Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The most recognized face of any Jewish leader of the past fifty years belongs to the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, even more so today than at his death in 1994. There are few Jews who have not seen the picture of the Lubavitcher rebbe on billboards or in other media or who have not encountered one of his many “representatives,” young men and women who have dedicated their lives to the dissemination of his teachings. At the core of those teachings is a messianic theology that is emphasized in varying degrees by his Chabad emissaries, even more so posthumously than during his lifetime. Chabad is the generic name of the Hasidic community he led for forty-four years; Lubavitch is the name of the town in Belarus where the Chabad community was centered before the First World War.

This messianism doubtless fires Chabad’s missionary fervor. It distinguishes Chabad from more insular Hasidic communities and motivates Chabad to employ the same techniques of modern publicity as do Christian and Islamic missionary movements. The thrust of this messianic theology is the strong suggestion that Rabbi Schneerson himself is the Messiah-King, thus making the essential task of his representatives (called shluchim in Hebrew) to prepare the Jewish people, and along with them all humankind, to affirm that kingship.

The Lubavitcher rebbe”the name used by those who do not consider him to be “ the Rebbe””is the subject of two important new books: the more biographical The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson by Professors Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, and the more theoretical Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menachem Mendel Schneerson by Professor Elliot Wolfson. But before turning to the controversy these volumes have occasioned, we need to understand what a Hasidic rebbe does, to make clear what kind of Hasidic rebbe was Menachem Mendel Schneerson. We must also understand the meaning of the messianic claims made by him or by his followers and consider the future of a community now living his “afterlife.”

Traditional Jewish communities are led by a rabbi of recognized authority (a rav in Hebrew). A traditional rabbi is the man to whom the community and its members turn to rule on what Jewish law requires of them, particularly in cases of doubt. The rabbi is often the regular preacher in the synagogue, the man whose sermons offer his community more general theological and moral guidance. But a Hasidic rebbe is much more than a rabbinical jurist and preacher, although some of them also have functioned in these roles. Heilman and Friedman accurately describe a rebbe as “an intermediary between his followers and the Almighty, capable of bestowing blessings as well as transmitting the will of God.” As such, this is the man (although there once was a woman who functioned as a rebbe) who makes those policies of a Hasidic community that seem to need more than ordinary legal or theological justifications or who can get a new commandment ad hoc directly from God. That is why individual Hasidim come to their rebbe for divine direction in life dilemmas with no simple legal or theological solution. In fact, in most Hasidic communities, quotidian legal and theological tasks are usually assigned to a rebbe’s rabbinical subordinates.

To compare with Catholicism, one could say an ordinary rabbi functions like a canon lawyer or an official theologian, whereas a rebbe bears a charismatic spiritual authority more comparable to that of a pope. Yet just as a pope claims only to be Christ’s vicar, not Christ himself, so does a Hasidic rebbe not normally claim to be the Messiah. That is what made Menachem Mendel Schneerson a very different kind of rebbe. And Rabbi Schneerson’s own not so subtle suggestions that he himself might be the Messiah mean that his more “messianic” followers are not simply inventing his messiahhood out of their own collective imagination. Indeed, as Wolfson’s study shows, this messianic preoccupation has been a central feature of Chabad theology from its beginnings in the works of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of Chabad Hasidism. This type of messianism also prompted Professor David Berger of Yeshiva University to write his controversial 2001 book The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference , in which he argues that the similarities of Chabad messianic theology to Christology make it heretical, if not outright apostasy from Judaism.

As Heilman and Friedman tell the story, the future Rebbe was born Menachem Mendel in 1902 to distant relatives of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Shalom Ber Schneerson. In the dynastic succession typical of Hasidic rebbes, Shalom Ber Schneerson was succeeded on his death by his son, Yosef Yitzchak, born in 1880. In 1928 Menachem Mendel became Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson’s son-in-law and took on his last name. Between 1928 and 1941 (the year he arrived in the United States), Menachem Mendel Schneerson and his wife lived first in Berlin and then in Paris, where he studied and tried to practice engineering though remaining dependent on his father-in-law for financial support. Although they kept close ties to the Lubavitch community, it seems the young Schneerson couple planned a more independent life for themselves. (Even after Menachem Schneerson became the Lubavitcher rebbe in 1950, his wife, Moussia, continued to live her own rather private life and insisted on being called “Mrs. Schneerson” rather than “the Lubavitcher rebbetzin, ” or “rebbe’s wife.”) The fall of France to the Nazis forced the Schneersons to follow Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak to the United States, where the Lubavitcher community had established its headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

In New York, Rabbi Schneerson became more involved in the leadership of the Lubavitch community, especially as his father-in-law became more infirm. On Yosef Yitzchak’s death in 1950, the patrilineal succession common in the Hasidic world was excluded, as the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe had only daughters. The big question among Lubavitchers”and among other interested parties in the Hasidic world and the world of the ultraorthodox yeshivas”was “Who will Yosef Yitzchak’s successor be?” His oldest daughter, Chana, was married to Rabbi Abraham Gourary, who acted as the rebbe’s executive secretary. But, as Heilman and Friedman put it, “Gourary . . . appeared to many people to lack personal charisma””unlike Menachem Mendel Schneerson. After a brief struggle for succession, the Lubavitcher Hasidim chose Menachem Mendel Schneerson to be their seventh rebbe, and Rabbi Gourary and most of his supporters fell into line.

Before the seventh rebbe’s succession in 1950, Lubavitch did not stand out from its larger and more influential rivals, such as Satmar, Ger, and Belz. The power and vision of Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s leadership quickly changed that. On several key theological and political issues, he reversed the usual Hasidic turn inward into a new kind of outreach. He sought not only to bring Chabad Hasidism into a radically new world but, even more, to bring that new world to Chabad. Some saw this as Lubavitch’s adjustment to the new world, but Lubavitchers themselves see this as Chabad’s turning that new world toward its own truth.

The issues on which Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson made a big difference”at least in the larger Orthodox world”concern nonreligious Jews, non-Jews, and the state of Israel. All of this is explained well in the Heilman“Friedman biography, and some of it in Wolfson’s study of Rabbi Schneerson’s theology.

To the leaders of East European Orthodox Jewish communities before the Second World War, America was a treifah medinah ”a “nonkosher domain””a place where Jews were pulled into a vortex of vulgar materialism and a culture that quickly and thoroughly melted down traditional Jewish devotion to the Torah and the practice of its commandments. This attitude was especially prevalent among the Hasidic rebbes, who advocated the most thorough Jewish separation possible. In their eyes, the dangers to Jewish bodies posed by East European societies were to be preferred to the danger to Jewish souls posed by American society and (in the rebbes’ eyes) its atheistic culture. That is why few Hasidim, and even fewer Lubavitcher Hasidim, settled in America until after the Second World War. And that is certainly how Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson felt about America, even after he took refuge there in 1940, following his release from a Soviet prison. On his succession, Menachem Mendel Schneerson proposed a radically different view of America and the role it could play in Jewish revival.

Most Hasidic rebbes kept their followers away from the great majority of secularized or vaguely religious American Jews. By the end of his life, the man whom Lubavitcher Hasidim now call “the previous rebbe,” Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, was beginning to send out some of his disciples to try to bring more Judaism to these “lost” Jews. In the past, the only type of outreach to other Jews practiced by Lubavitch or any other Hasidic community was to attract the followers of other Hasidic rebbes or other Orthodox Jews (usually from the anti-Hasidic yeshiva world) to become the Hasidim of their rebbe. When, in 1949, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson sent some of his disciples to encourage more Jewish religious observance at the decidedly secular Brandeis University, he signaled a departure from Hasidic and even Lubavitch precedents. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson saw the Jews of America as unlike the European Jews who knew the traditional Judaism they had willingly deserted. He characterized American Jews as the “kidnapped child” of whom the Talmud speaks: a person who did not desert Judaism but whom the traditional Jewish community had never known at all. “Returning” these people to the Jewish fold did not entail winning them back to a tradition they had rejected. Instead, they were to be introduced to Jewish identity for the first time.

When Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the Lubavitcher rebbe, he expanded this outreach. He intoned in his writings and speeches that this outreach was necessary to bring about the arrival of the Messiah. Chabad outreach did not recognize Jewish secularism or what Rabbi Schneerson considered to be the compromised Judaism of Reform and Conservative Jews. Chabad looked at these Jews only as lost individuals. For Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, anything less than Jewish Orthodoxy (meaning full acceptance of the divinely revealed Torah and the authority of Jewish legal tradition, Halakhah) was not Judaism at all; indeed, even non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews”and even non-Lubavitch Hasidim”could find the truest and fullest form of Judaism only in Chabad. As Heilman and Friedman report, Rabbi Schneerson’s emissaries “would act as agents provocateurs, people who seemed open to modernity and America, but only in order to change it.”

But Rabbi Schneerson’s departure from traditional suspicion of America went deeper. He understood that America had not only a different kind of Jew but also a different kind of Gentile. Despite a residual anti-Semitism, Americans on the whole not only are friendlier to Jews but also have a greater respect for Judaism. Unlike many Orthodox Jews today, who view with suspicion American Christian support for Israel and other Jewish causes, the Lubavitcher rebbe saw the underlying affinity: American Christianity is steeped in the Bible. And America itself, if not in an official political sense, is still very much a Christian country culturally. American Christianity, moreover, retains the influence of Puritan Calvinism, which, more than any other Christian current, emphasized the Old Testament.

What is the practical import of American biblicism? One can see the Bible teaching two main truths, one universal and the other particular. The universal truth is that there are certain moral norms whose affirmation can be expected of all human beings. This is what the rabbinic tradition called the “Noahide commandments,” Noah being the progenitor of all humankind after the Flood. The sign of a truly decent society, one that Jews can respect and even participate in, is the seriousness with which that society takes these universal norms, whatever they might be called.

The particular truth taught in the Bible is that the Jewish people are the elect of God and play a unique role in God’s ultimate redemption of the world from sin and death. A good non-Jewish society (or civilization) is one that takes the Noahide laws seriously and recognizes the ultimate importance of having Jews teaching and practicing a flourishing Judaism in its midst. Rabbi Schneerson judged America to be such a society”a society in which both the universal and particular teaching of the Bible are taken seriously.

The political effects of this type of theological speculation about America came to the fore relatively early in Rabbi Schneerson’s career as the Lubavitcher rebbe. In 1962, when the largely secularist leaders of American Jewry were vigorously fighting the recitation of any prayer, no matter how “nonsectarian,” in public schools, Rabbi Schneerson, in what became his first real appearance on the larger American Jewish stage, argued the opposite. After all, if there is a Noahide commandment that prohibits idolatry (the worship of “other gods”), doesn’t that imply that the worship of the One God”whom all the proposed public-school prayers explicitly invoked”is required of all human beings, especially if the One God is the creator of heaven and earth represented in the Bible?

Also in the 1960s, when the leaders of American Jewry were vigorously fighting religious displays such as Christmas crèches in what Father Richard John Neuhaus called “the naked public square,” Rabbi Schneerson directed his representatives to erect Hanukkah menorahs in public places wherever they could do so. To my knowledge, the only opposition to this project the Lubavitchers have encountered has been from secularist Jews who seem to be uncomfortable with anyone’s religion, even their own or that of their ancestors, occupying a public space. Moreover, the choice of this particular Jewish object for public display is significant because the Hanukkah menorah is meant to proclaim to the world that God miraculously saved the Jewish people from losing their religious identity to a foreign power and its culture in the days of the Maccabees. The story appeals to the deepest levels of American identity”an archetypal identity forged by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, who risked everything to worship God publicly in their own way. Despite their quaint dress, young Lubavitchers erecting Hanukkah menorahs in the public square recall the Pilgrim Fathers, as several American Christians have told me. Indeed, they seem more American than the Jewish and Gentile secularists who want to put religion into the closet.

Nevertheless, as Wolfson reports, Rabbi Schneerson was no universalist, although he held a higher view of Gentiles, especially American Christians, than did most other Hasidic thinkers past and present. He propounded the Hasidic view, drawn from Kabbalah, that an ontological divide separates Jews from Gentiles: Jews are taken to be a distinct species, with a superior relationship with God. And that is not only because Jews are the recipients of the Sinaitic revelation (which, after all, Gentiles can access in some fashion) but also because Jews, in both soul and body, were created to be more elevated than the rest of creation and humankind. Accordingly, non-Jews are valued insofar as they respect Judaism and maintain the kind of moral society in which Jewish religion can survive and flourish.

When modern political Zionism emerged around the turn of the twentieth century, most Orthodox Jews opposed it. For most early Zionists, Zionism seemed not to be an expression of Jewish religion but rather a substitute for it. Almost all the Hasidic rebbes abhorred Zionism, including the fifth and sixth Lubavitcher rebbes, Shalom Ber Schneerson and his son and successor, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. They saw Zionism as yet another snare set by heretical Jewish modernity for traditional Jews. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson persisted in this stance until the end of his life. Chabad’s attitude began to change when Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the Lubavitcher rebbe in 1950, just two years after the reestablishment of the state of Israel.

Why the change in attitude”what Heilman and Friedman call “reinvention”? It could be said that Rabbi Schneerson saw the realization of the Zionist ideal in the state of Israel’s presence in the contemporary world just as he saw America as the realization of the religious ideals of its Founders. Despite the secularist dangers, the state of Israel, with its Jewish majority population, offered Chabad a field for future development. Zionism was no longer an enemy, as it was in the continuing view of Chabad’s archrivals, the Satmar Hasidim. On the contrary, Chabad’s support of Israel and, in particular, its foreign policy has been very successful in Israel, despite a theology that denies explicit support for any secular state, even a Jewish one. Rabbi Schneerson’s portrait is displayed throughout Israel without a caption because he is universally recognized. Chabad “emissaries” are everywhere, from airports to shopping centers.

While granting Rabbi Schneerson’s extraordinary achievements and influence on contemporary Jewish life, traditional Judaism cannot accept the view of some of his followers that Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the Messiah. The Messiah is assumed to be a particular human being who is to perform certain acts that identify him as such. Even in the less apocalyptic type of Jewish messianism, the Messiah is still expected to gather all Israel into the land of Israel, rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, and establish an optimal polity having strong international influence. If not supernatural, these criteria are nonetheless utopian. And according to these criteria Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson cannot be the Messiah yet to come.

Elliot Wolfson offers a convoluted postmodern argument that Schneerson somehow still represented the Messiah impersonally or “transpersonally.” This detracts from the creditable scholarship Wolfson applies to analyzing the vast body of Chabad writings and putting it into the overall context of the kabbalistic theology he knows so well. Heilman and Friedman, on the other hand, mar an otherwise strong narrative by indulging in shallow psychologizing and ascribing to the Lubavitcher rebbe all sorts of motives that only he and God could possibly know he ever had.

Lastly, though, the questions raised by the two Orthodox sociologists who know a good deal of the history of Hasidism are most pertinent. What, Heilman and Friedman ask, will happen to Chabad, with its now deceased rebbe whom no one outside of Chabad’s own messianic circle claims to be the Messiah? They conclude, “One needs to wait at least two generations to begin to see how religious change develops and whether movements die, fractionalize, or are sustained.” Yet, here and now, one can hope.

As a traditional Jew I have benefited personally from the hospitality of Chabad Hasidim on many occasions, and I marvel at how many Jews Chabad has brought back to their primordial home. That is why I hope Chabad will be sustained and will flourish. I hope the explicitly messianic Chabad Hasidim eventually will return to normative Judaism, something that has happened before to what we might call “premature” Jewish messianic movements. And I dare hope that sooner or later Chabad will choose an eighth Lubavitcher rebbe who will be a worthy successor to Menachem Mendel Schneerson and will carry forth his legacy as Menachem Mendel carried forth the legacy of his father-in-law Yosef Yitzchak. And may the Messiah come soon in our days, to validate their great efforts to bring the Jewish people, and with them all humankind, forward to God in a way no eye but God’s has yet seen.

David Novak, a member of the First Things editorial and advisory board, is the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.