Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Assessing the Messiah

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 13, 2011

Did you know that there is a strain of Judaism which believes it has found the Messiah in a Rabbi named Menachem Mendel Schneerson? This movement is known as Chabad, the name of the Hasidic community Rabbi Schneerson led from 1950 until 1994. Schneerson, who was a distant relative of the leaders of a Hasidic movement in Lyubavichi in Russia, and who became the son-in-law of the last “Lubavitcher Rebbe” before himself, took over the community after it had shifted operations to Brooklyn to escape the dangers and upheavals of World War II.

Though Schneerson began his professional career as an engineer, he was apparently quite charismatic, and eventually he was instrumental in changing many perceptions of Jews and Judaism in America, and also of Jews and Judaism in the State of Israel. His photograph, at least, is apparently universally recognized throughout Israel, though perhaps not so recognizable as a current pope is to Catholics. In any case, many of his followers still regard him as the Messiah over fifteen years after his death at the age of 92.

One marvels at this, considering their rejection of the credentials of Christ, which seem so much stronger even 2,000 years after His death. Rabbi Schneerson performed no signs and wonders that could validate him as sent by God, nor did he gather all Jews into a promised land and rebuild the Temple, creating a kingdom of Israel with universal influence, which the Messiah is expected to do by those who have never grasped His far greater achievement. This quirky Chabad faith leads me to wonder about what it ought to take to validate a Messianic claim.

Christ, of course, came to the Jews, and through the Jews to all of us, and one does wonder why He came at that particular time and in that particular cultural situation. Chesterton has written persuasively about the fullness of time being exemplified by the stunning achievement of Rome, in many ways the most successful of civilizations, which he rightly described as a huge and mighty wave of unparalleled human achievement—a wave which was about to curl and crash in the depths of human despair. If ever there was a time when God would step in and save a world that had done its best and failed, Chesterton suggests, it would have been then.

This emphasizes Our Lord's universal mission. But another consideration would be whether the time was ripe for a Messiah actually to be convincing—or, if not actually believed (which no one can guarantee), at least to be able to put forth an unmistakable case to the Jews themselves. For example, we moderns find it almost impossible to believe any claim of the miraculous. We see impossible things happening again and again in movies, and we know too well how easily illusions can be created. Moreover, one of the great perils of mass society is that a preponderance of key opinion makers is never on the scene of extraordinary occurrences; similarly, one of the perils of mass communications is that each such occurrence is immediately disputed and debunked by those who claim to have superior knowledge, with almost no simple way to verify who knows what.

It may be that a more human social scale is required for conviction. The choice to be made was perhaps far more clear in the smaller, less technological society of first-century Judaism. Christ performed his works—the very works which He logically claimed testified on His behalf—in a relatively small community by our standards, and in plain view of all the Jewish leaders, who were in a position to verify what was truly miraculous and what was not. So convinced were they of Our Lord’s special powers that they had to resort to ascribing them to Satan; no natural agency was sufficient. They could have ascribed them to God, recognized the Messiah, and brought virtually the entire Jewish community in their wake—an achievement scarcely possible for any leadership group amid the diaspora of later years.

They did not, of course, but I think it is significant in God’s plan that they could have. They chose instead to call white black so that they could continue to cling to their own self-importance, their own human traditions, and their own sins. Probably nobody had to make that kind of choice to reject the Messianic intimations of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, or any other claimant since Jesus Christ. And that’s an important fact, is it not?

That kind of deliberate choice for or against a clear reality—a reality that can be touched and almost tasted and certainly verified—should be absolutely necessary at some point in a Messianic career. Clearly the indisputable fact that such a choice was necessary would also be critical for the evaluation and response of future generations. Without any possible doubt, then, the Messiah’s credentials ought to be that strong. I mean as strong as Christ’s.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Jan. 14, 2011 10:10 AM ET USA

    As St. Paul says in II Corinthians a veil remains over their hearts so that they do not see but according to Romans they will see according to God's plan. In the meantime it behooves us to preach the Gospel to the Jews and all nations in fidelity to Jesus Christ.