In his latest article titled “Did the Rebbe Identify Himself as the Messiah—and What Do His Hasidim Believe Today?” he discusses three recent books published about the Rebbe, “My Rebbe” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, “Rebbe” by Joseph Telushkin, and “Turning Judaism Outward” by Chaim Miller, and explains what they all sorely missed out: The Rebbe as Moshiach, and its relevance to today.
Sometimes, a person sets out with the wrongful intention, but the result is beneficial…
The 20th anniversary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s […] 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 […].
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.
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.
… 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…
… 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.”
… 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.)
… Telushkin notes that some of the “mainstream” Hasidim recognize the possibility that the Rebbe will return as the messiah but feel that there is no way to know, while others do not even acknowledge the possibility. The full-fledged messianists are a “shrinking” movement and have been denounced by the mainstream. In any event, the entire matter is a nonissue because even the messianists continue to observe Jewish law.
Despite its length and its status as a full biography, Miller’s book contains remarkably little discussion of the messianic vision that stood at the center of the Rebbe’s consciousness. We are presented with the passage in the first official discourse. After that, with the exception of two pages of little substance, we find virtually nothing on the theme until a 10-page discussion of the messianic emphasis in the last years of the Rebbe’s life of which only the last four or five address the key issues. What we learn is the following: The preparation for the messianic age that the Rebbe advocated was increased mitzvah observance and broadening the study of Hasidism and the messianic doctrine. He encouraged his followers to do everything they can to bring the messiah primarily through such study. He affirmed the Maimonidean position that one can be sure of the messiah’s identity only after he builds the Temple and gathers the dispersed of Israel. He denounced people who sang a messianist chant for alienating people from Hasidism. He wrote the above-mentioned letter to the editor of Kfar Chabad magazine and a similar one to the author of a prospective article…
If we look back at all three books, I think it is fair to say that readers would be puzzled if confronted with a realistic picture of the intensity and scope of the messianic movement that swirled around the Rebbe in his last years […]. Yes, he preached that the redemption was imminent and that it is the task of this generation to actualize it. He was arguably the most impressive figure of the generation. But, we are told, he made it clear that the identity of the messiah is unknown, and for all the talk of imminence, he spoke after all of the task of the generation and said—in a passage quoted by Steinsaltz—that though the redemption is at the threshold, we have to pull it in. We get no sense that he provided unequivocal assurances that the redemption would come in this generation. The main reason that readers will not be too puzzled by the widespread messianist belief is that they have been informed that the messianists believed only that the Rebbe was the potential messiah of the generation (Telushkin) and were convinced in his last years only of the “urgent possibility” that he “might” be the messiah (Steinsaltz). In fairness, Steinsaltz drops these qualifiers in his allusion to the current messianists.
In fact, the Rebbe’s assurances were far stronger than this portrait suggests, and the messianists’ belief that he is the messiah is far less equivocal. What I am about to present here is material provided with his mother’s milk to every child in a messianist family but remains virtually unknown to all but a minuscule sliver of the outside community. It is impossible to understand Lubavitch messianism or assess its staying power without awareness of this information.
… In any case, there cannot be the slightest doubt that the Rebbe knew that his Hasidim, virtually without exception, believed that he was referring to himself. At the same time, his apparent perception that he was in large measure an instrument of his father-in-law’s leadership means that some of the exalted characterizations that he expressed were consistent with preservation of a significant measure of humility.
Here then is a sampling of statements made by the Rebbe that combined to generate a deep conviction among the Hasidim that he is the messiah […] All of these statements—and many more—appear with precise annotation in one or more of the following Hebrew collections: Ve-hu Yig’allenu (Brooklyn, 1994, translated into English as And He Will Redeem Us [Brooklyn, 1994]); Ha-Tekufah ve-ha-Geullah be-Mishnato shel ha-Rebbe mi-Lubavitch (Kfar Chabad, 1999); Be-Emunah Shelemah ed. by S. Shmida (Jerusalem, 2000); Ha-Nekudah ha-Habadit 2 (Marcheshvan 5764 ).
1. “The Prince of the generation is—‘Messiah’… I have no objection if ‘Messiah’ is interpreted in its straightforward sense—our Righteous Messiah, since this is the truth—that the Prince of the generation is the Messiah of the generation.”
2. “Our Righteous Messiah…my teacher and father-in-law the Prince of our generation.”
3. “My teacher and father-in-law the Prince of our generation, the only Messiah of our generation.”
4. Commenting on the phrase, “They will be redeemed immediately (miyad)”: “So will this happen to us in actual reality, and with actual immediacy, with all the interpretations of miyad…and particularly with respect to this generation of ours…For the [three-letter] acrostic of MiYaD represents the three periods associated with my teacher and father-in-law the Prince of our generation in the order of their proximity to us: Mashiach (whose name is Menachem), Yosef Yitzchak, Dov Baer.” The last two are the names of the Rebbe’s predecessors in reverse chronological order. This is the closest he came to an explicit assertion that he is the Messiah, and one can plausibly argue that it is in fact fully explicit.
5. Referring to his father-in-law: “After it has become known that he is a prophet, the people should believe in him, and they should not disparage or criticize him. Their belief should not be in the prophet as an individual, but as a messenger charged with communicating the words of God. This concept has to be publicized to everyone in this generation. It must be made known that we have merited that G-d has chosen and appointed a person who in himself is immeasurably greater than the people of his generation, to serve as a judge, adviser, and prophet to the generation…until the main prophecy, ‘To redemption immediately,’ for ‘Behold Mashiach is coming’ right away in the literal sense (mammash).” (The entire discourse can be read in English here . I have made some modifications in the translation.)
6. There is a rabbinic text that prohibits full-throated laughter in the pre-Messianic age, though not all authorities took this quite literally and observant Jews have generally set it aside. The Rebbe asserted that this prohibition is no longer applicable because it applies only through the moment before the revelation of the messiah. “But since the Prince of our generation [referring explicitly to his father-in-law] was the Messiah of our generation and he was revealed in full force,” it follows that untrammeled laughter is now permitted and even encouraged.
7. Messianists have posted a video of a discourse by the Rebbe after which, as Telushkin noted, he briefly encouraged the singing of the messianist chant. Of perhaps greater interest is the posted section of the talk itself, where someone who understands Yiddish or the Hebrew titles will see the vigorous, unequivocal assertion that this is the generation of the redemption and the last generation of the exile. “The true and complete redemption—without forced interpretations [that would dilute the plain meaning of this depiction—un pshetlakh]” is arriving “right away—literally and literally literally” (in transliteration appropriate for Yiddish—tekef umiyad mamesh umamesh mamesh).
8. The Messiah will proclaim the message that redemption has arrived from the roof of Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. (The Rebbe’s discourse on Parashat Hayyei Sarah 5751.) The heavenly Temple will not descend directly into Jerusalem. It will first descend to a spot adjoining 770 Eastern Parkway, and the buildings, along with all other diaspora synagogues, will then be transported to Jerusalem. (The Rebbe’s discourse, published as a separate booklet, titled Mikdash Me’at: Zeh Beit Rabbenu she-be-Bavel.)
9. On two recorded occasions, the Rebbe provided encouraging reactions to representatives of the Chabad women’s organization who had organized explicit affirmations of his messiahship. For one of these, click here .
These are some of the “hints that the Rebbe left” that could be “pick[ed] up” by the Hasidim. There is far, far more along these lines. Not a single one of these citations or anything resembling them appears in these books. Readers of the books would not imagine in their wildest dreams that such material could exist.
Lubavitch non-messianists have understandably attempted to mitigate the impact of this evidence. In key instances, they say, we are dealing with rhetorical exaggeration. Thus, the discourse in No. 7 above also affirms that the redemption would come that very day before the evening prayer. Since everyone understood that this was rhetoric, they should have also understood that the assurance about this generation was rhetoric despite its emphatically unequivocal language and the fact that it is part of a series of such assertions over the years. Alternatively, the affirmations of immediate redemption should be understood as prayers. When the Rebbe spoke about his father-in-law’s prophecy of immediate redemption, he did not mean full-fledged prophecy.
Even if one accepts the plausibility of these arguments—and it is a great struggle to do so—there is not a shadow of a doubt that the Rebbe knew that the large majority of his audience took his statements literally, i.e., they understood that he was informing them that the redemption would definitely take place in this generation and that this assurance is based on prophecy. There is similarly not a shadow of a doubt that the Rebbe knew that when he spoke of his father-in-law as the messiah of the generation, his audience took for granted that he was appealing to his partnership with his predecessor and effectively affirming that he would be the redeemer.
… One messianist spokesman put it, the Rebbe said that the prince of the generation is the Lubavitcher Rebbe of the generation, and he said that this is the generation of the redemption. The spokesman went on to say that one does not need to resort to the recognition that two plus two equals four in order to draw the inexorable conclusion; it is enough to know that one plus one equals two.
… I cannot easily explain why he would issue such unequivocal assurances. My best guess is that he believed that the final push had to come from the efforts of the people and that only unequivocal statements would provide the incentive necessary to galvanize them to a sufficient degree. But I do not know. What I do know is that he conveyed a message that did not suggest a modicum of doubt…
… It is difficult to determine with full confidence the percentage of unabashed messianists among full-fledged Hasidim. But it is certainly not a “narrow slice,” “an extremist fringe,” a “messianic margin.” The largest population of Lubavitch Hasidim is almost certainly in Israel, where messianism is extremely powerful. The largest Lubavitch yeshiva in the world is probably the one in Safed, and it is vigorously messianist. I did some random Internet searches of Chabad yeshivas in Israel and found the following: In Safed, virtually every student wears a skullcap adorned with the messianist slogan, “May our Master, Teacher and Rabbi the King Messiah live forever,” which begins with the Hebrew word yechi; in Netanya most do; in Bnei Brak about half do; at a 2010 event in Torat Emet yeshiva in Jerusalem a giant yechi poster adorned the wall; yechi appears at the top of the home page of the Herzliya and Ramat Aviv yeshivas; the yeshiva of Mitzpeh Yitzhar is clearly messianist; in Lod, Kiryat Gat, Tiferet Menachem Jerusalem and Kfar Chabad, the photos that I have seen indicate that students do not wear yechi skullcaps and/or the website does not say yechi.
The presence of the slogan is determinative. Its absence is not since concerns about the Rebbe’s opposition to public pronouncements as well as considerations of fundraising can play a role. It should be noted that the chief rabbi of Kfar Chabad is one of more than two hundred signatories of a rabbinic ruling that one is obligated by Jewish law to believe that the Rebbe is the messiah. The grounds for this ruling are that the Rebbe is a prophet, he clearly indicated that he is the messiah, and one is obligated to heed the words of a prophet. (See psakdin.net for the Hebrew text with a link to an English translation and the list of signatories.) This explains, by the way, why the fact that the Rebbe has not built the Temple or gathered the dispersed of Israel does not prevent messianists from being certain that he is the messiah. They do not abrogate fast days because the Temple has not been rebuilt, not (as Telushkin suggests) because they entertain doubts about the messiahship of the Rebbe.
The Chabad Chief Rabbi of Russia remains listed on the rabbinic ruling that the Rebbe is the messiah. In Crown Heights, a signatory of the ruling (Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Schwei) has apparently become the most influential member of the Crown Heights rabbinic court. The main synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway remains decorated with messianist slogans. My impression is that the situation in the largest yeshiva in Crown Heights, Oholei Torah/Oholei Menachem, is mixed, but within the last year eight mashpi’im (religious mentors) there issued a letter on an unrelated matter where the Rebbe is referred to as a matter of course as the King Messiah. (Hebrew readers can consult it here .)
… Whatever the precise percentages, it is evident that this belief is widespread and is being transmitted to the next generation in a host of educational institutions. When we add the firm believers among the “non-messianists” to the large number of overt messianists, it is difficult to avoid the impression that believers constitute a majority of full-fledged Lubavitch Hasidim…