Today is the third of Tammuz, the yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, better known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. There is no doubt that the Rebbe was among the greatest sages of the last century (if not of all time). From the moment he took up the leadership of Chabad, the Rebbe began to make waves in the Jewish world, and quickly transformed Lubavitch into an international powerhouse. Today, Chabad finds itself in 81 countries, operating 3500 institutions.
The Rebbe himself inspired countless souls, both Jewish and non-Jewish. One of the latter was Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (the first black woman in Congress). When Chisholm was first elected to the House of Representatives, she met fierce opposition and outright racism. Shortly after, she received a call from the Rebbe, who quelled her concerns and offered her advice on how to make the most of her situation. Chisholm went on to create programs that benefited millions of poor people, including the expansion of food stamps across the US. At her retirement breakfast, she said: “If poor babies have milk and poor children have food, it’s because this rabbi in Crown Heights had vision.”
With such vision, along with tremendous wisdom, righteousness, and charisma, it isn’t very surprising that a messianic movement would develop around the Rebbe. Despite the fact that he passed away in 1994, many within the Chabad movement continue to believe that he is Mashiach. Is there substance to this belief?
One of the major arguments used by the so-called Mashichistim is a verse in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) that states Mashiach can come from “among the living” or from “among the dead”. The Talmud states that if Mashiach is of the living, it would certainly be Rabbi Yehuda haNasi (who was also called, simply, Rebbi), the great compiler of the Mishnah; if of the dead, it would be the Biblical Daniel. Within Chabad, this passage is used to support the fact that despite the Rebbe’s passing, he may still return to be the messiah.
However, other texts state that Mashiach cannot be from the dead. For example, Midrash Rabbah (on Genesis 49:18) writes how Jacob saw a vision of Samson—who had the potential to be Mashiach—but when Jacob saw Samson’s death, he was saddened that Samson wouldn’t be the messiah and said, “I await Your salvation, Hashem!”
Some believe the Rebbe is not really dead (besides, if Mashiach is from “among the dead”, the Talmud already told us it would be Daniel!) but he is only “concealed”. Multiple Jewish sources state that Mashiach will come, then disappear for a certain amount of time, and then return again. For example, Midrash Rabbah (on Numbers 11:3), writes:
Just like the first redeemer, Moses, revealed himself to the Jews and then concealed himself… similarly, the final redeemer will reveal himself, then conceal himself… and then return and reveal himself again.
Thus, the Rebbe is said to only be “hidden”, and will imminently return. Of course, this isn’t very different from the Christian belief in Jesus’ “second coming”. Christians have been waiting eagerly for two millennia—much like Chabad has been waiting eagerly for two decades.
In reality, when ancient Jewish sources speak of Mashiach’s concealment and return, they do not mean that Mashiach will disappear for millennia, or even decades. The Midrash cited above itself says that Moses was hidden from the Israelites for three months, and Mashiach would be hidden for only 45 days. Though there are other opinions, the lengthiest is three years (based on Isaac disappearing from the Torah narrative for three years following the Akedah). And so, the potential for the Rebbe being Mashiach appears to have long expired.
The Rebbe on Being Mashiach
One of the things that the Rebbe was adamant about was studying and following the teachings of the Rambam. The Rambam makes it clear who Mashiach is: a Jewish leader who, among other things, successfully reunites the entire nation in Israel (ending the exile), defeats the nation’s enemies, and rebuilds the Temple in Jerusalem. Only one who has successfully accomplished these tasks can be titled “Mashiach”. The Rambam writes that if a person was on his way to fulfilling these, but died in the process, he is clearly not the messiah. The Rambam brings Shimon bar Kochva as an example. Although Bar Kochva was able to push the Romans out of Israel, reclaim the Temple Mount and start rebuilding the Temple, and was even proclaimed the messiah by Rabbi Akiva, he died and his messianic potential died with him.
In one of his talks, the Rebbe himself stated that one is only confirmed to be Mashiach when the Third Temple is built. Obviously, since the Rebbe did not build the Third Temple in his lifetime, he cannot be the messiah. If it turns out that the Rebbe does return somehow in the future, and accomplishes all the messianic tasks, then and only then can he be titled “Mashiach”. To do so now is premature and naïve, if not altogether wrong.
In fact, the Rebbe constantly made clear that he is not Mashiach. In his monumental biography of the Rebbe, Joseph Telushkin devotes a chapter to this question, and writes:
In 1965, Rabbi Avraham Parizh, an elder Chasid who had been with the movement from the time of the Fifth Rebbe, printed letters stating: “With great joy, we can inform you that King Messiah, for whom we have waited so many years, is already among us. He is the holy Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the King Messiah. His address is 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York. He does not need us to choose him since God has chosen him.” Rabbi Parizh printed up many of these letters and started handing them out in Israel. According to one account, Parizh also distributed these letters by dropping them out of a helicopter.
When the Rebbe learned of the letter, he instructed his secretariat to immediately dispatch a telegram to Parizh, dated June 24, 1965: “We were shocked by the letter [you wrote and handed out] and ask that you immediately cease distributing it. Gather and send to the secretariat all copies of the letter, every last one, and please confirm immediately that you have fulfilled this instruction.” Chasidim tell how Parizh spent several weeks scrounging around the streets of Tel Aviv looking for every such sheet he could find…
In 1991, Rabbi Aharon Dov Halprin, the editor of Chabad’s Israeli magazine, Kfar Chabad, wanted to print an article explaining why the Rebbe was worthy of being considered the presumed Messiah. When the Rebbe learned of this he responded sharply, “If you, God forbid, [plan to write] anything even remotely similar, it is preferable that you shut down the periodical completely.”
In an urgent audience to which the Rebbe summoned Chabad activist Rabbi Tuvia Peles, the Rebbe rebuked those who were making Messianic claims about him, saying, “They are taking a knife to my heart” and “they are tearing off parts of me.”
… Some months later, and shortly before the Rebbe’s stroke, the Alaska-based shliach, Rabbi Yosef Greenberg (author of Y’mei Bereishit), brought a letter to be given to the Rebbe in which he referred to him as “King Messiah”. Later that same day, Rabbi Groner told Greenberg that the Rebbe had looked at the letter, thrown it down in frustration, and then wrote on it, “Tell him that when the Moshiach comes, I will give him the letter.”
An even more definitive statement of the Rebbe on this same issue occurred at around the same time. An Israeli journalist, Sarah Davidowitz of the Kol Ha’ir newspaper, approached the Rebbe and said, “We appreciate you very much, we want to see you in Israel; you said soon you will be in Israel, so when will you come?” The Rebbe responded: “That depends on the Moshiach, not on me.” The journalist persisted, “You are the Moshiach!,” to which the Rebbe responded: “I am not”.
In light of this, to call the Rebbe “Mashiach” is highly inappropriate, and against his own wishes. More dangerously, it risks turning Chabad into a religion of its own. After all, Christianity developed in the very same way; in its first decades, it was nearly indistinguishable from Judaism, and was followed almost entirely by Jews. It took a couple of centuries before the divide between Judaism and Christianity was complete, and by that point, Jesus had become a God-like figure.
The same may very well happen with the Rebbe and Chabad in coming decades. Already, there are elements within Chabad who have taken to equating the Rebbe with some kind of god on Earth. Many in Chabad still write letters to the Rebbe, adorn their homes with countless images and elaborate paintings of him, and read out the Rebbe’s letters at important public events (while everyone is asked to rise in honour of the Rebbe’s “presence”, of course). It isn’t uncommon to see children saluting the Rebbe’s empty chair at 770, while worshippers ecstatically chant “long live our master, teacher, and rabbi, the king Mashiach” (see video here). If Chabad’s leaders do not rein in such activity soon, there is little doubt Lubavitch will morph into a religion of its own. And for the Rebbe—who worked so tirelessly to unite all Jews—that would be a most devastating legacy.