by Rabbi David Berger
The controversies that swirl around contemporary Lubavitch Chassidism concern the deepest questions of faith and the defining parameters of the Jewish religion, but they also address a "simple" factual question: What do the chassidim actually believe about the Rebbe? This question — really a set of questions — is of course not simple at all.
Is the Rebbe the Messiah? Is the Rebbe really dead? How is one to interpret his remark — said many years ago about his recently deceased father-in-law — that a supreme tzaddik is the Essence and Being [of G-d] placed in a body? May one petition him — or even bow to him — with a literal understanding of this formulation in mind?
In the absence of scientific polling — which is virtually impossible in this case — how does one go about assessing the spectrum of beliefs among contemporary Lubavitchers regarding these questions?
One area where hard information is at least partially accessible is institutional. Setting aside for the moment the organization that coordinates the centralized activities of the emissaries, we discover that the major institutions in the three primary population centers of Crown Heights, Kfar Chabad, and Safed are either dominated by overt believers in the Rebbe's Messiahship or suffused by that belief.
In Crown Heights, the messianist slogan ("Yechi adonenu morenu verabbenu Melech haMashiach le'olam va'ed") is woven into the paroches of the main synagogue in 770 Eastern Parkway and recited at every prayer service. In Oholei Torah/Oholei Menachem, the largest Lubavitch yeshiva outside Israel, Yechi is recited during the service, and an administrative directive declared that any student who cannot behave respectfully during the recitation should go elsewhere. Several of its religious mentors (mashpi'im) have participated in major messianist publications. The rosh yeshiva of Tomchei Temimim, another major yeshiva in Crown Heights, signed a messianist approbation to a messianist book (HaTekufah vehaGe'ullah beMishnoso shel haRebbe miLubavitch). The women's organization is dominated by believers. An anniversary dinner for the venerable school Chanoch Lenaar, which educates children with learning difficulties, featured a yechi poster, and the slogan appears on its Website. Machon Chanah, a major women's seminary, is led by a messianist who has declared on the radio that the Rebbe is physically alive.
The chief rabbi of Kfar Chabad was one of the first signatories of a 1998 halachic ruling requiring belief in the Rebbe's Messiahship. One of the most extreme mashpi'im is in Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim there. Safed is a center of believers in the Rebbe's physical survival, and the Lubavitch school system there is thoroughly messianist from bottom to top.
In sum, the great majority of the major institutions in the three largest population centers of the movement are dominated by overt believers in the Messiahship of the Rebbe.
Even institutions that project an image of non-messianism can sometimes be shown to be deeply affected by this belief. Thus, the rosh yeshiva of the purportedly non-messianist yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey also signed that approbation. The principal of Beth Rivkah, the mainstream high school for girls in Crown Heights, is cited in a book highly sympathetic to the movement as an example of a "Chabad educator . . . concerned about how to pass on the Rebbe's message to young Lubavitchers while steering clear of messianism" (Sue Fishkoff, The Rebbe's Army, p. 178), and yet the student songbook distributed at the school shabbaton in January 2002 is replete with poignant affirmations of the messianist faith. Here is one of many examples:
Redemption has arrived
That's what the Rebbe prophesied
Moshiach has come
It's already begun
Let's rejoice in ecstasy
Because we're sure as can be
That tikef (sic!) umiyad
Our very eyes will see
The Rebbe King Moshiach
Walking into shul
Smiling at his kinderlach
Cheering on their song
The world will gather passionately
To the Rebbe in 770
In the Beis Hamikdosh Hashlishi
We know it can't be long . . .
The hallmark of moderation, indeed of "anti-meshichism," in Lubavitch is not rejection of the belief that the Rebbe is the Messiah but acceptance of the reality of his physical death as well as opposition to publicizing the messianist belief or incorporating it into religious ritual. We find an explicit formulation of this position in an essay by Rabbi Yoel Kahan, the "chozer" of the Rebbe and an influential thinker in the movement, who is falsely reputed to have abandoned his faith in the Messiahship of the Rebbe after the latter's death. Thus, R. Kahan writes that although it is an absolute certainty that the Rebbe will be the Messiah in actuality, this is an internal conviction that should not be publicized so as not to deter people from embracing the message of Chassidism (Kovetz Mashiach uGe'ullah, ed. by S.D. Levin, issue #2, p. 20).
An important figure in the OU told me several years ago that R. Kahan had directed him to a discourse of the Rebbe rejecting the possibility that King David himself could be the Messiah with the clear intention of implying that loyal chassidim would have to reject the Messiahship of the Rebbe for similar reasons.
This willingness to mislead people, at least in private conversations, was also illustrated when Rabbi Berl Lazar, the putative Chief Rabbi of the Former Soviet Union, told a friend of mine who is very sympathetic to Lubavitch that he abandoned belief in the Rebbe's Messiahship after 3 Tammuz, 5754 (the date of the Rebbe's death). But I have a photocopy of a 1998 letter in Rabbi Lazar's own hand in which he refers to the Rebbe as Melech HaMashiach. Similarly, Rabbi Lazar's secretary wrote a letter to Commentary (December, 2001) responding to an article in which I noted the Chief Rabbi's signature on the halachic ruling requiring belief in the Rebbe's Messiahship. The secretary, without saying a word about his employer's actual belief, asserted that it was known that the signature was a forgery. I cannot know whether or not the signature is genuine, but there is no record of R. Lazar's objecting to its use even though it was published in a major Jewish newspaper in his own city of Moscow as well as in numerous other venues over the years.
Despite these misleading assertions, few moderates are prepared to violate their conscience to the point of issuing unequivocal denials of the Messiahship of the Rebbe. For the most part, they have succeeded in deceiving a sympathetic public about their beliefs without having to go so far. At the same time, the absence of such denials speaks volumes. A 2003 "Kol Korei" issued against the "meshichisten" that appeared along with a letter from Rabbi Kahan (Algemeiner Journal, 19 Adar I, 5763) scrupulously avoided the slightest indication that the Rebbe is not the Messiah. The same is true of HaNekudah haChabadit (1 — Tishrei, 5764), a booklet affirming the reality of the Rebbe's death published in Kfar Chabad by the leading figures of the moderate camp.
Notwithstanding the instincts of some outsiders that messianism is moderating in Lubavitch, more chassidim appear to be moving toward extreme positions than away from them. Thus, the editors of HaNekudah haChabadit tell us that they had to write their vigorous polemic against the belief that the Rebbe's death was an illusion because that belief is expanding. They themselves argue that despite the movement's belief that there must be a physical prince [nasi] of the generation in a specific location, we are living in unusual times, so that the prince can be spiritual. At the same time, he is indeed present in a specific location, to wit, the ohel in Old Montefiore Cemetery. In other words, it is the position of Lubavitch moderates that this generation is being governed from the Rebbe's gravesite in Queens, NY.
The main synagogue, in 770 Eastern Parkway, is now controlled by people who post pictures and videos of the invisible Rebbe walking to his empty chair, "reciting" Kiddush Levanah, and distributing wine to his chassidim. (See www.chabad.info.) An acquaintance of mine recently visited the family of her formerly non-meshichist cousin in Paris only to discover that overtly messianist pictures of the Rebbe hang in the home and yechi is recited in the synagogue when the Torah is held aloft.
And so we come to the most radical belief of all. Very few chassidim actually pronounce the sentence, "The Rebbe is the Creator," though the number is not as negligible as one might imagine. But for many, this hesitation results only from instinctive recoil at such blunt language, reinforced by concerns that the formulation could be misunderstood as an assertion that the Rebbe is a separate deity or that he is the totality of the Deity. For such chassidim, who are very far from marginal, the refusal to pronounce that sentence does not stand in tension with their belief that the Rebbe has annulled his being to the point that he is pure divinity literally understood.
A highly respected Lubavitch rabbi wrote a book entitled Al haTzaddikim published by Agudat Chassidei Chabad in Israel arguing that one is permitted to bow worshipfully to a supreme tzaddik as long as one has in mind that he is not separate from G-d but is rather nothing but divinity. A mashpia in Oholei Torah wrote that the previous six rebbes were pure divinity because each of them embodied one of the kabbalistic sefirot. The death of each of these rebbes marked the point where divine revelation through that sefirah was completed. Unlike his predecessors, the most recent rebbe manifested the infinite essence (Ein Sof), unlimited by any specific sefirah (afro lepumeih - - Ed.).
A mashpia in Kfar Chabad wrote that "the Rebbe is the ba'al habayit . . . of all that happens in the world. If it is his will, he can bring about anything." Another wrote, "We Lubavitch chassidim believe that Lubavitch is Jerusalem, the House of our Rabbi in Babylonia (i.e., 770 Eastern Parkway) is the Temple, and the Rebbe is the Ark of the covenant standing on the Even hashesiyyah in which (referring to the Rebbe/ark) the divine being and essence rests." (Afro lepumeih — Ed.)
For most of these references and others—and for my own views on the significance of these developments—see my book, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (Littman), which has now appeared in an updated Hebrew version, HaRebbe Melech haMashiach, Sha'aruriyyat ha'Adishut, veha'Iyyum al Emunat Yisrael (Urim). For the last reference, see www.hageula.com/?Row1D=5&CTopic=3&STopic=4&PHPSESSID=fe17b307 d12b9ad705fb592d099a652f and click on the article "Ekronot be'Olam haChasidut."
Finally, let us turn to the beliefs of the emissaries. Most of them refrain from overt declarations of the messianist faith. Many, however, have provided clear indications of their belief in the Rebbe's Messiahship. The halachic ruling to that effect, signed by more than 250 rabbis worldwide (described as a partial list), is available at www.psakdin.net.
A detailed, unpublished report by Donato Grosser, a learned Jew of Italian provenance now residing in New York, has demonstrated that the Italian emissaries, including those relied upon by the OU to supervise wines, are believers. He also shows that the overtly messianist Chabad House in Venice, widely used by travelers from all sectors of the Orthodox community, has distributed material alluding to the Rebbe's divinity. Hillel Pevzner, an important messianist rabbi in France, is reported to be among the growing (though still small) number of people who claim to have seen the Rebbe since his death. (See www.chabad.fm/604/7448.html.) There is abundant additional evidence for specific localities, some of which is provided in my book.
In response to direct, public questions from outsiders, spokespersons for the central organization of emissaries profess uncertainty as to whether or not the Rebbe will be the Messiah. Menachem Brod, the spokesperson for the moderate faction in Israel, consistently refuses to respond when this question is put to him. One Lubavitch chossid who asserts that he rejects the messianist belief has vigorously attacked me for providing support for the moderates' disinformation campaign by entertaining the possibility that professions of uncertainty may be sincere and imagining that there may be an appreciable number of core Lubavitch chassidim who are not utterly convinced of the Rebbe's Messiahship. (See www.moshiachlisten.com/history.html.) A messianist rabbi from Rechovot remarked in an interview that there is no point in concealing this belief since "everyone knows that all Lubavitch Chassidim, despite the differing opinions, believe that the Rebbe is Melech HaMoshiach. This is the most open secret of the last decade" (Beis Moshiach 424, 25 Tammuz, 5763, p. 10, available at http://beismoshiach.org/_pdf/424.pdf). I am unfamiliar with a single public declaration formally affirming that Lubavitch chassidim should not accept the belief that the Rebbe is the Messiah.
Since there is little disagreement that almost all Lubavitch chassidim before the Rebbe's death believed he was the Messiah, on the basis of their understanding of his discourses over the years, and since it is clear that very few of these chassidim currently maintain that his death rules out his messianic candidacy in principle, it is hard to see why we should expect to find a large number of skeptics. There certainly are some, but if they were as numerous as they would have us believe, the profile of the movement, its institutions, and its public statements would be profoundly different.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that a substantial majority of Lubavitch chassidim believe with perfect faith in the return of the Rebbe as Mashiach ben David, and even if he tarries, they will wait for him every day, hoping that he will come.
Rabbi David Berger is Broeklundian Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.