Eliahu is no wide-eyed fanatic. He smiles patiently while answering incredulous questions. He feels comfortable explaining why a man, buried for the last 14 years in a Queens cemetery in New York, is actually alive, just waiting to reveal himself as the Messiah. He is among friends — thousands of them. Last Saturday night, the amphitheatre in Bat Yam, on Israel’s coast, was packed with Lubavitcher Chassidim celebrating the third of Tammuz, the anniversary of the Rebbe, Menahem Mendel Schneerson’s death.
Only they would never call it that. For them, it is a day of celebration — proof to them that the Rebbe is preparing for his coronation. Emblazoned on Eliahu’s kippah are the words, “Our Master, Teacher and Rabbi, the King Messiah will live in Eternity”.
Contrary to what the “respectable” representatives of Chabad will tell you, the “messianists” are not a lunatic fringe. No one knows what proportion they make up of the Lubavitch movement, but there are large groups in every major concentration around the world. They are integrated into every level of the leadership and also, among the ostensibly non-messianist majority, many harbour the belief that Schneerson is the true Messiah, his physical death simply a temporary obstacle. Neither are the messianists only ultra-Orthodox; many of them belong to more mainstream religious groups, living among them as totally normal doctors and lawyers. Even the political correspondent of one of Israel’s daily newspapers wears a tiny yellow “Moshiach” lapel badge.
Another group on the religious cutting edge is going strong. Last week, Rabbi Moshe Tendler visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. One of the senior ultra-Orthodox authorities in the United States, Tendler is also a professor of Talmud and biology at New York’s Yeshiva University. The rabbinical consensus over the last 40 years has been that nowadays we are all ritually impure and, since we don’t know exactly where the Temple stood, Jews must not tread anywhere on the mount. If rabbis of Tendler’s stature are breaking this stricture, it can hardly be maintained that the religious Jews who believe that actual preparations should be made for the rebuilding of the Temple are an inconsequential minority. In this context, the report this week that the Temple Institute in Jerusalem has begun using sewing machines to speed up the manufacture of custom-made priestly robes for Cohanim doesn’t seem as bizarre as it might.
There is some crossover between these two groups, but what they really have in common is the gradual disappearance of serious opposition in the religious world. The leader of the “Lithuanian” section of ultra-Orthodoxy, Rabbi Elazar Menahem Shach, vociferously campaigned against the false messianism of “that sect”, famously calling them “the closest religion to yiddishkeit”. But since his death in 2001, none of his successors has carried on the fight with anything resembling Shach’s fiery fervour. Shach and the other leading rabbis of the last generation, from all streams in Orthodoxy, would never have allowed the erosion of the taboo on entering Temple Mount. They would have cited the halachic prohibitions, but at the same time been fully aware also of the implications of a spark igniting that particular powder keg.
In the absence of leaders, there is little wonder that ideas such as Lubavitcher-messianism and Temple-building are gaining adherents. For some religious Jews, the pervasiveness and depravity of secular culture, as they see it, and the belief that the evacuation of the Gaza Strip was only the first step in an inexorable retreat, breed a yearning for a heavenly intervention. If that tarries, steps have to be taken to hasten the day.
The messianists are already evolving into a neo-Sabbatean movement with the potential for similar tragic results as those caused by the 16th century’s false messiah; the dire risk of playing with fire around the Temple Mount needs no elaboration. These dangers should be clear to all, but it is the immediate duty of today’s rabbinical leaders to speak out and clearly demarcate the borders between Orthodox Jewry and its fantasist tendency.