In 1993 I read about a “Messiah Sighting” in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York. Twenty thousand Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews live in Crown Heights, and in 1993 many of them believed the Messiah was dwelling among them in the person of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Word of the rabbi’s public appearance spread like a flash fire through the streets of Crown Heights, and Lubavitchers in their black coats and curly sideburns were soon dashing down the synagogue where the Rabbi customarily prayed.
The rabbi was ninety-one years old. He had suffered a stroke the year before and had not been able to speak since. When the curtain finally pulled back, those who had crowded into the synagogue saw a frail old man in a long beard who could do little but wave, tilt his head, and move his eyebrows. No one in the audience seemed to mind, though. “Long live our master, our teacher, and our rabbi, King, Messiah, forever and ever!” they sang in unison, over and over, building in volume, until the rabbi made a small, Delphic gesture with his hand, and the curtain closed. They departed slowly, savoring the moment, in a state of ecstasy.
When I first read the news account I nearly laughed out loud. Who are these people trying to kid–a nonagenarian mute Messiah in Brooklyn?(He died in 1994). And then it struck me: I was reacting to Rabbi Schneerson exactly as people in the first century had reacted to Jesus. A Messiah from Galilee? A carpenter’s kid, no less?
The scorn I felt as I read about the rabbi and his fanatical followers gave me a clue to the response Jesus faced throughout his life. His neighbors asked, “Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” Other countrymen scoffed, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” His own family tried to put him away, believing he was out of his mind. The religious experts sought to kill him. As for the whipsaw commoners, one moment they judged him “demon-possessed and raving mad,” the next they forcibly tried to crown him king.
The Jesus I never knew(41-42)