ON A SIMHAT TORAH EVE ABOUT THIRTY YEARS AGO I brought a brilliant young woman journalist from a Marxist kibbutz in Israel to Crown Heights to witness Habad's celebration of the joyous holiday of Simhat Torah. There were several thousand Hasidim present, singing and chanting and dancing around their Master, the late Rebbe Menahem Mendel Schneerson. After hours of watching from a high and partly covered woman's gallery, my friend joined me to return to Manhattan. "The Rebbe was talking to me," she said. "The Rebbe was looking at me." I had some doubt that, amid the multitudes present, she had been singled out, but I realized first-hand what charisma could do even to a radical feminist of quite distinct commitments.
A few years ago, after the Rebbe's death, I was served a Shabbat kosher meal in Venice by a group of young Lubavitcher Hasidim who were sent there to minister to American Jewish visitors while studying in a small Habad yeshivah. After the luncheon, the students began to chant, "May the Rebbe live forever, our Lord and our Creator, our Messiah." I had come upon a powerful example of what was by then widely described in the Jewish press as a messianic fervor that, far from disappearing with the death of the Rebbe, had expected his resurrection immediately to complete the messianic work that he had promised in his lifetime but not fulfilled.
David Berger, an Orthodox rabbi and professor of history at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and a former president of the Association for Jewish Studies, has recently published an important study of this unprecedented Hasidic messianism in a book called The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference. In this important volume, Berger tells us:
As I write, two propositions from which every mainstream Jew in the last millennium would have instantly recoiled have become legitimate options within Orthodox Judaism:
1. A specific descendent of King David may be identified with certainty as the Messiah even though he died in an unredeemed world. The criteria always deemed necessary for a confident identification of the Messiah--the temporal redemption of the Jewish people, a rebuilt Temple, peace and prosperity, the universal recognition of the God of Israel--are null and void.
2. The messianic faith of Judaism allows for the following scenario: God will finally send the true Messiah to embark upon his redemptive mission. The long-awaited redeemer will declare that all preparations for the redemption have been completed and announce without qualification that the fulfillment is absolutely imminent. He will begin the process of gathering the dispersed of Israel to the Holy Land. He will proclaim himself a prophet, point clearly to his messianic status, and declare that the only remaining task is to greet him as Messiah. And then he will die and be buried without having redeemed the world. To put the matter more succinctly, the true Messiah's redemptive mission, publicly proclaimed and vigorously pursued, will be interrupted by death and burial and then consummated through a Second Coming. (1)
Berger is incensed not only that these quasi-Christian notions have taken hold in many Habad communities and publications, but that Orthodox Judaism, in all its many forms, has permitted the outrageous claims to go unanswered and without condemnation, by and large. As a dedicated student of Jewish polemics against Christianity in the middle ages, Berger is especially aware of how these ideas not only contaminate, but actually discredit Jewish resistance to Christian missions. His book is largely the record of a failed attempt to rouse traditional Jewish leadership to denounce this newest Shabbetai Zevi movement, one that recapitulates and extends the false messianism of previous Jewish generations. He writes:
Judaism is remarkably vague about our messianic expectations. …