2024 Distortions and Deceptions From Chabad Messianists Part 1
Chananya Weissman

May 7, 2024

Distortions and Deceptions From Chabad Messianists


After recently referring to people who believe the Lubavitcher Rebbe is Moshiach as cultists (among other cultists) I received an email from an individual by the name of Aharon Yaakov Lieberman. He informed me of a book he had written, Kuntres Shmoi Shel Moshiach (available here), devoted to the topic of Moshiach coming back from the dead.

Although he makes no mention of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his book, Lieberman is convinced that Rabbi Schneerson is Moshiach, and will rise from the dead to continue in that role. His book is devoted to legitimizing this unstated belief under the guise of spreading Torah and helping “increase peace and unity” among the Jewish people.

This peace and unity would presumably be achieved by stifling critics of those who proclaim the Rebbe is Moshiach, for it is the critics, in Lieberman's estimation, who have erroneously taken an extreme minority position.

In his book and in an extensive correspondence between us, Lieberman made a series of extraordinary claims related to the above, all of which he believes are not only firmly grounded in Torah sources, but in fact represent the predominant positions of Chazal. Although the Torah sources and main arguments in Lieberman's book were already familiar to me, he takes them to a new level, and does it in a way that can come across as scholarly and convincing.

In reality, Lieberman's methodology and analysis are terribly flawed, and it is clear that he imposes his prejudices on cherry-picked Torah sources from start to finish, torturing the words and taking them out of context so he can arrive at his predetermined conclusion. He exaggerates that which suits his agenda, and cavalierly dismisses that which does not.

Lieberman's book is not the product of honest, responsible Torah study, but fishing for support and fabricating it when necessary. These disingenuous and deceptive practices render his book nothing more than religious propaganda.

In the coming pages I will summarize Lieberman's main arguments and highlight both his fallacies and deceptive practices. The former can be forgiven, but the latter cannot.

Indeed, were Lieberman merely a sloppy thinker, like so many of the Rebbe-is-Moshiach cultists, I would not draw attention to his book, let alone critically review it. However, his deceptive practices disguised as Torah scholarship are dangerous, for they have the potential to mislead many people and legitimize false, even sacrilegious notions. They also underscore what a cult this really is, and the lengths to which its minority of literate members will go to cover for the rest and infiltrate normative Jewish society.


Summary of Lieberman's Conclusions

The progression of conclusions Lieberman attempts to establish goes as follows:

1. The notion that Moshiach can theoretically come back from the dead is acceptable and clearly grounded in Torah sources.

2. The notion that Moshiach can theoretically come back from the dead was widespread among Talmudic sages, and is in fact the dominant position.

3. Numerous Talmudic sages believed that Moshiach would come back from the dead – specifically their own Rebbe.

4. Not only did they believe this, they engaged in public campaigns declaring that their Rebbe was Moshiach, both during his lifetime and after his death.

5. Were the students of these sages alive today, over a thousand years later, they would continue to believe that their deceased Rebbe will rise to be Moshiach.

6. The Rambam would endorse all the above, and in fact codified it as halacha. Thus, the above is not only permitted, it is required.

7. Although Lieberman deliberately leaves the Lubavitcher Rebbe out of his writings on the subject, he applies all the above conclusions specifically to him. As far as Lieberman (and much, if not most of Chabad is concerned) there is clear justification, ample precedent, and even a halachic imperative – at least for followers of the Rebbe – to believe with certainty that Rabbi Schneerson is Moshiach, and that he will rise from the dead in that capacity.

In the coming sections we will examine how Lieberman arrives at each of these conclusions. We will demonstrate that the grand edifice he constructs, with the Rebbe as Moshiach implicitly perched on top, rests on a foundation of fallacies, distortions, and deceptive practices camouflaged as Torah scholarship.

I will not harp on every small point Lieberman makes, as this critical review will be quite long as it is, and there is no need to prune every branch of Lieberman's tree when the base itself cannot stand.


Lieberman's Introduction

Lieberman's entire thesis is essentially based on one primary Talmudic source, which appears with variations in several places. This source and most of the others he references are Aggadic. Although we sometimes infer halacha from Aggadic material, it is critical to understand that the purpose of Aggada is not to teach halacha. Therefore, the language of Aggada tends to be metaphorical, hyperbolic, and otherwise cryptic – intentionally so, due to the sensitive nature of the deep underlying messages, which were not intended for everyone – whereas Talmudic sources that are intended to teach halacha naturally speak in more precise terms.

As we will see, Lieberman dissects these Aggadic sources as if they are expressing halachic minutiae, and proceeds to build his grand edifice from a series of carefully extracted conclusions, all of which are highly speculative at best. When put together, it is clear that all this labor was done with a particular goal in mind from the outset, with the sources serving as props that were carefully selected and hijacked for this purpose.

In other words, the entire endeavor is an exercise in intellectual dishonesty.

Attempting to prove the first three conclusions forms the bulk of Lieberman's book. He leaves much of the proceeding conclusions largely unstated, though he confirmed them in his correspondence with me. Lieberman maintains that the beliefs and behavior of much of Chabad over the last few decades has nothing to do with his book or his reasons for writing it. It's all coincidental.

In our correspondence I rejected this dubious claim, and referred to his book as a gateway drug, a way to make it all seem innocent and kosher, totally in line with the Torah, to groom people for the missionizing that is his ultimate goal. Naturally, Lieberman did not take kindly to this assessment, but I stand by it, and will leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions.

Lieberman writes in his introduction:

I have been involved in studying the topic of Moshiach and Geulah passionately, for over 25 years. Over these years, I came to hear many different and often conflicting interpretations of certain statements from our Sages that speak of the possibility of Moshiach coming from the deceased. Oftentimes this led to painful discord.

“In search of getting to the true and authentic understanding of these seemingly isolated and perhaps cryptic statements our Sages made about the possibility of Moshiach coming from the deceased. I came to discover that these statements were not at all isolated, but rather part of a much larger Talmudic discussion among our Sages, about who they believed to be the eventual Ultimate Redeemer. Whole passages within the Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, and Midrash discuss who will be the Ultimate Redeemer and if he will be from the living or the deceased via resurrection.

“It appears that not only was it a common belief among our Sages that Moshiach could come from the deceased, it even appears to have been the predominant belief at least during the second generation of Amoraim. But most importantly, as I demonstrate, Moshiach from the deceased was a possibility that the Rambam did not rule out Halachically.”

Not surprisingly, Lieberman's passionate study of these topics began in close proximity to the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Prior to that time, his Chassidim were not professing the belief that Moshiach could or would rise from the dead. On the contrary, when Rabbi Schneerson was hospitalized for the last time, in critical condition, they insisted that he would not die. He couldn't die, because he was Moshiach, and therefore he would have a miraculous recovery, no matter how bleak it looked. They proclaimed this loud and clear, even to gentile news reporters, who reported this to the world (see here for one video).

The Rebbe would not die, because the Rebbe was Moshiach.

Then the Rebbe died.

Chabad was thrown into chaos.

They had previously insisted that the Rebbe was Moshiach, and the Rebbe therefore could not die. But then the Rebbe died. The intellectually honest approach would have been to concede that, despite their tremendous admiration for the Rebbe and all that he had accomplished, the Moshiach part of it was now over.

But much, perhaps most of Chabad immediately took the intellectually dishonest approach. They went back on the news and insisted that the Rebbe was still Moshiach. Despite what they had declared mere hours ago, his death had absolutely no bearing on the matter. Either he didn't actually die – he had merely been concealed – or he would come back from the dead as Moshiach.

It is with this backdrop that proponents of this belief – this intellectually dishonest, downright cultish belief – got to work hunting for Torah sources to not only legitimize it as a possibility, but prove it as entirely mainstream.

Lieberman's insistence that his sudden interest in the topic, and his book that followed, are unrelated to the above events, as well as his personal belief that the Rebbe is still Moshiach, is so dubious that it requires chutzpah to expect others to believe this. At the very minimum, it demonstrates a severe lack of self-awareness to maintain that the biases that are so central to his identity are entirely divorced from both his treatment of the Torah sources and his intentions in writing the book.


The Name of Moshiach

As noted, Lieberman's entire edifice depends on a single, brief Aggadic source that appears in both editions of the Talmud and in the Midrash. In his introduction, Leiberman falsely refers to this paucity of material as “not at all isolated, but rather part of a much larger Talmudic discussion among our Sages, about who they believed to be the eventual Ultimate Redeemer. Whole passages within the Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, and Midrash discuss who will be the Ultimate Redeemer and if he will be from the living or the deceased via resurrection.”

Obviously, it is vital for Lieberman's agenda to portray this solitary source as much larger and more central to normative Jewish belief and practice than it ever was before the Rebbe's passing. Without it, he has nothing. Even with this source, it requires a great feat of gymnastics to twist everything into just the right shape of pretzel. Lieberman makes it sound as if our Talmudic literature is filled with these pretzels. Somehow, this escaped so many students and sages of Torah throughout the generations, for whom the notion that Moshiach would rise from the dead was an irrelevant fringe opinion at most – certainly not practical halacha, as Lieberman repeatedly asserts.

With this in mind, let us critically examine Lieberman's treatment of the material he cites. Did he discover something fundamental that we collectively overlooked until the Rebbe died? Is his analysis legitimate? Are his conclusions credible? Or is this an amateurish, agenda-driven hack job worthy of the very Christians he disavows in his introduction? After all, they too have “sources” and “proofs”...

Lieberman cites the Aggada in Sanhedrin 98B regarding the name of Moshiach. Students of various academies stated that the name of Moshiach would be synonymous with (not necessarily the same as) the name of the head of their academy, and brought pesukim in which this name was indicated in reference to a better future.

The next lines of Gemara provide examples of people who resembled a potential Moshiach, from both the present and former times. Of course, this is the source the Rebbe cultists have a field day with. We will get to that later.

Lieberman invents a novel interpretation: this source follows the statements about the supposed name of Moshiach precisely because the students of these academies all believed their respective Rebbe was “fit to be Moshiach” during his lifetime, and maintained this belief after his death.

Of course, were that really the implicit message of the Gemara, one would have expected the order of these two segments to be reversed. First the Gemara should have informed us that Moshiach could come back from the dead, and then provide us with historical examples of entire Torah academies crowning their deceased Rebbe as Moshiach.

One would also expect at least some of our classical commentaries to explain the Gemara accordingly.

But Lieberman's treatment of the actual source is even more dubious. Contrary to his agenda-driven assertion, none of the students mentioned actually proclaimed their Rebbe to be Moshiach, nor did they insinuate it, nor is there any indication that they harbored this belief altogether. Indeed, Rashi succinctly states that these “names” were essentially adjectives that reflected part of Moshiach's greatness.

Ben Yehoyada writes explicitly as follows: “The intention is not that each one [of the academies] was coming to decide this name for him that he says. Rather, each one's intention was that it was suitable for him to be called by this name, for which he found an asmachta from a pasuk.”

As any student of Torah knows, an asmachta is not an authoritative exposition of a pasuk on which to base an idea or prove a point, but a small bit of support for an independent teaching or a handy way to remember it by attaching it to a pasuk.

In other words, none of these students were declaring that the name of Moshiach would be any of these names, let alone that Moshiach and their Rebbe were one and the same.

Lieberman in his main text and lengthy footnotes repeatedly uses the phrase “fit to be Moshiach”, as opposed to actually Moshiach. On the surface this would seem to be in deference to the fact that this source is not meant to be taken literally, as noted. However, Lieberman goes to great lengths to try to demonstrate just that. In fact, this lone source forms the basis of his conclusion that “belief among chazal that Moshiach would be someone from the maisim was wide spread”, as he wrote to me in his final email.

In the same email he later stated that “there is precedent for such a thing as shown the yeshivos of rebbi Shiloh yannai and chanina would say their Rav is Moshiach.” He also asserted that “if the yeshivos of rebbi Shiloh yannai and chanina were around today they would be saying in essence the same thing.”

The claim that it was a widespread belief among Chazal that Moshiach not only theoretically could come from the dead, but would come from the dead is entirely spurious.

His assertion that the students of these various academies proclaimed their respective Rebbeim to be Moshiach, and continued to do so after his passing, is similarly unsubstantiated.

In his book, Lieberman is careful to use the term “fit to be Moshiach”, but this does not deter him from beating a path to his desired conclusion. He simply argues that anyone who is “fit to be Moshiach” can be Moshiach (entirely logical), even after his death (shaky ground), then proceeds to make the case that we should assume that anyone who is “fit to be Moshiach” actually is Moshiach (more on that later), and then assumes – in circumvention of the commentaries he previously cited – that the students of the various academies were doing just that: proclaiming their Rebbe to be Moshiach.

It should also be noted that Lieberman conveniently makes no mention of the Ben Yehoyada's explicit contradiction of Lieberman's understanding of the Gemara. While Lieberman could argue that we are not bound by the Ben Yehoyada's understanding of the Gemara, especially if other authorities clearly understand it differently (which he unsuccessfully tries to demonstrate), it is intellectually dishonest to make no reference to this primary commentary on Aggadic material that Lieberman certainly came across in his fishing expedition. A sincere student of Torah would have acknowledged this source and the fact that it conflicts with his preferred understanding, while explaining why he favors other opinions.

Elsewhere Lieberman references the Ben Yehoyada in a fairly trivial context – one that suits his overall agenda.

Lieberman proceeds to hijack Rashi. He writes: “Rashi writes that “each [Sage] would expound [a verse] according to his own name,” showing his students that there is an allusion in Tanach to his being fit to be Moshiach.”

What Rashi writes and what Lieberman superimposes on Rashi's comment are miles apart.

Lieberman proceeds to build another layer of his edifice on what he just pulled out of thin air: “A proof or allusion from Scripture remains true even after the person expounding the verse has passed away.”

In other words, this fictional assertion that each sage was expounding a verse in Tanach to “prove” he was “fit to be Moshiach” renders each such exposition an objective, eternal truth. Ergo, each individual sage is eternally fit to be Moshiach, and may one day rise from the dead to be Moshiach.

This alone leaves no doubt about Lieberman's credibility as a scholar or the nobility of his efforts, but there is more that must be addressed.


Rashi's Two Explanations

Lieberman devotes many more pages to torturing a few lines to “prove” that students continued to believe their Rebbe was Moshiach (“fit to be Moshiach”, but so much more...) after he died. I see no further need to get into the nitty-gritty of this analysis.

Lieberman proceeds to the following lines of the Gemara in Sanhedrin, in which Rav gives an example of a prototype for Moshiach from among the living (Rabbeinu HaKadosh) and from the dead (Daniel). Lieberman devotes more than half of his book to these few lines. Contrary to his insinuation that Talmudic literature is replete with “discussion” on whether Moshiach will be from the living or the dead, this is pretty much all he's got.

And there is very little “discussion” about it in the commentaries, indicating that the preoccupation that Lieberman and other Chabadniks who can't let go have with the notion of Moshiach rising from the dead was not shared by Chazal. The traditional approach has always been to assume that Moshiach will be a contemporary of the generation that experiences the redemption. If, theoretically, Hashem reincarnates someone who leads the Jews out of exile, vanquishes our enemies, builds the Beis Hamikdash, and brings peace to the world, even skeptics like me will be happy to embrace this individual.

However, to make this theoretical matter a focal point of one's existence – especially as it pertains to declaring a dead individual Moshiach in real time – is aberrant both theologically and mentally.

Rashi explains this statement of Rav in two ways. This brief commentary, which was probably unknown to the overwhelming majority of Chabadniks until the Rebbe passed away, quickly became their favorite Torah source after deciding the Rebbe was still Moshiach after all and working backwards to find support for their emotion-based decision.

Lieberman goes to great lengths in attempting to demonstrate that both explanations of Rashi support the idea that Moshiach could be from the dead. I don't believe anyone understood Rashi this way until Lieberman came along.

Rashi's first explanation seems to indicate that Moshiach could be Daniel (though, by Rashi's own admission, this would require reading into Rav's words).

Until Lieberman came along, Chabadniks were satisfied to lean on one of Rashi's explanations, as a poet once quipped, like a drunkard uses a lamp post – not for illumination, but for support. It didn't matter that there was another explanation that was no less authoritative, and that there was no justification to make a definitive ruling between the two, transform this theoretical, philosophical comment to practical halacha, and apply it to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Reasonable, intellectually honest people are cautious; agenda-driven cultists are decidedly not.

So one explanation of Rashi for Rav's statement indicates that Moshiach could theoretically be from the dead? Boom! Chabadniks found a source! And boy did they run with it.

Unfortunately for them, their efforts to convince the masses that the Rebbe was and still is Moshiach continued to be lampooned throughout the Torah-observant world. It's one thing to target college students, backpackers, and unaffiliated Jews with Moshiach propaganda, but no one else was buying it.

This is likely what motivated Lieberman to devote so much effort to “prove” that both explanations of Rashi support the idea that Moshiach could rise from the dead, contrary to the plain meaning of Rashi's words and the way it was always understood. Lieberman's laborious dissection of Rashi's words is not worth 10,000 more words from me. Suffice it to say that Lieberman attempts to torture a confession out of Rashi, and an impartial jury would reject it.

Rashi's second explanation states that Rav was providing a “dugma” for Moshiach from both the living and the dead. Lieberman incorrectly translates this word as “an example”, and on this basis understands Rashi to be saying that Rav is providing “an example of who could be Moshiach from the dead”.

He arrives at this incorrect translation through painstakingly dissecting the fact that Rashi used the word “dugmaso” (his dugma) when referring to the living prototype of Moshiach, and the plain word “dugma” when referring to Daniel. Lieberman concludes from here that dugmaso means someone who resembles Moshiach, but dugma means an actual example. And since Rashi used dugma in reference to Daniel, the second explanation of Rashi also indicates that a dead person could be Moshiach.

This is a dugma of someone being megaleh panim b'Torah, abusing the Torah to arrive at a desired conclusion by any means necessary.

The word dugma appears dozens of times in Talmudic literature. The proper meaning of the word, which is clear from the context in which it is used, is a prototype, a likeness, something that gives us an idea of that which it calls to mind.

Here is one striking example. The Mishna records a dispute between Akavya ben Mahalalel and the Sages (Eduyos 5:6). Akavya ruled that the sotah water was not given to converts or gentile maidservants who were released (who essentially have the same status as converts). The Sages disagreed, and related that these waters were given to Karkemis, a freed maidservant in Jerusalem, by Shmaya and Avtalyon. Akavya retorted “They gave her dugma to drink.”

Bartenura explains this in two ways:

1. Because they [Shmaya and Avtalyon] were her dugma – meaning, converts like her – therefore they gave her to drink [the actual sotah waters].

2. They gave her dugma to drink; they made a dugma – a facsimile – and showed her as if they were giving her the sotah waters, but they did not.

Contrary to Lieberman's mistranslation of the word, dugma does not mean an actual example, and thus when Rashi uses the word in Sanhedrin in his second explanation, he is explaining Rav's words to mean that Daniel was someone who resembled Moshiach in certain ways, not the actual Moshiach who would arise from the dead.

Furthermore, Rashi's usage of the word dugmaso in reference to Rabbeinu HaKadosh, the living dugma, should be understood the same way. Rabbeinu HaKadosh also resembled Moshiach in certain ways, but Rav was not giving an example of someone who would actually be Moshiach, living or dead – just a dugma, someone who embodied certain attributes from which we could better understand what Moshiach would be like.

Lieberman has the chutzpah to write that “Some erroneously interpret Rashi’s second explanation to mean that Rav was not speaking about Moshiach coming from the dead. And even interpret it as negating the idea that Rav stated that Moshiach can come from the dead.” This is in fact how Rashi's second interpretation is understood in Batei Midrash and Yeshivos around the world, excluding a fringe element who already made up their mind that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is still Moshiach, and are not satisfied with just one explanation of Rashi on which to desperately lean.

Lieberman devotes thousands of words to torturing a scant few lines to “prove” that Rav and the rest of Chazal fully believed Moshiach could rise from the dead, and I will not go through his every tortured bit of analysis piecemeal. Let the above serve as a dugma.