In the long-running and often bitter battle over "Who is a Jew," the case expected to soon land in the lap of Israel’s chief rabbi is the most, well, messianic.
The question Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar will be asked to decide is simple yet fraught with symbolism: Can you believe that the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is the messiah and still be converted to Judaism?
In the past, there have been several fruitless efforts to write messianist Lubavitchers out of the Jewish community. The argument goes like this: The belief by a segment of Lubavitchers that their rebbe is the messiah, despite his death in 1994, is so close to Christianity that it’s no longer Judaism.
But this new challenge seems the most direct and pointed, striking at the heart of a core belief held by many in the Lubavitch enclaves in Crown Heights and in Israel.
The case is playing out like many conversion cases, but with a twist.
A young man from the former Soviet Union seeking to convert under the chief rabbi’s auspices — the only officially recognized way to do it in Israel — was on the verge of completing the process last week when one of the rabbis testing him popped the question: Do you believe that the Lubavitcher rebbe is the messiah?
The young man, whose name has not been released, said something to the effect of "Yes, that’s what I’ve been taught," according to a Jerusalem Post report. The assembled rabbis denied his conversion, and passed the issue along to Rabbi Amar.
The conversion court judges "decided not to decide," Binyamin Ish-Shalom, head of the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, the conversion institute established by the Israeli government to curb the "Who is a Jew" wars, told The Jewish Week. His institute prepares students for conversion in Israel and was where the Lubavitch-affiliated candidate, said to be in his 20s, prepared. The candidate also spent about two years at a messianist Lubavitch yeshiva in Jerusalem.
The chief rabbi’s spokesman, who asked that his name not be used, said "the case has not yet come to Rabbi Amar’s desk so we cannot comment on it."
Preliminary indications are that he will back the conversion court judges. "If the rabbinical courts say a convert is Jewish, then he is Jewish. If not, not," said the spokesman, in response to being asked if there is a special policy for converts connected to Lubavitch. "We treat all converts equally, regardless of where they come from," he said.
But either way — whether Rabbi Amar decides that the belief is so beyond the pale of normative Judaism that he may not become Jewish, or decides that someone with this controversial belief is welcome — it is sure to reverberate from the walls of the Old City to the alleys of Crown Heights.
Since Lubavitch messianists began asserting themselves late in the rebbe’s era of leadership — encouraged by their leader himself, they say — there has been no lack of critics.
Most notable, perhaps, was influential Rabbi Eliezer Schach of Bnai Brak, who until he died in 2001 was a frequent critic of the Lubavitcher rebbe and the messianism; he urged a total repudiation and boycott of Chabad, which he regarded as "idol worship."
Rabbi David Berger, now a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, has been the most outspoken critic of messianism on American soil. His book, "The Rebbe, The Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference," received much attention when it was published in 2001.
Rabbi Berger is out of the country this week and did not return messages left for him.
Lubavitch officials here from both the messianist and non-messianist camps could not be reached for comment.
Many Jews find it strange that messianist Lubavitchers believe that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Scheerson, dead now nearly 14years, is alive in some form other than just his soul, and can return to redeem the world as the messiah. Yet despite this, Lubavitch is still widely embraced by the larger Jewish community because of the work its emissaries do around the world to bring Jews closer to their faith.
"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."
One Israeli expert on conversions says that the rabbis may be correct in not allowing this messianist Lubavitcher to convert.
"I think it could be agreed upon that someone who was observant but continued to deny the singularity of God or God’s omnipresence ought be denied entry through the gates," said Rabbi Seth Farber, director of Itim, an Israeli organization that helps converts deal with the rabbinic establishment there.
"Given the consensus among the Orthodox community regarding the fact that messianic deliverance has not yet occurred," Rabbi Farber continued, "it seems reasonable that someone who assumed [and acted upon this belief] this could be denied."
In Crown Heights, the messianists’ fervor, shown in banners and flags proclaiming the rebbe as messiah, suffered a recent setback here.
The owners of 770, who oppose the messianist message, last month won a New York State Supreme Court case against them and, barring a successful appeal, plan to remove the enormous rebbe-as-Moshiach banner that stretches along one wall of 770’s sanctuary.
In Crown Heights on Tuesday, most of the men coming out of 770 who paused to talk with a reporter were not aware of the conversion case and declined to comment.
Yossi Raminksy said, "Who he believes is moshiach is irrelevant to conversion. You have to know halacha for giyur [conversion], but I never heard of this" being asked of a candidate.
Nothing similar has come up in a U.S. conversion under the auspices of the Beth Din of America, the main non-haredi Orthodox rabbinical court.
If it did, "we would refer that to the appropriate halachic authorities of the Beth Din," said Rabbi Michoel Zylberman, coordinator of conversions for the Beth Din.
The Beth Din of America is affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization with about 1,000 centrist Orthodox rabbis. In 1996 the RCA passed a much-debated, carefully constructed resolution condemning Jewish messianism, without mentioning Lubavitch in particular.
Authored by Rabbi Berger, who is a member of the group, they removed the name of Lubavitch because they did not want to deprecate the entire chasidic sect, some of whose members do not share the messianist beliefs, said the RCA’s president at the time.
Rabbi Basil Herring, the RCA’s executive director, said that the current conversion controversy "is a very delicate, sensitive issue and we respect the right and jurisdiction of the rabbinate of Israel to make its decision on this issue."
With reporting from Israel correspondent Michele Chabin in Jerusalem and editorial intern Sharon Udasin in New York.