Last week, one of our readers asked us if we might post our experiences with the Messianic madness of Chabad-Lubavitch, and particularly about Meshichism, or the belief that the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, or simply “The Rebbe”) is the Messiah. Wow…where to even start with this one?
When I was first becoming religious, I didn’t have a clue about the Jewish idea of the Messiah. Growing up, I had never heard the word “Messiah” uttered in conjunction with anything except Christianity. Little by little, though, as I became more and more immersed in Lubavitch, I started to notice “Moshiach” popping up as a prominent theme. In fact, the rabbi who started me on the whole journey instructed me to proclaim “Moshiach NOW!” each night before I fell asleep.
You may recall that in my “Lily’s Story”post, I mentioned “yellow posters with crowns and pictures of the Rebbe, with Hebrew letters beneath.” These signs, which I could not read at the time for lack of Hebrew skills, boldly proclaimed, “Yechi Adoneinu Moreinu V’Rabbeinu Melech HaMoshiach L’Olam Va’ed,” which translates to “Long live our Master, our Teacher and Our Rebbe, King Moshiach, Forever and Ever!!” There were also myriad yellow flags bearing simple blue crown insignias and the Hebrew letters Mem-Shin-Yud-Ches, reading “Moshiach.” Lots of rather scraggly yeshiva students (many of whom were from Safed, Israel and known to their not-so-adoring Crown Heights hosts as the “Tzfati Bochurim”) wore the flag on their regulation black jackets as lapel pins. The yeshiva that Mimi and I attended is staunchly Meshichist, although certainly not marketed as such by the shluchim who send new recruits there. Mimi and I were in for a slew of surprises as we entered the world of Chabad meshichists.
“Ok…so…explain this to me,” I asked a friend over some Kingston Pizza one day in yeshiva, “The Rebbe…was…the Messiah?” “Is, Leah, is!” she spewed (we’ll call her Rochel), at once frustrated and excited. “He is Moshiach!” Rochel proceeded to rattle off a list of why the Rebbe “is” the messiah, as I tried to make sense of it all. Many of the “proofs” commonly cited can be found here. It never quite sat well with me that day, but like so many other things at the yeshiva, with time and calculated indoctrination, it eventually sank in and “made sense.” After having my own opinions and thoughts shot down during Moshiach chats with friends and madrichot, I came to the conclusion that the Rebbe hadto be Moshiach, really. Was there anyone more worthy in our generation? No. Not at that yeshiva, anyway.
One afternoon, I came back to the yeshiva dormitory to find another fellow student in tears on the floor of the dining area, frantically and feverishly flipping through a set of books. “You okay, Nechama?” I asked her. She looked up at me with tears in her glassy green eyes. “I just lost the most important letter that the Rebbe ever sent to me!!!” I stopped for a second, totally confused. I knew that weeks before, Nechama’s name was not Nechama, that months before, she was probably not terribly religious and that the Rebbe had died, or disappeared for our sight, or didn’t die, orwhatever, when we were literally young children. Oops. Shouldn’t have asked that. Nechama became hysterical. It was then that I learned about custom of placing a note in a volume of the Rebbe’s letters to other people, or “Igros Kodesh.” According to popular thought, the page you open to contains King Moshiach’s answer TO YOU. Some have the custom to chant “Yechi Adoneinu…” before they open the book, others select a volume at random, insert the note, give some time, then open it. Some interpret the answers alone, others consult with a mashpia (personal spiritual counselor). The customs vary, but where we were, the very frequency was disturbing. Many girls asked the Rebbe advice on totally mundane topics, completely dependent on other people’s mail from a departed rabbi for decision-making. It was very, very sad.
One final, rather comical example of the potent meshichist influence at our yeshiva is that of “Devorah,” a girl in her early twenties who was perhaps the most indoctrinated of the lot. Devorah once told Mimi and me that she would no longer be davening for ANYTHING except the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu. All the world really needed, she explained, was to be reunited in a physical sense with the Rebbe. Oy vey.
On another occasion, she told us that she couldn’t wait to taste giraffe meat. (Are you wrinkling up your forehead at that one? Scratching your head mayhaps? Don’t worry, we did, too. Tactfully, of course.) When one of us asked the inevitable, “Huh?” Devorah responded that until the days of Moshiach, we will never really know how to properlyshecht (slaughter) the giraffe – it’s very complicated because of the long neck. Oy vey.
Clearly, Mimi and I had our share of experience with Chabad Messianism. Thankfully, we are no longer yellow-flag carrying members of the group, but many, many people are (and become so) all the time. The Rebbe as Moshiach is one of the most striking examples of the cultic nature of Chabad-Lubavitch. We’ll revisit the idea when we start our book club discussion later this month.
What are your thoughts on the issue of Moshiach in ultra-Orthodoxy? Have you had any interesting experiences with it? How have your views evolved or changed?