Some time after Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe died in 1994, a congregant of mine told me the following story. A Hasidic rabbi who teaches in a Brooklyn yeshiva walked one morning into a classroom of third grade boys who were praying Shacharit (the morning worship). He noticed that during parts of the service the boys were bowing toward a large photograph of the Rebbe. Upset by this obvious violation of the Torah’s prohibition against making and worshipping graven images, he told the students to stop immediately. When he asked them why they were bowing to a man, the boys defended themselves, saying that another rabbi in the school had told them to do so. The rabbi was so unhappy with his colleague for telling the boys to do such a thing that he confronted him immediately. “How could you tell these boys to bow to a photograph of a human being as if he were God?” he asked him. His colleague responded, “He isn’t a human being like you and me. He’s elokus bi-d’mus gashmius,” divinity enshrined in corporeal human form.
Anyone who follows contemporary Jewish life is unsurprised by this disturbing story of the ongoing attempts to essentially deify Rabbi Schneerson that began in the 1950’s, then intensified in the years and months before he died, and that continue to roil Habad, the Lubavitch Hasidic community, today.
I generally dismiss these claims with mild disgust, even as I engage with Habad emissaries in my community. After all, Habad’s successful network of Jewish outreach, education, and counseling programs is ubiquitous, and it puts some of our most cutting edge programs in the Jewish mainstream to shame. The recent re-opening of the greatly expanded Habad House on the Rutgers University campus in New Jersey has me rethinking my involvement. I recently received a fundraising promo for Rutgers Habad. It contains a full-page paean of glory to the Rebbe, including praise for his leadership written entirely in the present tense, making clear the conviction that he is alive. A photo inset shows the cornerstone of the new Habad House, whose inscription welcomes the Rebbe as King Messiah and states that he prophesied redemption in our time. The rest of the promo is devoted to a dizzying list of programs, foodfests, entertainment nights, Shabbat dinners, and opportunities for Torah study, prayer and Israel travel that must make for a lot of very well fed, happy, nurtured Jewish students.
This is terrific, except the Rebbe really did die, as all people must do. I respect the right of Christians to build their faith communities around faith in their risen Lord as the Messiah. When Jews openly make a similar faith assertion then present it, along with their lifestyle, as the most authentically Jewish, I get nervous. When they secure millions of dollars annually from wealthy Jewish donors to deeply influence young Jews, I get angry. I am not sure what bothers me more: that Habad “Mashichists” (Messianists) have skillfully buried their religious heresies in their overwhelming outreach efforts, or that their outreach efforts are so overwhelming, students, parents, donors, and Jewish communal leaders like me happily turn a blind eye to their theology. I appreciate our people’s age-old messianic impulses that have sustained us through great suffering for millennia. However, I also know that the extreme expression of those impulses has at times fared horribly for us.
As I alluded to above, we cannot avoid Habad’s vital Jewish outreach work upon which we have come to depend, and we don’t need to avoid all of it. What I propose is a kind of “truth in advertising” practice that allows us and our students to think critically before engaging with the organization. We need to ask rabbis and directors of Habad programs and centers directly if they believe that the Rebbe was or will be resurrected to be proclaimed the Messiah. If they say unequivocally yes, or even if they equivocate, we need to be ready to say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t work with you” or “I can’t accept your services.” I understand those who feel that my proposal is too extreme. Indeed, it is a theological litmus test that places Habad messianists in the same category with Christian missionaries such as Jews For Jesus. So what, some would ask, if a Habad rabbi or devotee believes foolishness about his Rebbe’s resurrection and messianic identity? It is a small price to pay for Habad’s ability to keep people Jewish. As imperfect as my analogy might be, I would respond with one question: if the local Hebrew-Christian congregation was on your child’s campus offering all the warm trappings of a Jewish home away from home, save for that one small fact that it does everything in the name of a savior called Yeshua, would you feel that was a small price to pay as well?
The legacy of the Rebbe, of blessed memory, continues to inspire millions to remain Jewish, and hopefully one day bring the Messiah. Let’s not allow extremists to hijack his mission in his name.