"I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly!" insists Brian in Monty Python's 1979 film Life of Brian. A girl responds, "Only the true Messiah denies His divinity."
Brian, of course, then tries declaring he is the Messiah. (If Messiahs are in the habit of denying themselves, surely the contrapositive is true.) The plan backfires, however, because he has then declared himself the Messiah.
The same (somewhat humorous) controversy has surrounded Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. (See Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's recent piece and this article from JWeekly.com on some controversial new publications on the Rebbe.)
According to a recent story by Steven I. Weiss, director of original programming and new media at The Jewish Channel, titled "Lubavitcher Rebbe: The Messiah Won't be a Hasid," the Rebbe might very well have eliminated himself from the eligible-Messiah pool. This would surely call into question the claim of many of his followers that he was the Messiah.
Quoting from a 1951 speech by the Rebbe, Weiss writes:
The first Lubavitcher Rebbe was brought to three "olamsher" (non-Hasidic) great rabbis, and when with one of them, that rabbi asked the first Lubavitcher Rebbe: "Who will be the messiah -- a Hasid or a non-Hasidic Jew?" The first Lubavitcher Rebbe responded: "The messiah will be a non-Hasidic Jew." The rabbi asked back, "Why?" and the first Lubavitcher Rebbe responded: "Because if the messiah were a Hasid, the non-Hasidic Jews wouldn't want to follow him out of the diaspora; but if the messiah were a non-Hasidic Jew, he'd also attract the Hasidim."
There are several important questions, of course. Is it possible that the Rebbe changed his mind between giving the talk in 1951and 1994, when he passed away? Even if he didn't change his mind, does Jewish tradition allow for the possibility that the Messiah might never know he (or she?) was Messianic? If not, maybe his followers had a better sense of who he was than he did?
"Changing his mind is always possible," says Weiss, who adds, "I'd need to take more time to compare this statement with those he made later to get a better sense."
According to Weiss, it does not really matter what Schneerson believed himself, so much as what his understanding was of who the Messiah would be in general. "This text suggests he believed that not only no Lubavitcher, but no Hasidic Jew at all, could be the messiah," Weiss says.
"As to what the Jewish tradition says about the messiah, there's no point in which it's suggested it's either a democratic process or a dictatorial process," he adds. "A majority of Jews saying someone's the messiah doesn't make it so, and one man's declaring he's the messiah doesn't make it so, either The Talmudic discussion of the messiah has less to do with identifying the messiah, than with what the messiah does."