1,000 Orthodox rabbis reject claim rebbe was Messiah

Many Lubavitchers — no one knows exactly how many — continue to believe that the rebbe is the Messiah, though he died June 12, 1994, at the age of 92.

Few Lubavitchers are able to describe that event as their leader's death.

Instead, the strongest language many use to describe the third day of the month of Tammuz on the Jewish calendar is as "the day the rebbe ascended on high."

Before the rebbe's death, nearly every Lubavitcher Chassid believed that he was the Messiah and had not yet revealed himself to be the redeemer because the Jewish people did not merit it.

At issue now is the fact that a significant segment of the Lubavitch movement continues to believe — and is publicly promoting that belief — that the rebbe will be resurrected as the Messiah.

There are also a few members of the Messianic camp who believe the rebbe never died at all, but is simply not yet ready to reappear.

At the same time, many other Lubavitchers acknowledge their beloved leader's death and have dedicated themselves to carrying on his work, reaching out to Jews wherever they may be.

The author of the RCA resolution, Rabbi David Berger, has publicly urged the mainstream Orthodox community to distance itself from the large Messianic faction in Lubavitch by not raising money for the Chassidic group.

The alternative, he says, risks altering "the basic contours of the faith."

The single-sentence resolution, which was passed by consensus, reads:

"In light of disturbing developments which have recently arisen in the Jewish community, the Rabbinical Council of America in convention assembled declares that there is not and has never been a place in Judaism for the belief that Mashiach ben David [Messiah son of David] will begin his Messianic Mission only to experience death, burial and resurrection before completing it."

The resolution does not finger Lubavitch by name because the RCA's leadership wanted to be careful "not to deprecate or castigate" the entire Chassidic group, said the RCA president, Rabbi Rafael Grossman.

The original version of the resolution had named Lubavitch. The reference was deleted, Grossman said, because "there is a substantial part of Lubavitch leaders who do not hold this view, and among those who do hold the view there are some wonderful dedicated Jews, so it is not our intention to deprecate these people, but to make it clear that this view is not in the Torah tradition."

It is rare for one Orthodox group to publicly criticize another, even if not by name.

Still the response among both factions of the Lubavitch was strong.

Rabbi Shmuel Butman, chairman of the International Campaign to Bring Moshiach, responded to the RCA by saying: "Questions of belief in Judaism are a matter of halachah [Jewish law] and should be referred to recognized Torah giants of the generation for a decision."

"They have never been decided by popular vote, even of a rabbinic organization," he said, adding that he hoped the RCA would refer the issue to its halachic committee.

Butman also said the Lubavitch rebbe himself wrote in 1951 that the "Moshiach can arise with those select few who will be resurrected before the redemption."

Thus, he said, a vote such as that taken by the RCA "is like voting against the rebbe."

Those Lubavitchers who do not endorse the Messianic camp were clearly pained by the RCA resolution.

"It is unfortunate that the rabbinic convention chose to focus yet more attention on these activities, only further obscuring the real work and philosophy of Lubavitch," which is "to spread the light of Torah to every corner of the world," said Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a leading member of the movement's umbrella organization.

"We have no record of the promoter and driving force behind this resolution ever having attempted to contact the figures of authority within the Lubavitch movement," Krinsky added, "all of whom are well-known to oppose the irresponsible pronouncements and activities of a few."

Berger, who is an RCA member and works as a professor of history at Brooklyn College and at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, wrote a lengthy article criticizing Lubavitch messianism in the magazine of the Orthodox Union last fall.

The Orthodox Union is a sister organization of the RCA.

Heated debate and correspondence in the magazine followed the controversial piece.

In an interview, Berger said if the Orthodox community allows these Messianic views to become regarded as legitimate in the Jewish world, "it's a fundamental change in the Jewish religion."

In addition, "Jews have then taken away from themselves one of the central arguments we've been using against the Christian missionaries for the last thousand years," he said, referring to the belief that the Messiah died and was resurrected.

Indeed, the so-called Messianic Jewish community, which cloaks Christian theology in Jewish customs and language, has seized on Lubavitch messianism, often using it to bolster its own theological arguments in its promotional literature.

One Jew who converted to Christianity and became a Southern Baptist minister later evangelizing for Jews for Jesus and other Hebrew Christian groups, described Lubavitch messianism as "the birth of a second Christianity."

"Does this sound like something that happened 2,000 years ago?" said Joseph Daniels, who lives in Baltimore and asked that his real name not be used.

Butman, however, took issue with this view.

The belief that the Messiah can die and be resurrected before redemption "is an integral part of Judaism," he said.

"Because someone else misuses it does not take away anything from Jewish belief."