I was an Orthodox Jewish theist in the years 1997-1999. During this period, I sampled many varieties of Orthodox Judaism, such as centrist Orthodox, Sephardic, Lithuanian and Hasidic Judaism. One of my last stations was a Hasidic sect called Habad (or Chabad, according to the Ashkenazic pronunciation), the sect of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Habad is made up of the Hebrew initials for hokhma, binah v’daath—wisdom, intelligence and knowledge, which are three Qabbalistic sephiroth or “counts” of divinity. Habad was founded in the late 18th century by the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneor Zalman of Ladi, who wrote a religious commentary on the Torah called Sefer Ha-Tanya, which became the scriptural foundation for the sect.
The sect was led by seven rabbis of the Lubavitcher dynasty. The last of them was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneorson of Lubavitch, who is credited with starting the movement of proselytising Orthodox Judaism among secular Jews. Rabbi Schneorson is the focus of this article.
In his lifetime, Rabbi Schneorson declared in front of his followers that he was the long-awaited Messiah of the nation of Israel. He based his declaration upon various mystical interpretations and upon the fact that he was the seventh of his lineage–seven being an important number in Judaism.
Rabbi Schneorson’s followers believed he was the coming Messiah, that he would redeem the nation of Israel, and that he would not die. However, Rabbi Schneorson fell ill and died in 1994. His followers refused to face the facts, and after time they fashioned the Doctrine of the Resurrected Messiah: Rabbi Schneorson would be resurrected by divine order and redeem the nation of Israel as Messiah. Not all the Habadic Hasidim believed this doctrine. Consequently, Habad split into two: a majority believing in the Doctrine of the Resurrected Messiah, and a minority accepting that the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe was dead. The minority sect was labeled “kofrim” (unbelievers) by the members of the majority.
Habad in Israel today is very much alive and proselytising. On the walls and signposts of Israeli cities one can see pictures of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, and under them, written in Hebrew, “Long live our Master, Teacher and Rabbi, the King, the Messiah, for ever and evermore.” That phrase has become a prominent distinguishing slogan of Habad.
During my stay at Habad, I often visited a Habad House for prayer and reading. This was a telling experience. On the table was a picture of the Rebbe and under it was written, in English, “And He Will Redeem Us.” My rabbis declared that it was by learning the teachings of Habad (specifically Sefer Ha-Tanya) that the salvation of Israel shall come. I was even told that every Jew had a secure place in the Hereafter by believing that Rabbi Schneorson is the Messiah, and that by contrast, Jews who opposed the claim of Rabbi Schneorson’s messiahship were in danger of divine condemnation. My rabbis emphasised that the general salvation of the nation of Israel would not come until all Jews believed that Rabbi Schneorson is the Messiah, the living and coming redeemer of the nation of Israel.
In the course of 1999 I left Habad and, eventually, Orthodox Jewish theism. Later, still during my army service, I was taken on patrol to the neighborhood of Kabaabeer in Jerusalem. There I had an opportunity to visit the Ahmadiyya Mosque and hear a lecture on the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam. To my astonishment I found that this was an Islamic parallel to Habad: the members of the Ahmadiyya sect believed that their long-deceased leader, in this case the 19th-century Mirza Ghulaam Ahmad Al-Qaadiyaani, was alive and awaiting a divine order to be resurrected and redeem the righteous. Like the Habad Hasidim, they taught that belief in the messiahship of their leader counted for righteousness, and that unbelief therein would bring condemnation. Like the Habad Hasidim, they have a Great Commission to spread the word of their Messiah’s coming in all the world.
If you have a feeling of d’j’ vu, then this feeling is perfectly justified. At the time of the Roman Empire, a certain charismatic man named Yeshua attracted a sect of followers. When he died, his followers refused to face the facts, and fashioned the Doctrine of the Resurrected Messiah: that he was alive, awaiting the divine order to come again and redeem all the righteous–the lost sheep of Israel.
The sect of Habad has certainly evolved since 1994. It must be evolving still, and if history is something to come by, soon will be the day that the Habad Hasidim stop trusting in their works of Torah and Mitsvot to reach heaven, and instead will trust their belief in Rabbi Schneorson alone for their salvation. And Sefer Ha-Tanya and other assemblages of the sayings of the Lubavitcher rabbis will be turned into Holy Scripture. Those who look at Habad since 1994 can clearly discern the genesis of a new Christianity. After all, Christianity means just “belief in the Messiah,” and that might as well be the Lubavitcher Rebbe.