A truly disgraceful insurrection occurred on January 8 at the Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. It involved a secret passageway (it is not a tunnel) that was excavated beneath the iconic headquarters building (referred to as “770” for problematic reasons, as explained below), clashes among worshipers in the synagogue housed there, and the trashing of that synagogue.
In many ways, this event was a gross example of a chilul HaShem, a desecration of God’s sacred name, but no more so than that so many people, non-Jews especially, mistakenly believe that Chabad represents “authentic Judaism.” That is why the event continues to receive considerable media attention, to Judaism’s detriment.
The excavators also apparently showed a callous disregard for human life by potentially undermining the structural integrity of the buildings above, thus violating Judaism’s prime directive of putting life above almost everything else.
It also has unleashed a torrent of antisemitic conspiracy theories on social media. Among other “pernicious and dangerous themes that emerged” from the incident, according to the Anti-Defamation League, is the allegation that the passageway was being used “to traffic, abuse, or ritualistically murder children.”
Mike Rothschild, the author of a book exposing such conspiracy theories, told Rolling Stone magazine that this incident “casts all Jewish people as…doing strange things under cover of darkness for unknown purposes.”
It also brought Chabad-Lubavitch messianism back into the limelight, thereby giving evangelizing Christians new ammunition to label us as hypocrites for denying Jesus.
For many years after Chabad’s late leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt”l, died in 1994, the messianism he encouraged existed primarily as an internal battle among three factions. The mainstream Chabad leadership disavows the claim that Schneerson is the Messiah — at least publicly. The larger of the two other factions awaits his resurrection as the Messiah. The third faction insists that Schneerson is alive and in hiding, waiting for the right time to reappear and declare his true identity.
The synagogue within 770 — but not the rest of the building — is controlled by one of those two messianic, or “meshichisteh,” factions. This is evident by a large sign hanging on one of its walls and by the inscriptions on the kippot some of its worshippers wear. Both bear the words “Yechi adoneinu moreinu v’rabbeinu melech hamashiach l’olam va-ed.” Known as “the yechi,” it translates as “May our master, teacher, and rabbi, the King Messiah [Schneerson], live forever.” (“Messiah” — Mashiach — means “anointed” and was applied to all of Israel’s kings and high priests. Waiting for the Messiah means waiting for the legitimate anointed king of Israel.)
Schneerson’s messianism is at the heart of why that 60-foot-long, 8-foot-wide, 5-foot-high passageway was excavated under 770 and four adjacent buildings.
From the beginning of his tenure in 1951, Schneerson asserted that the long wait for Mashiach was coming to an end. In his ma-mar, his inaugural address as Chabad’s new leader, he alluded to a prediction supposedly made by the movement’s late 18th-century founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liyadi, that Mashiach would arrive during the term of Chabad’s seventh leader. Schneerson was that seventh leader.
Over the next 43 years, even when his health was failing, Schneerson refused to name a successor, presumably because none would be needed. He also never discouraged the belief that he was Mashiach, Chabad disclaimers notwithstanding. (I have a photograph of him smilingly accepting a needlepoint with the words of the “yechi” crocheted on it.)
On June 1, 1988, the short-lived daily newspaper New York Newsday devoted a whole page to an interview with the rebbe’s longtime personal assistant, Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky, that bore this headline: “Is there a Messiah in Crown Heights?” Krinsky was careful not to identify the rebbe as that Messiah, but he was blunt in saying that no one in the world other than Schneerson qualified for the role.
Then there is the word “mamash.” Talks given by Chabad leaders almost always end with a brief prayer for the coming of Mashiach. Everywhere else, such prayers would end with “amen,” or “ken yehi ratzon” — may it be God’s will. Chabad talks, however, end with the Hebrew word mamash (MMSh), which means really, truly, or genuinely. This mamash, however, is not a word. It is an abbreviated form of the rebbe’s name. The talks end with a prayer for the coming of Mashiach, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
The passageway beneath 770 is the latest manifestation of the rebbe’s messianism, which centered in part on the Hebrew word faratzta, the numerical value of which is 770, as in 770 Eastern Parkway. The word is part of a phrase found in Genesis 28:14 that Chabad adopted as one of its anthems. It reads, “u-faratzta yamah vakedmah v’tzafonah vanegbah”—“and you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.”
The numerical value of faratzta is why many in Chabad refer to 770 as Beit Rabbeinu Sheh-b’Bavel, the “House of Our Rabbi that is in Babylon,” Babylon being a euphemism for the Diaspora as a whole, ascribing leadership of the Jewish people to the house’s occupant. The translation, however, masks an even broader even more heretical implication. A book edited by Rabbi Alexander Zushe Cohen, titled “Beit Rabbeinu Sheh-b’Bavel,” asserts that the Third Temple “will first be revealed” as actually being 770. When Mashiach appears, it will be miraculously transported “to Jerusalem from there.”
In other words, 770 Eastern Parkway is the Third Temple in its early stages.
The passageway apparently was meant to fulfill Schneerson’s desire to expand 770, an expansion the book says must be done in “preparation for the imminent descent and revelation of the future Holy Temple.” Not only is it “imperative that Beit Rabbeinu be enlarged and expanded,” it says, but this work must be done “in a manner that bursts [faratzta] all boundaries.” It must take “the form of breaching a fence because the word for breach is faratzta….” Tearing down walls beneath 770 accomplishes that breach.
To make it clear 770’s “unique greatness,” which is inherent in the numerical value of faratzta, the book asserts that not merely is it the seat of the Nasi Hador (the prince of the generation, Judaism’s ruling figure, meaning Schneerson, which is why Chabad capitalizes the “R” in rebbe), but it is also where God’s holy spirit, the Shechinah, “resides.” Indeed, even though “the manifestation and revelation of God’s holy spirit [exists] in all the synagogues and study halls of the Diaspora,” it “emanate[s] from Beit Rabbeinu.”
There are some who would say, “As long as they are not hurting anyone, let the meshichisteh crowd believe what they want to believe.”
Aside from the flood of antisemitic conspiracy theories it has unleashed, the chilul HaShem created on January 8 hurts how Judaism is perceived, and it damages the image of God by suggesting God permits “authentic Jews” to behave in such a destructive way.
Chabad’s messianism, however, is causing an even greater hurt. To many in the Christian world, it proves that “the Jews” are hypocrites.
Consider how the history professor and Orthodox Rabbi David Berger describes Chabad messianism: “God will finally send the true Messiah to embark upon his redemptive mission. The long-awaited redeemer will declare that all preparations for the redemption have been completed and announce without qualification that the fulfillment is absolutely imminent…. He will proclaim himself a prophet, point clearly to his messianic status, and declare that the only remaining task is to greet him as Messiah. And then he will die and be buried without having redeemed the world…. [T]he true Messiah’s redemptive mission, publicly proclaimed and vigorously pursued, will…then [be] consummated through a Second Coming.” (See Berger’s 2001 book, “The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference,” published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.)
That statement describes Chabad messianism, but it also describes the very Christian belief we Jews have fought against and even died for denying for nearly 2,000 years. Now, because of Chabad messianism, all that is being thrown back in our faces.
The San Francisco-based SOS [Share Our Savior] Ministries, for example, focuses on spreading the teachings of Christianity. Its founder and director is Larry Rosenbaum, who converted to Christianity in 1970.
In a 2010 SOS newsletter, Rosenbaum lauded Chabad-Lubavitch as Judaism’s “most dynamic group” whose followers “believe that the Messiah is coming very soon.” After Schneerson’s death, he wrote, “half of [Chabad] decided he wasn’t the Messiah. The other half now believe either that his supposed death was an illusion or that he will be resurrected….”
Rosenbaum also referred to Berger’s assertion — one with which he clearly agrees — that for “Christian missionaries, Lubavitch messianism…is an unanticipated, unearned, but priceless gift,” which certainly is true.
As the January 8 Chabad insurrection underscores, “the scandal of Orthodox indifference” must come to an end. The various Orthodox organizations must finally take Berger seriously. They must denounce Chabad and its messianism publicly and unequivocally. They must declare Chabad and its messianism as the heresies they truly are.
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Kehillat Torat Chayim v’Chesed–a virtual congregation, and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.