The Lubavitcher Rebbe was the Jewish colossus of the 20th century and would rank on any serious list of the most influential Jewish figures of all time. Uniquely capable of inspiring thousands to move their families to the ends of the earth to reconnect Jews with their tradition, he used love rather than fear, joy rather than guilt, and inspiration rather than criticism to breathe life into a moribund nation.
The shock of losing a man of such singular distinction led some in Chabad to mistakenly lend him immortality not by furthering his vision of Judaism as the light of the world, but by declaring him to be the long-awaited Messiah.
To be sure, the only Messiah recognized by the Jewish faith is he who fulfills the prophecies of gathering in all Jewish exiles, rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, and establishing a permanent era of peace on earth.
Maimonides establishes beyond the shadow of any halachic doubt that a great Jewish leader who causes the Jewish people to reembrace their tradition and fights God's moral battles -- feats the Rebbe accomplished without rival -- has the possibility of being the Messiah. But if he dies without having fulfilled the relevant prophecies, he is seen as an inspired leader who brought the world closer to redemption, but is not the redeemer himself.
But as Edward Kennedy said of his brother Robert in 1968, "[He] need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life."
I HAVE often told my messianic Lubavitch brethren that by insisting on the Rebbe's messiahship they diminish rather than aggrandize him since they give the misleading impression to people outside Chabad that the Rebbe was more interested in promoting a cult of personality than in advancing the collective Jewish polity.
Indeed, what made the Rebbe great was that he was a mortal man. Like us, he was fallible. Like us, he wrestled with the limitations of his humanity. But, unlike us, he transcended the human predilection to selfishness and led a life of staggering altruism.
Unlike Christianity, which insists that Jesus was either divine or an impostor, we Jews have no patience for god-men, so distant as they are from our struggles and tribulations. What really turns us on is imperfect people who wrestle with their nature and contribute vastly to the perfection of the world.
Had the Rebbe been more than just human, his greatness would have been intuitive and consequently unimpressive.
STILL, I disagree utterly with those unkind critics who warn that the Rebbe-as-Messiah phenomenon is proof that some in Chabad will ultimately write themselves out of Judaism. Indeed, to compare Chabad messianists with Christians is libelous, preposterous, and ignorant.
It was not the early Jerusalem Church's insistence on the messiahship of Jesus that broke them off from normative Judaism, but rather Paul's later abrogation of the law. Early Christians did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, only that he was the long-promised Messiah. There was nothing inherently heretical about this belief, even if it was not normative.
Chabad is a movement, nearly every member of which is passionately devoted to the most minute observance of Jewish law. This is often especially true of Chabad messianists. I debate them vigorously. But I do not doubt for a moment their immovable commitment to every iota of Jewish tradition.
For the most part, they are Jews with a deep spiritual orientation who desperately wish to see the world cured of its ills. Their mistake is to allow that yearning to spill over into desperation and to ignore the 3,000-year Jewish insistence that the Messiah be a living man.
Indeed, most Lubavitchers I know who insist the Rebbe is the Messiah do so more out of a visceral, emotional attachment to the Rebbe's memory than out of any deep-seated halachic conviction. For them, making the Rebbe the Messiah becomes a loving honorific. Part of a hassid's affection for his rebbe is to believe that his righteousness alone will redeem the world. The fact that he has already passed away becomes an inconvenient technicality which, while it cannot be justified, can be charitably understood.
THE NEWS, therefore, that a leading rabbinical court in Israel refused to allow into Judaism a Chabad-educated conversion candidate because he believed the Rebbe is the Messiah is deeply troubling and constitutes an act of serious contempt for a non-Jew who has made sacrifices to ally himself with the Jewish people. Comparing this with a Jew-for-Jesus wishing to convert is preposterous, given that Jews-for-Jesus believe in the divinity of Christ (which no one in Chabad would ever assert about the Rebbe) as well as the irrelevance of the Torah to modern times.
In 1992, just before the Rebbe's 90th birthday, hundreds of his worldwide emissaries gathered in Brooklyn to discuss how the milestone should be observed. Some said that every emissary should bring 90 constituents to meet the Rebbe, another that 90 new Jewish day schools be opened. I suggested that we should endeavor to have the Rebbe awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
After all, the Dalai Lama, nominal head of Tibet, with only 2.6 million citizens, had won, as did Mother Theresa, in her simple white habit, for her faith-inspired humanitarian work.
Ultimately, no steps were taken to have the Rebbe nominated, a missed opportunity if there ever was one, given that few world personalities had more eloquently articulated man's capacity for ushering in an era of global peace.
But this would be a healthy replacement for the prodigious energies of the Chabad messianists. Make the Rebbe and his teachings known to a non-Jewish world, who have scarcely heard of him but who would benefit enormously from his light.
The writer's new daily national radio show begins airing on 'Oprah and Friends' on January 28 on XM Channel 156. His new book The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him will be launched this week.