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American Messiah

It’s been 16 years since Menachem Schneerson’s death, but in a sense the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe is with us more than ever

Adam Kirsch
July 20, 2010
Children watch as Spanish graffiti artists work on a large spraypainted portrait of Menachem Mendel Schneerson on the outside of a bomb shelter in the Israeli town of Sderot, April 27, 2010.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
Children watch as Spanish graffiti artists work on a large spraypainted portrait of Menachem Mendel Schneerson on the outside of a bomb shelter in the Israeli town of Sderot, April 27, 2010.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Faith, it has been said, is the evidence of things not seen. By that definition, to believe in Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, requires no faith at all: It is far easier to see him today, anywhere in the world, than it was when he was actually alive. When the Rebbe died in 1994—on June 12, or the 3rd of Tammuz on the Jewish calendar—the Internet was just being born. But under his leadership, the Lubavitcher movement had always been adept at using technologies of mass communication, and it quickly seized on the Internet to make the Rebbe’s presence even more accessible. On YouTube,, and many other sites, you can hear the Rebbe talk about Torah and world events, watch him distribute dollar bills to guests (a practice that became his trademark), and witness some of his frequent visits to the grave of his predecessor, Yosef Yitzhak, the sixth Rebbe—the tomb, or tsiyen, where Schneerson himself now rests, in Queens, not far from JFK airport.

The most popular of these videos, however, and in a way the most extraordinary, are those that record the Rebbe’s farbrengens—the ceremonial gatherings in which his followers would eat, drink, and sing with him. What is striking about these scenes is their extreme ordinariness. Here is the Rebbe, an old, frail man, gingerly chewing pieces of bread and taking sips of wine. The setting, a large room in Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, in Brooklyn, is modest at best, wood-paneled like a basement rec room. There is none of the pomp with which religious leaders are ordinarily surrounded—no vestments, altars, or processions. Yet the way the Hasidim chant the niggun—“ve’samachta be’hagecha,” “you shall rejoice in your festival,” a line from the Book of Deuteronomy—and the way they are absorbed in the Rebbe’s every movement, leave no doubt that in this little corner of Crown Heights, if anywhere, holiness is taking place. For what else is holiness than the utter conviction that holiness exists?

To many Jews, this conviction is also the scandal of Lubavitch—or Chabad, as it is often called, using the Hebrew acronym for the school of Hasidic thought to which the sect belongs. To most people, Chabad means two things: its far-flung network of emissaries, or shluchim, greeting Jews in the most remote places and urging them to light holiday candles or wear tefillin; and its belief that Menahem Mendel Schneerson was the Messiah. Both of these things give Chabad a prominence in the Jewish world far out of proportion to its actual membership. In The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson(Princeton University Press), their much-debated new biography, Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman estimate that the total number of Lubavitcher Hasidim is around 40,000—“about ten thousand in Crown Heights, five thousand in Kfar Chabad [the Lubavitch settlement in Israel], and perhaps another twenty-five thousand worldwide, including about three thousand shaliach families.”

In other words, Lubavitchers make up about one quarter of 1 percent of the world Jewish population. Yet it would be hard to find an engaged Jew, of any denomination or none, who does not have an opinion about Chabad, usually a strong one. Many admire Chabad for its institution-building, the devotion and selflessness of its emissaries, and its bold representation of Judaism in the public square—whenever a huge menorah is illuminated somewhere, from Washington to Moscow, it is usually a Lubavitcher who built it. That is why so many Jews who are not Orthodox, and sometimes not even particularly observant, praise Chabad and help to fund its activities.

Yet many of those same Jews are acutely embarrassed by the notion, which swept Lubavitch in the years before Schneerson’s death, that he was actually “Melech HaMoshiach,” King Messiah, sent by God to redeem the world and the Jewish people. Still more alien is the belief, clung to by a small but vocal minority of Lubavitchers to this day, that because the Rebbe was the Messiah, he could not actually die—that he is now simply hidden, waiting for the moment when he can return to earth. One of the illustrations in The Rebbe shows the wall of the synagogue adjacent to 770 Eastern Parkway, where a large cornerstone has been removed: It was defaced by Hasidim who objected to the inscription, which referred to the Rebbe as being “of blessed memory.”

You do not have to look very far, on websites and discussion boards, to find Lubavitchers who are sick of being associated with the delusions of the meshikhistn, as the Schneerson messianists are known. Yet it is impossible for Chabad to decisively repudiate them. The notion that the seventh Rebbe was the Messiah, or would be instrumental in bringing the Messiah, and that we are currently living in the period known as ikvot meshicha, “the footsteps of the Messiah”—that is, the end of days—is too deeply ingrained in Lubavitch thought and practice.

Messianism, of course, has always been one of the central concerns of Hasidism. In the 18th century, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, wrote that he had actually spoken with the Messiah face to face, during one his mystical ascents, and asked, “When will you come?” The answer, as the Besht recorded it, was that redemption would arrive “when your teachings are publicized and revealed to the world and your wellsprings will be spread to the outside.” But it was not until Lubavitch was transplanted to America, during the Second World War, that this metaphorical injunction became the basis for an extremely practical kind of Jewish missionizing.

Every time a Jew lit Shabbat candles or wrapped tefillin, the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught, he was helping to spread the wellsprings, drawing closer to God and hastening the Redemption. It didn’t even matter if these symbolic Jewish acts sprang from, or led to, a deeper sense of commitment and observance, since the Rebbe’s “radical view,” as Heilman and Friedman write, was that “the deed itself is what counts not the motivation.” In this way, Lubavitch developed a uniquely American messianism, pragmatic and action-oriented, in which a secular Jew hurrying through Times Square could stop for a few moments at a Chabad “mitzvah tank” and make his contribution to the coming of the Messiah. “Getting Jews to perform these mitzvahs,” as Heilman and Friedman put it, “was a first step in cleansing the Jew of his non-Jewishness, releasing the spark of holiness from the captivity of impurity.”

As cloistered as Chabad seems to be, in its Crown Heights precincts, Heilman and Friedman argue that the movement, and the Rebbe in particular, had an acute sense of the needs and possibilities of American life for Judaism. The Rebbe was sending his shluchim to the most remote spots on earth, calling them to a life of service and sacrifice, at the same time that President Kennedy was launching the Peace Corps, in the early 1960s. Chabad focused its missionary activities on the universities just as the postwar baby boom brought millions of new students to campus and as the counterculture radically expanded the range of spiritual possibilities for young people. (It is no coincidence that charismatic, media-friendly Jewish figures like Shlomo Carlebach and Shmuley Boteach started out as Lubavitch emissaries to colleges.) And Chabad’s embrace of technology feels distinctively American, even when it uses high tech for surprisingly atavistic purposes. It is customary, for instance, for pilgrims to the grave of the Rebbe to leave written prayers, in the conviction that he can intercede with God to answer them; but if you can’t get to Queens, you can send your prayer by fax.

Lubavitch does not officially believe that the seventh Rebbe is still, somehow, alive; but 16 years after his death, there is still no eighth Rebbe. And Schneerson’s presence—on videos, in books, in the memories of his disciples—still dominates Lubavitch, both practically and theologically. Friedman and Heilman quote a Chabad video featuring a woman who had never met the Rebbe when he was alive, but saw footage of him after his death: “I was just at my first farbrengen,” she said, as though the Rebbe’s virtual presence was no different from his physical one.

The absolute centrality of Menachem Mendel Schneerson to Chabad helps to explain the hostility that Heilman and Friedman’s book has aroused among Lubavitchers. The latter half of The Rebbe is devoted mainly to the way Schneerson shaped Chabad’s public activities—the mitzvah campaigns, the high political profile (President Reagan once sent the Rebbe a birthday message), and of course the messianic activism. Starting in 1951, when he inherited his father-in-law’s position as Rebbe, Schneerson’s life was effectively dissolved in Chabad’s life. Childless, far from his few surviving relatives, surrounded by disciples who worshipped him, he had no one who could relate to him in an ordinary, personal way. The only exception was his wife, Chaya Moussia, the daughter of the Sixth Rebbe; but she was intensely private, and Heilman and Friedman give the sense that she more or less relinquished her husband to his followers.

The controversy comes mainly from the first half of the biography, where Heilman and Friedman suggest that, as a young man, Schneerson was tempted by the wider, secular world and resisted the call of Lubavitch. The evidence for this thesis is necessarily circumstantial. It took a surprisingly long time for Mendel, as the authors call him, to marry Yosef Yitzhak’s daughter, as if one or both of them were hesitant about the match. After the marriage, the couple did not live with the sixth Rebbe, in Latvia, but went to Berlin and then Paris, where Schneerson studied engineering. Heilman and Friedman make much of the idea that Schneerson’s short beard and (relatively) modern dress embarrassed his father-in-law, and imply that he lived too far from local synagogues in Berlin and Paris to pray regularly.

What emerges, not quite explicitly, from all these details is the portrait of a young man struggling against his destiny. Heilman and Friedman argue that not until Schneerson fled France for New York in 1941—rescued from the Nazis, along with most of the Lubavitcher elite, thanks to pressure put on the State Department by American Jewish leaders—did he finally give up his “dream” of living a less-cloistered life. It is this contention that many Lubavitchers have disputed, mainly on the grounds that throughout the 1930s, even as he lived away from the Lubavitch court, Schneerson was deeply immersed in Hasidic study. (See, for instance, the hostile but impressively knowledgeable critique by Chaim Rapoport, “The Afterlife of Scholarship.”)

There is a strong case to be made that, even when Schneerson was living farthest from the Lubavitcher world, his mental universe remained thoroughly Hasidic. What is undeniable is that as late as 1950, when Yosef Yitzhak died, Mendel seemed to resist becoming the next Rebbe. The sixth Rebbe’s other son-in-law, Shmaryahu Gourary, had been far more involved in the institutions of Chabad and looked like a more obvious successor. Not until Schneerson’s brilliance and charisma became undeniable did the Lubavitchers press him to become their leader.

Heilman and Friedman’s account of the day Schneerson finally agreed to become Rebbe is brilliantly dramatic. For a year after the sixth Rebbe’s death, quiet jockeying and lobbying among the Lubavitchers had pitted Schneerson against Gourary, with the former continually refusing to declare himself a candidate for the leadership. Finally, on the anniversary of Yosef Yitzhak’s death—the 10th of Shvat, on the Jewish calendar—Schneerson “arose to offer a Torah talk, sicha.” But a sicha was different from a ma’amar khsides, “a talk filled with Chabad philosophy and thought that is recited in a distinctive and unmistakable singsong … and which in Lubavitcher practice can only be offered by a rebbe.” Before the talk began, some Hasidim had privately asked Schneerson to give a ma’amar khsides, which would imply accepting the role of Rebbe, and he had refused, snapping, “stop this nonsense.” But as he spoke, “one of the oldest Hasidim present” called out “venimtso kheyn veseyhl tov, der rebe zol zogn khsides”: “may we find grace and good wisdom, and would the Rebbe offer khsides.”

At this cue, Schneerson paused, then resumed his talk “in the special singsong associated with such addresses,” Heilman and Friedman write, “at last offer[ing] the ma’amar khsides for which so many had been waiting and which he had undoubtedly prepared in advance. The drama of this vocal transition was unmistakable.” Indeed, the whole episode is like nothing so much as the moment in Julius Caesar when Caesar refuses the crown that the people keep begging him to accept. The comparison brings out the unselfconscious elevation and dignity of the scene at 770 Eastern Parkway. In the minds of those present, the selection of the new Rebbe was literally of cosmic importance, and it is nothing but this certainty of significance that makes history out of happenings. Without it, the grandest, most lavish spectacles—even coronations and inaugurations—feel self-conscious, stagy, insincere; with it, the affairs of a tiny sect in an old house in Brooklyn become the stuff of history.


One might say, then, that the Rebbe was always a virtual figure, just as much when he was physically present as now, when he can be seen only on a screen. Significance and holiness and power are, after all, virtual qualities: They cannot be touched or measured, but they can always be perceived by those who consent to their existence. The woman who spoke of viewing a video as being in the Rebbe’s presence was, perhaps, just speaking metaphorically. But the difficulty, when it comes to religion, has always been knowing when a metaphor stops being a metaphor.

Some people speak to the dead for guidance, even though they know they are really just speaking to themselves; others speak to the dead and believe the dead can hear, even if they can’t respond; some believe they are receiving messages from the dead, through signs or omens or the words of a medium. If you leave pidyones, written supplications, on the Rebbe’s grave, are you still acting metaphorically, or have you crossed the existential line that separates acting-as-if from genuine belief? Is it ever possible to cross that line, or does all belief carry with it suspicion of mere acting—and is that self-suspicion the reason why some people become fanatics, meshikhistn, to prove to themselves that they are finally, completely in earnest?

In this way, the scandal of messianism leads inexorably to the scandal of faith itself. If you believe in God—in an omnipotent and actual God, not the euphemistic God of rational and liberal theology—then you must believe that it is possible for God to speak to us, to intervene in our world, to change history. Indeed, if you are an Orthodox Jew or Christian or Muslim, you believe that God has already done these things, a long time ago, though he has inscrutably stopped speaking directly to mankind. It must therefore be possible, in principle, for God to redeem this world—to send the Messiah. And that means that it must be possible, in principle, for a man who claims to be the Messiah actually to be right—even though every previous Messiah, from Bar Kokhba to Jacob Frank, has turned out to be a false one.

To live messianically, then, is to live at a tremendously high tension, in the belief that the Eternal could always be just about to break into the temporal. In modern, secular Jewish literature, the great anatomists of this tension emerged in German-speaking Europe in the 1920s and 1930s—that is, at the historical moment when European Jewish life was at its breaking point, when it had to be either redeemed or destroyed. Out of this crisis came Franz Kafka, who wrote paradoxically that “the messiah will come on the day after he has arrived … not on the last day, but on the very last day”; and Walter Benjamin, who concluded his last essay, written shortly before his suicide in 1940, with the words: “every second of time [is] the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.” Benjamin’s friend Gershom Scholem became the greatest modern scholar of Jewish apocalyptic mysticism, including that of the false Messiah Shabbetai Zevi.

Franz Rosenzweig, author of The Star of Redemption, was the philosopher-theologian of this crisis moment. In Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson(Columbia University Press), his densely brilliant new study of the Rebbe’s mystical thought, Elliot R. Wolfson aptly quotes Rosenzweig on the function of the false Messiah: “The false Messiah is as old as the hope of the genuine one. He is the changing form of the enduring hope. Every Jewish generation is divided by him into those who have the strength of hope not to be deceived. Those having faith are better, those having hope are stronger.” Those having faith are better: Rosenzweig outrages reason in that phrase, deliberately so. It takes strength to resist the temptation of believing in a false Messiah, but to risk belief, he suggests, takes something even rarer—the willingness to be wounded and disappointed, the willingness to be made a fool of. For if no one is willing to believe in this Messiah, false though he may be, how will anyone be found to believe in the Messiah, when he really comes? And “no one knows,” Rosenzweig writes, “whether this … will not happen even today.”

Menahem Mendel Schneerson grew up in a very different part of the Jewish world than Rosenzweig or Benjamin, but he was part of the same generation. Born in the Russian empire in 1902, to a family with an old Lubavitcher pedigree, he lived through the string of crises that devastated Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the 20th century: Tsarist pogroms and persecutions, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Civil War, Stalinism, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and Nazism, and finally the Holocaust. If, as Gershom Scholem writes in “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea,” messianic predictions in Judaism are born in “an equal degree from revelation and from the suffering and desperation of those to whom they are addressed,” it is no wonder that the Jews of Schneerson’s generation should feel themselves to be living in “the footsteps of the Messiah”—a time, Scholem notes, in which “dread and peril of the End form an element of shock and of the shocking which induces extravagance.”

Given the magnitude of the catastrophe, in fact, one might wonder why Lubavitcher messianism—which was already taking shape, Heilman and Friedman show, in the 1920s, under the Sixth Rebbe—did not command a wider Jewish appeal. Why does the cult of Menahem Mendel Schneerson seem like a freak of Jewish history, when earlier messiahs, from Bar Kokhba to Shabbetai Zevi, convulsed the entire Jewish world? The answer, perhaps, is that by the time the “King Messiah” movement came into its own, in the early 1990s, Jewish messianic longings had long since been siphoned off into other channels. Communism, to which so many Jews looked for redemption in the early 20th century, had long since proved a dead end; but the creation of the State of Israel had given Jews, especially American Jews, a new focus for their love and longing.

No wonder, then, that Heilman and Friedman see the Rebbe’s relationship with the State of Israel as especially fraught and complex. On the one hand, Chabad built a large settlement in Israel—with the help of the state’s third president, Zalman Shazar, who had grown up in a Lubavitcher family—and Schneerson became an influential figure in Israeli politics (Rabin, Begin, Sharon, and Netanyahu all made the pilgrimage to 770). He saw the reclamation of Eretz Yisrael—including the Occupied Territories—as a sign of divine providence and was dead-set against any move to give up land for peace (except for the Sinai desert, which had no covenantal significance).

Yet Heilman and Friedman also argue that Lubavitch was in competition with Zionism, which it saw as a “false Messiah [that] was going to steal the faith of the Jews that Lubavitchers had been worrking so hard to arouse.” In particular, they write, Schneerson envied the prestige of the Israeli army and used several rhetorical techniques to try to claim it. His “mitzvah tanks” were meant to be spiritual equivalents of the IDF’s conquering tanks, just as his mitzvah campaigns were versions of military campaigns. At times Lubavitch sought to missionize Israeli soldiers, promising that troops who wore tefillin would be divinely protected and strike terror into their enemies. At the end of the Yom Kippur War, Heilman and Friedman write, Schneerson went so far as to advise Moshe Dayan to invade Syria and take Damascus, “based on mystical and Kabbalistic texts” that supported this step.

This kind of rivalrous grandiosity was a sign that, as Heilman and Friedman write, the Rebbe came to “see himself as controlling events not only in Israel but also in many other places in the world.” In 1990, the Rebbe’s followers claimed that he had predicted Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War. He even advised Israeli Lubavitchers not to equip themselves with government-issued gas masks, since he was certain no Scud missile could harm them. The fall of Communism in 1989 was another vindication of the Rebbe, the destruction of Lubavitch’s oldest and bitterest enemy.

Such world-historical events served to raise the emotional temperature at 770, where the Rebbe was approaching his 90th birthday. In the natural order of things, he could not live much longer. Yet for almost half a century—since the very first talk he gave upon becoming Rebbe, in 1951—Schneerson had been insisting that the Messiah would come in his time. The theme of that inaugural speech had been the mystical power of sevens, a stock subject in Jewish mysticism. “All who are seventh are most beloved,” Schneerson quoted, and it was lost on no one that he himself was the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. Every year on the same date, the 10th of Shvat, he would repeat the talk, which Heilman and Friedman call “a key text in Lubavitcher mythology and messianic theology.” (You can hear a selection of it, with subtitles, here.)

How, then, could the blessed seventh generation possibly give way to an eighth? As Schneerson came closer to his end, his messianic proclamations took on a more urgent, even desperate tone. “Everything necessary for the redemption has been completed,” he said in August 1991. The Jewish year 5752, which began in 1992, was the year when “the world would become united under the flag of the Messiah.” His Hasidim took the cue, preparing the famous yellow flag with a crown that became the logo of the Moshiach movement. No one, perhaps, believed more trustingly than a man named David Nachshon, an Israeli Lubavitcher who visited 770 in 1991. As Heilman and Friedman describe the scene, on Shabbat, April 20, Nachshon held up a bottle of liquor “and, standing before the Rebbe, announced that with this drink they would all toast the Rebbe our righteous Messiah who would redeem them on the next Sabbath at the rebuilt Holy Temple in Jerusalem.”

Here, if anywhere, was the man Rosenzweig described as having faith. Was he “better”? Should we not feel pity or contempt for him, imagining his plight on April 27, when the Temple was not restored and the Rebbe was not magically transported to Jerusalem? (A replica of 770 Eastern Parkway was built there, so that he would feel at home when the relocation happened.) Or should we, perhaps, feel anger at the Rebbe, the charismatic leader who encouraged his followers to believe of him what should never be believed of any human being? As the frenzy built among his Hasidim—as they displayed banners with his picture calling him Moshiach, and ran ads in the New York Times declaring “Moshiach Now,” and signed petitions begging him to declare himself the Messiah—Schneerson could have put a stop to it with a word. He never did.

But does this mean that the Rebbe actually believed he was the Messiah? On the evidence of his words and actions, as analyzed both by Heilman and Friedman and by Wolfson, it is hard to give a clear yes-or-no answer. It would be easier to understand Schneerson, and to judge him, if he were simply a pretender—if he told people he was the Messiah, knowing full well that he wasn’t—or simply deluded—if he straightforwardly knew that he was the Messiah, in the way that psychotics know they are Napoleon or Jesus Christ. But he was too good and sincere to be the former and too realistic and intelligent to be the latter.

The truth seems to be that, like his humblest followers, the Rebbe himself was waiting, in a state of intolerable expectation, for the Messiah to be revealed—and he was unable to rule out the possibility that the Messiah would turn out to be himself. The genuine bewilderment this caused comes across in the harangue he delivered a few days after Passover in 1991, when once again the Messiah had failed to come—despite the tradition that the final Redemption would take place in the same month, Nisan, as the redemption from bondage in Egypt. “How can it be,” he asked his followers, “that you have not yet succeeded in this time of grace to actualize the coming of the righteous Messiah? What else can I do so that the Children of Israel will cry out and demand the Messiah come, after all else that was done until now has not helped since we are obviously still in exile.” He concluded, “I have to hand over the task to you: Do all you can to bring the righteous Moshiach, mamesh.”

The last word, which Heilman and Friedman leave untranslated, is Hebrew for “in fact,” “really,” “actually.” It became part of Schneerson’s standard refrain in calling for the Messiah, as Elliot Wolfson shows in greater detail. (In general, Wolfson has much more to say about the content of Schneerson’s thought and writing, while Heilman and Friedman focus on the events of his life and the organizational growth of Chabad.) Let the Messiah come “tekhef u-mi-yad mammash,” Schneerson said again and again—“immediately and without delay in actuality,” as Wolfson translates.

The redundancy and insistence of the phrase speak very movingly of the urgency of Schneerson’s desire and capture the feeling that Walter Benjamin also communicated—that any single instant could be the gateway for the Messiah. Wolfson quotes Schneerson’s words from February 1990: “Let it be your will that by means of all these things we will merit in all of Israel, immediately and without delay in actuality, immediately without delay in actuality, immediately and without delay in actuality, the true and complete redemption.” With each repetition of tekhef u-mi-yad mammash, the moment is bid to hold still, the gate to swing open. One can imagine the same words coming from the pilgrim in Kafka’s parable “Before the Law,” who spends his entire life sitting in front of an open door, waiting for the doorkeeper’s permission to enter.

The Kafkaesque turn in that story comes at the moment of the man’s death, when he is told that “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you.” But it is left deliberately unclear whether this means that he should have seized the opportunity that was destined for him—say, by forcing his way through, despite the doorkeeper’s warnings. For isn’t forcing redemption the great temptation and sin of those who can’t wait patiently for God? Wolfson quotes Rosenzweig’s indulgent view of those who believe in false messiahs but in The Star of Redemption Rosenzweig is sterner about those he calls “Tyrants of the Kingdom of Heaven”: “The fanatic, the sectarian … far from hastening the advent of the kingdom, only delay it. … The ground prematurely cultivated by the fanatic yields no fruit. It does that only when its time has come. And its time, too, will come. But then all the work of cultivation will have to be undertaken afresh.”

Mamesh means “in fact”; but it is also made up of the letters mem, mem, shin, which are the initials of Menahem Mendel Schneerson. By so insistently linking this word to the coming of the Messiah, Schneerson seemed to be confirming that he himself was the one the Lubavitchers were waiting for. Once, Heilman and Friedman write, he added “that he meant mamesh ‘with all its interpretations’ ”—a typically elusive confirmation. So elusive, in fact, that Wolfson bases his book on the hypothesis that Schneerson not only didn’t think he was the Messiah, he didn’t even believe the Messiah was coming at all.

“In my judgment,” Wolfson writes, “Schneerson was intentionally ambiguous about his own identity as Messiah, since the key aspect of his teaching involves cultivating a modification in consciousness with respect to this very issue. Simply put, the image of the personal Messiah may have been utilized theoretically to liberate one from the belief in the personal Messiah.” Reading Schneerson and the classic texts of Chabad Hasidism through the lens of Heidegger and Derrida, on the one hand, and of Buddhist mysticism, on the other, Wolfson ingeniously suggests that this was Schneerson’s “open secret”: the secret that there is no secret, that the world will not be transformed, but revealed as itself the divine reality we have been waiting for.

Whether this was Schneerson’s actual intention may be doubted. As Wolfson acknowledges, he is trying to “glimpse a postmodern posture” beneath the “traditional eschatology” which Schneerson preached, complete with “the coming of the Davidic Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and building of the Third Temple.” What cannot be doubted is that, if Schneerson’s secret was that he had no secret, this secret was itself thoroughly well kept from his followers.

Wolfson’s book shows how intricately and rigorously the Chabad masters thought about God and redemption, and makes clear why Chabad is considered the most intellectual school of Hasidism. But for the people we see in videos of a farbrengen, watching intently as the Rebbe brings a bit of food to his lips, it is hard to imagine that his cosmological speculations and theological ironies are what mattered to them. Even as the Rebbe was insisting that it took every Jew’s help to bring the Messiah–this was the justification for his mitzvah campaigns, which saw every lit candle and wrapped tefillin as the weight that might tip the scale of redemption—his followers were certain that he himself had the power to save the world, if only he would use it.

One Saturday night in the spring of 1991, Heilman and Friedman write, during a gathering at 770, “one of the Hasidim called out, ‘As we know that the Rebbe, may he live long and good years, is the zaddik of the generation and our rabbis of blessed memory have told us that when a zaddik decrees, the Holy One Blessed Be He must fulfill—then why does the Rebbe not simply decree that the Redemption come?” How to imagine the feelings of a man to whom this question has been put—a man who has so totally convinced his followers that he stands in the place of God that he is forced to answer a question which God Himself has never answered? “That God could be tempted,” Rosenzweig writes, “is perhaps the most absurd of all the many absurd assertions which belief has set in the world.” But if ever a man was tempted to believe he could tempt God, it must have been the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who staged this tableau of desperate faith as if on purpose to show God that one man, at least, could sympathize with His powerlessness and His love.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.