Lubavitch reopens debate on messianic beliefs

By Paul Berger, December 3, 2009
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Will the Lubavitcher Rebbe return?

Will the Lubavitcher Rebbe return?

A Lubavitch website has reopened a debate over the exclusion of some Chabad rabbis from an Orthodox rabbinical organisation.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), which is the main association of Orthodox rabbis in the US, inserted a clause in its membership application some years ago that barred rabbis “with messianic beliefs” from joining the group.

The clause refers to the belief among some in the Chabad movement that the last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, may one day return as the messiah.

This belief caused a schism in the Chabad movement that has led to arguments and even fights between opposing groups.

Last month, a trial opened in New York after a brawl at a Brooklyn yeshivah over the Rebbe’s messianic credentials ended with six people facing assault charges.

The RCA clause states that its members must affirm that “there is not and never has been a place in Judaism for the belief that Mashiach ben David will begin his Messianic mission only to experience death, burial and resurrection before completing it”.

Yehuda Ceitlin, editor of a Lubavitch news site, COLlive.com, reignited debate over the clause by running a story under the headline, “RCA Bans ‘Messianic Rabbis’”.

In an email message, Mr Ceitlin called the clause “a timeless example” of how Chabad is “being targeted by the people at the helm modern (sic) orthodoxy.

“While most — and all of the leadership — of Lubavitch refrains from such views, the RCA made it a point to included (sic) that clause as if the so-called ‘Chabad messianism’ was the threat to American Jewry.

“Concerned about its members turning their skin, you’d expect them to include a clause denouncing Conservative or Reform Judaism.

“But why stop there? Seems like an RCA member may convert to Christianity, just not become a Chabad messianic, God forbid.”

A Chabad official said Mr Ceitlin was not authorised to speak for the movement and described COLlive.com as a private blog.

Many within the Chabad movement say that the number of members who believe the Lubavitcher rebbe will return as the messiah is small.

But Rabbi David Berger, a prominent critic of Chabad messianism and author of a 1996 RCA resolution upon which the clause is based, said that is not true. He said that although only some Chabad rabbis are vocal in their belief that the Lubavitcher rebbe will be reborn as the messiah, many more have vowed not to speak about the matter publicly.

He said that others believe that the Rebbe did not actually die — that he is merely testing his followers — so they can sign the statement with a clean conscience. “The majority fervently believe he will be revealed as the messiah,” said Rabbi Berger.

RCA executive vice president Rabbi Basil Herring said in a statement that the organisation’s policy regarding Chabad has not changed.

“The RCA continues to welcome Chabad rabbis as respected members, while it rejects the so-called ‘Meshichist’ movement as being aberrant and outside the boundaries of normative Judaism,” he said.

Last updated: 4:56pm, December 3 2009