It was the 10th of Tevet, a fast day when Jews traditionally mourn the start of the siege of Jerusalem, which presaged the destruction of the Holy Temple.
But while Orthodox Jews the world over marked the annual solemn day two weeks ago by abstaining from food and drink, a group of 25 or so Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidim in Melbourne staged a festive meal complete with singing, dancing, kiddush and a Shehechiyanu blessing heralding the arrival of the messianic era.
The act, which was recorded in a video that has been posted on YouTube, is causing an uproar across the Lubavitch world in Australia and beyond.
“For thousands of years before the Era of Moshiach, Jews commemorated the 10th of Tevet as a sad day connected to the destruction of the Holy Temple,” said a statement posted on the video. “They fasted and prayed for the Redemption and rebuilding of the Temple, so that all the painful days of the exile be turned to celebration and rejoicing. In 1991 the Lubavitcher Rebbe King Moshiach has announced, that the long awaited Redemption is here, and the Third Temple is complete and standing ready in Heaven.”
“Hello!? Moshiach came already,” says Alex Leonard, the man leading the meal, which took place on Dec. 27. “There’s no fast.”
The dissident Lubavitchers who organized the meal, Leonard and Asher Rozenfeld, said they were adhering to Jewish tradition that says that in the messianic era, fast days will turn into days of feasts. At the meal they hailed the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, as the messiah.
A Chabad leader in Australia denounced the festive meal, held Dec. 27, as “a massive and reckless” act of blasphemy.
The belief among Lubavitchers that Schneerson is the messiah is not new. It began during Schneerson’s lifetime, failed to disappear after his death and remains a major issue dividing the community. Even those who do not believe Schneerson is the messiah still believe in the importance of hastening in the messianic era through the performance of mitzvot and by bringing nonobservant Jews to traditional Jewish observance.
The rogue act that resulted in the very public desecration of the recent fast day touched a nerve and resulted in what amounts to temporary excommunication for the offending participants.
Rabbi Zvi Telsner, the chief rabbi of Melbourne’s Chabad community, issued a scathing statement Sunday against the “perpetrators of such misguided deeds,” saying their decision to publicize their “transgression” on the Internet “constitutes a massive and reckless chilul Hashem”—desecration of God’s name.
In a ruling plastered on the walls of the Yeshiva Center, Chabad’s headquarters in Australia, Telsner said the dissidents cannot be counted as part of a minyan, are not allowed to answer “amen” in shul and cannot receive an aliyah to the Torah. He instructed members of the community to refrain from speaking with the dissidents or having any business dealings with them until they seek forgiveness before a Jewish court.
Telsner did not go so far as to call it formal excommunication, known as cherem.
“It’s a statement about people who have transgressed,” he said. “Their behavior was in total disregard of Jewish law.”
Rozenfeld called the ruling “character defamation” and said he and Leonard considered themselves “free to talk to anybody we choose and to carry on our business as usual.”
One Lubavitcher who is an expert on cults, Raphael Aron, said the furor raises questions about Chabad’s ability to continue without a rebbe. Schneerson had no children, and there has been no rebbe since his death.