Understanding Chabad
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G-d - Centered or Rebbe/Messiah - Centered:
What is Normative Judaism?(1)
by Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller
Rosh Yeshiva of the Telshe Yeshiva, Chicago

In an article in the Summer '97 issue of The Jewish Observer, I wrote of 'a movement... of active messianism which has lately taken a frightening turn towards avoda zara.' As is quite obvious to anyone who read the article carefully, I took great pains not to level this charge at the whole Lubavitcher movement, but against one faction - the group popularly known as 'Meshichisten' (Messianists). To quote the article,

"We have seen a highly respected Chassidic movement, with great accomplishments for Torah and Yiddishkeit to its credit, torn apart by a machlokes (dispute) that touches ikrei emunah - the fundamentals of our faith.

"The Rebbe progressed in the eyes of ONE FACTION WITHIN THE MOVEMENT [emphasis added] from being a navi to being the most probable candidate for Moshiach, to being 'bechezkas' Moshiach, to being Melech HaMoshiach, to being a dead Moshiach who has not died, to being 'omniscient', 'omnipotent' and being 'the Essence and Being [of G-d] enclothed in a body!' (2)

"More recently, a full-page ad featured in The New York Times advised readers: 'The Rebbe, no longer bound by physical limitations, is accessible to all of us, everywhere. Anyone, however great or humble, can turn to him with their innermost thoughts and deepest prayers. There are no barriers. There is no need to make pilgrimage or stand on line to receive his blessing.' (3)

"The Orthodox world looks for guidance; the non-Orthodox world impugns us with guilt by association; those in Lubavitch who are opposed to all this look for support."

A response to my article was circulated by Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, regional director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois. He does not repudiate the offensive statements as the opinions of a small minority - a lunatic fringe - as I have heard from some of my Lubavitch friends. Instead he defends the whole movement from the charge avoda zara by writing that 'these statements are well within the mainstream of Torah thought as recognized by the non-Chassidic world.' He then proceeds to cite chapter and verse from a number of sources - Zohar, Yerushlami, Chassidus and even Nefesh Hachaim - to 'prove' that they 'do not indicate any turn away from normative Yiddishkeit.'

This to me is extremely disturbing, because Rabbi Moscowitz, whether his hashkafos are normative Judaism or not, should, as the regional director of Chabad Lubavitch of Illinois, certainly represent normative Lubavitch thinking.

Let us look at what we are being asked to believe is 'normative Yiddishkeit' and 'well within the mainstream of Torah thought':

1. The Rebbe is not dead but still lives (so that we cannot celebrate his Yahrzeit) and is present everywhere.

2. One may pray to the Rebbe, who also knows our innermost thoughts.

3. The Rebbe is omniscient - which in simple English means he knows everything - a quality which is possessed only by HaShem Himself.

4. The Rebbe is omnipotent - meaning all powerful - kol yachol - which is also the exclusive attribute of the Creator.

5. The Rebbe is the Essence and Being of G-d enclothed in a body. This, together with the idea of the second coming of a dead Messiah, has heretofore been recognized as standard Christian - certainly not Jewish - theology.

That there is a machlokes (dispute) within Lubavitch in these matters is well known and was clearly demonstrated by the fact that a day after the publication of the above mentioned full-page ad entitled 'The third of Tammuz is not the Rebbe's Yahrzeit', there appeared another full page ad in the Times published by American Friends of Lubavitch, entitled 'Finding Love and Unity Across the Jewish Spectrum.' It contains not one word about him being alive, or being Moshiach, or Being and Essence of G-d. In fact, it speaks of Jewish communities the world over commemorating the third Yahrzeit of the Rebbe on the third of Tammuz. One only commemorates Yahrzeits of dead people. So there is obviously another faction. Which leads us to two possibilities:

A. That Rabbi Moscowitz, by virtue of his position, speaks as a spokesman for the 'official' view of Lubavitch - and the non-Messianists are the minority.


B. That the Meshichistin are the minority, but have taken over a significant part of the Movement's official machinery - at least in Illinois.

I do not intend to respond to Rabbi Moscowitz. But I believe that a broader discussion is in place at this time.


In the first ad in The New York Times ('The Third of Tammuz is not the Rebbe's Yahrzeit'), besides a perfunctory 'by the grace of G-d' written in small letters at the top right hand of the ad, there is no mention of HaShem. We are told that 'the Rebbe continues to inspire and direct the drive towards the redemption in ways beyond our limited human vision.'

It is not Hakadosh Baruch Hu who directs, but the Rebbe. Moshiach is not a shaliach of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, but the director of Redemption.

'We are absolutely certain the Rebbe will lead us to our ultimate and eternal redemption' the ad tells us. VeHu yolicheinu komemius le'artzeinu - 'He will lead us proudly to our land' which all Jews recite referring to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, is recited by the Messianists in reference to the Rebbe.

The ad does not tell us to turn to Hakadosh Baruch Hu with our innermost thoughts and deepest prayers, but to the Rebbe.

A box on the side of the ad tells us: 'A single righteous act can tip the balance and make all the difference. In honor of 3 Tammuz, I hereby commit myself to the following improvements in my lifestyle in order to hasten the arrival of Moshiach and redemption for all mankind.' This is followed by a checklist of mitzvos.

* * *

Normative Yiddishkeit is a G-d-centered religion. We believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Creator to Whom we pray and Whose mitzvos we fulfill because He has commanded us to do so.

What we are being asked by the Messianists to accept as normative Yiddishkeit is a deified Rebbe/Messiah-centered religion. We are told to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Rebbe, who is the physical incarnation of G-d, to whom we should direct our prayers, and that the mitzvos should be performed in order to bring about his second coming.

What we have seen developing slowly over a number of years is finally being publicly proclaimed. In simple words: Worship of the Rebbe has been substituted for worship of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

* * *

The Meshichisten are quite apt at producing 'sources' for all their theology. But let us ask a question: Did the theology and the resultant agenda evolve from 'the sources,' or were the sources dug up to justify the theology and the agenda? I have reason to believe that the latter is true. First, because all of the above-mentioned statements now represented as normative Yiddishkeit have been historically foreign to Jewish thought. Not only the average Jew, but even Gedolei Torah who reviewed this article were not aware of such Torah hashkafos based on these sources.

Second, the Messianists among Lubavitch are notorious for picking and choosing 'sources' which fit the current state of affairs, and then doing theological and scholarly flip-flops when the situation changes. The obvious case-in-point: when the Rebbe was alive, they brought 'proofs' from a number of sources that there has to be a live person in every generation who is most fit to be Moshiach. Because if he is not alive, how can we expect him to come every day? When the Rebbe lay deathly ill, reporters asked Lubavitch spokesman if they were preparing their children for the Rebbe's possible demise. 'Impossible,' was the answer: 'this doesn't even come into question. Should we tell them the sun will not rise tomorrow?'

And then the Rebbe died!... Whereupon sources were immediately found that there could be a dead Moshiach, even sources that Moshiach had to appear and then disappear - meaning that he would die. But then there seems to be some disagreement on this point even among the Meshichisten. Some got around the problem by saying that he never died.

'Since the Third of Tammuz (5754-1994), we are no longer able to physically see the Rebbe King Moshiach. The Rebbe remains physically alive just as before, it is only to our eyes that he is concealed. Therefore, we call this a day of concealment, and many refer to this as the "last test." Just as we know that there is a G-d though we may not see him (sic), so too the Rebbe King Moshiach is here even though we do not see him.'(4)

The ad in The New York Times seems to want to cover all bases. We are told there: "Three years ago today (3 Tammuz 5754) the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson was liberated from the limitations of corporeal existance.' He is not alive in a physical sense - which makes him even greater. And therefore, 'the third of Tammuz is not the Rebbe's Yahrzeit.' Yet the ad tells us, 'We believe with complete and uncompromising faith in Moshiach and the resurrection of the dead.' They obviously hope for his resurrection from the dead.

To address and refute point by point all of the Messianists 'proofs' does not come into question. We are not going to enter into theological debate on unquestionable ikrei emuna and dignify with a response that which should not even be heard. Wagon loads of so-called 'proofs' will not make the Lubavitcher Rebbe into what the Messianists would have us believe, and will not convert Christian theology into normative Judaism.

Besides, I do not believe that it will make any difference to the Messianists. They will remain steadfast in their faith. For most others, it's not necessary, because the fallacies are obvious. But for those who may be confused, I will address the issue in a general manner and begin by making one quite universally accepted observation: Any serious student of Torah knows that there are statements in Tenach and in the words of the chachamim to be taken literally, and those to be understood metaphorically. Whosoever confuses the two is guilty at times of outright kefira (heresy).

Of Literal Meaning and Allegory

If one would take every pasuk in the Torah literally, for instance, he could 'prove' that HaShem has hands and feet and eyes and a mouth, which any cheder child knows is not true. These pesukim are obviously not to be understood kepshutan - literally - but metaphorically.

Similarly, if we take pesukim such as 'You shall tie them as a sign on your hand and they shall be an adornment between your eyes,' or 'and you shall write them on the doorposts of your house' allegorically we will have (Chas v'shalom) eliminated the mitzvos of tephillin and mezuza.

The Messianists 'sources' for 'equating Tzaddikim with HaShem' are obviously not to be taken literally, but are to be understood as referring to certain attributes of HaShem which apply to the Tzaddikim, or as speaking of HaShem's spirit resting on the tzaddikim. If we say that these sources 'prove' that HaShem's 'Being and Essence' is clothed in a body, we are guilty of the same idolatrous error as saying that the Creator has hands and feet. (5)

But perhaps the Messianists are also using the term 'Being and Essence' in an allegorical sense? This is obviously not so. The article (6) I quoted in my original essay leaves nothing to the imagination. Let me quote more fully:

"So being stuck with Moshe Rabbeinu means being stuck with the Rebbe, which means being stuck with the absolute truth of their statements, including those statements about what is Rebbe. For example, that Rebbe is the 'Essence and Being [of G-d] enclothed in a body,' that a Rebbe is by nature 'omniscient,' and 'omnipotent', that all material and spiritual blessings flow from the Rebbe.

"These are radical statements that many would like to sweep under the rug of normative Judaism. However, they are neither wild exaggerations nor poetic parables. Rather these ideas are facts of life which help us understand how a 'human being' like the Rebbe can foresee and control and coordinate the finest details of someone's personal life effecting his powerful blessings over many years and many miles removed. In other words, there is nothing shocking about the Rebbe's power given that his nature is above the limitations of nature."

The article concludes as follows

"What can we learn from all of this? See G-dliness! There is someone controlling the workings of this world and therefore everything is governed according to Particular Divine Providence. Moreover, this Particular Divine Providence operates not only when we see how it all comes together but also when we don't. We know this to be true because the 'punchline' Divine Fingerprint event must be known in advance by someone drafting the plan and coordinating various unrelated factors long in advance of the climatic glorious moment when it all comes together.

"But who is that someone pulling the strings and dispensing all Particular Divine Providence, revealed and otherwise? Our Sages say 'A Tzaddik decrees and the Holy One Blessed Be He fulfills.' They also say 'The Holy One Blessed Be He decrees and the tzaddik tears it up.'

"So who Elokeinu? Who Avinu? Who Malkeinu? Who Moisheinu? Who Yoshianu V'Yigaleinu Shaynis B'Korov? The Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach. That's who."

In other words, not only is there an equation between G-d and the Rebbe, the Rebbe possessing of HaShem's attributes, but the Rebbe dictates to HaShem, and he, the Rebbe, is running the show, not HaShem. So the Rebbe is Elokeinu. (Chalilah)

The avoda zara of these statements is so obvious, that there is nothing more to discuss.

From Faith to Realm of Action

Of course, this does not remain with faith alone, but is translated into action by directing prayers TO the Rebbe. All of the 'sources' that indicate one can ask tzaddikim to intercede for him with their prayers to HaShem have no bearing on praying TO the tzaddik. Praying to the tzaddik, upon whom one has conferred the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence, is avoda zara.

To cite sources from Zohar that the souls of departed tzaddikim are found in all worlds more then in their lifetime and that they shield the world after their death, to justify an ad that is entitled "The Third of Tammuz is not the Rebbe's Yahrzeit" is absurd.

The Zohar is referring to dead tzaddikim, whose yahrzeits are observed. The Messianists, however, still consider the Rebbe alive - even call him the Rebbe Shlita and speak of him in the present tense. Moshe Rabbeinu died, Avraham Avinu died - but the Rebbe lives on! This may not be avoda zara per se, but it is surely not normative Yiddishkeit, and is the door that opens to avoda zara. Once a hero has been immortalized, the process of deification is not far behind.

The ad tells us: 'We believe with complete and uncompromising faith in Moshiach and the resurrection of the dead.' To that, we say, 'So do we.' But these are but two of the Rambam's Thirteen Principles of Faith. There are eleven others, also codified in the Ani Maamin accepted by faithful Jews all over the world - among them: 'I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His Name, creates and rules all creatures and He alone made, does make and will make all things.' - 'I believe with a perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is not a body, and nothing pertaining to physical bodies pertains to him.' - 'I believe with perfect faith that to the Creator, blessed be His Name, alone is it proper to pray, and that it is wrong to pray to any other.' - I believe that the Creator knows all the actions of man and all their thoughts'; and this is the exclusive property of HaShem.

Of course, the Meshichistin in their fantasies believe that once they have made the Rebbe into the Being and Essence of G-d, there is no problem with any of this. But the Rebbe is not the first man to have been made into a god. History is replete with them. The Torah tells us in Parshas Bereishis in regard to the generation of Enosh: 'Az huchal likro beshaim HaShem' (Bereishis 4.26) Rashi explains that HaShem's Name was profaned by calling men and idols with the name of Hakadosh Baruch Hu - Nimrod, Pharoah, Nevuchadnetzar, the Nazarene, and the Emperor of Japan, are just a few examples. But this is not normative Judaism.

A Plethora of New and Bizarre Practices

All sorts of new and bizarre practices have arisen. A new declaration has evolved, which is at once a proclamation of faith and, to some, a form of worship recited three times in unison after davening and at simchos or public gatherings: 'Yechi Adoneinu Moreinu Verabbeinu Hamelech Hamoshiach l'olam va'ed - Long live our master, our teacher, our Rebbe, King Moshiach forever and ever.' (7) Eye witnesses report that this slogan is embroidered on the paroches of the Aron Kodesh of Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. (It should be noted that this was, and continues to be, a source of internal controversy.)

To 'connect to the Rebbe' (hiskashrus im HaRebbe) - Chasidim close their eyes and conjure up the image of the Rebbe (8). School children are being taught to kiss the Rebbe's picture just as they kiss the mezuza.

People are submitting their questions and problems to the Rebbe, and requesting his blessings by writing letters to him and placing them at random in the Rebbe's volume of correspondence, 'Igros Kodesh.' Whatever letter of the Rebbe happens to be on that page is considered to be an answer from the Rebbe. The Rebbe's mikvah water has become a new wonder cure for whatever ails you. Drink it or apply it locally and with a substantial contribution to tzeddaka, miracles will happen. If all this sounds strange to most Jews, to the Messianists it is all mainstream Judaism. And a 'source' can be found for it.

The supreme tragic irony, however, is that the whole messianic movement - even with the inevitable elements of avoda zara removed - has not strengthened belief in Moshiach, but as with all false messianic movements of the past, has ultimately weakened it. It has become an object of ridicule among Jews and non-Jews alike, who look askance at the whole concept of Moshiach, which has been trivialized by the ads, billboards, bumper stickers and petitions. (9)

From Literal Meaning to Allegory

The Meshichisten are not only guilty of taking literally that which was never meant to be taken literally, but have also turned that which was certainly meant to be taken literally into allegory.

The Rambam is quite clear in describing the prerequisites for one to be called Melech Hamoshiach: 'If a king will arise from the House of David who learns Torah and engages in mitzvos like his father David, according to the written Torah and the Oral Torah, and compels ALL OF ISRAEL to follow it, and strengthens and repairs its breaches, and FIGHTS THE WARS OF HASHEM - this person is BECHEZKAS SHEHU (can be assumed to be) MOSHIACH. If he did this and was successful and BUILT THE MIKDASH IN ITS PLACE AND GATHERED THE DISPERSED OF ISRAEL, he is definitely Moshiach.' (10) (The emphasis is added intentionally)

ALL of Israel have not been brought to follow the Torah. No wars were fought. The Beis Hamikdash has not been built, and the Jewish people is still dispersed to the four corners of the earth. But none of this fazes the Messianists who use this very Rambam to prove that the Rebbe is not only bechezkas (presumed to be) Moshiach - he is vadai definitely) Moshiach.

To them 'ALL of Israel' means the unknown numbers of those who have been brought closer to the Rebbe's shluchim. There may be a considerable number, but by no stretch of the imagination are they all - or even a significant percentage (11) - of the world's Jews. The bloodless revolution that brought down the Communist regime in the Soviet Union is the success in the 'Wars of HaShem' referred to by the Rambam - which were spiritual wars fought by the Rebbe's emissaries to Russia. The aliya from the former Soviet Union is the gathering of the exiles, which of course the Rebbe as Moshiach effected.

What about the Beis Hamikdash? There the allegorical ingenuity (and confusion) knows no bounds.

'Moshiach builds the Temple in his place where he lives at the time of exile. This Temple is the building at 770 Eastern Parkway, the synagogue from which the Rebbe teaches the Torah, and from where the 'light bursts forth to the rest of the world.' The future Temple will be revealed first in the place where Moshiach builds his Temple in exile, and from there it will be moved to Jerusalem.' (12)

And the Jewish people is supposed to accept this as mainstream Judaism!

More than the Rambam's Moshiach

The Messianists have even gone further then the Rambam requires in qualifying the Rebbe as Moshiach. They attribute all sorts of miracles to him.

'Amazing stories keep pouring in from all corners of the globe. People are experiencing miracles large and small. Lives are being transformed. The sick are being healed. Broken families are being reunited. livelihoods are being restored. And all this because of a profound personal connection to the Rebbe who is with all of us.' (13)

The Rambam says:

'And let it not enter your mind that the Melech Hamoshiach must perform signs and wonders and bring about new things in the world or bring the dead back to life or other things of the sort. This is not so. For Rabbi Akiva was a great chacham among the sages of the Mishna, and he served the King Ben Koziba (Bar Kochba), and he said about him that he was Melech Hamoshiach, and he and all of the sages of his generation thought he was the Melech Hamoshiach, until he was killed because of our sins. Once he was killed, it was known to them that he was not. And the chachamim had not asked of him any signs or wonders.' (14)

In short, according to the simple, true pshat in Rambam, Moshiach is not required to do miracles but he is required to produce certain results. If he dies before he has produced, he is not Moshaich! But according to the Messianists, dying does not disqualify the Moshiach. Judging by their standards, Rabbi Akiva was not a true believer - for nothing stands in the way of true faith. Rabbi Akiva and all of the sages should have believed in the second coming of Bar Kochba; or better still, they should have believed that he never died.


Our present day Meshichisten are much stronger in their faith, and therefore have after his death gone far beyond what they dared to do in the Rebbe's lifetime. Which brings us to a very basic question: Who is now setting the tone in Lubavitch? Who has promulgated all of the new beliefs that have come since the Lubavitcher Rebbe's demise? When the Rebbe was alive and well, his was the final word. Since then, who has decided all of this? Who said that the Rebbe is Moshiach after he died? Or that he still lives in the physical sense, except that our human eyes cannot see him; or that he was liberated from all limitations of corporeal existence and is everywhere? Who instituted all the strange practices referred to above?

If the Rebbe is indeed Moshiach and 'the Being and Essence, 'etc., why is it necessary to prove so in full page ads in The New York Times?

Why has the Torah community not risen up against these aberrations and allowed matters to deteriorate so far without any more vigorous protest? I suspect that it is because these Meshichisten are not taken seriously. People consider them odd and shrug them off with a smile. But this is not a laughing matter. We are living in an age of tshuva. Young people are seeking spirituality and many of them are being drawn into this. What is perhaps more pitiful, a whole generation of children in those schools controlled by the Meshichisten are being educated into false messianism and avoda zara.

There is no question that the Lubavitcher Rebbe created the world's largest Jewish outreach organization and one of the largest educational networks. It is indeed sad to see a movement with so much good to its credit and so much mesiras nefesh being dragged down and discredited by tragically misguided people.

The responsible elements in Lubavitch must face up to the question: what will become of this movement? Will it be set back on a true course to reach out and bring Jews closer to HaShem and His mitzvos, or evolve into a huge messianic cult whose purpose is to propagate the divinity and worship of the Rebbe?


1. AUTHOR'S NOTE: This article, as well as the quote from my previous article cited below, were reviewed, before they were published, by several widely respected Gedolei Torah - both Chassidic and non-Chassidic - who urged their publication.

2. These are direct quotes (including the words in brackets) from 'The Rebbe's Answer: A Dream Come True', by Aryeh A. Gotfryd, Beis Moshiach, Elul, 5756

3. The advertisement, entitled 'The Third of Tammuz is Not the Rebbe's Yahrzeit', sponsored by Shofar Association of America Inc, 820 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, appeared in the Times on July 8, '97.

4. Published in a brochure entitled "Chasidim Proclaim to the Lubavitcher Rebbe: Long Live our Master, our Teacher, our Rebbe King Moshiach Forever and Ever," compiled in the 'Merit of the Righteous Women'/433 Kingston Avenue/P.O. Box 35/Brooklyn, NY 11225

5. In his letter, Rabbi Moscowitz writes, "It is possible that Rabbi Keller's ire is aroused by the words 'Essence' and 'Being' [used in reference to the Rebbe], but the basic issue is identical, whether we speak of the Shechina, spirit of G-d, the Essence of G-d, Being of G-d, or any other term for HaShem as being enclothed in a body."

I find this confusion and equation of 'Being and essence' - atzmus u'mahus - with Shechina, nothing short of amazing. There is a basic elementary difference between Shechina - the manifestation of kavod HaShem, which may be limited in time and place - and the Being and Essence of Ein Sof, which has no limitation. The Being and Essence of HaShem is such that it is above time and place - v'les machshava tefisa bay klal - no human thought can at all have any grasp of it.

6. 'The Rebbe's Answer: A Dream Come True,' by Aryeh A. Gotfryd, Ph.D., Beis Moshiach, Elul 5756.

7. In 1996, in Sichos Hage'ula, weekly published in Israel, the word 'Boreinu (Our Creator)' was substituted for 'Our Rebbe.' This, of course, created quite a stir, even among Meshichisten, and its use in print has been discontinued, to the best of my knowledge. It is still used orally, however, by some extreme elements.

8. The Rema in the first Sif in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim tells us that shivisi HaShem lenegdi tamid is a great principle in the Torah and in Maalos Hatzaddikim. The Mishna Berura explains this to mean that a person should always think that he stands in the presence of the Ribbono Shel Olam because the world is filled with the glory of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. He writes in the name of the Ari Z'L that a person should conjure up before his mind's eye the name of HaShem, which helps greatly in acquiring Yiras Shamayim. For this the Messianists have substituted the Rebbe's picture!

9. On Feb 6, '98, there appeared a half page ad in the Jewish Press entitled: 'You can help bring Moshiach closer' - with a copy of a declaration addressed: 'To our revered teacher and Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, melech hamoshiach, may you live for ever,' and declaring acceptance of his leadership: 'We request, pray, and demand that Moshiach be immediately revealed for all to see...' - to be signed and returned to: Yechi Hamelech, 1715 Union Street, Brooklyn, NY.

10. Hilchos Melachim 11:4

11. The most extravagant claims of Lubavitch put the total number belonging to the whole movement at 200,000 out of 14,000,000 Jews worldwide – less then 1.5%. (More conservative professional estimates put the number at a fraction of that figure.)

12. Quoted in full from the above mentioned pamphlet, 'In the Merit of Righteous Women.'

13. Ad in the New York Times - 'The third of Tammuz, etc...'