Habad Messianism

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I think by now we are all familiar with the particular form of Habad messianism that holds the deceased Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menahem Mendel Schneerson, to be the messiah. There are some who believe that he is already the messiah and wait for his resurrection, some who even believe that he never died, some who believe that he will definitely be the messiah when he is resurrected and some who believe that he probably or might be the messiah after his resurrection. Some, from what I understand a minority, believe that their Rebbe can no longer become the messiah. These beliefs have been documented and addressed in two books: The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference is a history of and commentary on the subject and Can the Rebbe be Moshiach? is an analysis of the textual and theological issues involved.

This post is not intended to deal with the nonsense of Habad messianism but with the halakhic repercussions of such mistaken beliefs. Has a Habad messianist – a Meshihist – overly deviated from the traditional Jewish messianic belief to the extent that he is considered a heretic, with all of the halakhic implications of such a title?

There are two responsa on the subject that have been conveniently posted online, one even with an English translation. R. Aharon Feldman, dean of the prestigious Ner Israel Rabbincal College (Yeshivas Ner Yisrael) in Baltimore responded as follows (Hebrew, English):

[T]he meshichistim are not to be considered non-believers (“apikorsim”) and they remain within the category of “your nation,” their testimony and shechita are valid and it is permitted to include them in a minyan. However, great danger surrounds their belief, for it digs beneath the very foundation of the Jewish belief in moshiach!…

Now even if it is true that the meshichistim are not considered non-believers, it is still forbidden to support them or publicize their opinions for it is forbidden to support falsehood. All the more so in this case where there exists the danger that their belief might spread to the general Jewish community and thus the Torah itself could be erased from Israel, chas v’sholom.

Therefore, one who finds himself among Lubavitchers who observe customs aimed at strengthening their faith (for instance, those who chant “yechi adonainu hamelech hamoshiach” at the end of davening), is required to leave, or, if possible, to offer rebuke.

Furthermore, in my opinion it is clear that even though the meshichistim are not considered “non-believers,” nevertheless, they are presumably (“b’chezkas”) people who lack Torah understanding and it is impossible to rely on their conclusions in Torah matters – even issues that do not relate to Moshiach.

Habad messianists are not heretics but they maintain a foolishly and dangerously mistaken view, which renders their judgement suspect and requires us to avoid legitimating their belief. A similar, but less strident, approach is taken by R. Yehuda Henkin (as a free advertisement, I’ll point out that this is only one of many interesting responsa that is scheduled for publication this summer in volume 4 of R. Henkin’s Bnei Banim):

What many of his Hassidim believe, that R. Menahem Mendel Schneerson is the king messiah, is false and nonsense. However, I do not know of any denial or heresy in [this belief] for they await the messiah. What do we care if in their mistaken view he already was, died and will return? In the end, they are waiting for the messiah to come.

I spoke with R. Hershel Schachter and R. Mordechai Willig on this subject. R. Willig said that R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv has ruled that Habad messianists are heretics while R. Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg has ruled that they are not. R. Willig said that he believes we have to follow R. Goldberg on this issue.

R. Schachter began by saying, “I think Dr. Berger went too far…” He agreed with what the others mentioned above have said, that Habad messianists are not heretics. However, he also said that we should all be uncomfortable about the recitation of “Long live our master, our teacher, the king messiah forever and ever” that is done in many Habad synagogues and should leave such a synagogue during a recitation of this mistaken formula.

I have intentionally remained silent about the issue of confusion between God and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. However, both R. Aharon Feldman and R. Yehuda Henkin address this in their responsa (above).

Other perspectives on this issue, that were given before R. Schneerson passed away but after the messianic fervor in Habad had grown, can be found in stories about R. Yitzhak Hutner and R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky. About the former, Hillel Goldberg has written in his Between Berlin and Slabodka, pp. 187-188 (reference taken from here):

Rabbi Hutner’s opposition to Lubavitch came to expression with colorful asperity. For example (interview with Saul [pseudonym], January, 1985, Jerusalem):

‘I was a student at Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin for only half a year, and had not spoken to Rabbi Hutner in about twenty years. I phoned him in New York, saying only ‘hello,’ to which he responded, “Hello, Saul, how are you?” He knew my voice! He had this habit of making appointments at strange times, so we met at 2:10 p.m., Sunday afternoon. I told him that I had come to New York to pick up my children from summer camp-a Lubavitch camp. Whereupon he suddenly turned his whole body around in his chair, his back facing me, and just sat there in blazing anger, glaring into space for what seemed like an eternity. He must have been silent for two minutes. I was dumbfounded. Then he said, “Saul, you come to see me once in twenty years, and all you can tell me is that you send your children to a Lubavitch camp? There aren’t enough other camps?” He told me that my children would return home saying that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was the Messiah, that Lubavitch would ruin my children.‘ (emphasis added)

This attitude of R. Hutner has been confirmed to me by other students of his. He was very concerned over the “cult of personality” that R.Schneerson had built and, in particular, the messianic element of that community.

The following report about R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky comes from the controversial biography of him by his son, R. Nosson Kamenetsky, Making of a Godol (if anyone cares, I read this passage before the controversy erupted). In the forward, while discussing his father’s attitude to the unpublished chapters regarding the Vilna Gaon’s opposition to Hassidus in R. Betzalel Landau’s Ha-Gaon he-Hassid mi-Vilna, R. Kamenetsky writes as follows (pp. xxvii-xxviii):

R’ Landau pleaded with my father, “How can I publicize the Gaon’s prohibition on intermarriage with hasidim and possibly cause families to break up?” My father agreed that the five chapters he had prepared be left unpublished but not destroyed, saying, “Have them prepared for publication but desist from [publishing them] until such time as may come when events will necessitate their publication.” He explained in veiled terms, “They must be ready in case a certain someone [yener] should do an ugly thing [a mi’usse zakh].” He was referring to messianic fantasies simmering in a hasidic circle – in Israel, the adherents of that group had fomented a political feud along hasidicmisnagdic lines – and my father felt that the eventual publication of these chapters would help the general hasidic public shake off the messianics should their fantasy get out of hand. As it turned out, my father’s concerns were well founded: a large segment of that hasidic cult did declare its leader to be the Messiah. (The perverse possibility that a decade after his meeting with R’ Bezalel, many of the sect’s members would formulate the phantasm that its dead rebbe would make a “second coming” – this is what they believe and are propagating in our day – likely never even entered the realm of our protagonist’s normal, healthy imagination…)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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