Chabad Messianism

Messianism in Chabad-Lubavitch challenges Jews of all denominations to consider the limits of Jewish theology.

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Implications for the Rest of the Jewish World

Should the issue of the beliefs of a number of leaders (and an indeterminate number of followers) of the Lubavitch movement be of interest to those of us who are not Lubavitchers? According to David Berger, the answer is an unambiguous yes. Berger is an Orthodox rabbi who is a professor of Jewish history at Brooklyn College in New York. A few years ago he completed a term as president of the Association for Jewish Studies, one of the first Orthodox Jews ever to serve in that prestigious position. He is meticulously observant of halakhah, and is recognized around the world as a first-rate scholar. His area of specialization is the history of debates and polemics between Jews and Christians.

For the last few years, Berger has been on a tireless, and generally lonely, campaign against the legitimization of the Jewish belief in a dead messiah. He has been trying, with very limited success, to get leading Orthodox rabbis to speak out against this belief. He did have one impressive success in 1996 at the convention of the Rabbinical Council of America, the body to which virtually all modern Orthodox or centrist Orthodox rabbis belong. By an overwhelming majority, the rabbis at that convention passed a resolution reading: "In light of disturbing developments which have arisen in the Jewish community, the Rabbinical Council of America in convention assembled declares that there is not and has never been a place in Judaism for the belief that Mashiach ben David [the Messiah, son of David] will begin his messianic mission only to experience death, burial and resurrection before completing it."

Berger's Arguments

Berger did not expect to sway Lubavitch opinion. He knew that he would be the object of a vilification campaign; his only surprise was the ferocity of the rhetoric about him in Lubavitch circles and publications. But Berger did expect to have some success in isolating messianist Lubavitchers, or, at least, in convincing centrist Orthodox Jews that the messianist Lubavitch world view was a serious problem. This has not happened. Most Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews smile condescendingly about this new messianism and don't get worked up about it. Berger feels that they should react more forcefully.

In September 2001, he published an article in Commentary magazine in which he outlined his concerns, as a rabbi and as a scholar, about Lubavitch messianism. An expanded version of that article later appeared as a book, entitled The Messiah, the Rebbe and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001). Three years later an expanded Hebrew version of the book was published.  The book has caused quite a stir. Sales have been surprisingly high.

In his book, Berger presents two different but related arguments as to why Lubavitch messianism is dangerous. First of all, he says, it undermines the traditional Jewish argument that the belief in a dead messiah is a Christian, not a Jewish, one. Jews have always deflected Christian claims by offering that distinction. Today, evangelical Christians trying to convert Jews have started arguing that if kosher Jews can believe that the dead Rabbi Schneersohn is still the Messiah, why don't they give more credence to the claim that another Jew, who died around 2,000 years ago, is the real Messiah?

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Martin I. Lockshin

Martin I. Lockshin, Ph.D., is a professor at the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. He received rabbinic ordination after studying at the yeshiva founded by Rav Kook in Jerusalem.