Strange and Curious Sects: Chabad Messianism

You get all kinds of weird and amusing religious literature on the New York subways, and here’s the latest proof:

Click to enlarge. Also see interior and back cover.

If you’ve attended a college with a significant Jewish population, you’re probably familiar with Chabad House, an organization that runs community centers and programs for observant Jews. What you may not know is who runs these centers – or one of this group’s stranger and more curious offshoots, the subject of today’s post.

The Chabad Lubavitch movement was founded in the 18th century by Shneur Zalman, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, in Russia. Zalman was an adherent of Hasidism, the offshoot of Judaism that emphasizes ecstatic and mystical worship (i.e., Kabbalah), and is known for its followers’ distinctive dress and use of the Yiddish language. Hasidic Jews are organized into dynastic communities each under the leadership of a single sage, a Rebbe, who’s believed to enjoy God’s special favor and, often, to possess miraculous powers and semi-divine insight into the workings of the world.

Including its founder, Shneur Zalman, the Chabad Lubavitch sect has had seven Rebbes. The seventh and most recent, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, took office in 1950. The Chabad Houses on college campuses and elsewhere were mainly his creation, the result of an outreach program intended to educate Americans about Hasidic Judaism and – more importantly – to urge all Jews to obey Orthodox religious law. (He also ran a secondary campaign to encourage non-Jews to obey the seven “Noahide Laws” for gentiles – probably the closest thing Judaism has ever had to explicit evangelism.)

Schneerson died in 1994 without naming a successor, and the Chabad movement has been without a Rebbe ever since. As you might have expected, this has led to fragmentation and power struggles, though the movement as a whole appears to be thriving – it has over 200,000 adherents, making it one of the single largest Hasidic groups. But it may be that the lack of clear earthly leadership has inspired some of its followers to start thinking in new directions. As you can see from my subway pamphlet, there’s a small but vocal and growing faction of Lubavitchers who believe their last, deceased Rebbe was the Moshiach – i.e., the Messiah, the prophesied hero of the Bible who will unite and rule over the Jews and usher in God’s kingdom on Earth.

As this article explains, when Schneerson was alive, Lubavitcher belief in his messianic status was fairly strong. Schneerson never explicitly proclaimed himself the messiah, but he never denied it either; he repeatedly made wink-and-nudge references to the imminence of the messianic age and did little to quell the growing messianic enthusiasm of his followers. In one video from later in his life, he accepts a petition signed by thousands of Lubavitchers declaring him the messiah; in another, he smiles as a group of his followers sing a song called the Yechi – the Yiddish lyrics of which translate to, “May our master, teacher and rabbi, the king messiah, live forever.”

Being deceased would seem to be an obvious disqualifier for messianic status – and indeed, there are non-messianic Lubavitchers who consider their messianic brethren an embarrassment and try to squelch them. Yet Schneerson’s devotees, commonly referred to as “mesichists“, don’t see this as an obstacle. Exactly how they deal with the fact of his death varies: some insist that he’s not actually dead but is merely hidden, biding his time to return. Others claim that his messiahship persists in some spiritual realm beyond the physical world. Still others believe that he’ll be resurrected when the time is right. All, however, share the belief that the Rebbe will return and the messianic age will arrive when a sufficient fraction of the world’s population learns about him and is convinced of his messiahhood – hence, my pamphlet from the subway.

I looked on Chabad World, the website set up by Schneerson’s followers, for an explanation of how they reconcile the fact of his death with their belief in him as Moshiach. I didn’t find one – it’s a subject the website tends to skate around, for example by repeatedly referring to Schneerson in the present tense (“the Rebbe teaches…”), such that someone who didn’t already know he was dead probably wouldn’t realize it. However, I did find lots of entertaining supplementary material, such as these miracle claims attributed to Schneerson, or this highly amusing page which argues not just for creationism, but apparently for geocentrism. Also not to be missed from that page is the comical explanation of how the Rebbe knew there is no intelligent life in the universe other than humans, which I can’t possibly do justice to by trying to summarize it here.

Aside from the clear documentation of Schneerson’s life, it’s hard not to notice the similarities between Chabad-Lubavitch messianism and early Christianity. As time passes and the Rebbe fails to return, it’s inevitable that historical memory of him will grow vaguer, the stories of his life and miracles will become further exaggerated, and his absence will almost certainly be worked into apologetic arguments which claim it was the plan all along for him to bide his time. Like Christianity, this new faith may flourish and grow; or like the teachings of Sabbatai Zevi, another would-be Jewish messiah, it may lose its ardor and fade away. There seems to be a perennial tendency in Judaism to latch onto some earthly figure as the messiah, which may be because the lack of a clearly defined afterlife has led them to continually look for this-worldly deliverance.

Other posts in this series:

You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Ritchie

    THAT was the second coming…?

    Seems pretty anti-climactic, all in all. I expected something more… epic.

    I want my money back!

  • Guybrush Threepwood

    So, to boil it down, there are no extraterrestrials because the Torah is the only truth, it is earth-centric and would make no sense to aliens as it names earth places/people etc, therefore no aliens!

    This is the kind of stuff my kids make up, what an imagination!

  • keddaw

    I have often thought of proclaiming my own messianic tendencies, but I keep thinking, “if you’re crazy enough to believe me, you’re crazy enough to kill me.”

  • Betsy

    I prefer to believe that this whole “messiah/moshiach” thing is a big ol’ scam. Who needs some nutjob descending from the sky to tell us how it is when we can argue it out for ourselves instead?

  • paradoctor

    What bothers me is the neither-confirm-nor-deny trick. I see the tactical logic of it, but question the ethics. Is the Messiah supposed to be sneaky? Well, maybe, if he has to be; but if so then what other tricks would he be up to?

  • Tommykey

    One of my former co-workers was a member of this sect. He even had that Seven Noachide Laws list taped to the wall by his desk. We got along for the most part, though one time he insterted himself into a conversation I was having with another co-worker about the extinct Megalodon shark. He denied it ever existed, and when I mentioned the teeth, he was like “How do they know it’s a shark’s tooth?” I answered, “Because it looks like one.” Then he goes “Aaah. It looks like one.” The inference being that just because it looks like one does not mean it is. Of course, what I should have said is that it has the same physical characteristics of a great white shark’s tooth, same shape and same serrated edges, only on a much larger scale.

  • Tommykey

    I should mention that they are also very active here in NYC. Every Sukkot, a bunch of them (mostly young men or in their late teens) will gather at a street corner and accost men who pass them by, asking them if they are Jewish. They are very evangelical in the sense that they are trying to get all Jews to become part of their sect. Once when one of them asked me if I was Jewish, I looked at him and said “No, I’m an atheist. And you should be too.”

  • Valhar2000

    I looked up the Noahide Laws, and sorry but no. I’m fine with not killing and stealing (though I don’t need them to tell me that), but the 1st and 5th are absolute no-nos: I will not kiss Hank’s Ass.

  • JulietEcho

    An interesting addition to my mental list of religious groups that proselytize. They can also go on my list of religious groups who think they’ve found a Messiah or incarnation of their god. There seems to be a *lot* of overlap between those two groups, now that I think about it.

  • Caiphen

    We need more people like Richard Dawkins to counter this kind of nonsense. It seems that we have a fundamental flaw in our education system for this to be considered even for a moment. Now that I think freely I can see how wicked religion is, this is just another example of it and mind molding faith schools is another.

  • Karen

    Thanks for this, Ebon. I have often run across advertising by this group (they were very active advertisers in the NY Times a few years ago) and wondered exactly what it was all about.

    I never followed up, so I’m glad to get the explanation, finally. :-)

  • Oro Mezclado

    %$&@!!! I had a witty comment all lined up, then glanced back at the post and realized that my joke doesn’t fit the actual circumstances of the story.


  • Ritchie

    Oro –

    Share it anyway… :D

  • Rick M

    Geez, another “my way or the highway” group. They do serve a purpose however. When discussing Christian exclusivity with True Christians(tm), it is helpful to have other groups to point to as equally exclusive and press for an answer to “why you and not them?”

  • ethinethin

    some insist that he’s not actually dead but is merely hidden, biding his time to return.

    Oh god! He’s Lord Voldemort!

  • Jeff Eyges

    When discussing Christian exclusivity with True Christians(tm), it is helpful to have other groups to point to as equally exclusive and press for an answer to “why you and not them?”

    Well, in fairness, they don’t proselytize non-Jews. Many (prob. most) of them believe all Jews should be following their path, but they don’t require it of gentiles.

    Also, as was pointed out, those who believe outright that the Rebbe was the Messiah – the “Meshiachists” – are a subset of the group, although I think many (again, prob. most) suspect he was.

  • Dave Wyman

    “the rest of the universe with its billions of stars creates the precise conditions that make human existence possible”

    Apparently there’s no way a god can create human life without throwing in an entire, interconnected universe, too. It’s good to know the G*d under discussion needs to follow certain rules, too, existing with what must be all sorts of vexing contradictions.

  • Asi

    All right, look- I’m Jewish. The thing I want you people to know is that probably only about 16% of Jews are in this sect. Secondly, ALL of the people of this sect that I know do not believe he’s actually alive. Thirdly, R’ Shneerson was not nudgenudgewinkwink about being the Messiah. He never hinted that he was and nobody even said he was until very late in his life. Fourth(ly), I have heard that he got sick (I think Alzheimer’s) before his death and that people began to take advantage of him. (If you read the Chronicles of Narnia then this would compare to when Shift the Ape dressed up Puzzle the donkey in a lionskin and pretended he was Aslan to get what he wanted. If not, sorry with wasting your time with the examples- but read it, it’s good.)

  • Dov

    “I looked on Chabad World, the website set up by Schneerson’s followers, for an explanation of how they reconcile the fact of his death with their belief in him as Moshiach. I didn’t find one”

    Look online, you can find many sources!

  • Ebonmuse

    For those of you who are interested, I’ve been exchanging e-mails with the Shlichus Network people trying to pin down exactly what they believe about this guy, and I’ve gotten a few answers.

    First: How can he fulfill his messiahly duties if he’s dead?

    Judaism gives place for the Messiah to come, conceal himself and then reveal himself again (finally). (Rashi, Book of Daniel).

    The mystics (Rabbi Isaac Luria) say that the Messiah will enter the Garden of Eden (where dead people usually enter) alive.

    Meaning that there is a possibility for there to be a situation where it looks like the Messiah died however he is still qualified to be the Messiah.

    Many people think that this is a Christian concept (Second coming, revelation), however this is a Jewish concept, just like people think that the concept of Messiah is Christian concept when in fact it is totally a Jewish concept.

    And when I asked the natural follow-up question of when they believe this will occur:

    We are hoping any and every moment.

    So, Jewish messiah second coming = Real Soon Now. Where have I heard this before?

  • Tommykey

    It takes a special kind of crazy to believe that in a universe filled with billions of galaxies, that what happens in a small patch of land in the Middle East is a matter of cosmic importance.

  • hindi gal

    Well, say hello to special kind of crazy!

  • Maynard