Sunday, December 19, 2010
The Rebbe and the Messiah
Being a Gentile and a Christian, I had never heard of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. I was very surprised when I learned that a group of Hasidic Jews consider their dead rabbi to be the Messiah.
In 2009 during a trip to New York City, I was in a taxi cab which pulled beside a motor home labeled a "Mitzvah Tank" at a traffic light. Emblazoned on the side was a huge picture of Rebbe Scneerson. The markings labeled it as being part of the "Messianic Lubavitchers." When I got home I began to do research on the Messianic Lubavitchers. First, I learned that a mitzvah is a religious commandment or a good deed. The Chasad Lubavitchers drive around in RVs and vans called "Mitzvah Tanks" and invite Jews to come inside and perform Jewish prayer rituals such as wrapping tefillin. Second, I learned that the Messianic Lubavitchers are Hasidic Jews who believe that the late Rebbe Schneerson is the Messiah and that he will come back from the dead in a Second Coming and complete the redemption of Israel.
Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Intrigued, I began to collect books about Hasidism. One of the books which I acquired was The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (2001) by David Berger. Berger is an Orthodox Rabbi and professor who argues that by believing that a dead rabbi can be the Messiah, the Messianic Lubavitchers have removed themselves from Judaism and created a new religion. Berger also sees the belief in Rebbe Schneerson as the Messiah to be a catastrophe for Orthodox Judaism.
Why did I pull this book out and read it cover to cover during this holy season of Advent? This topic is highly relevant during this season of Advent as we celebrate the coming of the true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and anticipate His imminent return.
A big part of Rabbi Berger's argument is that if Orthodox Judaism allows the belief that a dead Rabbi from Brooklyn is the Messiah, then the Christian claim must also be taken seriously.
"The legitimation of Second Coming Judaism has not been lost on interested Christians. Two people have told me that Cardinal Lustiger of France, who was brought up as a Jew, has warned Jewish friends that this is how Christianity began. A stranger approached a rabbi from my neighborhood on the streets of Manhattan, showed him a picture of the Rebbe, and asked, 'How is he different from Jesus?'
Far more important than these random observations is the growing utilization of this movement by skilled and committed missionaries. A convert to Orthodox Judaism living in Minneapolis informs me that the local head of a missionary organization greeted him with the question, 'What about the Lubavitchers?' Three people have told me of a billboard or poster in California with the phone number of a missionary group, a picture of the Rebbe, and the message, 'Right Idea. Wrong Person.' Another spoke of a Jews for Jesus T-shirt with the Rebbe's picture. None of this is the least bit surprising. No missionary with a modicum of intelligence could fail to exploit the gift-wrapped opportunity that Orthodox Jewry has bestowed upon proselytizing Christianity."
New York City Billboard Proclaiming the Rebbe is the Messiah.
Rabbi Berger details instances where children in Yeshivas were instructed to pray towards pictures of the Rebbe and recite prayers to the Rebbe as the Messiah. In one of the more comic instances, Berger recounts that some Messianic Lubavitchers believe that the headquarters of Chasad Lubavitch at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, will become the new Temple when the Rebbe returns as the Messiah. Berger comments with derision, "Thus, one fulfills a key requirement from moving from presumptive Messiah to definite Messiah by building a large synagogue in Brooklyn." Berger also recounts that in 1997 six high ranking Hasidic and Orthodox rabbis issued a rabbinical ruling which required all Jews to believe that Rebbe Schneerson is the Messiah!
I find this topic endlessly fascinating. Although one is tempted to laugh and to poke fun, these are deeply religious people who are desperately seeking the Messiah who will redeem them. The relationship between Jews and Christians has, through the centuries, been marked by fear, sin and excess and both sides. From the excesses of the Middle Ages against the Jewish community right through to the Holocaust and our own day, we Christians have largely failed in our mandate to manifest the love of God in our lives. We cannot possibly write off people who love God so much as our Orthodox Jewish brothers and sisters. We must continue to pray for them and for our own conversion.
Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!
Rabbi David Berger