The Failed Messiah of Crown Heights

What Does It Mean to be Jewish? Winter 1995

The rebbe was dead. Or was he?

Hundreds of Lubavitcher Hasidim wait­ed breathlessly for his resurrection. They could not accept his death. They still await his return.

Whoever would have imagined that the death of a Jewish cult leader would make front page news seven days in a row? But the Lubavitchers are no ordinary cult. Next to the state of Israel, they are the most successful Jew­ish organization in the world. Now 250,000 strong, they have quintupled their numbers over the past forty years and entered into the mainstream of Jewish life. In 1951, when the Rebbe took over, they were a bizarre Jewish sect that few Jews even knew about. Today their emissaries cover the globe and negotiate with the rulers of the world.

Hasidism has been around for almost three hundred years. Emerging in southeast Poland at a time of political and economic devasta­tion, it gave hope to hope-hungry Jews. God would send his Messiah to rescue his people — but only when they loved him enough. Ob­serving the commandments was not enough. Observance with heartfelt devotion was the key to salvation. Hasidism began with singing and dancing, with fervor and shaking, and ended up with miracle-working rebbes who were the dispensers of supernatural power. Devotional leaders founded devotional dynas­ties. Each dynasty turned into a cult of the personality. If the rebbe was not God, he was, at least, the deputy of God on earth. He was the very gate to heaven. Devotion went up; power came down.

Rabbi Zalman Schneur of Lubavitch was unique. While most Hasidim came from Galicia and the Ukraine, he hailed from Lithuania, the homeland of Hasidim-haters. Litvaks almost invariably denounced Hasid­ism as craziness and heresy. But Zalman the Litvak became a Hasidic rebbe. Being a Litvak, he tried to give his movement a slight in­tellectual twist. Chabad is the acronym for three Hebrew words that denote wisdom. The Lubavitchers became Hasidim with a Litvak edge.

In 1957, the Lubavitch movement was at a low point. Devastated by Communism and the Holocaust, its leadership was in exile in Brooklyn, its followers depressed, its numbers diminished. The old rebbe died that year and was succeeded by his son-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who also was descended from the original Zalman. The new rebbe was brilliant, charismatic, and creative. Familiar with the secular world as an engineer, a gradu­ate of the Sorbonne in Paris, he combined Hasidic piety, intellectual mysticism, and a missionary zeal to reach “lost” Jews. Instead of despising them, he went out to recruit them. The result: a powerful religious empire span­ning six continents and a cadre of thousands of dedicated workers who, for an economic pittance, went forth to conquer the Jewish world. In time, some of these devotees pro­claimed their rebbe the Messiah.

What is the significance of all this messi­anic fervor?

It means that these old ideas about messiahs and resurrections, which liberal Jews as­sumed were fast fading away in Jewish life, are alive and well. After four centuries of the age of science, fundamentalism is still strong, among Jews as among Christians and Muslims.

It means that the Jews for Jesus and the Lubavitchers are on the same wavelength. Both believe in salvation. Both believe in messiahs. Both believe in resurrection. In the end, whether you prefer Jesus or the rebbe, the mind-set is the same.

It means that rationality is having a hard time in Crown Heights. The smartest strategy is to keep postponing the coming of the Mes­siah. But true believers want the Messiah right now. The rub is that he may not show up. And if he doesn’t, there is always the risk of mass disillusionment. However, the history of reli­gion has demonstrated that true believers al­ways find the perfect excuse. Perhaps the rebbe did not find the world worthy of salvation.

It means that a lot of Jewish energy is be­ing devoted to harmful illusion. Believing that everybody’s life can be rescued by a single per­son is a dangerous conviction. It undermines self-reliance and turns people into childlike dependents. The resurgence of the Lubavitch­ers is no boon to the Jewish people. Jewish passion has no value if it means the abroga­tion of reason, autonomy, and self-esteem.

A movement built around a cult of per­sonality needs a personality. It may be that the dead rebbe will serve that purpose. But that has not been the Hasidic tradition. Schneerson designated no heir. Internal bickering has now resulted in major confrontations. The danger of splits is real. If no new charismatic rebbe shows up, can the movement hold together? Ironically, the strong point of the Lubavitchers, their reverence for their leader, is also their weak point.

This whole fiasco underlines a dichotomy in contemporary Jewish life. Humanistic Ju­daism looks at the Jewish experience and ar­rives at totally different conclusions from those of the Lubavitchers. They see messiahs; we find the need for self-reliance. They see divine determination; we find human determination. Our style may not be as dramatic, our songs may not be as lively, but our message is a lot healthier. Messiahs always have been an enor­mous disappointment. “Jews for the Rebbe” are, after all, in the same delusionary world as Jews for Jesus.