Does The Lubavitcher Rebbe Fit The Festinger Model?

Toward A Quantifiable Approach To The Measurement Of Failed Prophecy

In July 12, 1994 Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh dynastic rebbe of the Lubavitch sect of the Chasidim was pronounced dead. Some cried while others danced; some fasted and others gave themselves to strong drink.1 The hope of Jewish redemption was entombed in the ground. What was the reaction of the followers of this charismatic rebbe who had served the move­ment so faithfully as its spiritual head from 1951 until his death, and who was lauded as no less than “Moshiach Now”?

This article first describes the Festinger model of failed prophe­cy including its five-fold criteria. It then looks at the origins of Chassidism and the Lubavitch movement, before briefly focusing on the life and contributions of the Rebbe Menachem Schneerson. According to the Festinger model, when the five-fold bed of criteria exists, there is an expectation of renewed proselytizing after the dis­confirmation of the prophecy, with the implication that the group will rationalize the failure. The article applies the Festinger criteria to the Rebbe, by examining prophetical statements made by the Rebbe, and his followers; the extent of the commitment of his followers to prophetic claims of the Rebbe’s messiahship and redemption; the extent to which such prophetic claims were amenable to clear-cut disconfirmation; whether disconfirmation occurred; and the degree of social support among the believers. Although the Rebbe arguably fits within the wide parameters of the model, a few of the conditions are diluted, and, at least one is heightened. Nonetheless, the outcome of outreach fervor is present. This article seeks to capture this result by a descriptive formula that modifies the Festinger qualitative approach to fit the Rebbe’s scenario of failed prophecy. As such, it may be applicable to cases beyond the Rebbe.

The Festinger model is a qualitative one that does not grade nor weigh the criteria. This article seeks to adopt a more objective model based upon the Festinger criteria, compiled in a weighted Likert method of scoring.2 It is the hypothesis of this paper that by scaling the Festinger criteria on such a quantitative model, the out­comes of rationalization and outreach fervor may occur, even though some criteria are weak. The revised model then allows for varying trade-offs of the conditions, whereby some that are weak may be offset by others that are strong. It will need to be tested case-by-case to various failed prophecy scenarios and undoubtedly tweaked to accommodate the universe of variation.

The Festinger Model

A model of cognitive dissonance in the face of failed prophecy is examined in a study by Festinger, Riecken and Schacter in their book, When Prophecy Fails. 3 It is their hypothesis that under certain conditions, increased proselytizing by a group follows disconfirmation of a prophecy associated with the group. This soci­ological principle has been borne out by subsequent studies with some modification and explanation necessary to accommodate vari­ations. Nonetheless, the Festinger model of failed prophecy is the standard. It requires the presence of the five following conditions:

  1. There is a belief with conviction.
  2. The believers are committed to the conviction.
  3. The belief is susceptible to unequivocal failure.
  4. There is undeniable evidence disconfirming the belief.
  5. The believers have social support.4

To the extent that these conditions are present, Festinger & company hypothesize that there will be recovery and outreach of the belief system. Because the model is one paradigm, it must be altered to fit a variety of factual scenarios and movements of failed prophecies that have occurred in the real world. However, some­times the factual scenario is a perfect fit, and needs no modification.

One such movement was that of Shabbetei Zevi, the 17TH century Jewish pseudo-messiah. In 1648 Shabbetei proclaimed himself the Messiah, which was understood according to rabbinic writings to mean the Redeemer of the Jewish people. He even mar­ried a Torah. Redemption did not occur and yet Zevi expanded the message of messiahship beyond his small group of followers. When it came to the attention of the rabbis, he was put under the ban. Then Nathan of Gaza, the prophet, arose and confirmed Zevi’s messiahship. By 1665 much of world Jewry was placing its hope of redemption in this Turkish-born messiah. Many prepared to emigrate to Israel, sold their possessions and neglected their gain­ful employment. Then came the disillusionment when Zevi was arrested by the Turkish Sultan; subsequently he converted to Islam under threat of death. Although initially his core of followers were disappointed, and even distraught, they emerged with explanations of his messiahship, even after the extraordinary deviation from the “times of the messiah”-expected events associated with messiah. The movement was fueled with mystical interpretations of Zevi’s apostasy.5 It continued for a time after the disconfirmation, but eventually waned and for the most part disappeared in the early nineteenth century. The story of Shabbetei Zevi seems to be a per­fect fit for the Festinger model, with all of the elements present, and the predicted outcomes of rationalization and renewal realized.6

The Festinger group bases its study on a more contemporary movement whose criteria also fit very neatly into the conditions imposed by the model. The study was conducted by observers who infiltrated a group of flying saucer believers, who received mes­sages, primarily through Marian Keech, a suburban housewife, that there would be a cataclysmic flood on a certain date, and that the  “believers” would be “taken up” by space aliens before that date. She received this knowledge through auto-handwritten messages from Sananda, a “space medium,” who was later confirmed by a “believer” to be Jesus. A number of followers within the small group of believers changed their position by quitting their jobs, dropping out of school and taking a public stand while waiting to be picked up by the “boys upstairs.” When these prophecies failed, a core of believers rationalized the failure, and the authors’ hypothesis was proved. The believers in Lake City, who had social support, increased their evangelistic fervor after the disconfirmation and rationalization. The believers in Collegeville who had less social support, did not evangelize, and quickly fell away from the faith.7

Chassidism and the Lubavitch Sect

The origins of Chassidism lie in the eighteenth century when the Ba’al Shem Tov (BESHT) traveled the Ukrainian countryside spreading his example of piety and holiness, and drawing on a deep relationship with God through devakut, good deeds and kabbalistic knowledge. His elongated stories were designed to illustrate mysti­cal principles of the Messiah, exile, and closeness to God, and to open these esoteric truths to the masses.8

The third Chasidic Rebbe, Schneur Zalman of Liady, was the founder of the Lubavitch Habad movement, one of over thirty groups within Chassidism. This group combines intellect and emo­tion along with pietistic deeds, all intended as vehicles to draw closer to God. It spurns spiritual elitism, instead imparting the eso­terics of the faith to its lay adherents, and calling upon all to embrace the deep and mystical things of God.9

Through much adversity in the early days, from within and without, the movement grew and contracted. World War I, and the Bolshevik Revolution, seriously weakened the sect while World War II and the Holocaust decimated the movement and many died in concentration and extermination camps. Although extremely impaired, the movement survived the crisis.

The sixth Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, known as the Frierdiker Rebbe, moved to New York in 1939 at the time of the Nazi invasion into Poland, and established headquarters in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where he transformed the Lubavitch into an international movement, and re-lit its fading embers. He focused on educational institutions and sent emissaries throughout the world to establish yeshivas, camps, a publishing house, and social servic-es.10 Upon the sixth rebbe’s death in 1950, his son-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was appointed his successor,11 and began his work as spiritual head in 1951.12

Today, the Lubavitch movement has approximately 200,000 adherents with at least several hundred more thousand with ties to the movement.13 The community is closely knit with its distinct dress, pietistic praxis, and values. Sanctions for repudiating the tra­ditional way of life are severe. Children are conditioned very early in the ways of the group. The adherents of the movement share a belief in the rightness of their particular form of Chasidic life, and cer­tainly expect the Messiah to come out of their form of Chasidic expression.14 Their distinct and rigorous ways insulate them from the world, while strengthening the cohesiveness of the group.

The Rebbe

Menachem Mendel Schneerson15 was born in a small southern Ukrainian town on the 11th of Nissan, 1902. His father was a rabbi, and his mother, the daughter of a rabbi. Menachem was a Torah prodigy. In 1928 he married the daughter of the Frierdiker Rebbe, whose family name was also Schneerson. Menachem lived in Berlin from 1928-1932 and in 1933 he fled to Paris where he remained until 1941. Meanwhile World War II took its toll on European Jewry and seriously compromised the Lubavitch movement. The Frierdiker Rabbi enlisted his son-in-law, who was studying engi­neering at the time at the Sorbonne in France, to help rebuild the movement. From 1941-1950 the Rebbe worked indefatigably with loyalty to his father-in-law. He was instrumental in providing the motivation to open day schools and also mobilized an aggressive approach to proselytizing secular Jews. He organized a type of Jewish Peace Corps in which students were enlisted to travel to rural parts of the country where Jews had little contact with Judaism, so that they might have some exposure. He established yeshivot and suggested a program whereby all students regularly speak in a synagogue and teach Torah. Additionally, the Rebbe founded a “reach out to someone” campaign, where yeshiva stu­dents would seek to benefit others by instructing them on the practice of Judaism. The Chabad houses, an innovation developed during the Rebbe’s watch, took off during the 1960s across campuses and beyond. Today there are over 200 Chabad houses where learning and a way of life are re-enforced.16 Mitzvah mobiles are a common outreach, enlisting the uninitiated to embrace orthodoxy. The Rebbe continued the education-oriented tradition of the Chabad movement and may be remembered as the educator of religious and moral values.17


The Rebbe encouraged population growth and thereby discour­aged the use of contraceptives. He passed out dollar bills on Sundays to connect with people. He used the media to spread the Torah message, expounding on daily events while relating them to Judaism, and thus offering guidance to Jewish people.18

The Rebbe is the seventh rebbe. By Chasidut (Chasidic thought), he is the culmination of all the previous rebbes, and the communicator of all the previous rebbes’ ideals; and is the Malchut. Kabbalistically, Malchut is the tenth and last of the Sefirot, or ema­nations of God. It receives from the other nine Sefirot above it. It is royalty and kingship. Malchut rules and pays attention to his sub-ject’s needs. In this sense the Rebbe is the communicator to the people in “this last generation” all that is applicable to the twenty-first century. It is the role of Malchut, the seventh Rebbe, to bring Moshiach, and the promised redemption of the Jews.19

Deep Conviction

Under the Festinger criteria, a belief must first be held with deep conviction.20 Hence, it is necessary to determine whether a substan­tial number of followers of the Rebbe maintained that he was Messiah21 who would bring redemption to the Jewish people prior to his death; and whether they embraced this conviction before he died.

Unlike Shabbetei Zevi, Menachem Schneerson never expressly proclaimed himself as Messiah.22 However, neither did he always discourage followers from proclaiming such. In fact, as he approached the end of his life he made remarks that could be interpreted, at least inferentially, that he believed that he was the promised Redeemer. In April, 1991, the Rebbe made a speech that has posthumously been interpreted as the Rebbe’s self-proclamation of messiahship. He stated that he had done all he could to spur Jews to work actively for the messianic redemption, and he urged his followers to do the rest. He said, “Now do every­thing you can to bring Moshiach, here and now, immediately.” 23 On another occasion he said that “Messiah is already here and that the process of redemption is beginning to unfold.” 24 Although these pronouncements may be less than clear in the ears of non­messianists, they apparently excited a fervor for “Moshiach Now” in the hearts of the Rebbe’s followers.

Menachem Schneerson probably expected to be the Messiah. He permitted, and even encouraged, his followers to pronounce the Yechi,25 a proclamation and blessing recognizing Schneerson as King Messiah. He did not discourage a petition with many signatures proclaiming him to be Messiah.26 His self-centered mes­sianic expectations were undoubtedly tied up with his deceased father-in-law, his predecessor, who was seen by Schneerson as the prince of this generation, and with whom he was believed to share a soul.27 On one occasion he said:

The metaphysical process of separating the sparks of holiness from the domain of evil has been completed. The Messiah has already been revealed; all that is necessary is to greet him. The Messiah is coming right away. ‘The time of your redemption has arrived.’ The final Temple will descend from heaven to a spot in Crown Heights adjoining 770 Eastern Parkway, and only then will the two buildings be transferred to Jerusalem. The Messiah’s name is Menachem.28

In order to appreciate the extent to which this statement is a pronouncement of messiahship and what that means one must be mindful of the belief system embraced by the Lubavitch, rooted in Lurianic kabbalah.29 Theirs is a tradition of transmigration of the soul, bordering on re-incarnation. In fact, one person may possess two people’s souls. In this sense it was believed that Schneerson possessed his father-in-law’s soul, or shared it.30 In a kabbalistic sense Schneerson was the embodiment of the previous six rebbes and the culmination of the sefirotic revelations, with the last being Malchut, of whom he was.

More important than what Menachem Schneerson pronounced concerning himself, however, is what his followers believed and proclaimed about him. At times language is equivocal and subject to a variety of interpretations. What is clear is that a significant number of followers of the Rebbe believed that he was the Messiah31 and that of course means that he would usher in Redemption. In fact, the traditional concept of the Messiah is laid out in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Book of Kings, where he established a two-tiered approach to messianic identification. As pertaining to tier one Maimonides says:

And if a king shall arise from the house of David who studies the Torah and is occupied in doing the commandments as his ancestor David according to the written and oral Torah, and compels all Israel to walk in his ways and to strengthen its foundation, and fights the battles (wars) of God-then it is presumed that he is the Messiah.32

Hence, the first tier qualification requires that the Messiah trace his lineage to the house of David,33 study Torah, perform good deeds, reinstate widespread Torah observance and fight battles for the Lord. Satisfying these characteristics makes a person a poten­tial messiah. The second tier, according to Maimonides, determines whether the potential messiah is the Messiah-for-certain. It requires the subduing of Israel’s enemies, the rebuilding of the Temple and the re-gathering of the dispersed of Israel.34 This is undoubtedly the way the majority of the Lubavitch perceived Messiah, prior to the Rebbe’s death. That means those who embraced the Rebbe as the Messiah believed that he was the Redeemer who would re-gather the Jewish people back to Israel, and build a Temple there after subduing Israel’s enemies. If, in fact, a significant number of the Rebbe’s followers believed him to be the Messiah, they would have also believed that he would fulfill these requirements as part of his messiahship. So, what did his followers believe before he died? What did they believe and when did they believe it? We can glean such from what they said and how they acted. One follower, representing the many, stated:

We haven’t been wrong [in identifying the Rebbe as the Messiah.] We have only been wrong in assuming that this is going to happen in the Rebbe’s lifetime… . So we were wrong in the calculation of the timing… .35

Hence, we have an admission that there was a belief that the Rebbe would accomplish the redemption of his people before he would die. A couple of adherents stated that “the way we understood there would not be a period of no life [that is the Rebbe would not die], on these things we were wrong.” 36 These comments were representative of the beliefs of virtually every Lubavitcher before the Rebbe’s death, even as he lay paralyzed in his last days. They believed that the Rebbe would bring redemption to the Jewish peo­ple, and that he would accomplish this before his death.

Commitment to the Belief

According to the Festinger model, the believers must be committed to the belief.37 The greater the commitment to the prophecy, the greater the reliance on the prophecy, and the change of position, so that it is difficult to undo what was done. This reliance and change of position factor is essential for the predictive outcome of renewal to occur. In other words, the more that a person is invested, the greater the probability of rationalization of the failure and renewal of the belief.

Commitment of the many within the Lubavitch community to the Rebbe ran deep. Some were involved in the Moshiach Now cam­paign, which included very visible placards with the Rebbe’s picture bearing a script advancing him as Moshiach. Many more were quiet about their inward belief that this seventh rebbe was the final one who would usher in the messianic age and redemption for the Jewish people. For the most part none of the Lubavitch drastically changed their life-style nor did they do anything that could not be undone. In Festinger terms the Lubavitch commitment, although rooted in faith, nonetheless was weak. They were a community that was already committed to a distinct life-style that made them stand out in their garb and praxis. They continued to live and practice the same life-style of faith, and adhere to their Chasidut beliefs of long-standing. The risk of exposure to ridicule was there; however, their lifestyle was always a catalyst for derision and humiliation by the outside world.

The death of the Rebbe put the Lubavitchers in crisis mode. Redemption had not occurred before his death. Were they wrong regarding his messiahship, and thus, redemption? 38 But the humil­iation factor was not nearly as great, as in, for example, the Keech group who took a very outspoken public stand on a date certain for events to occur. Some quit their jobs, or dropped out of school in anticipation of their “redemption” and the end of their world.39 Nonetheless, the Lubavitch commitment to the prophecy of messi­ahship and redemption, though weak on the Festinger scale, was a public commitment to faith in the Rebbe.

Prophecy Susceptible to Unequivical Disconfirmation

The Festinger model requires that the prophecy or prediction be susceptible to objective disconfirmation.40 The prophecy concerning the Rebbe’s messiahship is arguably not susceptible to such. And, the prophecy that the Rebbe would bring redemption is equally subject to question as to whether it is susceptible to unequivocal failure. That is because messiahship and redemption, although clearly not fulfilled by the Rebbe before his death, nonetheless, might still be fulfilled at some future uncertain date. It is possible that we would never know whether a person is the Messiah, since he could always be revealed as such sometime in the future. We never know until he fails and that failure may theoreti­cally never occur. However, this argument breaks down when the traditional understanding and characteristics of Messiah are clari-fied-that death trumps a so-called messiah who has failed to fulfill the messianic expectations, including redemption.41 Hence, since there was a clearly expected concept of the necessity of the Messiah bringing redemption while alive, the prophecy is subject to discon­firmation upon death without redemption.

Undeniable Evidence of the Failed Prophecy

The fourth Festinger criteria requires undeniable evidence that the prophecy failed.42 There is no question that the Rebbe died. Some refused to accept that fact;43 however, the overwhelming evidence is clear that on that day in late spring, the Rebbe took his last breath on earth. Witnesses attest to such.44 Moreover, within 18 hours there was a funeral and Menachem Schneerson returned to the dust, from whence he came. It is equally clear that he did not effec­tuate redemption before his death. The Maimonidean concept that is accepted by the Orthodox community of Jewry is that death is a disqualifier for messiahship when it intervenes before redemption.45

Sources showing that the messiah’s life may be interrupted by death are used to support the Rebbe’s messiahship. The Talmud, the Zohar and other writings are readily cited in support of this proposition.46 No one entertained the thought that the Rebbe would die before effectuating redemption; they prayed and awaited a mir­acle. After the Rebbe’s first stroke, miraculous recovery followed. But death gripped the Rebbe after the second serious assault to his body.47 Hence, the evidence is strong that the prophecy failed.

Social Support

The fifth Festinger criteria requires social support48 after the disconfirmation. The Lubavitch community before the disconfir­mation was a very tight-knit community. The community continued to be very close and supportive immediately after the disconfirmation, even in the face of some defections. And, although there are anti-messianists, those who do not believe that the Rebbe will rise from the dead and usher in redemption, the bulk are messianists who cling to the hope of the return of their Messiah. At their headquarters in Crown Heights, men dance as women look on while the Yechi is recited (“May our master, teacher and rabbi, the king messiah, live forever”).49 Many messianists are a bit reserved about open proclamation of the Rebbe’s messiahship, but it seems as if “everybody believes that the Rebbe is Moshiach.” 50 The fact that there has been no appointment of a new Rebbe since his death ten years ago is strong evidence of the continuing support for the Rebbe’s messiahship. The Rebbe’s grave is a popular place for pilgrimage.51

Messianists control many of the Lubavitch institutions, includ­ing the New York Lubavitch Youth Committee. Some Messianist synagogues contain a picture of the Rebbe that hangs on the wall with the subscript Moshiach, or words to that effect. Banners with the “crown emblem,” signifying messiah, and the Rebbe’s picture hang from some believers’ windows. Some cars are plastered with messianic bumper stickers alluding to Schneerson as Messiah. A typical messianist house contains Beit Moshiach magazines, local messianic weeklies, and the Igres Kodesh, a collection of the Rebbe’s letters used as a spiritual guide. From the disconfirmation to the present, the social support within the movement for the Rebbe being the Messiah who will usher in redemption has been very strong. Its 2003 budget was close to $1 billion and the move­ment continues to open new schools, synagogues and outreach cen­ters throughout the world.52 The social sanctions for rejecting the Rebbe as Moshiach in a messianist home are high. The offender is condemned to a life without the help of parents.53

As in the case of Shabbetei Zevi, there is a long tradition and history linking the messianists, not just to contemporary prophecy, but to the roots of the faith. This type of social support was not pres­ent in the Keech clan, and this difference may account for the “stay­ing power” of the Sabateans versus the short-lived expression and outreach of the Keechians. As such, we can expect the messianists to continue in their idiosyncratic dogma for a time to come.

Refining the Model

The Festinger model is simplistic. It characterizes each of the criteria by employing an approach that requires each criterion to be satisfied. There is no room for anything in-between. There is either social support or there is no social support. Whether there is a clear-cut prophecy and whether it is subject to unequivocal disaffir­mation must be answered categorically, with no latitude for shad­ing. For example, in the case of the Rebbe, it is not absolutely cer­tain that there was a prophecy amenable to unequivocal disconfir­mation, since theoretically the prophecy of messiahship may not be disconfirmed upon death. Consequently, that criterion is weakened. Moreover, the model gives each of the criteria equal weight, rather than assigning a value to each of the criteria that is reflective of its contribution to the overall result. As such, the Festinger model cries for reform. To remedy these problems the criteria are first reformatted into the following five questions:

  1. Is there a conviction concerning a prophecy?
  2. Is there a commitment to the prophecy?
  3. Is the conviction amenable to unequivocal disconfirmation?
  4. Did such disconfirmation occur?
  5. Is there social support subsequent to the disconfirmation?

Then two modifications to the model are imposed. First, each question is graded on a Likert scale that assigns the following three range of values to each response:

Strongly agree 5
 Agree 4
 Neutral 3


Then the responses are weighted. Question number 2, commit­ment to the prophecy, is weighted by doubling its score. Number 5, the existence of social support, is afforded the greatest weight. That is accomplished by squaring the result. The remaining questions, 1, 3, and 4, are scored and added to the factor 2 of number 2, and to the square of number 5. Thus, the formulae is:


= C1 + 2 (C2) + C3 + C4 + C52

where ∑ is the total score, and C1 C5, are each of the Festinger questions, seriatim.

Applying the Modified Model

Of course there is subjectivity in assigning a score to each of the criteria-questions. However, it is no less subjective than the assign­ment of a yes or no to each of the criteria. In the case of the Rebbe the suggested grading is as follows:

1. Is there a conviction concerning a prophecy? (5)

There is little dispute that the bulk of the Lubavitchers believed the Rebbe to be the Messiah and the Redeemer of the Jewish people.

2. Is there a commitment to the prophecy? (3)

Although the bulk of the Lubavitchers embraced this belief, they did not significantly alter their activities in a way that would be difficult to undo. They, however, did take a public stance, ex­posing themselves to further humiliation and scorn should the prophecy fail.

3.  Is the conviction amenable to unequivocal disconfirmation? (4)

The answer to this depends upon the understanding of Redemption and whether there could be an interruption by death before fulfillment. Although this is now a source of debate, there was little dispute before the death of the Rebbe. His followers expected him to redeem the Jewish people before his death.

4. Did such disconfirmation occur? (4)

Upon death, the overwhelming authority was that disconfirma­tion occurred since it was not widely believed at the time of the prophecy that death could interrupt the redemptive work of Messiah. Subsequent revisions have altered the pre-death perspective.

5. Is there social support subsequent to the disconfirmation? (5)

The social support after the disconfirmation was and continues to be very strong.

Using the formula we derive a score of 44 out of a possible 50 points.

The Range of Probability

Next, there is a need to develop a range of predictable outcomes of rationalization and renewal based upon the cognitive dissonance scores for Zevi, Collegeville, Lake City and the Rebbe. The following is suggested:

Very probable


In this range it is very probable that the outcome of rationalization and renewal will occur.

40-44  Probable

In this range it is probable that the outcome of rationalization and renewal will occur.

Under 40


The Outcome

The greater the cognitive dissonance, the greater the probability of the outcome of rationalization and renewal. The total score may be linked to the level of cognitive dissonance; thus, the higher the score, the greater the cognitive dissonance, and hence the greater the probability of rationalization and renewal outcomes. In the case of the Rebbe, the cognitive dissonance level is 44. In the case of Shabbetei Zevi, there is probably a cognitive dissonance level approaching 50, since number 2 and number 5 are probably assigned scores of 5. In the space alien case we have bifurcated cog­nitive dissonance levels. For the Lake City group who had plenty of social support, their cognitive dissonance score was perhaps 50, while the Collegeville group who had little social support after the disaffirmation had a cognitive dissonance score of downwards of 30 to 35. Scores of 50 result in a strong probability that the outcome will be rationalization and renewal. Scores of 30 to 35 result in a falling away of the group members, and thus a low probability of the outcomes of rationalization and renewal.

The Rationalization

With respect to Shabbetei Zevi, the rationalization after the dis­confirmance was that the Messiah must suffer and descend into the depths of apostasy in order to effectuate redemption (i.e. convert to Islam).54 As concerning the failure of the “space alien prophecy,” reported by Festinger, the rationalizations included that it was a test; and there was so much light expended by the believers that they “saved the world.” 55

Shortly after the Rebbe died his followers began to rationalize his death in order to reduce the cognitive dissonance.56 Some refused to believe that he was dead; in fact, some insisted that he was not really in the coffin.57 Others said that he was in a condition of suspension and that it was just that his body was dormant but his spirit was with them.58 Still for others, there was the understanding that the Rebbe “lives and exists among us now exactly as he did before, literally.” 59

Five days after his death, statements came forth that the Rebbe would resurrect and lead the Jewish people to redemption.60 They continued to insist that he would soon rise,61 and still the messian­ists, after ten years, do not light a yartzheit candle for him,62 nor have they replaced him with an eighth rebbe.

His messiahship was pronounced and the Maimonidean criteria have been reformulated to accommodate the fulfillment of the Rebbe as Messiah.63 All of these rationalizations exist in the face of traditional Jewish understanding that a messiah who dies in the midst of his redemptive mission, is no messiah.64

The Renewal

Another outcome of the disconfirmation in the case of Shabbetei Zevi and the Keech Lake City group was outreach renewal. This has also been true in the case of the Rebbe. For the most part the mes­sianists continued to proselytize among the secular Jews or those less observant than the Lubavitch. Five days after the passing of the Rebbe an ad appeared in the Jewish Press boldly proclaiming that the Rebbe would be resurrected as the Messiah.65 Two radio talk shows promote the messiahship of the Rebbe.66 In 2002 the Lubavitch opened up 34 new Jewish schools.67 And, they continue to open more new schools, synagogues and outreach centers all over the world.

Part of the Lubavitch belief system is that they can hasten the coming of the Messiah by persuading others that the Rebbe is Messiah. This gives the adherents a zeal to proselytize. This they have done.68

Young couples are going out in ever-greater numbers as shluchim (emissaries) of the Rebbe. In short, his physical absence and his failure to reveal himself as the Moshiach have done nothing to shake the confidence and solidarity of his Chasidim, who seem committed to carrying out the Rebbe’s mission, perhaps even more than when he was physically among them.69

The outreach by the Lubavitchers is not confined to traditional methods but extends to electronic outreach as well. Its website receives a million hits a week.70 Although there is a rift between those that believe that the Rebbe is the Messiah and those who do not, the organization continues to grow, and somehow its adher­ents work together in spite of the “messianic divide.”


This article applies a modified Festinger model to the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson and observes that the cognitive dissonance level results in the outcome of rationalization and renewed proselytizing after the failed prophecy, albeit there be a “divided house,” and some falling away. The Festinger model was modified in order to convert the five Festinger factors into ques­tions, and to grade and weigh each, thereby removing some of the subjectivity of the determination. Two of the criteria, degree of commitment and social support, are given greater weight in order to comport with sociological reality. By such modification, it is clear that even though some of the factors are weakened, they may be counter-balanced by other criteria, graded and weighted. The modified model is used to obtain a cognitive dissonance score which is used to predict the outcome of rationalization and renew­al on a confidence level scale as follows:

 Very Probable
40-44  Probable
Under 40  Unpredictable

This approach and the cognitive dissonance scores will need to be further tested to determine reliability, but for now, its application to the Lubavitch Rebbe indicates that, although there is a split in the Rebbe’s house, it is probable that the messianists will continue their beliefs and actions with assurance that, in some way, the Rebbe will complete the redemptive process that is already underway.




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  • Mahler, Jonathan. “Waiting for the Messiah of Eastern Parkway.” New York Times, September 21, 2003 (magazine section).


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  • Expecting Armageddon. Jon Stone, ed. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  • Feldman, Jan. Lubavitchers as Citizens: A Paradox of Liberal Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.
  • Festinger, Leon, Henry Riecken, & Stanley Schacter. When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. New York: Harper & Row, 1956.
  • Goldish, Matt. The Sabbatean Prophets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Greenstone, Julius. The Messiah Idea in Jewish History. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1906.
  • Lenowitz, Harris. The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights. Oxford, ENG.: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Loewenthal, Naftali. Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
  • Schochet, Jacob Immanuel. Mystical Concepts in Chassidism: An Introduction to Kabbalistic Concepts and Doctrines. Brooklyn: Kehot, 1979.
  • Scholem, Gershom. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973.
  • Sharot, Steven. Messianism, Mysticism, and Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.
  • Solomon, Aryeh. The Educational Teachings of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 2000.


  • A Brief History of Lubavitch Messianism,
  • Inside the Community: A Holy Life,
  • The Rebbe, His Wisdom, His Life,


  1. Jonathan Mahler, Waiting for the Messiah of Eastern Parkway, New York Times, September 21, 2003 (magazine section), 45.
  2. The Likert method of scoring requires one to grade statements on a scale, for example, strongly agree (5), agree (4), neutral (3), etc.
  3. Leon Festinger, et al., When Prophecy Fails? (New York: Harper and Rowe, 1956).
  4. Ibid., 4, 216.
  5. For a sketch of the life of Shabbetei Zevi see Matt Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1-7; see also Harris Lenowitz, The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights (Oxford, ENG.: Oxford University Press, 1998), 149-165.
  6. See generally Gershom Scholem, Shabbetei Sevi: The Mystical Messiah (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973).
  7. Festinger, 30-229.
  8. Benzion Dinur, The Messianic-Prophetic Role of the Baal Shem Tov, in Essential Papers on Messianic Movements and Personalities in Jewish History, Marc Saperstein, ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 377-85.
  9. HaBaD is an acronym from Hochma, Binah, and Da’at, that are faculties in man’s intellect- wisdom, understanding and knowledge, which mirror emanations (sefirot) of God. Jacob Shochet, Mystical Concepts in Chassidism: An Introduction to Kabbalistic Concepts and Doctrines (Brooklyn: Kehot Publication Society, 1972), 71-80. For a detailed look at the theosophic positions of the Habad movement see Rachel Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent to God: The Kabbalistic Theosophy of Habad Hasidism, Jeffrey Green, trans. (New York: State University of New York Press, 1993).
  10. Chaim Dalfin, The Seven Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbes (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1998), 105-124.
  11. Jan Feldman, Lubavitchers as Citizens (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 20-32; see also Naftali Lowenthal, Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 29-63. For a comprehensive examination of the thoughts and selected writings of the seven rebbes of the Lubavitch movement see Dalfin. For an examination of the leadership, history and succession in the Habad movement see Avrum Ehrlich, Leadership in the Habad Movement: A Critical Evaluation of HaBaD Leadership, History, and Succession (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 2000).
  12. Mahler, 43.
  13. Feldman, 30.
  14. Festinger, 4.
  15. For an extensive on-line biography of the Rebbe, including video clips see .
  16. Dalfin, 131, 133-38, 143-49.
  17. Aryeh Solomon, The Educational Teachings of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 2000).
  18. Ibid., 150-51, 158-60.
  19. Ibid., 132-33, 139-40, 173.
  20. Festinger, 4.
  21. For a treatment of the messianic idea throughout periods of Jewish history see Julius Greenstone, Messiah Idea in Jewish History (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1906). For a view of Messiah through Hasidic thought see Shmuel Boteach, The Wolf Shall Lie with the Lamb (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993).
  22. Hasidim Adjust to Rabbi’s Death, The Christian Century, January 4, 1995, 6-7 (hereafter cited as Hasidim).
  23. William Shaffir, When Prophecy is Not Validated: Explaining the Unexpected in a Messianic Campaign in Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy, John Stone, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2000), 251.
  24. David Berger, The Rebbe, The Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (Oxford, ENG: The Littman Library, 2001), 38.
  25. “May our Master, teacher, and Rabbi, the King Messiah, live forever.” Ibid., 21.
  26. Mahler, 47.
  27. Berger, 125.
  28. Ibid. These statements are attributable to Menachem Schneerson according to David Berger.
  29. See Schochet, 59-103; Elior, 103-124
  30. Berger, 125.
  31. Mahler, 45. “When the rebbe was alive, just about every Lubavitcher … was confident he was the messiah.” Ibid.
  32. Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Yad HaHazakah), abridged ed., Phillip Birnbaum, ed. (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1944), 327 (original translation by author)(hereafter referred to as Mishneh Torah).
  33. In fact, Menachem Schneerson does reportedly trace his lineage back to King David, through the Maharal of Prague. Feldman, 33.
  34. Mishneh Torah, 329.
  35. Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy, Jon Stone, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2000), 258.
  36. Ibid., 259.
  37. Festinger, 4.
  38. Expecting Armageddon, 258.
  39. Festinger, 30-138.
  40. Ibid., 4.
  41. Berger, 151-158. Nahmanides, and Maimonides are both in accord that death trumps a so-called messiah who has failed to fulfill the messianic expectations. Ibid., 152-153.
  42. Festinger, 4.
  43. Mahler, 46.
  44. Ibid.
  45. For a compilation of selected quotations of a Messiah who dies with his mission unfulfilled see Berger, 151-158.
  46. Ibid., 70.
  47. Expecting Armageddon, 262-63.
  48. See generally Stephen Sharot, Messianism, Mysticism, and Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).
  49. Mahler, 42.
  50. Ibid., 46.
  51. Ibid., 43.
  52. Ibid., 46.
  53. Ibid., 46-47.
  54. Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah in Essential Papers on Messianic Movements and Personalities in Jewish History, 327-328. For the conversos this was a convenient explanation to which they could well identify. And, some believed that the Messiah would be a converso, albeit to Islam was a shock.
  55. Festinger, 155, 169, 180.
  56. For a comprehensive website devoted to exposing what the Rebbe’s adherents believe concerning his messiahship, and to debunking those beliefs see
  57. Mahler, 46.
  58. Berger, 82, 98-99, 126.
  59. Ibid., 41.
  60. Ibid., 11.
  61. Ibid., 2, 12, 23-25.
  62. Ibid., 86.
  63. Berger, 9. Four words in Maimonides’ criteria must be reinterpreted: “king,” “compels,” “all,” and “wars.” See supra note 32, and accompanying text.
  64. Ibid., 1-2, 40-47. This unusual and curious twist of prophetic events raises the question of the state of Jesus’ claims to messiahship in Jewish ideology. one of the strong anti-missionary arguments against the messiahship of Jesus is that he died before completing the messianic mission, and fulfilling the Maimonidean criteria. At least for one group of Orthodox Jews this accusation against Jesus is no longer appropo. And, the resurrection of Messiah is no longer a sticking point. The “Second Coming of the Rebbe” is expected, ibid., 41-61. The major distinction, according to the adherents of the Rebbe as Messiah, is that Jesus did not establish Torah. However, New Testament scripture and recent scholarship even chips away at that distinction, by taking the position that Jesus was a Jew who kept the law and encouraged his Jewish followers to do likewise, as recorded in the Gospels. See e.g., Matthew 5:17-19.
  65. Berger, 41.
  66. The talk shows are “Living with Moshiach” and “Moshiach in the Air.” Ibid., 45.
  67. Mahler, 44.
  68. Hasidim, 6-7; Expecting Armageddon, 264.
  69. Feldman, 36.[emphasis added].
  70. Ibid., 30.

Elliot Klayman (J.D., University of Cincinnati; L.L.M., Harvard Law School) is an attorney, Associate Professor of Business Law at The Ohio State University, Articles Editor of Kesher, Editor of The Messianic Outreach, and Past President of the UMJC. Klayman is the associate leader of Beth Messiah Congregation, Columbus, OH, where he has previously served as Congregational Leader.