There is much confusion about what Chabad believes about the late Rebbe. It is commonly thought there are two factions within the movement, one that believes the Rebbe is the messiah even in death, and one that rejects that belief. However, this is both false and misleading.
Chabad breaks down into two main factions. The first believes it is proper and necessary to publicize the Rebbe's status as the messiah. The second believes such publicity harms the movement and weakens its fundraising and outreach. The first faction is commonly known as the "messianists," in Hebrew, the "meshichistin." The second are the "anti-messianists," or "anti-meshichistin." Both factions believe the Rebbe is the messiah. They dispute what should be done regarding this belief.
[MP, a Chabad reader and critic of this blog, has pointed out that some anti-messianists may believe that mandating publicity about the Rebbe being the messiah distorts the Rebbe's policies, but any individual who believes in publicizing the Rebbe's status as messiah is free to do so as long as it is not done in a way that mandates others to do the same. Note that the issue here is distorting the Rebbe's policy, not whether or not the late Rebbe is the messiah.]
A more extreme splinter group from the messianists believe the late Rebbe is literally God, and believe it is their duty to publicize this fact. They are known as Elokistim, and are few in number.
There are also a small number of Chabadniks who believe the Rebbe is not the messiah, and all of this is a tragic error that is hurting Chabad.
And then there is the average attendee at Chabad Houses and shuls outside Crown Heights and Kfar Chabad. He will tell you he doesn't believe the Rebbe is the messiah – or that he does, in the sense that it is possible the rebbe is. Either way, he'll tell you there is a gemara somewhere that supports this belief. He won't identify with the mesianists (unless his rabbi does).
In the last several years a new theology of sorts has been constructed. It posits that the late Rebbe was and is the "highest" most refined human being ever to have lived. While not God Himself, he is the closest to God. He may also be the messiah – or not. It really doesn't matter because, if the Rebbe is not the messiah, he is still "higher" than the messiah and closer to God than the messiah. When the messiah comes, Chabadniks will follow the Rebbe who will lead them to Redemption. (I heard this directly from several Chabadniks, including Rabbi Manis Friedman.)*
This new theology has a big advantage – it allows a Chabadnik to say that he does not believe the Rebbe is the messiah, and to do so while telling the truth.
What Chabad has done is redefine the terms of the debate, making those terms meaningless. If the Rebbe will "lead us to the Redemption," is "higher" than any other person who ever lived (including Moses!)1, he has taken a position unheard of in Judaism and superceded the normative understanding of the Redemption and the Messianic Age.
More troubling is the theology – accepted by all Chabad "streams" – that the dead Rebbe answers prayers and gives advice and blessings. This has led some to pray directly to the late Rebbe.
Also, accepted across the board is a Rebbe-centric form of practice, of which the late Rebbe "answering" prayers and the like is a part. Everything a Chabad hasid does – from learning, to prayer, to outreach – goes "through" the Rebbe. He is the focus of everything, the point of entry and the point of departure. As a friend noted, "A Chabad hasid may pray to God, but that is only because the Rebbe told him to."
This Chabad theology is a beefed-up variant of the original hasidic doctrine of the tzaddik.2,3
Rabbi Dr. David Berger has devoted much effort to confronting Chabad messianism. But he has failed to deal with the Rebbe-centric theology at the heart of the movement. This seems to be because Rabbi Berger is an academic specializing in Christian-Jewish disputation, and the issue of the second coming – shared by Chabad with Christianity – is central to that study.
But there is also more. Dr. Berger knows that, if the second coming theology is accepted in Judaism, there is nothing left to separate us from Christianity except mitzva observance.4 But increasingly, messianic Jewish groups are taking on mitzvot as part of their practice. Perhaps what Dr. Berger fears is the day in the not too distant future when messianic Jews and messianic Chabad sit side-by-side with Hadassah, Amit Women, and the Reform and Conservative movements around the Federation table.
It is Rebbe-centric theology, or Rebbeism, lies at the heart of the problem with Chabad.5 It is the root of its messianism and, more than messianism itself, that poses the greatest threat to Judaism as it has been practiced for almost 2000 years.
1. Heard directly from Rabbi Manis Friedman.
2. Which is why the hasidic-dominated Moetzet Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel has been silent on this issue, even though most members of the Moetzet are known privately to be very opposed to Chabad and to its Rebbeism and Messianism.
3. Or, at least, it is a beefed-up variant of the version of that doctrine as it is commonly known today. Some of the early generations of the hasidic movement may have approached this level of Rebbe-centrism. It is important to realize that the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, said that what kept the hasidic movement from outright heresy was the opposition of the Gra.
4. And, when one considers that Reform does not consider itself to be bound by mitzvot, and that secular groups now sit at the Federation table, one can quickly appreciate how important rejection of the second coming is to those who worry about Messianic Jews infiltrating the community.
5. A satire of this can be found here.
*Reader MP claims this view is nothing more than the 200-year-old doctrine of hitkashrut, connection, with the tzaddik, and is not new. Please see footnote #2 and the relevant paragraph in the post for perspective on this.