TEN FALSE MESSIAHS
I am convinced that there is no subject that has the potential for misunderstanding as does that of Messianism. In popular religious thought in the United States, it is simply a given that Jesus is the messiah - end of discussion. No thought is given to what are the characteristics of a messiah, what he is to accomplish, what are his qualifications, or even how many messiahs there are. Many are not even aware that the Jews, with whom Christians share the Bible, do not accept the New Testament and therefore have a much different view of the messiah. Seldom does anyone go to the Hebrew Bible for understanding of these matters from the point of view of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, to see how they compare with the manner in which the theme of messiah is developed in the New Testament. In the Christianity that has evolved in our time, every prophetic utterance about a deliverer, a redeemer, a prophet to come, a savior, or many, many other such designations is presented as being fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
What is needed is some broadened understanding of the whole scope of messianic thought, rather that a closed minded view that is common in both Christian and Jewish circles. I believe that both have allowed some degree of error to creep in. Unfortunately, there is no subtle way to say that the widespread influence of traditional Christianity has led to a mindless acceptance of a messiah that is very different from the earliest messianic notions. Please understand that I am not trying to trash Christianity by saying that. I am simply drawing attention to the fact that Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of every facet of the Old Testament. If one wants to have a comprehensive understanding of the subject, he should make it his business to understand the issue of messianism, not only from the Christian view but from the Jewish view which preceeded it.
Whatever view one takes concerning Jesus of Nazareth, the notion that all the prophetic figures in the Hebrew Bible refer to the same individual simply cannot be supported by a careful investigation of the Bible. Many such prophecies are simply not referring to The Messiah. In addition, There are multiple messiahs spoken of in the Prophets. Every king and priest in ancient Israel was a messiah. The Hebrew word moschiach, from which we transliterate our word messiah, means simply the anointed one, from the practice of anointing one who is chosen with oil.
Only recently, since the public has been given access to the Dead Sea Scrolls, have we had a window of access into the messianic views of the period that followed the close of the Hebrew cannon. A much different view of messianism has emerged. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, it comes out clearly that at least two, and perhaps three, messiahs were expected (one of David and one of Aaron and a third figure, the Prophet, who is said to come with the messiahs of Aaron and Israel). There are also many other prophetic figures whom one would never equate with the messiah, were it not for the professional help of some overzealous theologian.
It is not my purpose in this article, however, to discuss the Christian notion of the messiah, or the relative merits of one view over the other. That will have to wait for other articles. Here I will explore an aspect of the Jewish concept of the messiah by looking at a ten prominent figures throughout Jewish history who have come to be known as false messiahs. Given the prevalent misperceptions of the messiah, one might think that such an article would be anti-Jewish. This is certainly not my intention. In fact, the bulk of the material for this article is adapted from a Jewish publication, The Jewish Almanac, October 1980 edition, published by Bantam Books. The Jews themselves recognize these individuals as false messiahs. One might think that this would be an embarrassing admission for the them. But that is, again, based on the Christian notion of the messiah rather than the Jewish notion. Among Jews these individuals are not thought of as heretics or demonic agents, although some of them exhibited some rather bizarre behavior. They are simply would-be deliverers of Israel who failed to achieve what they aspired to.
Understand this key concept: The major prophesied purpose of the messiah is to restore the greatness of Israel. He is expected to be wise and understanding, a charismatic individual who will bring peace and justice to Israel and mankind. He will usher in an age of world peace. The notion of The Messiah took form mostly in the era after the close of the Hebrew canon, climaxing at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century. It has undoubtedly been modified over the centuries that followed, in a kind of knee-jerk reaction to Christian claims that Jesus was The Messiah. Judaism seems to have absorbed some of that tendency to coalesce various prophetic personalities into a single Messiah, although in their view, it would decidedly not be Jesus.
One should note that, as long as the temple stood, there was no real messianic expectation. God was still with Isreal in the temple liturgy. The nation of Judah still existed as a political entity, albeit only a shadow of its former self. The messianic notion at that time was only half baked, so to speak. There was a realization that a restoration of the former glory of the kingdom was needed, but the kingdom had not been totally eliminated. Messianic expectation could not come into full flower until the temple and the polity of Israel was completely gone.
When the temple and the nation of Judea were obliterated by Rome in the year 70, the kingdom was completely dead. At this time the messianic expectation began in earnest. Let us now examine the unfortunate episodes that followed over the next 2000 years and the individuals around whom these times revolved.
Simon Bar Kokhba (Second Century C.E.)
The first of the false messiahs arose less than 70 years after the destruction of Jerusalem. Simon Bar Kokhba was the military leader of the Jewish rebellion of 132 C.E in Palestine. The Jews had suffered under a brutal oppression of the Romans for close to one hundred years. The people believed that the day of Judgment was surely close, and the time of the messiah was imminent. This messianic belief became a political factor of great importance. The Emperor Hadrian announced that he would turn Jerusalem into a Roman colony. Rebellion promptly broke out. While Rabbi Akiba was recognized as the spiritual Leader of that time, he was not a military man and could not lead the Jews into their ultimate battle. Into this leadership void stepped a Charismatic leader, Simon Bar Kokhba, who suddenly burst on the scene, rallying support for rebellion.
Akiba was quick to proclaim Bar Kokhba "a messianic king!" He applied a Bible verse directly to him "a star, kokhab, has arisen out of Jacob"(Num. 24:17). So Simon became known as Bar Kochba, Son of the Star. His mission was clear and sanctioned by rabbinical authority. For a people starved for hope, the approval of Akiba was more than enough proof of Bar Kochba's authenticity. Curiously, it was in the Roman writings of the time, rather than the Jewish writings, that miraculous powers were attributed to him. He was said to have been able to call forth fire at his command. Jewish sources were more realistic, however. Among them it was said he had the strength to deflect catapulted rocks with his knees. Whatever else might be said about Bar Kokhba, he did not appear to be selfish or self servi- ng in his endeavors. His goals were clearly the freedom of his people, the glory of Judaism, and the liberation of his homeland.
With his great charisma and leadership, he attracted Jewish warriors from all over the world to fight in his epic final battle against the mighty Roman Empire. Even the usually hostile Samaritans would ally their forces with his. It was said that he eventually commanded half a million well trained warriors. They were ruled by Bar Kokhba's iron hand. It was said that to remain in his army a man had to be able to uproot a cedar tree.
When Bar Kokhba's forces recaptured Jerusalem, there was wild speculation that the Temple, which had lain in ruins for sixty two years, might be rebuilt by this new Messiah. But this was not to be because of the preoccupation of carrying on the war. Interestingly, Jewish sover- eignty did allow for the minting of coins that appeared with Bar Kokhba's likeness bearing a pot of manna and the rod of Aaron, unmistakable symbols of the Messiah.
From 132 to 134 C. E., Bar Kokhba defeated every force sent by Hadrian. In relatively short order, over 50 forts, 985 cities, and all of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee fell to Bar Kokhba. When the consequences of this uprising were finally realized by the Emperor, he placed the military operations in the hands of Julius Severus, the most successful Roman commander.
Severus understood that fighting an essentially guerrilla army in the classical tradition would be problematic. His strategy was to surround and besiege the rebels in their strongholds, forcing them into starvation. By this tactic, one-by-one, the Jewish citadels fell.
The retreating remnants of Bar Kokhba's forces took refuge in the fortress of Betar, southwest of Jerusalem, where the final brave stand against the mighty Roman army took place. After almost an entire year under the onslaught of the mighty Roman Army, Betar fell and close to half a million Jews were massacred. The day was the ninth of Av, the same day that each of the two temples was destroyed. Bar Kokhba's head was brought to the Roman general, his body having been for some inexplicable reason destroyed by snakes.
This defeat was so devastating to Jewish messianic hopes that anticipation of the future redemption was ended for centuries.
Moses of Crete (Fifth Century)
As the mighty Roman Empire gradually declined into the fifth century, messianic hopes once again reached a climax. The political and economic misfortunes of Palestinian and Babylonian Jewry touched off renewed speculations of the long anticipated restoration of Israel.
Attributed to the prophet Elijah, there was a popular rabbinic passage which led the Jews to expect redemption at this time. It was taken to mean that "The world shall endure no less than 85 jubilees (4250 years) and in the last jubilee the son of David shall come [i.e. between 440 and 490 C.E.]". There were other passages as well that fueled the expectation. For an oppressed people these were powerful signs.
At this juncture, a pseudo-Messiah named Moses appeared on the scene on the Greek island of Crete. He travelled the length and breadth of the island attracting followers to his calling. As the Messiah, he claimed he would "lead dry-footed the Children of Israel to the Promised Land of Israel", like a second Moses. As incredible as his claim might have been, he managed to convince just about the entire Jewish population of Crete of his authenticity.
His persuasive powers were such that the populace embraced his every word. Jews began neglecting their businesses, abandoning their properties, and awaiting the day when this new Moses would lead them to Israel, never again to live under oppression, for the moment of their redemption was at hand.
On the appointed day he led a huge procession to a promontory over the sea. The entire Jewish population of Crete followed in his footsteps. By the hundreds, men, women, and children bearing all of their goods, solemnly marched behind their charismatic leader.
At the cliff, overlooking the sea, Moses raised his arms. As his biblical namesake had done, he ordered the sea to part and commanded the people to march forth with faith. The blinded people obeyed, but the sea would not. Local fishermen and sailors had to rescue those who survived. Many simply drowned in the frigid turbulent waters. Moses simply disappeared, rather than face the angry survivors. He had vanished, never to be heard from again.
And what of the rabbinic prophecy that had inspired this incident? Rabenu Ashi (compiler of the Talmud), who had previously tried to subdue the messianic fervor, reinterpreted the statement to mean "Before the 85th jubilee you need not expect him at all, After the 85th jubilee you may expect him".
David Alroy (Twelfth Century)
Jews lived in insufferable circumstances at the time of the Crusades. During the eleventh century and twelfth century there were many abortive messianic movements. The most spec- tacular was that of David Alroy, who burst on to the scene about 1147. A handsome and charming Jew from Kurdistan, Alroy was regarded as a top biblical and talmudic scholar in his studies at the Baghdad Academy. He also became an expert in such things as Arabic literature and magic.
The Jews of Babylon in those times were not very scholarly. Some communities were under the oppressive rule of the Sultans of Persia, while others roamed free in the mountains of Chaftan. Yet all accepted the rulings that the rabbis sent to them.
Alroy declared himself the Messiah and began to foment revolt against the Sultan of Persia. He sent a letter to Jewish communities throughout the Middle East, announcing his claim and telling people to pray and fast for the return to Jerusalem. With his skill in magic he was able to perform "miracles" that convinced others of his messianic mission.
The Sultan summoned Alroy, ostensibly to demonstrate his magical powers and miracles. It was simply a ruse to seize him and cast him into prison. To the Sultan's chagrin, Alroy was able, using his "miraculous" powers, to escape the prison and flee. The irate king quickly dis- patched troops to recapture Alroy. His troops returned reporting that they could hear Alroy's voice yet not being able to see him. Alroy claimed that he would not die until he had brought Israel back to Jerusalem, built the altar, and offered sacrifice there.
The Sultan personally went after the elusive Alroy with his army, pursuing him to the banks of the mystical River Gosan. But Alroy could not be found, although his voice could be heard calling the king and his army "fools." Legend says that Alroy suddenly reappeared out of nowhere, and was seen dividing the waters and crossing.
The Sultan was shaken and began to believe that Alroy might indeed have certain magical powers. His officers, though, insisted that the whole thing was an illusion. They prevailed, so the Sultan demanded that the Jews hand over Alroy or else he would slaughter them.
There exist two endings to this saga of David Alroy. One version has him returning to his Amadiya, where he started a revolt against the Persian ruler. Attempting to storm the citadel, he was defeated and died.
In the other version of the story has Alroy being urged by the Jews of Baghdad and Mosul to desist from his messianic pretentions for their own safety. He refused, so the governor of Amadiya bribed Alroy's father-in-law with 10,000 crowns to dispose of him. A banquet was staged in Alroy's honor where his father-in law beheaded him. Alroy's influence was so pervasive that followers persisted even after his demise. Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister wrote an unremarkable romantic novel based on it called Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1839). Abraham Ben Samuel Abulafia (1240-1291)
The thirteenth century saw no abatement in messianic expectation. Of the plethora of messianic wanna-be's that time, Abraham Abulafia, an eccentric adventurer from Saragossa, Spain was uncommon in his scholarship and his quest for spiritual truth. He gained a solid grounding in Bible and Talmud from his father. When Abulafia was eighteen years old his father died. He immediately set off on a career of travel and learning. He went to the Holy Land but could get no further than Acre due to the Crusade. He travelled all over the middle east seeking the mythical River Sambatyon and the Lost Tribes of Israel dwelling on its banks.
An avid student, he was forever searching for higher truths. He studied the sciences, philosophy, logic, medicine, and many other subjects. Still he was restless. He sought the spirit of prophecy but it eluded him. When he travelled in Spain and Italy, he came into contact with the spreading influence of Jewish mysticism. His early reading of the kabbala led him to proclaim, "The spirit of the Lord reached my mouth and worked through me so that I manifested many dread and awful sights with signs and wonders,"
Even the existing Kabbalistic works did not fully satisfy him. He began composing a new Kabbalah that would be closer to what he called the "real truth." His new system involved the manipulation of the letters of the Tetragrammaton (the four letter holy name of God) in various combinations and permutations and numeric values. In addition, the new Kabbalah promised the ability to reach meditative states and even prophetic states through ascetic living and various mystical techniques. "When I reached to the Names and untied the seal bands," he wrote, "the Lord of all revealed Himself to me and made known to me His secret, and informed me concerning the end of the exile and the beginning of the Redemption."
Through his lectures, he gained a small following among the less educated Jews of Spain. Opposition arose to his strange form of Kaballah and forced him to leave for Italy. It was in Sicily, in 1284, that Abulafia claimed that in a personal interview with God he had been appointed the Messiah.
While in Italy, Abulafia hatched a bold plan. On Rosh Hashanah, Abulafia departed for Rome to convert Pope Nicholas III to Judaism. The irate Pope immediately erected a stake for him. When Abulafia heard of these preparations he delayed his arrival for a couple of days. But undeterred, he continued on to Rome where he was thrown in prison for nearly a month. Ironically, the Pope suddenly died, and Abulafia was released. He returned to the relatively safer occupation of mysticism and messianism. He delved deeper and deeper into meditative trances and ecstatic experiences.
On one occasion he meditated on various combinations of letters in the seventy-two-letter name of God, and an uncontrollable trembling overcame his body and mind. He fell on the floor overcome by terror. Undeterred, he continued his meditations. As he prayed he felt "oil of anointment" cover him. For Abulafia, this was a definitive sign from God that he was indeed the messiah.
But his fellow Jews were not convinced. Other rabbis rejected him. They objected to his criticism of their studying traditional scriptures and their ignoring Kabbalah. He had called them apes when compared to the kabbalists who were the real men. The rabbis banned his teachings, and ridiculed his ideas and his spiritual exercises. They called him an illiterate charlatan.
Curiously though, Abulafia found an audience with some Christians who had accepted his messianic claims, although he had been soundly rejected by his own people. He criticized the Jews as refusing "to know anything of the calculations of God's name, but prefer the calculation of their money."
Abulafia wrote twenty-eight books on nonprophetic themes, including some extremely important kabbalistic works and a commentary on the Torah. In our time he is regarded as the most important kabbalist prior to Isaac Luria. Some of his books were widely circulated. He profoundly influenced later kabbalists, particularly in sixteenth century Safed.
He lived out the rest of his life on the small island of Comino, near Malta. He had been forced out of Sicily by his own community. There he wrote Sefer ha-Ot, the only surviving prophetic work of the twenty-two he wrote.
David Reuveni (1490-1538)
In 1492, on the 9th of Av, the Jews were expelled from Spain. Six years later they were expelled from Portugal. Similar expulsions occurred in Germanic provinces. It was a time of great consternation for the Jews of Europe. Terrible economic conditions raged. That period was ripe with messianic interest. It was at this time that the Marrano Community took shape. An estimated three million Jews of Spain and Portugal had been forced to convert to Christianity but secretly practiced a minimal version of Judaism. There were powerful messianic expectations among the Marranos. They believed that the Messiah would come and rescue them from their misery, returning them to the Holy Land, where they could live as true Jews.
The fancy of the Marranos was easily realized by a Jew named David Reuveni who rode on a white horse to an audience with the Pope. Their messianic expectations took root.
Curiously, Reuveni did not have an impressive physical appearance that would inspire confidence. He was short and thin and very dark, but he was courageous and intrepid. At times he could be harsh and cold. In 1524 he mysteriously appeared in Rome at the Pope's palace. He claimed that he was the ambassador of his brother, King Joseph, ruler of the ancient tribe of Reuben. The Pope, Clement VII, granted Reuvini an audience, not quite knowing what to expect. On a Sunday morning, Reuveni, with a retinue of twelve respected Jews and over two hundred Christians, arrived at the palace with great pomp.
Reuveni presented an remarkable proposal to the Pope. He wanted the Pope's support to arm and army to seize the Holy Land from the Turks. Ludicrous though the idea sounded, it appealed to the Pope. A successful defeat of the Turks, even though accomplished by the Jews, would help restore the image of the tottering Church. The Pope offered to assist Reuveni and made him an honored guest in Rome.
Throughout the following year Reuveni was treated with dignity and honor in Rome. As an aescetic, he fasted often. He became ill after one of his fasts. He was attended by the finest physicians, but he grew worse, and it looked as though he would die. But he told his doctor "I will not die until I have brought Israel to Jerusalem, built the altar, and offered sacrifice there." And to everyone's amazement, he soon recovered and the rumors of his messiahship began to abound.
To the Christians, Reuveni denied the rumors, but with the Jews, he was equivocal. He spoke of his descent from the House of David and of bringing the Jews back to the Promised Land. He was said to have performed miracles associated with the Messiah, such as curing a young girl of an illness with his prayers.
Reuvini became a household name throughout Jewry and especially among the Marranos. He became widely known in all over Europe. The Pope gave Reuveni a letter of safe conduct to present his request before the King of Portugal. With the Pope had given him the key to the land which had expelled his people only a few decades before.
He made quite an impression, in a ship boldly flying the Star of David, as if he were a head of state with a retinue of armed Jews, to negotiate an arms deal. The Marranos were ec- static, proclaiming him the Messiah. The king announced a cessation of the oppression of Marranos. Reuveni, realizing that unbridled enthusiasm might hinder his efforts, remained aloof. But the Jews were ecstatic with mounting expectations.
With his armed Jewish guard Reuveni arrived at the palace with great pomp for an auspicious meeting with John III. The king promised military aid for the proposed battle and Reuveni left satisfied. No further proof was needed for the Marranos that the Messiah had arrived in the person of David Reuveni. They began making daring preparations for the final return.
However, the ramifications of these actions were not lost on the authorities. The conversion of a young, noble, and handsome Marrano named Diego Pires, a court favorite, was the turning point of the favor of the authorities. Not too long after this event Reuveni was forced to leave Portugal. It was a sad time for the Jews. They hoped that he would soon return for them after he had waged the battle for the Holy City.
Diego Pires, the brilliant young nobleman now known as Solomon Molcho the Jew, became one of the greatest talmudic and kabbalistic scholars of that time. He followed his master Reuveni in his travels, boldly proclaiming the advent of the messianic era. Using astrology, Molcho even managed to predict a number of major catastrophes and soon had a large following.
The pair continued their joint messianic ventures. They declared war on the Turks and they called on the Emperor Charles IV. He simply turned them over to the Italian Inquisition. Pope Clement, who had previously saved Molcho from the stake by hiding him in the Vatican, was now on his deathbed and unable to help.
Given a last chance to recant, Molcho defiantly declared: "I am distressed at the thought that in my childhood I clung to your faith. Now you can do with me whatever you please." Before a huge crowd, Molcho was burned to death.
Reuveni, a born Jew, was not subject to the death sentence. Instead, he languished in prison the remaining two years of his life.
Isaac Luria (1534-1572)
The chief center for mystical studies shifted to Safed in Palestine following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Isaac Luria, a gifted scholar, was the undisputed leader of this community. They viewed him as one with almost supernatural powers, calling him the "Lion."
Luria was born in Jerusalem in 1534. It is said that at his birth the prophet Elijah appeared to his father at his birth and his circumcision. The father was not able to care for the child for very long. He died while the boy was still quite young. The young Luria was taken by his mother to the home of her brother in Egypt, a wealthy tax collector. Noted for his intelligence, logic, and reasoning, Luria, by the age of fifteen, was superior to all the sages in Egypt in his understanding of talmudic law. He married his cousin and went to study alone with the chief rabbi of Egypt for about seven years. A brilliant pupil, the study of Talmud did not satisfy his inquisitive mind. In an attempt to quench this intellectual thirst, he began to delve into the secrets of the Zohar and Kabbalah. Yet not even the existing kabbalistic literature could answer all of his questions.
For the next seven years, Luria lived in seclusion on the Nile River. He lived virtually a monastic life, seeing his wife only during Sabbath. During this isolated period he would experience strange voices and ecstatic episodes. He lived on very little and fasted for long periods. This ascetic lifestyle increase the vivid images of his mind. At times he was taught by Elijah the prophet who revealed to him the kabbalistic secrets of the Torah.
The visitations of Elijah occurred repeatedly in his mind. After two years of extreme asceticism, he appeared to Luria and told him that he would soon die. He was to go to Safed and that there God would reveal "a thousand more times" than he was able to acquire in Egypt. In 1569 by moving his family to Palestine. There, the circle of mystics quickly recognized his gift and made him the spiritual leader.
Luria began to develop a new kind of Kabbalistic thought, whereby the divine order of the world could be seen. His system very complex such that others could not really understand it. In fact, he never was able to commit the system to written form. What we know of Luria's "Practical Kabbalah" is based mostly on the notes of his disciple Hayyim Vital.
Luria taught that souls in heaven could be brought down to inhabit the bodies of men. He saw spirits in everything; in the rushing waters, the movement of the trees, the sand of the seashore, and the songs of the birds. Intimate conversations took place with souls of biblical figures and talmudic sages. His disciples would often follow him on his walks to the fields and cemeteries where these mystical contacts took place. They would don white garments to welcome the Sabbath Queen (a metaphorical representation of the Sabbath). They would proceed to the grave of the great Rabbi Simon b. Yohai and there perform mystical rituals and sing secret hymns. These procedures were in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
Although he never proclaimed himself the Messiah, his followers had little doubt. He was said to be able to perform exorcisms and miracles, and to speak the language of the animals. Luria could read faces, look into the souls of men, recognize souls that migrated from body to body. He could tell what commandment a man had fulfilled and what sins he had committed, it was said.
One day Luria summoned his disciples and asked them to go immediately to Jerusalem with him. The disciples, surprised by the suddenness of the request, hesitated. Luria cried out, "Woe to us who are unworthy! I saw that the Messiah was about to appear in Jerusalem, and if we had come, all the world would have been redeemed." But a few days later, Luria died at the age of 38, the victim of an epidemic.
After his death the veneration of Luria increased. The words "Holy and Divine" were used to describe him and it was said that if he had only lived another few years, the messianic period would have begun. He was virtually deified. His works paved the way for all the messianic movements to follow.
Hayyim Vital (1542-1620)
The sudden death of Luria left his disciples in bewilderment. One voice quickly emerged from the confusion; that of his disciple Hiyyim Vital. Claiming that his master had selected him to be his successor before he died, Vital gained instant authority over of his fellow disciples. He persuades them to relinquish all the notes that any of might have had from Luria. He quickly became regarded as the new Messiah.
He was the son of a scribe who had recently moved to Palestine. There, Vital had been educated and mysticism. His education, however, was superficial and lacked focus. He was gifted in imagination and a sense of adventure. From 1563 to 1565, Vital immersed himself in the study of alchemy, looking for ways to make gold. Eventually he lost interest in that pursuit about the time that he discovered Isaac Luria's Kabbalah. This became the burning interest that was to occupy the rest of his life.
He became Luria's most devoted disciple. Vital accompanied him in all of his journeys around Safed. They visited the cemeteries and uttered mystical scintillations. Luria taught Vital to conjure up spirits. Vital became Luria's number one fan and spin doctor. He proliferated reports of Luria's latest deeds and powers. In a self serving account by Vital, it was said that Luria heard a heavenly voice telling him to seek out Vital and anoint him as successor. "The sole purpose of your coming into the world has been to improve the soul of Rabbi Hayyim, for it is a precious one. Through you he will merit wisdom, and a great light shall shine forth from him upon all Israel."
After Luria's death Vital consolidated his authority. He had twelve of his best disciples pledge to only study Luria's theory from Vital. He demanded that they keep what they learned secret and not to press him to teach more than what he chose. In this way he was able to maintain firm control over Luria's legacy. There were, however, some who were able to teach outside his iron fist.
In 1577, Vital moved to Jerusalem to become the head of a yeshiva there. His group of disciples fell apart without his leadership, but they had fulfilled their usefulness to him. In Jerusalem, Vital wrote his finished version of Luria's Kabbalistic system, then he returned to Safed a few years later. There he became ill and for a time was comatose. During that time some scholars bribed his younger brother to allow them to copy 600 pages of Vital's writings that had been restricted from them.
He eventually recovered and settled in Damascus in 1598. In his later years he became obsessed with the notion that he was the messiah. A Kabbalah group grew around him, and he began gathering material for his autobiography and testimonies to his greatness.
In the year 1609 Vital wrote, with his characteristic conceit, that a certain rabbi visited a seer to inquire about the redemption. The inquirer was told that it was lsrael's lack of repentance that delayed the advent of the Messiah, but if they would listen to the great and heaven- esteemed Haem Vital, much good would come to them; much suffering would befall them for their failure to listen to him; and if ten great and perfect men joined Vital, he could bring the final redemption. In the end Vital's self appointment to the office of messiah had little effect. His major contribution is thought to be the part he played in the development of Kabballah.
Shabbatai Zevi (1626-1676)
Perhaps the most bizarre episode of this saga of false messiahs occurred in the mid seventeenth century. Eastern European Jews had been systematically annihilated in pogroms beginning in 1648. Some who survived fled to the Turkish Empire.
Luria's Kabbalah had proliferated and found special favor amongst the oppressed. They saw hope of redemption in its pages, in the teaching of the Messiah, whose coming would mark the beginning of a new age. This situation set the stage for what was to be one of the most catastrophic messianic movements in history.
Shabbatai Zevi was the son of a wealthy merchant from Smyrna. He gave the boy the best Jewish education possible. Shabbatai possessed a captivating personality but he was easily influenced by others. He grew up to believe that he had a special calling by God to perform great deeds.
He became obsessed with the precepts of Lurianic Kabbalah in the extreme. He practiced a life of strict asceticism, fasting frequently and living in isolation. Shabbatai was a prize pupil of the Talmud and became a rabbi by eighteen. But he was possessed of an uncontrollable sex drive that was to prove to be a very counterproductive influence in his career. He was abnormally emotionally attached to his mother and was beset with sexual temptations. He was married and divorced twice but never consummated either union. His third wife had led a highly publicized life of sexual abandon throughout Europe. It is little wonder that a major area of talmudic law that his radical doctrine was to reverse was the laws governing sexual morality, nudity, and forbidden relations.
His personality was a textbook case of manic-depressive psychosis, shifting back and forth between periods of profound depression and spasms of maniacal elation, with long normal periods in between. During one of his fits of elation he first proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. Some who heard him were offended but others listened and were persuaded. He had the ability to impress and persuade because of his pleasant appearance, musical voice, and strange behavior. Most, however, were turned off by his erratic behavior. He was finally banished from his hometown in 1651.
For the next few years he travelled through Greece spreading his teaching, settling in Salonika. Before long he was made unwelcome in that city too. This crisis was precipitated by his marriage-in public to a Torah Scroll.
Shabbatai settled in Constantinople for nine months. In 1658 he proclaimed that the "essence of the new law is to be found in the sanctification of transgressions and their elevation to the level of positive religious precepts requiring a formal ritual blessing." Shabbatai's actions had been blind and haphazard up to this point. Now he began systematically teaching the paradoxical doctrine of holy deeds through sinning. He became unwelcome in Constantinople when, he publicly dismissed the Ten Commandments and tried celebrating Pesah, Shavout, and Sukkot, all in the same week.
Shabbatai at last realized that he must control his outbursts. He searched for someone to help him find peace. Back in Jerusalem he married a girl with a dubious reputation. He was somewhat more settled for a time. He took a trip to Gala that was to change his life.
There he sought out Nathan of Gaza, an amazing man who claimed to have the key to restore peace to the soul. Nathan was quite aware of Shabbatai's reputation for ecstatic insights. Nathan had plans for Shabbatai. Rather than "cure" him, Nathan set about to convince Shab- batai that he was indeed the Messiah.
At first Shabbatai was not interested in Nathan's assertion. The two travelled the Holy Land together teaching the Kabbalah and its messianic message. One night Nathan went into a trance and proclaimed that Shabbatai was the messiah in the presence of a large group of people. Shabbatai, of course, needed little convincing. He returned home and announced his mission.
The news of Shabbatai's messianic role spread like wildfire. He rode triumphantly to Jerusalem on a white horse. He circled the city seven times, increasing his following with each circuit, including many of the rabbis there.
Nathan, functioning as Shabbatai's public relations manager, coach, and prophet promoted his fame with great success. The people, anticipating the coming of the messianic age, began to repent, fasting, and turning toward asceticism. Throughout the Mideast and in Europe as well, the movement spread.
In 1665, Nathan drafted a letter touting Shabbatai's persuasive powers. The letter included Shabbatai's plan to take Turkey in a bloodless coup. He would gather up the Ten Lost Tribes. The response was astonishing. Jews, from the least to the greatest, all over Europe were swept up in the messianic fervor. Some rabbis opposed him, but they were ineffective. The masses believed whole heartedly that Shabbatai was the messiah.
Shabbatai took full advantage of his popularity. He rounded up a mob and stormed the headquarters of the Smyrna rabbinate. He seized the Torah scroll, convinced them to appoint him Chief Rabbi, and proclaimed his divine mission. People poured in to kiss the hand of the Messiah. All trade and commerce came to a complete halt in Jewry. It was mass hysteria, people everywhere were receiving visions and claiming prophecy. It became one long festival of messianic expectation.
The erstwhile Messiah set out on a misguided attempt to capture Turkey. The Jews there awaited his arrival excitedly. Gentiles just looked on in disbelief at the ridiculous spectacle. When he arrived he was immediately arrested. Remarkably, however, he somehow escaped death and was treated quite well thanks to huge bribes from his disciples.
This favor by Turks only fanned the flame of enthusiasm further. People sold all their property, they lay naked in the snow and starved in penance. They indulged themselves in an orgy of sexuality to fulfill Shabbatai's commandments. Jewish communities all over the world sent emissaries with proclamations of Shabbatai's messiahship.
The excitement ended almost as suddenly as it had started. A Polish kabbalist came to visit Shabbatai and argue Torah with him. He denounced Shabbatai for fomenting sedition. Shabbatai was taken to the Sultan, where he denied that he was the messiah. He was given the choice of death or conversion to Islam. On September 15, 1666, Shabbatai, the messiah, picked up a turban and became a Moslem.
The Jews reeled in shock at these events. While some accepted the fact that they had been misled, others clung to their cherished Messiah, believing somehow that the conversion as part of his messianic mission. They destroyed all the records relating to what had happened. They went underground with their hopes, until they faded with time. The embarrassing episode was soon forgotten. They went on to reconstruct lives and visions that had been shattered by abandonment and betrayal.
Nathan spent the rest of his life in the Balkans, loyal to his master and staying in touch with him. Shabbatai himself married yet a fourth time but was exiled to Albania after being caught in sexual extravaganzas. He died on Yom Kippur of 1676. But for over one hundred years to follow secret cells of Sabbateans continued throughout Europe.
Jacob Frank (1726-1791)
With the embarrassing disillusionment of the Shabbatai Tzvi debacle of the previous century, you would think in unlikely that the Jews would again be drawn in to a similar circumstance again. But it happen again with tragic consequences.
Residual Sabbateans were still clinging to their faith in the early eighteenth century, although they were mostly underground to avoid the wrath of their peers. But their was growing expectation that the time was ripe for a new contender to messianic office from Poland. That contender was Jacob Frank (Jacob Judah Leib), an arrogant practical joker, involved with gangs of rebellious youth. He would boast of his complete ignorance of Jewish matters. But he was a charismatic leader, a spirited force to coalesce the scattered messianic. His appearance was destined to throw the entire Jewish world of Poland into intense agitation and despair.
As a merchant he traded in the Balkans, dealing in cloth and gems. He studied under a Sabbatean teacher and became involved in the Zohar. His teacher promised to initiate the young Frank into the secret Sabbatean sect after he became married the daughter of a respected merchant. He was initiated into the mysteries settled in with a large group of Sabbateans in Salonika. He gave up on his trade for an ambitious new role as prophet. Soon he was proclaiming himself to be the divine reincarnation of the soul of Shabbatai Tzvi.
Frank began travelling to many towns, visiting Sabbatean cells, which quickly came under his influence. He gathered many adherents, proclaiming his messiahship. His teaching was heavily about the acquisition of wealth and riches, even if by the most fraudulent means.
In 1756 he and twenty of his followers were discovered conducting a heretical religious orgy behind locked doors. Opponents claimed that the Frankists were performing an indecent dance around a naked woman and kissing her. Later Frank claimed that he had purposely opened the windows to compel his believers to go public after decades of hiding. The police broke down the doors and arrested the disciples. Frank, mistaken for a Turkish foreigner, was expelled from the country. Frank and his disciples were excommunicated by rabbinical courts everywhere. The Frankists were denounced to the authorities and eventually Frank was again arrested.
To gain his freedom, Frank agreed to convert to Islam. But after this conversion, Frank persisted in making secret visits to Poland to confer with his disciples. He remained the leader of the majority of Sabbateans all over Galicia, the Ukraine, and Hungary. They were outwardly Jewish but secretly transgressed all the Torah prohibitions, especially those con- cerning fornication, adultery, and incest.
His excommunications prompted a wave of persecution. Frank and his followers appealed to the bishop of Poland for protection, by exaggerating their common beliefs with Christianity such as the Trinity and rejection of the Talmud.
The Church saw it as an opportunity to convert thousands. They began forcing anti-Jewish propaganda out of the Franks. To ease the persecution, the Frankists, issued a proclamation that they were "almost" Christians, though they did not fully embrace Christianity. They composed a declaration of faith that would satisfy the Church's demands. To sweeten the deal, they asked for a public debate against the rabbis. The bishop was quite willing to protect the Frankists from persecution in order to promote hatred for ordinary Jews.
The public debate that followed was moderated (manipulated would be a better word) by the bishop, who was anything but impartial. It spawned public burnings of the Talmud. These continued until the sudden death of the bishop. This caused popular sentiment to turn against the Frankists once again. Persecutions of Frankists again increased. Many Frankists, including Frank himself, fled Poland at that time.
Ever the opportunist, Frank asked for protection from the king of Poland, citing his past relationship with the archbishop. When he returned to Poland, Frank was boldened to proclaim himself as the living embodiment of God. He brazenly rejected Sabbatean theology. He introduced new rituals, shunning kabbalistic jargon and capitalizing on Christian terminology. He appointed twelve apostles and twelve female concubines to serve him.
To ingratiate himself with the new bishop, Frank asked again for a public debate. His stated purpose this time was to prove Christianity and to demonstrate the blood libel (the supposed requirement of Christian blood to make matzah)! This only demonized Franks image among the Jews. They regarded him as a sorcerer.
The public debates took place in 1759. Frank himself participated in the last debate only. This one concerned the blood libel. He deceptively used misquoted statements and altered documents. External pressure finally halted the debates.
Many of the Frankists submitted to baptism, including Frank himself. In fact, he was baptized a second time under the sponsorship of the King of Poland after arriving in Warsaw in a very public display. But, the ruse could not last forever. Word got out that some of the Frankists saw Frank as God. This was too much. Frank was arrested, tried, and exiled to a fortress, where he was confined for thirteen years.
As the blood libel spread, many Jews were annihilated. In turn, there were repercussions against the Frankists, who went further underground. Frank somehow maintained communication with his disciples on the outside. It was rumored that he held secret sex orgies in the compound.
Frank continued to grow more duplicitous. His final years were spent living like a king in a luxurious mansion near Frankfort. He was supported by huge gifts from followers around the world. He died suddenly in 1791 of an apoplectic stroke. His children tried to take up the leadership but they were largely unsuccessful.
Frank's disciples continued to uphold their faith in him for years, refusing to admit to themselves that he was a charlatan. Frank's work "Words of the Master" were still being published in the 1820's. Adam Mickiewicz, the famous Polish poet, was a Frankist. likewise, many in the Polish nobility were Frankists well into the nineteenth century. Clandestine communities of Frankists are still thought to exist to this day.
The last of the ten false messiahs is undoubtedly the most difficult to contemplate and to write about because he is contemporary. As with most great men, the essence of the contribution he has made is not always appreciated properly in the present. The facts about his life are easily gathered because his movement is far flung. There have been newspaper articles about him. There have been television programs about him and his movement. His work and influence can be seen on the internet. There is no shortage of information about this man. Yet, it is the freshness of the information that makes it more difficult to evaluate.
To begin with, I run the risk of offending those who believe in him as the messiah by simply classifying him among false messiahs. I do not wish to offend, but I must be consistent in using Jewish criteria to make that classification. This man never claimed to be the messiah, but his people attempted to draft him for the job. Irrespective of his greatness and of the fruits of his life, he did NOT usher in the messianic age. He, therefore, is not the messiah.
Rebbe Menechem Mendel Schneerson 1902-1994
Very different than the men I have so far talked about, Schneerson has not been associated with the scandalous activities or with wild schemes to take control of the holy land. He has led a quiet life as the seventh Lubavatcher Rebbe, leader of the Lubavatcher Chassidic movement, also known as Chabad. Since taking the helm of the movement in 1950, he has led the movement into a period of unprecedented growth. It now claims over a million followers and 2,500 Chabad Houses around the world from New York to Hong Kong. All this from his headquarters in New York. That's right. New York, not Israel. He never visited Israel, although you would not think that if you visited Kfer Chabad, just outside Tel Aviv.
I once drove by the outskirts of this quiet village with my host, a secular Israeli who was not shy about voicing his criticism for religious Jews who were trying to enforce their views on the whole country. But he had only benign words for the people of this little Jewish community, whose main industry was making matzos which were shipped to Jews all over the world. He called them the "good" religious people because they practiced their religion quietly and by example, but they did not try to force others to do likewise. He pointed out to me an anomalous three story Tudor style red brick house that seemed to tower over the rest of the town. This was an exact replica of Rebbe Schneerson's Brooklyn home that had been built out of their love for their leader and to provide a place for him should he decide to visit. He never did. Except for weekly visits to the cemetery in Queens where his wife and father in law are buried, he has left in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn only once since 1950.
It was at that time that Schneerson became the leader of the Lubavatch movement of Chassidic Judaism. Founded by Baal Shem Tov, also known as the Besht, in the early eighteenth century, Chassidus has grown into a number of divergent groups characterized by their beards, black fedoras, and close knit observant communities. It was not initially a scholarly movement but a popular one. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Rav, who was a disciple of The Maggid of Mezritch, who was in turn a disciple of The Baal Shem Tov founded the intellectual Lubavatch movement at a time when Chassidim were under openly persecuted by the Mitnagim, the more traditional and scholarly Jews. He founded a movement known as Chabad, an acronym based on the first hebrew letters of Hokhmah, Binah, and Da'at - wisdom, understanding and knowledge, three of the ten seferot of the kabbalists. It was a system that blended the teachings of the Maggid with the mystical teachings of Isaac Luria. It began in White Russia and incubated there for several generations.
Rebbe Schneerson, born in Russia in 1902, became the seventh Lubavatcher rebbe in 1950, upon the death of his father-in-law. His wife, like himself was a great- great- grandchild of the third Lubavitcher rebbe, Menechem Mendel. During the years that he was being groomed for that responsibility, he made two momentous decisions. The first was to move to the United States in 1941. Secondly, he believed he would have to lead his people into the modern era, a time of science and technology, industry and communication. He felt that he had to be an educated man, not merely a dedicated Torah scholar. In the 30's he studied science and math at the Sorbonne in Paris and Berlin. Though he was criticized for seeking a secular education in the sciences and Mathematics, he would not be dissuaded. He came to be esteemed for his brilliant mind, not only in Torah scholarship, but in the sciences as well.
Schneerson, a small figure, distinguished by his black fedora, white beard and penetrating blue eyes, came to be highly respected for his wisdom and his insight in mundane matters as well as in spiritual matters. He became the soul of the single most powerful movement in Jewry. More than 125 volumes of his talks, writings and correspondence have been published. Followers listened patiently to his speeches (sent by satellite and cable around the world) which have been known to last as much as six hours. His advice was sought on all matters. Some point to seemingly miraculous consequences of his suggestions - lives that were saved, babies that were born and marriages that were made. To say that he is loved and respected is an understatement. His pictures hang all over in Israel. His influence was so powerful in Israel that in the 1990's it was thought than nothing could be accomplished unless he approved.
His forward looking style engendered two momentous campaigns. One was a vigorous campaign to convert other Jews to the observant, Chassidic way of life and religion. Educational programs were aimed at persuading non-observant Jews to begin to take Torah seriously. When I was in the Ben Gurion airport, waiting to catch my plane back to the states, I spent some time at a booth that was setup with Lubavatch literature and festooned with the Rebbe's pictures and sayings. Often, articles appeared in the Jerusalem post about him or his teachings and influence.
A second important campaign was aimed at non Jews, not to convert them to Judaism, but rather to teach them the Seven Laws of Noah. This body of teaching is believed by the Jews to be the proper spiritual foundation for all non Jews. (for further insight into the seven laws of Noah and the Noachide movement, see our article entitled What Was (and is) the original faith. He told his followers that the time was near that was predicted by Zechariah (8:23) that
"ten men of nations of every tongue will take hold... of every Jew by a corner of his cloak and say, Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you."
He believed it was time for Jews to prepare to teach the world about God and the Laws of Noah. His remarks seem destined to be prophetic. A fledgling group of Noachides have begun to study the Seven Laws of Noah. Though small in numbers, they are becoming known all around the world.
Perhaps the most astonishing campaign that the Rebbe has established has been the "Prepare yourself for the Messiah" promotion. Beginning in the early 1980's, the Rebbe began to teach his followers that the time is ripe for the messiah and that they should expect him and prepare for him in a very literal way. Yellow bumper stickers were prepared with the slogan. Exuberant Lubavitchers sang and danced to choruses of "We want Moshiach now!" and "I believe in perfect faith. A multi million dollar international media campaign was launched to recapture the in-gut Messianic faith from the gentiles. Messianic fervor began to grow. Jews everywhere began to expect the Messiah in their time. Yellow bumper stickers appeared on every car long with bright banners on buildings and businesses. In all this Rebbe Schneerson's fame grew. His impeccable reputation was multiplied. Those who followed his advice would often report "miraculous" results. Growth in the organization was phenomenal. Remarkably, on March 26, 1991, the Congress of the United States honored Schneerson with the following resolution on his 89th birthday:
Whereas congress recognizes the historical tradition of ethical values and principles which are the basics of civilized society and upon which our great nation was founded;
Whereas these ethical principles have been the bedrock of society from the dawn of civilization, when they were known as the Seven Noachide Laws;
Whereas without these ethical values and principles the edifice of civilization stands in serious peril of returning to chaos;
Whereas society is profoundly concerned with the recent weakening of these principles that has resulted in crisis that beleaguer and threaten the fabric of civilized society;
Whereas the justified preoccupation with these crisis must not let the citizens of the Nation lose sight of their responsibility to transmit these historical ethical values from our distinguished past to the generations of the future.
Whereas the Lubavitch movement has fostered and promoted these ethical values and principles throughout the world;
Whereas Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the Lubavitch movement, is universally respected and revered and his eighty-ninth birthday falls on March 26, 1991;
Whereas in tribute to this great spiritual leader, "the Rebbe", this his ninetieth year will be seen as one of "education and giving", the year in which we turn to education and charity to return the world to the moral and ethical values contained in the Seven Noachide Laws; and
Whereas this will be reflected in an international scroll of honor signed by the president of the united states and other heads of state, Now, therefore be it
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that March 26, 1991, the start of the ninetieth year of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, leader of the worldwide Lubavitch movement, is designated as "Education Day, USA." The President is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe such day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.
Thomas S. Foley Speaker of the House of Representatives
President of the Senate, protempore
Approved March 20,1991, Signed: George Bush
Rebbe Schneerson's influence became worldwide. In the early 90's his power to influence Israeli politics became apparent. In response to efforts of Yitzach Rabin's government to bring about a peace settlement by giving away parts of the land, opposition of the orthodox Jews rose to a roar, but among them only Chabad seemed to have enough political clout to make an impact, showing its muscle with massive street protests and angry rhetoric aimed at Rabin. Bumper stickers, in Chabad's favorite yellow color, proclaimed "The Land of Israel is in Danger." Lecturers were hastily trained in the Lubavitcher town of Kfer Chabad. But the haste did not produce untidy results. Their strategy was to focus, not on religious issues, but on national security risks. They were equipped with three dimensional maps showing tank routes and troop deployment. Other voices joined Chabad in the opposition including Jewish settlers in the territories. Soldiers were encouraged to disobey any order to assist in the giving away of the land as running counter to Torah.
Though Schneerson made no pronouncements at that time about the crisis in Israel, his past comments about giving away land in Israel were well known. It had become apparent that Schneerson was a powerful man and he was able to influence international politics.
An article about him appeared in the Jerusalem Post on April 15, 1990 headed "Grand Rabbi's control said to reach from U.S. to Israel." the article went on to say that Schneersons followers...this week scuttled an attempt by the Labor Party to form an Israeli government. Two members of the Knesset refused to back Labor. Citing Schneerson's opposition to trading land for peace... Schneerson has again obstructed the formation of a government in Israel."
His followers began to entertain the notion that he could do anything. He had knowledge, wisdom, charisma, political influence, a huge following. They dared to think that he might even be the Messiah. The above mentioned article in the Jerusalem Post states that the apparently miraculous occurrences that seemed to follow the Rebbe "have led some to ask whether the rebbe is actually the Messiah, come to Earth to redeem the Jews." The expectation gathered momentum slowly at first. Such radical statements were made privately at first, then among groups of friends. In 1991, the Rebbe castigated supporters for drawing up a petition calling upon him to reveal himself as the Messiah. But that only had a temporary effect. Soon there was more talk about his messiahship. His enthusiastic followers would not be dissuaded. Gradually the statements became more bold. The language shifted from wondering if he could be the messiah to openly proclaiming that he is the messiah.
Such statements raised the ire of rabbis from other Jewish groups. Bitter opposition was expressed from rival Rabbis. One of the most outspoken was Rav Eliezer Schach, head of the world renowned Ponivicher Yeshiva and spiritual mentor of Degel Hatora and Shas. He launched a series of verbal attacks against the Labavitchers, saying that they were no better than pork eaters and that their leader was a false messiah. Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat wrote in April 1992 about the controversy in very diplomatic terms. Neither endorsing Schneerson as Messiah nor trashing the claims of his followers, he said "Were the Lubavitcher Rebbe to come to Israel and help conquer its enemies within and without, then he may well emerge as the leading candidate [for Messiah]... whoever does what the messiah is supposed to accomplish is declared the messiah. If he doesn't, he isn't".
About that time a dramatic turn of events occurred. In March of 1992, the rebbe was stricken with the first of a series of strokes that would ultimately leave him debilitated and virtually unable to speak. Hundreds of Lubavitcher school children were sent to the Western Wall to pray for his health. The children were brought because they had not reached bar mitzvah age and therefore were regarded as free from sin. Therefore, their prayers have more effect. They were told "The rebbe always thinks of you. Now is the time to repay him."
Shock waves echoed through the rank and file of the Lubavitchers. How could their messiah be struck down in this way? The obvious reality was that he could no longer function as their perceived messiah. How could they have been so wrong? They surely must press their campaign to draft Schneerson as their messiah. It was time to shift into high gear.
I remember watching a live Chanakkuh celebration being broadcast on public TV from locations around the world in December of 1993. Waves of jubilant Labavitchers were singing and dancing in a most joyous spectacle. I was struck by the praise for the Rebbe and open proclamations by adoring Rabbis saying that he was the man who is qualified to light the great Menorah (in a new temple), and to lead Israel into a new era of greatness. All prayed for the Rebbes recovery but no one was ready to abandon him and their messianic hopes.
The old yellow bumper stickers that said "prepare yourself for the Messiah" began to give way to new ones proclaiming "Welcome King Messiah". At Chabad gatherings the chorus of choice was "We want Messiah now!". In the streets of Tel Aviv, expensive lighted street signs appeared, shouting "Beruch haba Melech Ha-meschiach - Blessed is the coming of King Messiah". The Rebbe's long time official spokesman, Menachem Brodt, withheld comment. But a well financed faction headed by David Nahshon began announcing at every opportunity that the 90 year old Rebbe was the messiah, indeed.
Four color literature was distributed explaining that Schneerson was the subject of the age old Jewish longing:
"Yes, we are talking about the King Messiah who will redeem us in the near future. Indeed, the Jewish leader, righteous foundation of the world from the Davidic dynasty, who works to extend the influence of Tora and mitzvot to all Israel, who in the future will build the third temple and gather in the exiles. This is the same person who also prepares the nations of the world for a life of righteousness and uprightness, and who will unite humanity around belief in one God. It is the Lubavitcher Rebbe... the King Messiah."
At that time the fervor for Messiah Schneerson reached its peak. Rumors spread that he was to be crowned "King Messiah" on January 31, 1993. a large crowd of jubilant supporters gathered outside Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights to see if Schneerson would accept the messianic mantle. But just before the Rebbe appeared to the crowd, one of his aids announced that his appearance should not be interpreted as having anything to do with a coronation. It was clear that, once again, he wanted to distance himself from any claim that he was the messiah. As soon as he appeared, his followers began singing "Long live our master, rebbe, and teacher, King Messiah". Louder and louder they sang as they repeated this refrain. The rebbe did not, indeed could not speak. He merely nodded his head in time to the music. After a few minutes, the curtain around the rebbe's balcony was drawn and he did not re-appear. After a couple of hours the crowd began to disperse.
But a few month later the Rebbe was dead. The Lubavitcher community fell silent in shock and disbelief. Their leader had fallen and their was no immediate successor. In disarray, they grieved their loss. Most accepted the reality that he could not be the messiah that they had so longed for.
So the saga of the reluctant messiah is at last over. Or is it? As it often happens in the face of such resolute eschatological expectations, some die hard followers have voiced their expectations that their Rebbe will be raised from the dead. Rather than accept the sudden disappointment, they continue to have blind faith that Schneerson is the messiah. I am told that such anticipation even now persists, even though several years have passed. They believe, simply, that their faith is being tested. It may completely fade only with the passing of this generation.
With the episode of Rebbe Schneerson I have brought us up to the present. From the Jewish perspective the story is not over. How many others will there be? It will only end when the messiah finally comes.
(c) Copyright 2000 by Wayne Simpson Biblical Research Foundation 629 Lexington Road, Sapulpa, OK 74066 This document may be reproduced and distributed provided this copyright notice remains on all copies.
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