If you believe that a dead man is the messiah, does that disqualify you from converting to Judaism?
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar will be asked to decide this weighty theological question and in the process pass judgment on thousands of members of the messianic stream within Chabad Hassidism who believe that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who passed away in 1994, is the messiah.
About two weeks ago a young FSU immigrant to Israel, who was eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return but was not considered Jewish according to halacha, appeared before a rabbinic court in Jerusalem to convert to Judaism.
He had become interested in Orthodox Judaism through Chabad and was learning in a Jerusalem yeshiva. He wore a hat, a suit and tzitzit and meticulously adhered to the commandments.
Prof. Binyamin Ish-Shalom, head of the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, where the young man prepared for his conversion, said that the rabbinic court, impressed with the high level of adherence exhibited by the young man, was on the verge of converting him.
"Suddenly, one of the rabbinic judges asked him if he believed that the rebbe [Schneerson] was the messiah," recounted Ish-Shalom.
"He answered, 'Yes, that's what I've been taught,' or something like that. And that was it; at least one of the judges refused to convert him."
Ish-Shalom rejected the notion that believing the deceased Schneerson was the messiah constituted a form of forbidden worship.
However, a source in the State Conversion Authority said that at least two leading religious Zionist rabbis ruled that messianic Chabad was beyond the pale of normative Jewish belief.
"They [messianic Chabad Hassidim] attribute to him supernatural powers years after he passed away. That is not Judaism. It's something else."