Chabad's Lost Messiah
Tomer Persico • Azure
For several terrifying days in late November 2008, all Jewish eyes were on the Indian city of Mumbai. Muslim terrorists had launched a series of coordinated shooting and bombing attacks on targets throughout the metropolis, including the Nariman Chabad House, a hasidic cultural center that served the local Jewish community as well as Israeli tourists passing through. For two days, terrorists held those inside hostage; on the third, Indian security forces stormed the building. There they found the bodies of six captives, including the young Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, then six months pregnant. Only the Holtzbergs’ two-year-old son, Moshe, survived, having been spirited away by his Indian caretaker at the onset of the attack. Later, he was returned safely to his family in Israel.
Amidst their grief, the followers of Chabad found one additional source of comfort—or at least of awe—in the Mumbai tragedy, however: Though the Nariman House and its contents had been severely damaged, an oil painting of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe and the last leader of Chabad, had survived unharmed. To many of his followers, this was nothing less than proof of the miraculous aura surrounding their deceased leader.1
Referred to by his acolytes simply as “the Rebbe,” Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) continues to excite the passions of Lubavitchers even today, a decade and a half after his death—a testament to his personal stature as well as his profound impact on the Chabad movement. Under his charismatic leadership, Chabad was transformed within a few short decades from a small hasidic sect into a thriving global network of schools, community centers, synagogues, and charities.2 Even those who do not avail themselves of Chabad’s services have like as not encountered, at one time or another, one of the movement’s followers manning a street-corner stand, offering tefillin (phylacteries), prayer books, and tutelage for Jews curious about ritual observance. Nor are Chabad’s activities limited strictly to members of the Jewish faith: In accordance with the Rebbe’s instructions, Lubavitchers have also assumed responsibility for convincing non-Jews to follow the Noahide Laws, a set of seven moral imperatives the Talmud claims are binding on all mankind. Owing to this fervent activism, Chabad is now the most widespread and vibrant Jewish organization in the world; in some countries, such as France, Australia, and almost all of the former Soviet republics, Chabad has effectively become Judaism’s public face.
To be sure, such impressive achievements required a powerful motivating force. For Chabad, this force was a messianic awakening the likes of which Judaism had not experienced since the brief rise and fall of the seventeenth-century false messiah, Shabtai Tzvi, and at its center stood Menachem Mendel Schneerson himself. As the Rebbe’s fame increased in the decades since the 1950s, and his movement grew in power and influence, so, too, did the messianic expectations surrounding him become more and more zealous, ultimately overwhelming both Chabad’s rank and file and its rabbinical leadership alike. This cult of personality profoundly altered the movement, both institutionally and theologically. Indeed, since the Rebbe’s death in 1994, no one has been deemed worthy of succeeding him. Moreover, the movement has found itself split between those who have accepted its leader’s death and those—the majority of Chabad’s followers—who believe he is somehow still alive.
No less worrisome than this internal schism, the Lubavitchers have found themselves increasingly at odds with other ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Although Chabad members follow the commandments to the letter, often adding their own, more onerous restrictions, their critics have gone so far as to cast doubt on the movement’s Jewishness. The head of the Lithuanian Jewish community, the late Rabbi Eliezer Shach, once called Chabad a “cult” and sarcastically defined it as the religion closest to Judaism;3 Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Sephardi Shas movement, ruled that a certain statement by the Lubavitcher Rebbe was “true heresy” and “idolatry.”4 And in a recent book titled The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, historian and Orthodox rabbi David Berger demonstrates that one faction of Chabad no longer presents the Rebbe as “only” the messiah, but instead goes so far as to identify him with God himself—cause, argues Berger, for the movement’s excommunication from Judaism.5 For their part, Chabad members respond to such criticisms with either anger or derision: They describe Berger as a crackpot, scorn the opinions of Ovadia Yosef, and insist that Eliezer Shach was the Devil’s representative on earth.6
In light of the uproar surrounding the “aberration” of the Chabad movement, one cannot but wonder: Did the Rebbe in truth believe he was the messiah?7 The messianic faction of the movement naturally insists that he did. The moderates, however, have largely succeeded in convincing the general public that the Rebbe never presented himself as such. At most, they assert, he neither confirmed nor denied such claims. Rather, the messianic fervor that engulfed the movement was “from below”—i.e., at the instigation of his followers.8
Yet such apologetics simply do not mesh with the facts. As I will show, the Rebbe did believe—and encouraged his followers to believe—that he was the messiah, destined to reveal himself to the people Israel and redeem the world. In fact, he could hardly have thought otherwise: This perception was an inevitable result of the messianic theology the Rebbe inherited from his predecessors, a theology whose internal logic was reflected in his teachings and which guided both his decisions and actions. The current messianic tension that grips Chabad is therefore not a side effect of its achievements under the Rebbe’s leadership. Just the opposite is true: Messianism was the driving force behind Chabad’s success, and it has only grown stronger after the death of the supposed savior himself.…