Moshiach, the Rebbe, and Conversion in Israel

I just came across this interesting article about a fellow who is trying to convert in Israel (the only “true” way to convert these days) and who was asked a sort of peculiar question (at least, in my mind): Do you believe that the Lubavitcher rebbe is the messiah? His answer was more or less that yes, that is what he was taught to believe. The fellow was dismissed by the rabbis, the conversion court judges decided not to decide, and the case was sent along to Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar. Now, Amar is faced with the big question: Can you believe that the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is the messiah and still be converted to Judaism?

{Note: Another article can be found here, by the Jerusalem Post.}

The chief rabbi’s spokesman (who asked not to be named for some strange reason) maintains that Amar will following along with whatever the courts say. Says the spokesman, “We treat all converts equally, regardless of where they come from.” This particular line struck me as interesting, because it’s not at all true. What he means to say is “We treat all strictly Orthodox conversions completed in Israel under our authority equally.” But that’s beside the point.

The interesting thing the article touches on is the Jewish community’s indifference toward the crux of Chabad — that Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the Messiah and exists in some form or another and will return to redeem the world, despite having been dead for 14 years. The Chabad movement is known for its amazing educational qualities and bringing Jews closer to their faith.

I’ve said on this blog and my personal blog that the most alive, invigorating, spiritual experience I had as a Jew was an evening at a Chabad house. I go to at least once a day to read an article or check up on the parashah, not to mention that I get e-mails in my inbox each day from the website. Sometimes I find the gleanings absolutely mountain moving and brilliant.

The article’s author, Debra Nussbaum Cohen, writes:

“The consensus of the Jewish people has been to ignore this rather than to take it as crossing the line because Lubavitch has managed to make themselves useful,” said Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi and theologian who wrote “For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity” (JPS 2004).

Rabbi Greenberg says that the Lubavitcher rebbe is not a false messiah, but a failed one, and as such should be treated with honor and respect, even if his followers are incorrect.

The conversion candidate should be treated “as an observant Jew who has some well-intentioned but mistaken notion,” said Rabbi Greenberg. “If he said he believed in another religion or another God, that would be a legitimate criterion” for denying his conversion. But this case is different, he says. “That mistaken belief should be criticized but should not be the basis for refusing entrance to the Jewish people.”

I think the fascinating thing about this case is the question itself. I am curious how divisive of an issue this has become in Israel, and although the article says no such cases have arisen in the U.S., whether this will become a typical line of questioning for converts among the observant branches/sects of Judaism. Fascinating still, the reporter asked a U.S. Chabadnik about it and his response was that who the convert believes is moshiac is irrelevant to conversion, that knowing halakah for conversion is the big enchilada. And I think I agree. We can only know what we know, yes? Not what we don’t know and cannot foresee. But then it is also a question of what Greenberg mentions — was the rebbe a false messiah or a failed one? And who is to correct the direction of his followers, and who has the right?

I’m curious what everyone thinks. I know that in my own, personal Reform conversion, the beth din was very casual and consisted of some very basic questions — What is your notion of G-d? What brought you to Judaism? Do you promise to raise your children Jewish? and all that was included in the essay I composed for the purpose of the conversion. I felt an intense amount of anxiety, about answering each question correctly — Jewishly — but I knew that within Judaism there are basic principles, but even those basic principles are built like bridges; they’re meant to bend in the wind. It’s why one of the most proud aspects of Judaism is to question, question, question.

I’m not sure how this case will turn out, but I fully intend to follow it as it plods along. I am curious whether the chief rabbi will be forced to make a decision and how he will come to such a decision. I can’t imagine them turning the convert away — think about how many converts there probably have been who have been of the opinion that the rebbe was the messiah. I don’t think that this individual — who is eligible under the law of return from the Former Soviet Union — is unique in that respect.

What I do wonder, though, is who asked the question during the beth din, and why.

Shalom, and laila tov friends.

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9 Responses to “ Moshiach, the Rebbe, and Conversion in Israel ”

  1. Personally, I don’t think this person should be turned away from converting and becoming a full member of the Jewish people. It seems that learning and following halachah should take precedence in this case. I believe that the Rabbi was made into a false moshiach and that his messiahship should not be up for discussion before the bet din.

  2. Interesting piece about an interesting issue. For most Orthodox converts (like me) the question of who the messiah is doesn’t come up. The sources give a few vague details that it will be someone born in the month of Av, will be a political leader rather than just a spiritual one (sorry, Christians), and one tradition actually holds that it will be a woman. (A friend called one of my daughters, born in Av, hamashichah, the feminine for mashiach.) Nowhere is it written that the messiah to leave the job incomplete and come back for Round 2. Not R. Schneerson (an emphatic zt”l) and not Jesus.

    R. Greenberg’s statements about R. Schneerson being a “failed messiah” are problematic to me because I heard him speak once in an interfaith dialog with James Carroll and heard him call Jesus a “failed messiah.” I would not use the same appellation to refer to those two individuals. One was a devout Jew who never preached against the Torah and its commandments, who led a movement that brought thousands of Jews back to Judaism, and who came to be called the Messiah either by being too ill and unaware of what his followers were doing, or for some other reason we don’t know. On the other hand, anything about Jesus outside of the Gospels is pure speculation, but from the words attributed to him (and held sacred by his own followers), he abrogated some of the most basic laws of the Torah, came into direct conflict with those Jews who were attempting to free Judea from the yoke of Rome, and succeeded in converting only a handful of Jews (most converts to Christianity were pagans).

    I imagine the would-be Chabad convert was asked about his notions of the messiah because to believe that R. Schneerson is the messiah is clearly heretical. Whether it should make or break a potential conversion is up to other, greater Torah minds than mine, but as the messianic trend has caused considerable internal tension within Chabad, and called into question some of its legitimacy in the outer Orthodox world (some minyanim won’t count a known Chabad machichist), I can see that it would be important to a beit din. Make no mistake: Judaism is a messianic religion. To believe in a messiah is one of Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith. But to believe it’s R. Schneerson is clearly not a good idea for someone attempting to convert.

  3. Shimshonit,

    Wow, thank you for the thoughts. I have to say that was an incredibly well-composed and well-thought-out reply. I’d guess you’re an academic, but likely am wrong.

    My beliefs are still evolving, of course, but that is one of the items on Maimonides’ 13 principles that always had me sit back and think. I guess in my mind it is so difficult to conceive of a messiah, perhaps probably because I grew up in places where Christiainity was dominant and the idea of the Jesus messiah were so prevalent. This is one of the many things — but the major thing — that always perplexed me about Christianity. The idea of a messiah is of course something so beyond the realm of human understanding, I guess I’m not alone in my curiosity about it.


  4. Nice post and BTW you scooped me on this one, ChaviJo!

    I had been planning on doing a post about this, since I first heard about it last week, but I wanted to wait and see how it all played out first. Anyhow I think you did a nice (maybe even better) job summarizing this story.

    As for, why this question was asked? I suspect that it was politically motivated! Again just my opinion here, but I think it has to do with power and control over who gets to decide what is legit! I have no doubt the this covert halachickly met all the requirements for conversion and is probably extremely observant in his daily! Having said that, I think claiming, or even acknowledging, that Chabad claims, that the Rebbe is/will be the Messiah, should throw up a red flag.

  5. Chavy Jo: You’re right,you’re right, you’re right! As a friend and somewhat (may I?) follower of Chabad, you know that the Lubavitcher Rebbe never declared himself as Moshiach, rather it was his Rebbe and father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, who taught that the post-Holocaust generation was living in the days of Moshiach, and that his arrival was imminent (the so-called ‘birth-pangs’ of Moshiach). The failure isn’t the Rebbe’s (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) but those of his followers who have proclaimed him Moshiach.
    It sounds to me that conversion to Judaism is not a very pleasant undertaking. I don’t mean to be offensive, but I think the conversion process leaves room for improvement and could be made entirely more welcoming. Those who want to convert for trendy reasons will slough away after a brief period of time, I assume; those who mean it will remain. And what’s the rush? To convert to Judaism means forever, doesn’t it?
    I think that if the gentleman in question is sincere about his Jewish identity, then the approval of a rabbinical body is perfunctory; after all, how many Lubavitchers advocate the Rebbe as Moshiach without having to explain their claims to a Jewish identity?

  6. ChavyJo:

    This guy could believe in the Sun God, and practice ho’oponopono in addition to Judaism and he would be welcome, somewhere, into some Jewish tent. Other tents would bar him, and a wonderful discussion would ensue.

    And as a result, this poor fellow’s Judaism — and the Judaism of all the participants in the raging debate — will be subtly transformed.

  7. The real issue I believe is that fact that only in Israel, do Jews find themselves lacking true religious freedom. The validity of conversions by non-orthodox Judaisms is of course the matter of concern. Furthermore why the bet din chose to ask this question is somewhat perplexing. It seems to me that some aspects of Judaism are strangely adopting a rather non-Jewish view of insuring that the right “beliefs” rather than halakhah are adhered to.

  8. My husband is Israeli and says in Israel Chabadincs are rare and the ones who believe the Rebbe is the Moshiach (and some don’t) are considered wack jobs.

    All I know is Chabad, being that all of my Orthodox training was in the U.S. but I am a rare few who do not believe the Rebbe is THE Moshiach.  That’s not to say that he wasn’t “A” Moshiach as there is one born to every generation.  But anyone who bothers to read and properly understand G-d word as to what qualities the Moshiach must posess, knows that there is NO WAY the Rebbe was THE Moshiach.

    Personally, I think if the fanatics aren’t careful, they will find themselves broken off and creating a new “christianity”.  Don’t they see that obsessing about a man (pious as he may have been) who is dead is bordering very closely on idolitry.  Why do you think the Jews call the christians herotics?…  for praying to a false Messiah.

  9. Amy,

    Thank you so much for your input. I agree with you on the note about idolatry, and it’s definitely one thing I’ve always been quite confused about. But there are those — like you — who know clearly that the Rebbe is not the Moshiach, and it is to those that I look when I go to learn about the Chabad community.


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