After the Death of Chabad’s Messiah
Followers of the Rebbe gather for the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries on November 8, 2015 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Eliyahu Yosef Parypa/Shutterstock.com
By Joseph Newfield
As my Rebbe lay dead on the floor of his office, I noticed a small group of men dancing and chanting outside on the street: “Long Live the Rebbe, King Messiah, Forever and Ever!” Only hours earlier, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, was pronounced dead by the hospital physician, but for many of his Hasidic followers, he was still the long-awaited Messiah.
It was a hot and muggy Saturday night in June 1994. As a 14-year-old yeshiva student, I joined the vigil standing outside Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan, hoping and praying that the Rebbe would miraculously return to his followers and community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Alas, at 12:30 AM our hopes were dashed. Standing among the thousand Chabad followers, I saw the stretcher carried out on its way back to Brooklyn.
I rushed back to the Rebbe’s synagogue, known throughout the world by its address, “770.” There, a long line of mourners filed by the Rebbe’s office on the first floor to pay their final respects. When I saw the outline of his body laid out on the floor, wrapped in a prayer shawl, I was shocked and bewildered. He was surrounded by 10 burning candles and a small delegation of elderly Hasidim reciting the book of Psalms.
The crowd swept me outside to the street. Still in shock, I joined the dancing Hasidim and chanted along with them. I continued dancing throughout the night until daybreak. By 6 AM, completely exhausted, I made my way home and collapsed into bed.
Later in the day, I stood among the thousands of Hasidim gathered outside the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Springfield Gardens as the Rebbe was interred next to his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn. It began to dawn on me that the burial would surely put an end to the Rebbe’s messiahship. Or so I assumed.
More than 26 years have passed since the Rebbe’s demise. Nevertheless, to this day, most of the Rebbe’s followers, known as Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim, continue to believe in his messianic identity. How can this be?
For years leading up to the Rebbe’s passing, and with tacit encouragement from the Rebbe himself, Chabad followers came to believe that the Rebbe was the Messiah. To a large extent, this messianic attribution was connected to the Rebbe’s mission of reaching out to every Jew across the globe. Unlike other Orthodox rabbis and Hasidic leaders, who primarily concern themselves with their own flock, the Rebbe saw himself as the leader of world Jewry. To this end, he sent emissaries from his headquarters in Brooklyn to every corner of the globe. To date, the Chabad movement has established approximately four thousand outposts, or Chabad Houses, around the world.
No previous Jewish leader had such astounding global ambitions. As the Rebbe’s program of Jewish outreach picked up steam in the early 1990s, his followers became ever more convinced that he must be the long-awaited Messiah. The Rebbe had no children and his health was deteriorating rapidly. In 1992, at the age of 90, he suffered a severe stroke, which led to his loss of speech and his ability to walk. In his weakened condition, he would appear for the evening prayer service on a specially built balcony in the back of his synagogue. On cue, the moment the curtains parted and the Rebbe came into view, the Hasidim would begin chanting fervently, “Long Live the Rebbe, King Messiah.”
The Rebbe’s death on June 12, 1994, came as a total shock to all of us. For the Chabad movement, his death simply made no sense. Everyone I knew—family, friends, and teachers—was convinced that the Rebbe was the Messiah. As such, how could he have died? Prior to the Rebbe’s death, the movement took it for granted that the Messiah had to come from the living, not the dead. Jews knew that Jesus could not be the Messiah because he left the world in an unredeemed state. Likewise, most observers outside of the Chabad movement were convinced that upon the Rebbe’s death, his followers would cease to believe that he was the Messiah. But they underestimated the tenacity of his followers’ faith in the Rebbe.
After the initial shock of the Rebbe’s passing, the Chabad movement recalibrated itself and came to believe that now, with the Rebbe no longer among the living, the Messiah would have to come from the dead. All that was needed was for the Rebbe to return to his synagogue in Brooklyn and finish the work he began prior to his death. Upon his return, he would gather all the Jews back to the Land of Israel and build the Third Temple in Jerusalem. In effect, this new schema can be considered a Hasidic version of the Second Coming.
Until the age of 22, I, too, managed to shake off the Rebbe’s death and continued to believe in his messianic identity. Like so many of my friends, I also had the mantra “Long Live the Rebbe, King Messiah” emblazoned on my head covering, or kippah. One of the popular communal songs my friends and I would listen to incessantly proclaimed, “He wouldn’t teach us falsehoods, he wouldn’t tell us lies, if he said the Messiah was coming, he will be here at last.” Even though I couldn’t see the Rebbe anymore in the flesh, I was convinced that if the Rebbe prophesized the Messiah was on his way—and I was sure he was the Messiah—it was only a matter of time before he returned. In the meantime, I continued studying the Rebbe’s many messianic-tinged speeches and talks.
I grew up in a strange home. My father is a graduate of Columbia College and Harvard Medical School, but he sent my three brothers and me to a school that did not even teach the ABCs. How this was possible had to do with my father’s disenchantment with secular Jewish life as a young man. By the time he was 25, he had finished medical school and had joined the Chabad Hasidic movement in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. My mother also gave up her comfortable secular Jewish lifestyle and joined the Chabad movement upon her graduation from Queens College. A matchmaker brought my parents together; they had nine children. My school, or yeshiva, was founded in 1956 with the express purpose of only teaching a Torah curriculum—with the language of instruction in Yiddish. This meant that we did not learn even basic English, math, and science. Instead, we studied the Bible, the Talmud, and Jewish law, all day, every day.
I was aware from an early age that following my father into medicine was out of the question. My school did not give out high school diplomas—how could it?—we didn’t learn the English language. Grudgingly, I made peace with this reality because I wanted to live up to my parents’ expectations to become the Torah scholar they couldn’t be. As the oldest boy in the family and the most scholastically inclined, I was going to be the one to help my family integrate into the austere Hasidic movement. Despite not gaining the education and skills to make it in the outside world, I took comfort in the fact that I knew my Rebbe was the Messiah, and it was only a matter of time before he would return and gather all the Jews back to our ancient homeland and build the Third Temple in Jerusalem.
When I turned 17, I enrolled in the Chabad yeshiva, or seminary, in Montreal, Canada. I discovered that most of the yeshiva students, numbering some 100 or more, also took the Rebbe’s messianic identity for granted. We assumed it was simply a matter of time before the Rebbe would return and complete his messianic mission.
As an inquisitive young scholar, I searched for books that were not included within the yeshiva’s restricted and limited collection of talmudic and rabbinic texts. One day, while perusing the stacks of the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, I discovered the Hebrew-language book, False Messiahs and Their Opponents, published in Israel by Rabbi Benjamin Solomon Hamburger in 1989. Without explicitly mentioning the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, it became apparent to me that the book’s real goal was to debunk the Chabad belief in the Rebbe’s messiahship.
The book described the numerous false messiahs who appeared throughout Jewish history, starting with Jesus and culminating with the founder of political Zionism, Theodore Hertzl. Its message resonated with me and I started to have doubts. On the one hand, I wanted to dismiss this book since I knew the author was an opponent of the entire Hasidic movement, including the Chabad sect I belong to. As a proud Hasid, I didn’t think I had to take the author too seriously. On the other hand, the book made a very important observation—that every Jewish messianic movement ended in failure. The thought that my belief in the Rebbe’s messianic identity might be misguided began to haunt me.
The more I wrestled with this question, the more convinced I became that I would have to read the book that was strictly forbidden to Orthodox Jews: the New Testament itself. Perhaps it would help me understand if the Rebbe could still be the Messiah even after his passing. By the time I came to the book of John, it became apparent to me that the parallels between Chabad’s belief in the Rebbe and the faith of the early followers of Jesus were undeniable; both groups of Jews continued to insist on their leader’s messianic identity following his earthly ministry.
This realization frightened me. From the earliest age, I was taught that Christianity was false and Jesus could not be the Jewish Messiah. Over the years, I had argued with Jews for Jesus and tried to prove to them that Jesus was not the Messiah. Now, after reading the Gospels, it dawned on me that my own community was like the early followers of Jesus; we could not let go of our Rebbe. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the disciples of Jesus and my fellow Hasidim both insisted that our respective leaders were the long-awaited Messiah, their deaths notwithstanding. This parallel to Christianity made me exceedingly uncomfortable.
The belief in the Rebbe’s messianic identity, while widespread in the Chabad community, expresses itself in different ways. For the vast majority of the Chabad movement, the Rebbe’s burial is not denied. In fact, they visit the Rebbe’s gravesite on a regular basis. But his burial is seen as merely temporary. If only we did one more good deed, or mitzvah, his return would surely be hastened. Perhaps for this reason, the Chabad movement has not appointed a replacement rebbe, since the “Rebbe” will be returning at any minute.
During the Rebbe’s lifetime, every couple would wait for the Rebbe’s blessing before getting engaged. If the blessing was not given, it was a sign that the Rebbe disapproved of the match and the engagement would be called off. With the Rebbe no longer among the living, the custom transformed to seeking his approval and blessing at the gravesite. This is accomplished by praying at the gravesite and laying a note on the grave, informing the Rebbe of the couple’s intention to marry. With this pilgrimage, the Rebbe’s approval is assumed. Upon leaving the gravesite, the couple will announce their engagement to their waiting family and friends and sponsor a small collation at the adjacent 24-hour visitor center.
Some Chabad members are not satisfied with assuming the Rebbe’s approval for individual requests, such as guidance on job offers or medical questions. They opt to divine the Rebbe’s guidance by consulting his 30-plus volumes of published letters, known as the “Holy Letters.” The individuals requesting guidance pen a letter to the Rebbe outlining their concern or question and insert the letter randomly into one of the volumes of the “Holy Letters.” Then they open up the book to the page where the letter had been inserted and read the printed letter found there. In this way, they find their answer in the published letter that the Rebbe had sent to someone else decades ago.1
A small but vocal minority of the Chabad movement continues to this day to deny that the Rebbe passed away at all. For them, the Rebbe is not buried in Old Montefiore Cemetery, but is still present in his synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway. The fact that they can’t see him in “770” is of no concern. They are sure he is there and ministering, as he had for 40 years before the “Day that can’t be mentioned.” For them, June 12, 1994, is not the day the Rebbe passed away from this world; rather, it’s the day of the Rebbe’s “disappearance.” They set up his prayer lectern in the main synagogue, as was customarily done during the Rebbe’s “visible” lifetime. They also clear a path for the now “invisible” Rebbe to enter and exit the prayer service, and they reenact various public functions in which the Rebbe participated.2 Whether they believe the Rebbe is physically buried in Queens or is still residing in his synagogue in Brooklyn, the majority of Chabad followers continue to maintain that the Rebbe is the long-awaited Messiah. Not since the time of Jesus has a committed, traditionally observant Jewish community continued to maintain such a belief. This phenomenon raises many historical and theological questions.
For David Berger, a rabbi and professor at Yeshiva University, the messianic fervor currently gripping the Chabad movement is outside the pale of normative Orthodox Judaism.3 As such, he believes it should be condemned as heretical and those professing this belief should not be counted in the tradition prayer quorum (minyan). Despite his best efforts, the majority of the Orthodox establishment has not been moved to accept Berger’s call to arms.
With no replacement rebbe on the horizon, the Chabad movement today is just as dominated by the Rebbe as it was prior to his passing. They have not internalized his passing. Grieving for a loved one primarily consists of accepting the loss. The natural grieving process has been stunted, since the Rebbe is still very much alive for them on a daily basis. Besides communicating with him through his “Holy Letters,” the community incessantly watches historic film footage of his lengthy sermons.4
Ever since the Rebbe’s passing, scholars have debated whether the Rebbe himself believed he was the Messiah. One of the first academics to tackle this question was Joel Marcus of Duke Divinity School. Marcus concluded:
The recent history of the modern Chabad (Lubavitcher) movement of Hasidic Judaism provides insight into the development of early Christianity. In both movements successful eschatological prophecies have increased belief in the leader’s authority, and there is a mixture of ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ elements. Similar genres of literature are used to spread the good news (e.g. miracle catenae and collections of originally independent sayings). Both leaders tacitly accepted the messianic faith of their followers but were reticent about acclaiming their messiahship directly.5
On the one hand, the Rebbe never emphatically stated, “I am the Messiah.” Still, the many hints he gave his followers over the years seem to have indicated that he believed in his own messianic identity. While, for academics, the question of the Rebbe’s messiahship may be interesting material for papers and conferences, for the Chabad movement, the Rebbe’s messianic identity is of existential importance. This was starkly evident when I examined the tombstone inscriptions of a number of recently deceased messianic Chabad members. I noticed that their families engraved the message that the deceased “faithfully believed in the Rebbe’s messiahship.”
After the Rebbe’s passing, his critics resumed their assault on his messiahship with new zeal. In 2010, Rabbi Hamburger of Bnei Brak, Israel, reissued his book False Messiahs and Their Opponents in an expanded 703-page edition. This time, unlike his first edition in 1989, he attacks the Chabad belief in their Rebbe’s messianic identity directly in his long introduction. He states that even those who may have given Chabad the benefit of the doubt in 1989 will surely now admit that the Rebbe never was the Messiah. Reading the new edition confirmed my ever-increasing conviction that the Rebbe was not the Jewish Messiah, while also validating my perception that the first edition was written in order to undermine belief in the Rebbe’s messianic identity.
For many in the Chabad movement, Rabbi Hamburger’s book won’t dissuade them in the slightest of their belief. For one, he is a follower of their long-time antagonist Rabbi Eliezer Schach, who openly challenged the Rebbe even during his lifetime. Within Chabad, Rabbi Schach is seen as a sort of anti-Christ for challenging the Rebbe on theological and philosophical grounds. In any case, Chabad has seldom taken outside views into consideration when deciding what to believe or how to behave.
Tragically, the coronavirus has hit the Rebbe’s community in Brooklyn very hard. At least 100 members of his tight-knit community in Crown Heights passed away in the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020. Among the victims was the Rebbe’s personal long-time secretary, Rabbi Leibel Groner, a revered figure within the Chabad movement. Sadly, a close Chabad friend of mine, Rabbi Yehudah Dukes, age 40, recently lost his 10-month heroic battle with COVID-19. For his wife, six children, and the entire Chabad community, Rabbi Dukes’s passing was a terrible and painful blow.
In reading responses and missives following some of these losses, it has occurred to me that the denial over the Rebbe’s death has trickled down to personal tragedies as well. Now, the Rebbe is not the only one who is only “temporarily” missing; his followers are as well. This jump from the temporarily missing Rebbe to personal loss may not have been inevitable in 1994, but it may be the logical consequence of Chabad’s inability to come to terms with the Rebbe’s earthly passing.
Where does this leave the Chabad movement going forward? Will a time come when the Chabad movement will cease waiting for the Rebbe’s return and appoint a new leader? Or will they continue indefinitely to believe in the Rebbe’s messianic identity and refrain from ever appointing a new leader? If the historical Jewish movement that grew up around the person of Jesus is any indication, it would seem that once a Jewish leader is perceived to be the Messiah, his followers will find it difficult to give up this belief, despite his death or “disappearance.” As long as Chabad followers can inspire their progeny to believe in the Rebbe’s messiahship, he will continue to be the Messiah—if not for the world, then at least for his tens of thousands of followers.
As for me, giving up the belief in the Rebbe’s messiahship has come at a terrible price. Until the age of 22, I believed heart and soul in the Rebbe’s messianic identity. But the more Jewish history I read, the more convinced I became that the Jewish Messiah has to come from the living, not the dead. My readings on the Sabbatean movement were instructive, highlighting for me the dangers of the messianic impulse.6 Once I gave up the belief in the Rebbe’s messiahship, I found myself outside the community, if not physically, then spiritually. I don’t see eye to eye with my friends and family. While they eagerly await the Rebbe’s return, I am sure that they will never see the Rebbe again. Chabad members are fond of saying, “May we merit to see the Rebbe in the flesh,” but I know the Rebbe’s earthly ministry has ended for all eternity.
My loss of belief in the Rebbe’s messianic identity didn’t only affect my relationships with family and friends, it also affected my belief in the bedrock principles of Orthodox Judaism. The belief in a Messiah is only one of Maimonides’s (1138–1204) obligatory 13 principles of faith. If what I was taught regarding the Rebbe’s messianic identity is false, I reasoned, maybe other beliefs taught to me were false too. This doubt led me on a multiyear quest to investigate every belief I was ever taught.
And once I accepted that the Rebbe is not the Messiah and will not be returning, my lack of secular education came back to haunt me. Finding myself outside the community, without even basic knowledge of English grammar and math, made me bitter and angry. I felt like my education had been sacrificed on the altar of the Rebbe’s messiahship. Sitting through the GED exam at the age of 23 was a humbling experience. As I filled out the exam, I kept coming back to the same question: “How could my own father have denied me a basic secular education, when he was given the best education in the world?”
I did become the Torah scholar my parents envisioned me to be, but my loss of conviction undermined my ability to share this knowledge with others. I understand why Chabad followers tenaciously hold on to the Rebbe’s messianic identity, as letting go can call into question their very faith in Orthodox Judaism. My family and friends are not burdened by the New Testament since they consider such knowledge off limits. But my own inquisitive nature would not allow me to block out information and knowledge, however forbidden it was considered by my community.
With time, I came to understand that my parents joined the Chabad movement without fully understanding the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the community itself. The great irony is that it was my own belief in the Rebbe’s messianic identity that led to my disenchantment with the community my parents fought so hard to join. Ultimately, the Talmud was correct when it stated, “He who adds to the Torah will eventually come to subtract from the Torah.”
Today, I am skeptical of religious claims, especially of a messianic nature. I discovered classical music and opera at the age of 30. Listening to Mahler’s Fifth at Carnegie Hall can only be described as transformative. I wept though the heartbreaking Adagio. I guess I was crying for my lost faith and lost Rebbe. Verdi’s Aida taught me that from time immemorial, people have been trying to connect to the infinite and the eternal.
I suppose the messianic psychology of the current Chabad movement is not very different from the messianic fervor that took hold of the early followers of Jesus, or that occurs in other movements that hold up a leader as the one and only savior and embrace apocalyptic visions of the “end times” when their deceased leader will return. The times may have changed, but the impulse is the same. If only I could join in.
- This form of inquiry is known as “bibliomancy.”
- For example, giving out one-dollar bills on Sunday for charity and distributing wine at the conclusion of Jewish festivals.
- See David Berger, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008).
- A new organization, Jewish Educational Media, jemedia.org, was founded in order to keep the Rebbe and his message alive for his faithful followers.
- Joel Marcus, “The Once and Future Messiah in Early Christianity and Chabad,” New Testament Studies 47, no. 3 (July 2001): 381–401.
- Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676), a Sephardic rabbi and mystic, was proclaimed the Messiah in 1666, with vast numbers of Jews swept up in the Sabbatean messianic fervor. Despite his forced conversion to Islam and death a few years later, a small sect continued to believe in his messianic identity. To this day, the aftershocks of the false messianism of the Sabbatean movement continue to reverberate within the Jewish community.
Joseph Newfield grew up in the insular Hasidic community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He is currently pursuing writing and working on a memoir tentatively titled “Growing Up in the Shadow of the Messiah.” He lives in New York City.