Messianism � the belief that God will choose a person to redeem the world � has been a central element of Jewish belief for 2,500 years. Among many liberal Jews today, the idea has become muted or transformed into the belief that Jews collectively should work to repair the world's ills. But among traditional believers, the imminent coming of the Messiah remains a powerful hope.
From time to time through the centuries, groups of Jews have fastened those hopes on an individual. Two millenniums ago, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth founded the Christian church based on that belief.
When Schneerson died, many expected the whispers that he was "the one" would dissipate: Traditional Judaism holds that the Messiah would be a living person.
Though the belief has waned since the rebbe's death, some believers in Schneerson adopted an idea associated with Jesus: resurrection.
On the streets around Chabad's headquarters, signs of belief in Schneerson's resurrection are highly visible � to the chagrin of many Lubavitch leaders.
Signs on storefronts proclaim Schneerson as moshiach. A small blimp flying above a Sunday neighborhood parade recently featured a picture of Schneerson with the words "Moshiach is ready, are you?"
Lubavitchers ride New York subways with posters under their arms proclaiming the rebbe as king. Some attribute miracles to him.
Many Chabad leaders who worked with Schneerson acknowledge that they once believed he had the potential to be a Messiah, but that hope ended with his death.
The leaders said they did not name a new rebbe because no candidate appeared to match Schneerson's magnetism and depth. The movement is now headed by a council.
Critics see another possibility: A new rebbe would undermine the messianic attachment to Schneerson.
"This is the dominant aspiration," said Jacob Neusner, a professor and senior fellow at Bard College's Institute of Advanced Theology in New York.
Some critics say the movement's success has caused thousands of Jews who support Chabad or attend its programs to unwittingly donate money and energy to an effort that is akin to a dangerous cult.
The belief in a resurrected Messiah could distort Judaism "profoundly and perhaps permanently," said Berger, the Orthodox rabbi and history professor.
UPDATE: Cynthia Edenburg e-mails:
A comment on the latest article you posted on this topic: from what I understand, the messianic Lubavitch hassidim aren't talking about a "resurrection" of the rebbe, because they don't seem to accept that he indeed died. Instead they talk about his "disappearance" in line with Enoch and Elijah.
So, he supplies you with a classic divine mediator figure!
Perhaps. All I know about the movement comes from the articles I've linked to in PaleoJudaica. But if they are portraying the beliefs correctly (always a big "if" with the media), the movement seems to have a range of theologies, all of which lead to the rebbe being the messiah. For example, the New York Times article from last September has the following:
The messianists are clearly straying from Jewish norms with their belief in a resurrected messiah. And yet, they are also reclaiming an abandoned element of the religion; Judaism, after all, was the original Western messianic faith. . . .
Though he'd been sick for years, the rebbe's death came as a shock to the community. Some Lubavitchers, like Lieberman, started the process of accepting the reality that their messiah in waiting was gone. ''Sure I felt disappointment, but you have to move on,'' Lieberman says. ''What can one say other than that life is not always what you want it to be?'' But many clung stubbornly to their faith, insisting that the rebbe never really died or that the process of redemption was under way and that the rebbe would soon return and be revealed as the messiah. ''Exactly how this is going to come about we really don't know,'' Rabbi Cohen says. ''What we do know is that if you open your eyes, you can see that bit by bit it's coming to pass.''
Max Kohanzad was a teenager in the Lubavitch yeshivas during those critical years. He and his classmates spent four hours a day poring over the rebbe's messianic discourses. In the aftermath of the rebbe's death, he was among the jubilant messianic Lubavitchers whose behavior so appalled Lieberman. ''I spent the entire day with the other yeshiva students singing Yechi and anticipating the actual redemption,'' says Kohanzad. ''What was understood was that this was the day utopia was going to begin.''
Unfazed when it didn't, Kohanzad and his fellow messianists soon started putting out their first underground publications, contending that the rebbe's death didn't diminish his legitimacy as messiah and pointing to Jewish sources that allow for a second coming.
Again, if the views are being represented with precision, the article seems to be saying that some believe, as Cynthia said, that the rebbe never died and is now in occultation; but others think that he did die but will soon return, apparently in resurrected form. If anyone who is more familiar with the movement can clarify what the beliefs are, please drop me a note.
UPDATE: Joe Slater e-mails:
As it happens I'm studying the subject right now. There is certainly a spectrum of messianic belief within the movement and there seems to be a great deal of reluctance to rule any position out.
Here's a link to the Rabbi Shmuel Butman's position from 1995 where he argues in favor of resurrection:
Here's a link to a recent email from Rabbi Yess who believes that the Rebbe is still alive in a physical body:
Note that Rabbi Yess is not a rabbi in the technical sense of having received smicha. He also has the very worst designed website in the world.
It's hard to get firm doctrinal statements from most Chabad representatives but an article available off this site (be quick! I can't find a permanent link!) indicates that the Lubavitch representative in France believes in "the eternal physical existence" of the late Rebbe.
I don't know if this is just an unfortunate turn of phrase, or if it's an attempt to stamp out Docetism and the Arian heresy.
The full text of the last is:
The Chabad community in Paris is preparing for Gimmel Tammuz, when its members will participate in a day of inspiration and hiskashrus to the Rebbe Melech Hamoshiach. It will include a series of activities, mivtzoyim and farbrengens called "24 Hours with the Rebbe." The program will be conducted within the spirit of the belief in the eternal physical existence of the leader of the generation, in accordance with the rulings of Rabbi Hillel Pevzner and it will not include anything that is not in accordance with this belief. The programs will take place in the Sinai educational campus. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Pevzner, director of the educational institutions in Sinai, Heichal Menachem and Kitov, is the driving force behind the programs.
(Bold-font emphasis in the original; italics mine.)