Driving down the expressway the other day in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic in a partial stupor I looked at the driver in the car next to me. It was an unbelievable sight. In the car next to me sat a middle age man intensely starring at a photograph of the “rebbe” that was propped up on his dash board. I can only imagine that he was hoping for the rebbe to swoop down as moshiach reincarnate and deliver him from the rush hour traffic. In all fairness, there are many, perhaps most within Lubavitch who are shocked that so many of their fellow travellers can have a mishichisti twist to their theology. Apparently, when their Rabbi, M.M. Schneerson, died thirteen years ago there were some, who didn’t accept his death as a fait accompli. They assumed that he was the Messiah and would appear in the streets of Jerusalem in a white Mercedes S500. Even though arriving in a Mercedes wouldn’t necessarily be politically correct, the fact that he was the Messiah means that history would be revised. Indeed, his coming (assuming Schneerson is of the Davidic line) will restore the glory of Israel and all the Jews will return there.
It’s a fantastic story and utterly believable– if you believe in a personal Messiah. What amazes me is the same people who cast doubt on the claims of the mishichistim believe in a personal messiah. If you believe in a personal moshiach then there isn’t much of a leap of faith to believe in MM Shneerson as the moshiach incarnate. Why not? They are both rooted in faith.
Faith is a very powerful tool and can be used for the better or detriment of mankind. It can be used and exploited by cult leaders for personal aggrandizement or for the greater glory of humanity. The Jewish people claim to have survived through the ages because they are faith based. We believed that no matter how bad it got, there would be, at the end of that very dark tunnel, a savior. But it was also our parents and grandparents generation that went through the concentration camps and gas chambers of Europe. There was no Moshiach there to save an entire continent of Jews from murder. On the other hand it was that powerful faith in a personal Messiah that carried some people through the holocaust.
In this world there are two kinds of people: followers and leaders. The followers are those who live on hope, the kind that need a rabbi to lead and sometimes think for them–the same kind of people who hold a job until they retire; never take an independent step; never explore the greater world of people or ideas. They are fatalists, “hachol beyedei hashem” who say after every worded phrase, “baruch hashem”. Then there are the leaders. They tend to be a bit irreverent because they can think for themselves. They are builders who do not depend on hope– people that we call self starters, entrepreneurs, independent minded. They are not fatalists, but determinists, who prefer to take chances depending on their own true grit.
The European Zionists of the 19th-20th century were of this second category. There is an old parable in Pirkei Avot “eiza hu chcham? Haroeh es hanolod”: that the wise man is the one who can anticipate or intuit the future. They saw the writing on the wall in anti-Semitic Europe and weren’t about to wait for moshiach. Then there were the followers, those with faith, who were determined to wait, because that’s what their rabbis told them to do. They never had enough emunah in their own capacity, to be able to validate ideas and thoughts. How can you be creative, contribute to society and build a community if you have no faith in yourself? To abdicate it all to a leader is pure folly. History bears this out.
So what is the difference between those who accept M.M. Schneerson as the moshiach and those who treat these mishichistim like pariahs? In truth, there really is no difference. Both groups fall into the first category of my construct. The mishichistim and those anti-mishichistim are both followers. The mishichistim believe that M.M. Schneerson is the moshiach, and the other group of followers believes unconditionally in their designated and preferred gedolim. Either way they lose, because they have abdicated their independence and ability to think critically.
There is another side to this. The anti-mishichistim are not only followers like the mishichistim but are also dishonest with themselves. The resistance to MM Schneerson as the “last great hope” is the realization that if he is truly the messiah, then the Jewish community will have to make significant sacrifices (i.e. move to Israel) which they are not willing to do. Accepting the messiah is a heavy burden which a cursory look at Maimonides's writings (Mishneh Torah, Hilkot Melakhim, Chapt. 11) will attest.
The mishichistim are ahead of the game and maybe ought to be admired. While they carry the stigma of being followers, they are struggling with and showing some creativity, albeit infantile. Perhaps these are new beginning for a new group: mishichistim. What they are going through now is their chevlei leida (birth pangs). At worst, if M.M. Schneerson doesn’t pan out to be the Messiah, certainly he will be regarded as an Ibbur (spirit of the righteous dead).