In the 1990s signs and bumper stickers appeared in Brooklyn and Israel that read Moshiach Now. Moshiach is Yiddish for Messiah. These Orthodox Jews thought the Messiah was about to appear.
This was not, of course, the second coming of Jesus but rather the first coming of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, or just the Rebbe, the spiritual leader of the Chabad-Lubavitcher dynasty of ultra-Orthodox Jews. For decades, from his iconic headquarters in Brooklyn, the Rebbe guided his movement, which under his spiritual and practical leadership expanded from Bangalore, to Richmond, and to parts in between (there’s a Chabad house in Kinshasa, Congo). One of the most influential Jewish religious leaders of the twentieth century, Schneerson was so revered that some Chabadniks claimed he was the long-awaited Messiah.
Yes, for many the Messiah had come. And he could be found at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York. Though never claiming to be Moshiach, the Rebbe didn’t exactly deny it, either. In the early 1990s messianic fervor among some Lubavitch reached critical mass: Rebbe Schneerson was not only the Messiah but would very soon reveal himself as such to the world.
Then on 3 Tammuz 5754 (June 12, 1994, by the goyishe calendar), Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson died, but not the messianic fervor around him. On the contrary, it only increased. Why? Because many claimed that according to the sacred Scriptures the Messiah had to die first, then after being resurrected he would reign as King Moshiach.
A Messiah who dies and is then resurrected?
In 2007 the Israeli newspaper Haaretz ran an article titled “The Lubavitcher Rebbe as a God.” The gist of the article, written by a skeptical reporter, was that some of the Rebbe’s most devoted followers believed the Rebbe was God. The author quoted one messianic Lubavitcher as saying about the Rebbe: “God chose to imbue this world with life through a body. So that’s how we know the Rebbe can’t have died, and that his actual physical body must be alive. The Rebbe is the conjunction of God and human. The Rebbe is God, but he is also physical.”
A divine Messiah who assumed a human body and dies in that body but who then comes back to life? Sounds like Jews for Jesus, not ultra-Orthodox Hasidim. Which explains why many other Jews, including other Orthodox, even other Chabadniks, were appalled. It was bad enough, the notion of Schneerson as the Messiah (especially when, having been afflicted with a stroke in 1992, he was unable to speak and was confined to a wheelchair), but then after his death to claim that Schneerson was going to be resurrected from the dead and reign as Moshiach? Talk about affirming what Christians have been saying for centuries!
Though controversy still exists regarding the messianic pretensions of the late Rebbe that echoed out of 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, not that far away, at 121-83 Springfield Boulevard, that is, at the Montefiore Cemetery, Queens, Rebbe Schneerson remains where they placed him almost 25 years ago.
What a contrast to Rebbe Jesus, whose tomb has been empty now for almost 2,000 years.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.