Summer of the Messiah

Across the globe, tens of thousands are actively preparing for redemption

The Jerusalem Report/February 14, 2001
By Yossi Klein Halevi

It is a few days before Tisha Be'Av, the summer fast mourning the destruction of the Temple. In an all-girl's kindergarten in Kfar Chabad, the Lubavitcher hasidic village near Tel Aviv, 30 girls wearing long dresses and sandals sit listening to their teacher, Rachel, talk about the Messiah. "Children, we grown-ups don't want to fast this Tisha Be'av. We're so tired of sadness. When the Messiah comes, Tisha Be'av will be turned into the happiest day ever. Children, what can you do to help bring the Messiah?"

Small voices call out, "Stop fighting." "Not throw away food." "Feed the birds." Rachel responds with smiles and encouragement. "And what will happen when the Messiah comes?" she asks. "All the Jews will come here," says one girl. "The Arabs won't hit us," says another. Then the children sing in high, pleading voices, "Master of the world, look down from Heaven/We've increased our good deeds, everyone is waiting/So send the redemption."

When they sing the word "redemption," they stamp their feet, as if to demand an end to sadness.

In the world of Chabad, this is the summer of the Messiah. Chabad hasidim from Brooklyn to Bnei Brak, Caracas to Tunis-numbering perhaps 100,000, with many additional thousands of sympathizers-are actively preparing for the messianic revelation. For Chabadniks, that is no longer a question of years but of months, perhaps even days. "Whenever I make even short-term plans, I ask myself, `But what will happen if the Messiah comes first?'" says Jerusalem housewife and Chabadnik Nechamah Greisman.

On June 19, a full-page ad, sponsored by a wealthy Australian Chabadnik named Joseph Gutnick, appeared in the New York Times announcing, "The Time for Your Redemption has Arrived!" The ad repeated the Chabad claim that recent events especially the mass Soviet immigration to Israel and the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War are harbingers of world redemption. And it appealed to Jews to "wait for Mashiach (the Messiah) actively" in the belief that such yearning will speed his arrival.

That ad was not the isolated statement of an enthusiastic devotee, but part of an international campaign orchestrated from 770 Eastern Parkway, the Brooklyn headquarters of Chabad. The campaign stresses the need for pious acts to spiritually prepare Jews for redemption. Chabadniks have begun a daily study of rabbinic writings about the Messiah, to transform vague longing into concrete imagery; and they listen to news broadcasts for signs of the messianic process coming alive. Models of the Second Temple are being exhibited in Chabad summer camps to acquaint children with the structure the Messiah is soon to rebuild. Before going to sleep, children are encouraged by their parents to sing "We Want Mashiach Now!"; some believe the Messiah will be there when they awaken.

In early May, ads signed by leaders of prominent hasidic sects-including Gur, Vizhnitz, Klausenburg-Sandz and Skver-appeared in several U.S. Jewish weeklies, endorsing Chabad's messianic campaign. "We must sincerely realize that the Gulf War and its accompanying miracles mean the imminent arrival of Mashiach," the ads said. "We must pray and even 'demand' of God that He speed up the Redemption process."

But Chabad's newest campaign has been vehemently criticized by other ultra-Orthodox Jews especially mitnagdim, followers of "Lithuanian"-style Judaism who reject the hasidic belief in a miracle-working rebbe. They charge that Chabad is trying to induce mass messianic hysteria, a phenomenon that throughout Jewish history has led to disaster. "Lithuanian" leader Rabbi Eliezer Shach (head of the Ponevezh yeshivah in Bnei Brak), has even compared Chabadniks to the followers of the 17th-century false messiah Shabbtai Zvi, who eventually converted to Islam. Most of all, opponents are outraged over the widespread and increasingly vocal belief within Chabad that its venerated leader, 89-year-old Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is the Messiah.

"They don't want to bring the Messiah, they want to bring their rebbe as the Messiah," says Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a member of the Knesset and head of the "Lithuanian" party, Degel Hatorah. "Chabad has become a cult."

Supporters angrily dismiss comparisons between Chabad and Sabbateanism. They note that whereas the Sabbateans deliberately violated religious laws on the assumption that a "new Torah" would emerge during messianic times, Chabad preaches the opposite: that only a strict adherence to tradition will bring the redemption. And as for venerating their rebbe as the Messiah, that too, say supporters, is part of Jewish tradition.

Far from promoting himself as the redeemer, Schneerson has tried to suppress such speculation among his followers. When a Chabad booklet published here eight years ago proclaimed him the Messiah, for example, he ordered the publication banned. But that message hasn't convinced his hasidim to desist. "The Messiah isn't in heaven but here among us," says Ya'akov Lieberman, a director of Chabad educational institutions. "You can go and see him any time." Adds Jerusalem Chabad organizer Rabbi Shmuel Greisman: "I'm not saying the rebbe is definitely the Messiah. But no one in Chabad will say that he isn't."

Even official spokesmen, who not long ago were reluctant to speak about the topic with journalists, are now far less reticent. "The Messiah isn't going to be some hidden old man who suddenly appears on a donkey," says Chabad spokesman Rabbi Menachem Brod. "Maimonides says he must be a spiritually great leader. When you look around, who else do you see but the rebbe?"

In Chabad's recent New York Times ad heralding redemption, the Messiah was described as a descendant of King David, who would bring the Jews back to religious observance, ingather them to Israel and rebuild the Temple. Any Chabadnik reading that description-based on the writings of Maimonides would have instantly understood its implicit message: Here was a portrait of the rebbe. Schneerson is a direct descendant of the 16th-century Prague rabbi Judah Loew (the Maharal), widely believed to be of Davidic lineage. More than anyone else in this generation, Schneerson has spread Orthodox practices among Jews. And he is arguably the only Diaspora leader with the charisma to lead large numbers of Western Jews to Israel.

Under Schneerson's leadership, Chabad-the name is an acronym of kabbalistic terms for wisdom, knowledge and understanding has become the most successful hasidic sect in history, and may well be the most powerful Orthodox movement today. Some 1,700 Chabad centers have been opened around the world, many of them on university campuses. Chabadniks have become a familiar site on the street corners of major Western cities, standing before trailers dubbed "mitzvah tanks" and urging Jewish passersby to don phylacteries and light Sabbath candles. Chabad's unparalleled outreach program aimed at non-observant Jews has won it the respect and financial support of many outside Orthodoxy, who see the movement as an antidote to assimilation. Supporters have ranged from former Israeli president Zalman Shazar to rock musician Bob Dylan, who recently appeared on a Chabad telethon singing "Havah Nagillah."

Critics denounce Chabad as a fundamentalist movement that opposesreligious pluralism and manipulates Israeli politics supporting the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party in the 1988 Knesset elections and lobbying for a change in the "Who Is a Jew" law. "Chabad believes it is the most superior form of Judaism," says Rabbi Allan Nadler of Montreal's Conservative congregation Sha'ar Hashomayim, and an expert on hasidism. "Chabadniks appear friendly to other Jews, but in fact they have no respect for any form of Judaism outside their narrow definition."

Increasingly, that definition has come to mean messianism. Chabadniks see the purpose of mitzvot, religious commandments, as increasing the balance of good in the world, so that God will find the Jews worthy and send the Messiah. Opponents accuse Chabad of giving undue centrality to messianism one theological concept among many in Judaism. Yet both kabbalah and classical hasidism view mitzvot precisely as "building blocks" in the messianic process of tikun olam the spiritual repair of the world. Says Ya'akov Lieberman: "Jews have always delieved that the Messiah's arrival can be hastened or delayed by our actions. Those Orthodox Jews who believe in a fairy-tale Messiah far away in heaven are the real heretics."

Messianic expectation has run strong in Chabad since the Holocaust, which the group's previous rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, called the "birthpangs of the Messiah." But not until the Six-Day War an event many religious Jews saw as a miraculous portent of the messianic era did Chabadniks begin actively campaigning for "Messiah now."

While outsiders assumed that the sole motive for Chabad's outreach campaign was to combat assimilation, there was in fact a deeper incentive: to hasten the coming of the Messiah. Still, until 1989, few Chabadniks lived with the expectation of an imminent revelation. That change began with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Says Menachem Brod: "The collapse of the Soviet empire, the treaties limiting and even destroying weapons, the increasing acceptance of the principle of human rights all these are laying the groud for the time of messianic world peace." The real shift in Chabad toward "active waiting" for the messianic revelation began last summer, with the invasion of Kuwait. In speeches to his followers, the Lubavitcher Rebbe frequently quoted a midrash, or rabbinic parable, that states: "In the year that the Messiah will be revealed, nations will challenge one another.... The entire world will panic and be stricken with consternation."

Then, in the weeks before the Gulf War, Schneerson made a series of pronouncements that his followers now say were prophetic: that Israel would be divinely protected and would be the "safest place in the world," that Israelis need not put on gas masks in the event of attack and that the war against Iraq would end by the holiday of Purim.

Opponents scoff at Schneerson's assertion of a safe Israel when in fact the country was bombarded with missiles for over a month; supporters note that the 39 Scuds fired at Israeli cities claimed only one fatality, gas masks proved unnecessary and the war ended on Purim morning.

Since then, Schneerson has insisted that the messianic revelation is imminent so much so that he can't understand why it hasn't already happened. Says Brod: "The rebbe began speaking about the Messiah not as a hope but a reality."

On April 11, Schneerson stunned followers by declaring his efforts to bring the Messiah had come to "hevel varik" futility and emptiness. "I have done whatever I can," he told his hasidim. "From now on, you must do whatever you can." If his intention was to prod Chabad into heightened messianic preparation, he succeeded. The fervor reached a climax in the days before Tisha Be'av. Some were certain that, this year, Tisha Be'av would be transformed from mourning to joy; when that didn't happen, the disappointment was acute.

Other Orthodox movements, notably Gush Emunim, have proclaimed this century to be the messianic era; but none have dared to be as specific or as impatient as Chabad. While Schneerson has carefully refrained from setting any deadline, he has pushed the tension between "active waiting" for the Messiah and passive acceptance of his delay to its limit. Indeed, some Chabadniks believe that this is the year of redemption, and that the Messiah must come by next Rosh Hashanah that is, by September. One rumor claims that the rebbe, who has never been to Israel and seldom leaves Brooklyn, will come here before the Jewish New Year, inaugurating the messianic era.

Chabadniks, quoting Maimonides, envision this era as a two-stage process. In the first stage, the Temple will be rebuilt, the Jewish people will be gathered to Israel and peace will reign between the Jews and the nations. The Messiah will reveal the mystical or "hidden" Torah, and Jews will gradually turn from materialist desires, seeking instead a knowledge of God's mysteries. Only in the second messianic stage will overt miracles, like ressurection of the dead, be performed.

The messianic era needs a messiah, and many Chabadniks believe they have found one. But should the movement begin to publicly promote its rebbe as the redeemer, it could lose much of the good will it has acquired over the years, and risk becoming marginal. "They may well turn into another Bratslav," says Ravitz, referring to the small hasidic sect that never named a successor to its 19th-century founder, Reb Nahman of Bratslav.

And yet Chabad has been immune in the past from damage from moves that could have seriously harmed it. Despite its campaign to change the "Who is a Jew" law in the Knesset, Chabad continues to receive substantial donations from Reform and Conservative Jews. When Chabad campaigned for Agudat Yisrael in the 1988 national elections, its emissaries were banned from army bases,on the grounds that the religious movement was no longer apolitical; yet today, that ban has been almost entirely forgotten. Still, critics worry what will happen inside Chabad if time proves that the nearly 90-year-old-rebbe was not the redeemer after all.

Thousands are being raised to believe that he is the Messiah; will their faith survive the blow? Chabadnik Shmuel Greisman: "Rabbi Akiva believed that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah. And then the Romans destroyed his revolt. What happened afterwards? You live with it. And you go on working for redemption."

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