The Messiah Syndrome

Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger

The Chabad Hasidic sect was founded in Russia at the end of the 18th century and moved to the United States in the mid-20th century. It has had only seven leaders, of whom the last was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He was appointed in 1951 and died in 1994, but his image continues to be the engine that drives Chabad. In the kingdom of Chabad in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, his portrait is everywhere, in the form of oil paintings, prints, framed photographs, even in a format suitable for infants' cradles. Menachem Mendel Schneerson succeeded the sixth rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, who was his father-in-law. During his leadership he infused the movement with increasing messianic tension, which vaulted into an almost ecstatic spiral from the 1980s until his death, as he intimated that he himself was destined to be revealed as "King Messiah." In this period, he and the movement became anathema to Haredi leaders like the late Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Schach, who described Chabad as "the well known cult," and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, who accused Schneerson of "heresy" and "idolatry."

At the same time, some of the Rebbe's followers maintain that his greatness stems not from his messianic approach but from his thought, whose depth and breadth is acknowledged even outside Chabad, and from his leadership, which breached the boundaries of his religious community and thrust Chabad into the Jewish world. Under him, the emissary idea, which predated his leadership, became the movement's principal project. He also initiated the world conference of emissaries in New York. His rationale for the project was the need to rescue Jews physically, but also to prepare the world for redemption.

Chabad is immersed in the practical world.Credit: Meir Alfasi

After Schneerson's death the movement was torn between two approaches. The messianists, who refused to recognize even his "material" death, continue to believe that he is alive, and some of them are convinced that he will return and be revealed as "King Messiah." The official movement, representing the majority of the adherents, rejects these ideas. But the emissaries project seems to be overriding this rift: there is now a status quo within Chabad that is preventing a split in the movement. The messianists are dominant in several locales in Israel and in Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, but not in other Chabad centers.

According to Menachem Friedman, professor emeritus of sociology at Bar-Ilan University and co-author of "The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson" (Princeton University Press ), "the distinction between messianists and non-messianists is not clear-cut. The majority are messianists-lite, who say he is worthy of being messiah - they cannot deny what he constantly preached." The book, whose other author is Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College in New York, stirred a furor in Chabad, in particular because it portrayed the Rebbe as a modern individual, wrestling with doubts, especially in his younger days. Chabad says the book is fraudulent.

In most locales in Israel, there is a split between the messianists and the non-messianists - in the educational institutions, for example - but among the emissaries (most of whom are not messianists ) there are some who wear skullcaps with the inscription "Long live our master King Messiah forever and ever." On the other hand, a senior figure in Chabad says, "I feel repulsion at the messianism in Chabad. I have scorn and contempt for these people. It absolutely disgusts me. The messianism is the worst thing that happened to Chabad." Sharp words, but the speaker insisted on anonymity.

Why, then, has no new rebbe been named? "The reason is sociological," this source says. "Chabad has become a vast and diversified community and it was clear that there was no prospect of agreeing on a successor. But Chabad is united around messages which we received from the Rebbe. He was a distinguished educator and leader who inspired us powerfully to care about the destiny of the nation."

Chabad spokesman Rabbi Menachem Brod explained that the only reason the establishment is not escalating the tension with the messianists is because it does not wish to glorify them. Asked whether he was ashamed of the messianists, Brod replied, "It's not that I am ashamed of them - they are behaving shamefully."