve God through inner joy. Many branches of Hasidism developed over the next century, each growing around a particular rebbe and his teachings. The Chabad-Lubavitch sprang from the writings of 18th-century Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who published the Tanya, which is revered by adherents today as containing the key to spiritual awareness. Lubavitch is the Belorussian town where the movement began; "Chabad" is an acronym, deriving from the Hebrew words for wisdom (chochma), intelligence (bina), and faith (da'at).

There have been seven Lubavitcher rebbes since Rabbi Zalman, each designated by his predecessor. Schneerson became the seventh rebbe 51 years ago, and he transformed the movement from a closed Eastern European-oriented community into a highly public movement with a worldwide following. By January 1994, with the Rebbe's health failing, Chabad leadership declared that Schneerson would be the final rebbe. It gave no official reason for the decision, sparking an expectation among some that the Rebbe might be the Messiah. Shortly thereafter, Berger argues, a "persistent messianism" began to take hold among the Rebbe's followers. Today, more than 3,000 Chabad emissaries occupy posts in far-flung locales worldwide, spreading Lubavitch teachings.

On June 17, 1994, days after the Rebbe's death, a full-page ad appeared in the Jewish Press, the Orthodox weekly published in New York City. The text of the ad concluded: "With broken hearts we reaffirm our faith that we will at once witness Techiyas Hameisim [the resurrection of the dead] and we will have the Rebbe lead us out of Golus [exile] immediately, and together we will proclaim, Yechi adonenu morenu verabbenu Melech hamoshiach leolam voed [May our Master, Teacher, and Rabbi, the King Messiah, live forever]."

Berger immediately wrote a letter to the newspaper calling on Chabad leadership to denounce the position and to block funding to anyone espousing it. Why was it so urgent to denounce the spreading messianic fervor? After all, there's a long Jewish tradition of yearning for the messianic era. Best known is Maimonides' 12th principle of Judaism, "I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may tarry I await him each day, hoping that he will come."

But as Berger wrote in his letter to the Press: "There is no more fundamental Messianic belief in Judaism than the conviction that the Davidic Messiah who appears at the end of days will not die before completing his mission. When the Rebbe ... was alive, Messianic claims made for him were ill-advised but well within the boundaries of normative Judaism; indeed, no serious Messianic claims have ever been set forth for a more qualified candidate. But the persistence of such a claim after his death is beyond the pale of Judaism. If it is allowed to survive within Chabad even as a minority view, the movement will destroy its legitimacy as a form of Orthodox Judaism . The belief in a dead Messiah cannot be allowed a shred of legitimacy within Judaism."

Berger explains the significance of this point in an appendix titled "On a Messiah Who Dies With his Mission Unfulfilled." "Since the very definition of the concept 'Messiah' is rooted in biblical descriptions of visible, global redemption," he writes, "Judaism properly recoiled from scenarios without a shred of biblical justification in which the Messiah's mission is interrupted by death in an unredeemed world. The God of the Hebrew Bible sends the messianic king to accomplish his end, not to follow a two-part script in which the hero tragically dies and the words 'to be continued' suddenly appear on the screen."

This is why Jesus could not be the Messiah. This is why Jews for Jesus is anathema. As Berger writes, "A group affirming the messiahship of the Rebbe would be a cult maintaining a belief possible in Christianity but not in Judaism and repugnant to everything Judaism represents." It was a first, Berger writes, in 2,000 years "of Jewish confrontation with Christianity."

Yet, instead of denouncing the message that the Rebbe is the Messiah, Berger argues that Chabad-Lubavitch allowed it to continue unchecked. "Each day, I expected to hear that major rabbinical figures and organizations had declared this belief unacceptable in Judaism, disqualified its adherents from holding positions of religious authority, and prohibited Orthodox support for institutions espousing it," Berger writes. "But there was nothing. Complete, deafening silence." In the years after the Rebbe's death, billboards, pamphlets, and full-page ads in newspapers appeared across the country hailing the Rebbe as the "King Messiah." Berger concludes: "It became painfully evident that the messianist element in Chabad was extremely numerous and powerful."

Berger, an adherent of Modern Orthodoxy, did finally manage to get the Rabbinical Council of America, the umbrella organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis, to pass a resolution condemning the deification of the Rebbe, and here and there he has gotten some backing, usually in secret from people who are afraid to take a stand with him in public. (It should be noted, however, that the late Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the longtime leader of traditionalist Orthodox Jews in Israel, did wage a concerted campaign against Lubavitch Messianism.) Still, Berger has so far been unable to move the Council of Torah Sages, the organization of haredi rabbis, the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, or other leaders of the yeshiva world to condemn this messianic movement clearly and unequivocally.

Why has such messianism grown and persisted without public censure from much of the Orthodox community? Is it because Orthodox leaders believe Chabad is doing good-by bringing thousands of Jews deeply into the Jewish fold-and therefore should not be criticized? Or perhaps Orthodox leaders believe that those with extreme views can believe whatever they wish-as long as they are religiously observant. But if that were true, Orthodoxy would be reduced to Orthopraxy-observance would be all that counted and beliefs would be completely optional-and that would surely be a perversion of Judaism. The commandment to believe in one God and one God alone and the law forbidding idolatry is, after all, not only in the Ten Commandments, but also in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law.

Perhaps many Orthodox leaders have kept quiet because of a laudable desire not to increase divisiveness within the Jewish community. If so, why do they continue issuing condemnations of the policies of those on the left-on issues like the Reform movement's acceptance of patrilineal descent-that are far less fundamental to Judaism?

Perhaps Orthodoxy has kept quiet on this issue in the hope that this "second coming" Judaism will disappear in time. But Berger argues that the opposite is happening. Chabad's success in raising funds from across the spectrum of the Jewish community is phenomenal. Conservative and Reform Jews give millions of dollars to Chabad, in some cases because they want to provide support for what they see as "authentic" Judaism. Chabad charity boxes proliferate, and literature circulates openly-even in non-Lubavitch shuls. Messianist rabbis have synagogue pulpits and serve in posts that are under Israeli rabbinate supervision. As Berger notes, thousands of Jewish children in Lubavitch schools are being taught to chant "May our Master, Teacher, and Rabbi, the King Messiah, live forever."

What is not known is whether an anti-messianist faction exists within Chabad, and, if so, whether it is quietly fighting from the inside or whether it has been co-opted and has lost the fight. Either way, Berger calls upon the Orthodox Jewish community to demand an accounting from those within Chabad. Those who do its good work should be respected, but those who believe and who teach a doctrine that is antithetical to Judaism need to be denounced and stripped of their claim to authenticity, either from within, by the leadership of Chabad, or from the outside, by the rest of the Orthodox community. Until now, no one has made the case as forcefully as Berger that Chabad is more than just a committed group determined to awaken all Jews to Judaism. Instead, Chabad as a group seems to be crossing the line into what is permissible within Christianity but forbidden within Judaism. It remains to be seen what kind of a response this carefully documented and yet passionate outcry will receive from the Orthodox community. If its j'accuse is ignored and its author dismissed, it will mean that the leadership of Orthodoxy is too timid to confront a major challenge to Jewish faith, and that would be tragic indeed.


Join Beliefnet Today!

more from beliefnet and our partners