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Did the Rebbe Identify Himself as the Messiah—and What Do His Hasidim Believe Today?

Twenty years after his death, the legacy of the Lubavitcher leader—‘the Prince of our generation’—is still a matter of heated debate

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At the gravesite of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, June 30, 2014 at the Old Montefiore Cemetery, Queens, New York. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)
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The 20th anniversary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s passing has triggered an outpouring of tributes, as well as three major books about his life and legacy—My Rebbe by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Rebbe by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, and Turning Judaism Outward: A Biography of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe by Rabbi Chaim Miller. All three are suffused with profound admiration. Steinsaltz’s—I omit the honorific in deference to stylistic guidelines—is the most personal account; Telushkin’s reflects considerable research in written sources as well as discussions with a wide array of informants reporting their personal interactions with the Rebbe; and Miller’s is a full-fledged biography that, although written by an adherent and issued by a Lubavitch publisher, asserts its aim to maintain a large measure of objectivity.

I did not need these books to persuade me that the Rebbe was an extraordinary individual of almost irresistible personal charisma, immense learning, exceptional leadership skills, and profound piety. Yet all three drastically downplay the impact of current Lubavitch messianism as well as the Rebbe’s role in generating the messianic movement that has survived his passing. My concern with an accurate portrayal of the Rebbe’s role emerges from a historian’s desire to counter a deep distortion of historical reality but also from the recognition that a failure to appreciate that role feeds the misperception that the current believers are a marginal, almost inconsequential group.

Steinsaltz affirms correctly that “the Rebbe made it his life’s work to bring the Mashiach.” His very first discourse as Rebbe affirmed that “it is this generation’s task to bring Mashiach.” In his last years his emphasis on this theme became “ever more intense” as he repeatedly declared that redemption is at the threshold and that the messiah could come at any moment. In 1991, he gave a talk lamenting the fact that his efforts to bring the redemption had been insufficient and placing the messianic mission in the hands of his followers.

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As to the Rebbe’s view of his own messianic status, Steinsaltz writes that he thinks that “the Rebbe considered it possible that he might be tapped to become the Mashiach. … Hasidim could pick up the hints that the Rebbe left about his messianic role. However, he never made the claim outright and tried to quash all speculation.” When the Hasidim began a song that named him as the messiah, he “stopped them quickly” and said that he should really leave the room. In 1983, he strongly criticized  Hasidim who fixed their gaze on “a person of flesh and blood” during prayer and indicated that excessive attention to his gestures even on other occasions was a waste of time.

Steinsaltz informs us that despite the Rebbe’s discouragement, “many Hasidim” in his later years believed that he would announce himself as the messiah, and after his stroke, “for most Hasidim it was now an urgent possibility that the Rebbe himself might be the Messiah.” After his death, there remained a group convinced that he was the messiah, some of whose adherents believe that he remains alive. Mainstream Lubavitch, he continues, is not concerned with the identity of the messiah, although some of them “still cannot let go of the possibility, even as they understand that it is only speculation.”

Telushkin goes further in dismissing both the messianist belief and the Rebbe’s role in engendering it. He introduces his discussion of messianism as follows:

What I came to understand while researching this issue is that when Lubavitchers use the word “Messiah” in referring to the Rebbe, they do not mean what people think they mean. Perhaps the most surprising conclusion I reached is that the Messiah issue is, in the final analysis, a nonissue.

Telushkin goes on to explain. Maimonides, he says, provides criteria for a presumed messiah and for a definite messiah (a messiah “beyond all doubt” in Telushkin’s formulation). Since the definite messiah must gather all Jews to Israel and rebuild the Temple, it should be obvious that the Rebbe did not attain this status. What, then, do Lubavitch  Hasidim mean when they call him the messiah? The answer is that they mean only that he was the potential messiah for his generation. How, then, do some continue to believe that he is the messiah even after his passing? The answer is that they found a few sources legitimating the belief in a messiah who returns after his death to fulfill his mission.

Thus far, I have been postponing any evaluation of these presentations. In this case, however, we encounter a problem of simple coherence that interferes with the continuation of straightforward summary. It is true that messianists provide some sources to defend their belief, but in what way does this address the issue of how the Rebbe could be merely the potential messiah of his generation after his death? Telushkin makes no genuine effort to address this glaring question.

It may be—though I reiterate that Telushkin never addresses the point—that he is relying on the fact that current messianists continue to use the phrase “prince of the generation” about the Rebbe, inspired to some degree by the fact that he used this phrase (as we shall see) about his deceased father-in-law. However, once it is applied after the death of the prince it loses its limiting force. For the believers, the Rebbe’s generation is defined by his leadership, which persists after his passing, and that leadership will continue until he reveals himself as the messiah. As to the use of the term during the Rebbe’s lifetime, the assertion that he was the messiah of the generation was coupled with the absolute conviction that this was the generation of the redemption, and so there too the limitation was bereft of significance. Thus, Telushkin has not shown—and has barely even provided an argument—that “when Lubavitchers use the word ‘Messiah’ in referring to the Rebbe, they do not mean what people think they mean.” They certainly do.

Another section of the chapter on messianism addresses the question of the Rebbe’s reaction to messianic claims made about him. It presents an unequivocal account of opposition to such claims and provides a bill of particulars, which I reproduce in its entirety. In 1965, he required a Hasid in Israel who had distributed a letter identifying him as the messiah to find all the copies and send them to the Chabad secretariat. In 1991, he prohibited the editor of the journal Kfar Chabad from publishing “an article explaining why the Rebbe was worthy of being considered the presumed Messiah.” He rebuked messianic activists, saying, “They are taking a knife to my heart.” Although he encouraged the standard messianic chant on one occasion in 1991, he refused to come down to the synagogue the next morning unless assured that it would not be recited again, and a few months later, when a similar song was sung, he declared that he should really leave. Later still, he reacted to a letter from an activist declaring him the messiah by saying, “Tell him that when the Moshiach comes I will give him the letter.” More explicitly, when a woman from an Israeli newspaper told him he was the messiah, he responded, “I am not.” Finally, in 1992, he told one of his secretaries who raised the issue, “The one who is the Messiah will have this revealed to him from above. This has not been revealed to me.” In addition to all these statements, there is the incontrovertible fact that the Rebbe prepared a will after his wife’s passing that clearly envisioned an unredeemed world after his death.

Telushkin does inform his readers of the great emphasis that the Rebbe placed on his messianic message. He makes reference to the affirmation in that first discourse of 1951 about the mission of this generation and points to the increasing assertions about the imminence of redemption and the encouraging of the slogan, “We want Moshiach now.” He recognizes that the Rebbe may have considered it possible that he would be the messiah, and he appeals to this consideration in speculating as to why he did not declare clearly and publicly that he is not. Given Telushkin’s acknowledgement that the Rebbe may have regarded this as a possibility, it is difficult to understand why he deleted a key phrase without any indication of an ellipsis in citing the Rebbe’s response to his secretary. My guess is that he wanted to minimize the degree to which the Rebbe may have considered a personal messianic revelation likely. The complete sentence is, “At this point [or thus far], this has not been revealed to me.” (Although the Rebbe surely said this in Yiddish, the secretary’s account is in Hebrew. The phrase in question is le-’et ’attah.)

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Did the Rebbe Identify Himself as the Messiah—and What Do His Hasidim Believe Today?

Twenty years after his death, the legacy of the Lubavitcher leader—‘the Prince of our generation’—is still a matter of heated debate