Menachem Mendel Schneerson: The Expedient Messiah, Part 3

Trudie Pert


When Schneerson assumed the leadership of Chabad, it was a numerically small group, anchored by geographic and cultural boundaries. Like other Hasidim it tried to preserve itself and its version of Judaism by ghettoizing itself, relying on Yiddish as its primary language, dressing in ways that made its members seem attached to another time and place, and sheltering its young in their communities, protected them from the melting pot of the non-Jewish and assimilated-defiled Jewish-American world. The various Hasidic sects proselytized among each other, competing for new followers. The general perception in the United States, as in Israel, was that this sort of Judaism was a relic of the past, destined to fade away in time.

For a cosmopolitan man who aspired to position and prominence, such limitations must have been constricting. Then in 1961, with the launching of John Kennedy’s Peace Corps, it occurred to Schneerson that he could establish a similar organization. Whereas most Hasidic groups remained in enclaves to survive, Schneerson decided to steer Chabad in a new direction: Lubavitch success would occur by engaging the world. A Jewish peace corps with Hasidic volunteers would be sent all over the world, not to serve the world’s poor, but to rehabilitate non-observant Jews. Lubavitchers would not compete with other Hasids for new followers; they would find them outside the Brooklyn Heights ghetto. This global outreach campaign became the hallmark of the Lubavitch sect and the reason for its tremendous success and Schneerson’s vast influence.

Schneerson taught that the Messiah’s arrival could be hastened if every Jew could at least realize his Jewish identity. Their goal was not to convert non-Jews to Judaism, but rather to engage Jews in public places in order to convince them to perform mitzvah and reestablish their Jewish identity. Unlike other Hasidim, who believed that contact with non-religious Jews could be almost as polluting as contact with gentiles, Lubavitchers would connect with all kinds of assimilated Jews. The shluchim would focus on striving to return non-practicing Jews to orthodox practice — by convincing the non-observant to perform mitzvah rather than by attempting to bring them to the ranks of Lubavitch. Although all followers of the movement ideally wanted the entire Jewish community to be Lubavitch, the point of these particular endeavors was to encourage non-observant Jews to perform mitzvah rather than to bring them directly into the ranks.

Scores of young emissaries thus began to fan out on streets where Jews resided. They approached and asked passersby if they were Jewish. If they answered affirmatively, they were persuaded to physically establish their Jewish identity immediately. The shluchim then bound tefillin (phylacteries) on the males, and asked females to light Sabbath candles and take home mezuzahs to affix to their doors. Donning the leather teffilin transformed the secular Jew into a committed one at once because their Jewish identity then had an obvious public manifestation.[19] Eventually Lubavitch hoped to encourage and inspire them to perform further mitzvahs in order to establish that identity more deeply. The more comprehensive mitzvahs included giving alms to the community on a regular basis, keeping the dietary laws to prevent social interaction between Jews and non-Jews, and following the laws of family purity to insure large families.

In the following video the reader is advised to watch for the intense group identification and overt Jewishness, demonstrated at the 2007 International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim:


The video includes several noteworthy scenes:

1) Chief Russian Rabbi Berel Lazar, a government appointee and Hasid, reveals his warm ties to Vladimir Putin.

2) Prof. Alan Dershowitz revels in his Jewishness: “The energy, the love, the Yiddishkeit, are beyond belief!”

3) The phenotypic similarity of the crowd, both cultural (as hats, black clothing and beards ) and familial (inherited phenotypic resemblance. Note that there is no scholarly emaciation or etherealization here, but rather  a sort of corporate beefiness.

4) Jewish music is employed to produce emotionally intense group identification.

Shluchim instructing secular German (or Russian) Jews how to apply tefillin, Hannover, Germany, May 19, 2009. See here.

Training typically starts in the Hasidic summer camps where young teens learn to become devoted and selfless emissaries in the cause of Messianism.Young married couples are preferred as shluchim because they could work with both genders and serve as model families. Chabad houses were erected wherever the schluchim were sent. These Jewish community centers served kosher meals, offered Jewish studies and celebrated holidays with local non-observant Jewish guests, or if located in places with no Jewish residents, attracted Jewish tourists and business people. One Lubavitch couple, for example, moved to Shanghai, a center and magnet for Jewish entrepreneurs and business people. Starting in a small apartment they located 150 families to invite to a Sabbath meal. By Passover eight years later they were hosting 400 for a Seder. By 2008 they were serving thousands (indicating a robust Jewish presence in the commercial capital of China), had built a Chabad house, were offering Torah classes, Synagogue services, childcare centers and were catering kosher food throughout China.[20]

Schneerson was able to apply his familiarity with technology to build an organization that became highly visible in the public square. He understood the potential of the radio, tape, fax machine, video conferencing, and the Internet to get out his message. As the Lubavitch messianic message quickly spread around the world by cyberspace, he soon became the most famous, influential, and controversial rebbe in Hasidic history.  Moreover, Schneerson, perhaps because he had experienced a life in Europe outside the Hasidic ghetto, was able to analyze the American social scene more objectively than the generally protected Hassidim and was able to dispel some widespread prejudices. In a departure from traditional Hasidic suspicion of American anti-Semitism, Scheerson felt that America had a different kind of non-Jew than the anti-Jewish European of his experience. Not only were Americans friendlier to Jews, but they also had more respect for Judaism. Schneerson perceived an underlying affinity with a still-Christian America steeped in an Old Testament Calvinism. In addition, the melting pot notion of American society had given way to multi-culturalism, with its return to ethnicity and roots for non-Whites. Such a tolerant environment enabled Schneerson to boldly assert the Lubavitch presence in the public domain.[21]

The results of this social speculation about America were apparent early. In 1962, when the leaders of assimilated American Jewry were opposing the inclusion of any kind of prayer in the public schools, Schneerson stepped out into the public arena and argued the opposite. At a time when American rabbis were emphatically fighting to prevent any kind of public religious display, Schneerson directed his emissaries to erect huge Hanukkah menorahs wherever possible. Ironically, opposition to this project did not come from Christians but from secular Jews hostile to Christianity and uncomfortable with any public display of Christianity. To many Christians, in fact, the Lubavitch public display of religion recalled the sacrifices made by the Pilgrims to worship publicly and was thus quintessentially American.[22]

Schneerson’s bold step into the public square echoes Prof. Kevin MacDonald’s analysis of the effect of multiculturalism on Jewish identity. When anti-Semitism is high Jews keep a low profile. They adopt cryptic practices in order to conceal or camouflage their true identity. During periods of low anti-Semitism and heightened Jewish power and influence, they become less secretive and more assertive in their demands. At these times “there will be a tendency toward a resurgence of the fundamental features of traditional Judaism as a culturally and genetically segregated group.” Hence, one does not find cryptic forms of Judaism, such as Reform Judaism, in Israel. Reform Judaism attempts to fly under the radar in America by representing themselves more or less sanitized version of Judaism with practices not much different from some forms of Protestantism.

Schneerson had the good fortune to become Rebbe at a time when Western societies were rapidly adopting the tenets of multi-culturalism. Cultural and ethnic pluralism provided Lubavitch with the opportunity to manifest what Prof. MacDonald calls “the Jewish quest for legitimization in the modern world [which] legitimates overt forms of Jewish identification.”[23]

So taken were non-Jewish American conservatives by the “wholesome” Hasids’ exemplification of traditional family values, their promotion of prayer in the schools, and their display of religion in the public square that Congress eventually declared April 4, Schneerson’s 80th birthday, a National Day of Reflection. In 1983 President Reagan honored the Rebbe with a kosher-catered birthday party at the White House. Linked by satellite to the White House, Schneerson participated in the celebration from Brooklyn. Posthumously he also received the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously in 1994.

The award was due in large part to the behind-the-scenes work of Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, Chabad’s Washington representative, and illustrates the enormous lobbying power of Chabad-Lubavitch.


Shluchim, in fact, do much more than spread the messianic word. Rabbi Shemtov claims that the vast network of shluchim inside the US generates great political power.

We have shluchim in forty-seven states and in [at least] 310 districts. … People sometimes view the world of shluchim as three thousand people, but it’s not only three thousand people, its three thousand interconnected networks. So we can place a call from a constituent to almost any member of Congress.

Most shluchim have good connections with their senators, congressmen and governors, including those who represent the most remote places in the United States. When Sarah Palin entered the political scene, for example, she had already known about Jewish issues and Chabad specifically from Rabbi Yosef Greenberg in Alaska.[24]

Just as Schneerson shrewdly recognized how to use multiculturalism to Jewish advantage, so he also understood the need for a revised Lubavitch stance toward Zionism. Almost all the Hasidic rabbis, including Yosef Yitzchok, had abhorred Zionism, which they dismissed as false messianism and an obstacle to the redemption.  Schneerson’s relationship to the State of Israel and to Zionism was rather more ambiguous. Under Yosef Yitzchok the Lubavitcher stance toward Israel had been that American Jews’ laxity of Jewish observance had caused the catastrophe in WWII Europe—the classic Jewish interpretation of their suffering and a major theme of the Old Testament. Yitzchok also claimed that the state of Israel was an impediment to the arrival of the messiah. These opinions were not popular with the vast majority of American Jews after WWII.

Schneerson, on the other hand, had no doubt that these beliefs had led to a decline in his predecessor’s influence. In order to end further damage to the Lubavitcher reputation and to prevent the potential erosion of his own power, Schneerson soon made several pragmatic choices. American Jews were no longer blamed for causing the Holocaust. And Israel, with its majority Jewish population, was perceived as a fertile field for future development. Moreover, Chabad expediently changed its position toward Zionism to one of support for Israel, particularly its foreign policy. As a result, not only did well heeled American Jews begin their enthusiastic financial support of the sect, but Lubavitch presence in Israel quickly became ubiquitous.  Schneerson’s portrait was and is displayed throughout secular Israel without a caption because he is universally recognized. Chabad emissaries are everywhere, from airports to shopping centers.[25]

By 1965 Schneerson was allied in Israel to the Labor Party. His movement had already acquired many important benefits from the government in power as well as from previous Israeli governments. Chabad, for example, had obtained autonomy for its own education system within the context of religious state education. In the mid-1970s Schneerson decided that the Labor Party was too moderate and thereafter shifted his movement’s political support sometimes to Likud and sometimes to a religious party. Ariel Sharon was Schneerson’s favorite Israeli senior politician. Sharon in turn praised Schneerson publicly and delivered a moving speech about him in the Knesset after his death. Chabad built a large settlement in Israel—with the help of the state’s third president, Zalman Shazar, who had grown up in a Lubavitcher family—and Schneerson became an influential figure in Israeli politics. Since Schneerson never left his Brooklyn residence Rabin, Begin, Sharon, and Netanyahu all made the pilgrimage to Brooklyn. Schneerson saw the reclamation of Eretz Yisrael—including the occupied territories—as a sign of divine providence and was dead-set against any move to give up land for peace. From the June 1967 war until his death Schneerson always supported Israeli wars and opposed any retreat. In 1974 he strongly opposed the Israeli withdrawal from the Suez area, conquered in the October 1973 war; he promised Israel divine favors if it persisted in occupying that land. The result of Schneerson’s adoption of a pro-Zionist stance has meant a large influx of fanatic Lubavitch zealots in the right wing settler movement into the Occupied Territories. Baruch Goldstein, the mass murderer of Palestinians, was one of these.[26]

In 1988 Schneerson tried to press Israel to permit only rabbinical courts and not secular courts in Israel to decide upon the definition of who was a Jew. Again it was because of the opposition of the American donors that Schneerson dropped his “who is a Jew” demands from the Israel Government. The American donors, many of whom were not Orthodox, and were either in a mixed marriage or the product of one, could not tolerate Schneerson’s strict definition. As soon as Schneerson realized that American donor money would decline, he quickly withdrew his support of a strict definition of Jewish identity. Thus the unity government under Shamir did not make the changes and the monetary contributions to Lubavitch continued.[27]

Long before the end of Schneerson’s life in 1994 some of the Hasidim had begun to believe that the messiah they were expecting to appear during Schneerson’s lifetime was Schneerson himself. Although Hasids frequently believe their rebbe to be the messiah, generally with his death such expectation ends.  But Lubavitch Hasidim believed that specific evidence existed to prove Schneerson’s messiahship:  he was the seventh generation Lubavitch rabbi, the generation in which the messiah was to appear and he approached the end of his life without an heir. The growing worldwide influence of Lubavitch, their enviable financial position,and  the renown of their rebbe all pointed to his messianic status. Furthermore, though Schneerson never claimed to be the messiah, he did not deny it either.[28]

To some of his followers the very fact of his childlessness was evidence of his holiness. His cemetery plot near Kennedy Airport has become a holy shrine, considered to be as sacred as any place Jews venerate. Lubavich purchased surrounding houses and turned them into offices, a library, houses for visitors, and ritual baths.  Fax machines, computer lines, and telephones were installed to manage the constant stream of pilgrims. Even more important in retaining Schneerson as a virtual Rebbe has been the universal use of his videos. Schneerson had encouraged the widespread use of his photos and videos, and when the Hasidim come together for community meetings now, they participate in celebrations with the Rebbe taped in the past.  Moreover, his many and lengthy talks have been supplied with subtitles in the “Living Torah Series,” for non-Yiddish speakers and are widely disseminated. (Yiddish is now dropping off and giving way to Hebrew as the standard language among the Hasid.) As a non-Hasidic Jewish biographer quips, “The rebbe could live forever on reruns.”[29]

End of Third Part

18   “The Legacy of Menachem Mendel Schneerson”

19   Heilman and Friedman, 184.

20   Heilman and Friedman, 7

21   David Novak, “The Man-Made Messiah,” First Things, Jan 1, 2011.

22   ibid

23   Kevin MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents, 330-332.

24 “Is Chabad a Racist, Criminal, Terrorist Cult?”—

25   Israel Shahak, Jewish Fundamentalism and Militarism – Peter Myers, September 12, 2001; update September 30, 2002.

26   ibid

27   ibid

28   Heilman and Friedman, 26

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