In a blow to the thousands of Lubavitchers who believe that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson is the Messiah, the highest national Lubavitch rabbinical body for the first time has condemned the “deification” of any human being, saying it is “contrary to the core and foundation of the Jewish faith.”In a Feb. 19 statement, the Central Committee of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis issued definitive guidelines regarding the limits of reverence for Rabbi Schneerson, who died in 1994.“Conjecture as to the possible identity of Moshiach is not part of the basic tenet of Judaism. The preoccupation with identifying [the deceased] rebbe as Moshiach is clearly contrary to the rebbe’s wishes,” the statement said.Ever since a messianic crescendo seven years ago first thrilled and then split the Lubavitch chasidim, there
has been discussion and debate within the movement as to whether the rebbe could have been, or still is, the Messiah.Rabbi Zalman Posner, a member of the Central Committee’s 14-man governing board, said the board “isn’t the sort that makes statements,” but was driven to respond to “an accumulation of pressure and questions” that was “dividing the community.” Recent newspaper reports in Israel and the United States said that the messianism was taking a “Christian” turn.In the Jan. 11 issue of the Israeli daily Haaretz, David Berger, an Orthodox rabbi who is president of the (U.S.) Association for Jewish Studies, wrote that “mainstream Lubavitch” now also affirms “that the Rebbe is literally God and that he should be the object of prayer.”Rabbi Berger, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, also introduced a RCA resolution in 1996 that condemned aspects of the messianic theology. And he has written that this form of worship is outside of the parameters of the Jewish faith.Whether the Central Committee’s statement will further dampen the widespread belief in the messianic power of the rebbe remains to be seen.The chairman of the International Committee to Bring Moshiach, Rabbi Shmuel Butman, said “it is clearly evident that the rabbis believe, as do all Lubavitcher chasidim throughout the world, that the rebbe as moshiach will lead us out of exile. You see this from the careful verbiage of their statement. They are only concerned with ‘the preoccupation.’ They agree, however, with the essence of the belief.”He did not dispute the rabbinical board’s guidelines regarding deification, an idea that Rabbi Butman said had “less than 20” proponents.“We commend the rabbis for taking a position on that,” he said.Rabbi Butman pointed out that “the Moshiach belief is a deeply personal matter. No one is forcing anyone to believe. Everyone can believe or not believe according to his or her wishes.”But Rabbi Butman, who for years has identified the rebbe as Moshiach, preferred not to address the censure of messianic conjecture.The Central Committee’s guidelines do not deny an individual chasid’s right to maintain personal beliefs on the subject, and encourages the traditional yearning for imminent redemption.There is some evidence that the messianic juggernaut is slowing down. On Kingston Avenue, in the heart of Lubavitch Crown Heights, the International Moshiach Center still has its sign up but inside it sells coffee and bagels rather than the messianic books, bumper stickers, key chains and other paraphernalia that once lined its walls.Rabbi Posner, one of the grand elders of Lubavitch, acknowledged that the guidelines were overdue.“Could we have done this two years ago? Certainly we could have,” he said.“People have been coming to us and asking us where Lubavitch as an institution stands, saying ‘please, rabbonim, speak up!’ ”Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, administrator of international Chabad, said the guidelines “corroborate everything I’ve said over the years on these issues. It should clarify a lot of misconceptions and clear a lot of cobwebs.”No Crown Heights bet din (rabbinical court) has ever ruled on messianic issues, but a leading member of the major bet din in that Brooklyn neighborhood, Rabbi Yehuda Kalman Marlow, frequently has given his imprimatur to messianic activity.Rabbi Krinsky admitted that “I’m not so sure how this will be taken in Crown Heights or Kfar Chabad,” the major Lubavitch village and headquarters in Israel, “but the statement was addressed to everybody.”Professor Samuel Heilman, an observer of chasidic life, noted that among the Lubavitch shlichim, rabbis sent around the world, “There is a very powerful feeling … that the Moshiach business has been carried beyond the pale. The emissaries believe themselves to be the true guardians of the Chabad heritage. This is their response.”Heilman said the emissaries have since the rebbe’s death “acquired a certain independence. They have done a remarkable job of becoming the local guiding spirits. And when these local leaders come together, they can issue something that is virtually a federal statement.”Among the local rabbis on the Central Committee are Moshe Bogomilsky, Yisrael Friedman and Lipa Schapiro of Brooklyn, and Moshe Kasinetz of New Jersey.