Who’s Got Moshiach?
Below are two articles on messianism in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement: Simon Holloway argues that since the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, messianism and fervour in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement have actually led them away from traditional Judaism. In contrast, David Werdiger argues that since the Rebbe’s death, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has remade itself and continues to thrive, moving forward despite their profound loss.
A New World Disorder: Messianism and Fervour in Chabad-Lubavitch
In the 12th century, Maimonides effectively created the first systematised delineation of Jewish dogma.
One of his thirteen “principles of faith” was the belief in the coming of the Messiah, along with the assertion that his arrival should be expected every day, irrespective of how long it takes. Such was the tremendous influence of Maimonides, many religious Jews today would not even think to question the possibility that every day is a day on which the Messiah may have only just arrived.
For members of the contemporary Hassidic group, Chabad-Lubavitch, this messianic expectation possesses a distinctly dynamic feel. With the belief that the Rebbe is always the Messiah of his generation, coupled with the belief that the seventh Rebbe (who passed away on June 12, 1994) is still the reigning Rebbe, many Lubavitch Hassidim today loudly proclaim their Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneersohn, as the Messiah, and await his “second coming”.
I would like it to be noted that I have referred to the Rebbe’s “second coming” honestly, and not in order that I might highlight the already obvious parallels with early Christianity. These parallels exist between every movement that possesses an immortal leader who suddenly… well, dies. Coming to grips with what happened on “Gimmel Tammuz”, the date of the Rebbe’s death, has proven an obstacle for many Lubavitchers, but an obstacle that is often circumnavigated. I remember, when I was attending a Chabad yeshiva back in 2002, my earnest answer to the simple question: “What happened on Gimmel Tammuz?”
The reality is, for many Lubavitchers, nothing is indeed what happened. The number of Shluchim, sent by the Rebbe as personal emissaries around the globe, tripled within a short space of time. More and more people became observant (which is to say, Chabad) and, rather than abate, the messianic fervour with which many of his followers proclaimed him as their saviour increased seven-fold. All sevens are blessed, so they say.
These days, there are the so-called Meshichistim and the so-called anti-Meshichistim. It needs to be noted that the latter term is an out-and-out lie. The distinction between the two groups is so subtle that you need to actually be a Lubavitcher yourself in order to care about it. The Meshichistim chant “Yehi” (a chant that, in some communities, has become a creed: “Long Live our Lord, our Guide and our Teacher, the King Messiah for ever and ever!”), while the “anti-Meshichistim” don’t chant it. End of difference. Do the anti-Meshichistim deny the messianic status of their Rebbe? Don’t be absurd: the Lubavitcher Rebbe, according to the philosophy of Chabad, is the Messiah. Is it our obligation to impose this belief on the rest of the Jewish world? There, and only there, is the source of the debate – and the frequent antagonism between the two groups.
I often wonder now, as I wondered when I was a Lubavitcher myself, what the Rebbe would have had to say about this meshugaas. For much of the time, he was a staunch opponent of the addition “King Messiah” to the chant that his followers were singing, and the only time that he actively encouraged it was after his stroke. The Rebbe was in a vegetative state and his Hassidim, who could not (nor will not) acknowledge his inability to rationalise, were empowered by his sudden approval.
The story (for those of us who truly came to love the Rebbe) is a sad one. It is not, however, a surprising one. Rav Elazar Shach (whom I later came to realise was an absolutely outstanding Talmudic scholar – despite the fact that he has become a source of cheap ridicule by many Lubavitchers) opposed the adoration of the Rebbe from the beginning, and suggested in no uncertain terms that this was a development likely to lead them out of Judaism altogether. Such sentiments have been echoed in more recent years by another brilliant (although irritatingly polemical) scholar, Prof. David Berger. For some elements of Chabad, they may be correct.
There is a community in Tsfat whose adulation of the late Rabbi Schneersohn has reached epic proportions. Not content with denying his death, several individuals in this fervent city believe him to be alive and well, and living within the walls of “770”: the Rebbe’s offices in Brooklyn. Many such individuals refuse to visit the Rebbe’s grave (it is, after all, empty), address their questions to his books in a bizarre 21st century form of divination, and (in one dangerous instance) equate him with the corporeal incarnation of God. Coupled with the reverence given to his discourses (for which many neglect Talmudic study), the elevation of Sefer Tanya (the first Rebbe’s systematised theology) to the “Torah of Hassidus”, along with the highly sectarian nature of the Chabad festivals, the Chabad siddur, and the Chabad minhagim… maybe Rav Shach was not so off the mark?
Chabad-Lubavitch: moving forward in a new world
‘Gimmel Tammuz’ (as the day of the Rebbe’s passing is known) was a watershed moment for Chabad. Many Chassidim who had until then reasonably believed that the Rebbe was the Moshiach of this generation were challenged regarding how to interpret the event. In very simplistic terms, the Chabad community was split along what are known as “Meshichist/anti-Meshichist“ lines: those who believed that even after his passing, the Rebbe could still be Moshiach, and those who opposed that view, and felt the movement needed to accept that the Rebbe could no longer be Moshiach, and find a way forward.
The nuances of belief are far more subtle, and the perspective from the inside is that there are shades of grey in the spectrum of current Chabad-Lubavitch theology. There are extremists on either side of the fence, to the point where a small number believe that the Rebbe did not die at all, but rather was ‘concealed’ from us, and will soon emerge. Others believe that despite his passing, he is not disqualified as Moshiach, and through “tchiyat hameitim” (resurrection of the dead – one of Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith), he can emerge as Moshiach. While this sounds a lot like Christian doctrine, there are some fundamental differences, and support for this notion among Talmudic scholars – here is not the place to expand upon that. On the other side, there is the firm view that the Rebbe is no longer Moshiach, yet there is no need to appoint a successor. There are variations within each broad faction regarding how to deal with the other. It is important to note that those in financial control of operations of Chabad are from the non-Meshichist camp (I much prefer non- to anti-).
There are no survey or census figures to indicate what proportion of the global Chabad community sits where. It is probably reasonable to assume that statistically it follows something like a normal distribution, with most people in and around centrist views, and a small number of (loud) extremists at either end.
For an organization that had such a cult of personality around its leader to continue its momentum some fourteen years after said leader is no longer around seems quite paradoxical. To significantly increase number of shluchim and new institutions that have spread through the world during that period despite a huge controversy that seems to have split the movement is truly incredible.
Some might say that the Meshichists believe the leader hasn’t left, and therefore they continue with the same fervour. However, the personal relationship with the Rebbe has long been gone, and many of the young shluchim currently being sent out would barely even have memories of any direct interaction. In any event, that does not account for the entire movement, and there is no evidence that one faction has been more involved in the ongoing expansion than the other.
It seems to me that despite the fact that the Rebbe was the driving force of Chabad for over forty years, the influence of his leadership went far beyond him as an individual. What distinguishes great leaders (be they of corporations, organizations, or movements) is that they sublimate themselves to the cause, the mission. That way, when the leader moves on (for whatever reason), the mission continues unabated. So whatever your particular sub-theology regarding the Rebbe and Moshiach, the mission of Chabad continues on. The continued progress and success of Chabad is evidence that this must be ‘non-core’ rather than a defining theology.
The direction for the movement was clearly set by the Rebbe, and has not substantially changed. There are many volumes of the Rebbe’s teachings and correspondence, and these continue to be studied and used as a guide by Chassidim.
Over the years, Chabad has had no shortage of detractors and critics, and this certainly predated the Moshiach fervour of recent times. One of the teachers at the Yeshivah I attended in Israel over 25 years ago published dissertations, and proudly embedded in them his direct criticisms of various teachings of the Rebbe. Rav Schach was certainly one of the most celebrated ‘anti-Lubavitchers’ of his time. I see parallels with the Slifkin controversy (particularly the excellent analysis Slifkin, Salem and the Senator), where a number of leaders of the ‘Yeshivah World’ sought to raise their profiles by jumping on the bandwagon of criticism of others.
What is one to make of this sort of opposition between Orthodox Jewish movements and theologies? The schism between Chassidim and Mitnagdim has been going on for centuries (interesting to note that the Mitnagdim (lit. opposers) define themselves by what they are not). The Chassidic movement posed a radical threat to the class-based world of Torah scholarship. But in the modern era, while most Chassidic groups kept to themselves and retained old-world garbs, Chabadniks dressed like contemporary Orthodox Jews and were unashamed to bring their message to the masses in a way the Jewish world had never seen. This certainly posed a renewed challenge to the ‘Yeshiva World’, and this should certainly be taken into account as at least part of the motivation for the ongoing opposition to Chabad.