5 Years After Death, Messiah Question Divides Lubavitchers

Washington Post/June 20, 1999
By Liz Leyden

NEW YORK-Last Wednesday at sundown, thousands of people began to stream into a cemetery in the borough of Queens. By the time the sun rose Thursday, the lines wrapped around hedges and stones as mourners quietly moved toward the granite mausoleum of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Only 15 miles away, in the Brooklyn synagogue where Schneerson prayed, people gathered to mark the same event, but in this place there was singing and dancing and talk of redemption.

On the fifth anniversary of his death, Schneerson's presence has not diminished, but one question has divided the Lubavitch community: Is he or isn't he the messiah?

When he died on June 12, 1994, at the age of 92, Schneerson was one of the best-known leaders in the Jewish world. As spiritual leader of the Lubavitchers -- the most visible of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic groups -- for 44 years, Schneerson rebuilt a movement the Holocaust had nearly destroyed. In the years before his death, the group was receiving more than $100 million in donations.

Unlike other, more insular Hasidic groups, Schneerson used newspapers and billboards and his "mitzvah mobiles" -- RVs that took the Lubavitch message to the streets -- to draw nonreligious Jews to the Lubavitch ways. With a network of missionaries, called emissaries, and religious institutions ranging from yeshivas to Chabad Houses -- which offer spiritual, social and educational services -- Schneerson created a small but zealous movement that penetrated the secular world and provided a Jewish presence in places where otherwise there was none, from Shanghai to Katmandu to Alabama.

Schneerson -- known to Lubavitchers simply as the "Rebbe" -- inspired such devotion during his lifetime that some quietly believed he was the messiah promised by the prophets. This messianic belief gained speed -- and voice -- when Schneerson, who had no children and had not appointed a successor, suffered a stroke in 1992 that left him unable to speak for the rest of his life.

When Schneerson died in 1994, some predicted the movement would crumble without him at the center. Many outsiders and Lubavitch officials assumed messianic beliefs would fade as well. Five years later, neither has happened.

In Crown Heights, where the Lubavitch community is headquartered, the messiah question is the great divide. On one side are movement officials who say the promotion of Judaism throughout the world is the heart of continuing Schneerson's work. On the other are the messianists, whose passion is preparing the world for the coming of Schneerson himself. They are two distinct missions from within one movement -- each in the name of the same man.

It is difficult to count the messianists. Believers in Crown Heights, where the most vocal core is found, say the sentiment is strong throughout the world. Lubavitch officials only reluctantly acknowledge the presence of messianists at all.

After Schneerson's death the signs of messianism appeared slowly in his synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway. Banners stretched a message across the walls: "Long live the Rebbe, King Moshiach. Forever and ever." The same words were embroidered on yarmulkes worn by some little boys. Schneerson's red chair remained in place as if he were still there.

At recent Sabbath services, an older woman along the front row of the women's section smiled and pointed to the chair. "He is Moshiach," she said, using the Hebrew word for messiah. "We can't see him with our eyes, but that doesn't mean he's not here. He is." Midway through the night, songs broke up the prayers and the mood shifted from pensive to joyous as the people sang: "Long live the Rebbe, King Moshiach! Forever and ever!" Hundreds of men surged into the center of the room, dancing in a circle so full it barely could move.

Rabbi Shmuel Spritzer, 52, was in the crowd. One of five men who publish Beis Moshiach, a weekly messianic magazine begun in 1994, Spritzer knows some people think he is "not normal" for his belief, but he is not fazed. In time, he said, "everyone will see the truth that the Rebbe is Moshiach."

"We're preparing the world to greet Moshiach," Spritzer said. "Religion in general is a fanatical thing. In the Jewish religion we twirl a rooster over our heads the day before Yom Kippur. There's a lot of strange things we do, but we do them because God told us to."

Like other messianists, Spritzer points to myriad Schneerson writings, speeches and actions as proof that Schneerson is the messiah. Lubavitch officials and non-messianists fiercely criticize these interpretations, deeming them as taken out of context and distorted.

Although world headquarters of the Lubavitch movement is upstairs at 770 Eastern Parkway, its officials no longer visit the synagogue. The message on the walls and in the air is not one they support. Zalman Shmotkin, a Lubavitch spokesman, spoke carefully and reluctantly of the messianists.

"People don't actually believe the Rebbe is the Messiah," Shmotkin said, questioning the definition of "believe." "They say they believe, but really they want, they hope, they pray. But believe this, no."

The split has been a persistent and sometimes embarrassingly public issue for the movement since Schneerson's death.

Part of the mission messianists say they have is preparing the world, and they are spreading the news of Schneerson as Moshiach via billboard campaigns around the country, ads in national newspapers and a crackly low-power radio station in Crown Heights. The public campaign has kept the messianists on the radar of one of their most outspoken opponents, historian David Berger.

In his office at Brooklyn College, Berger tells an old joke: "They're thinking of putting armed guards at the Rebbe's grave," Berger says, pausing. "Because he's received death threats."

But Berger doesn't laugh when he talks of the shift in Crown Heights, calling it a "historic betrayal of Judaism."

Spurred by the activity in Crown Heights, Berger sponsored a resolution in the Rabbinical Council of America in 1996 that stated there was no room in Judaism for a belief that the messiah will begin his mission only to die, be buried and resurrected before completing it.

"I want people to know what seems obvious to me: We belong to a significantly different religion than the one we belonged to five years ago," he said. Berger blames this shift not only on those who espouse the messianic views, but also on the silence of other modern Orthodox Jews toward the Lubavitchers.

"But people who look and behave the way they do are not going to get de-legitimized by Orthodox Jews," Berger said of the Lubavitch messianists.

In Crown Heights, families have split over whether Schneerson is the messiah. Some families don't discuss religion. And often marriages must be arranged accordingly, with questions of belief factoring in the matches.

But Lubavitch spokesman Shmotkin points to an increase in Lubavitch religious institutions and 400 new emissaries since Schneerson's death as proof that the movement thrives. The number of messianists, or "people engaged in extremist activity," is steadily diminishing, he said.

Only a tiny number of those doing emissary work for the movement are messianists, Shmotkin said, "but in actual outreach, even that extreme minority usually is careful to keep a distinction between his own feelings and the communal services he offers."

But sometimes that line blurs.

Take Daniel Green, 26, a teacher of Talmudic studies preparing to leave Crown Heights for a life of emissary work. For Green it is a time of celebration, because he believes he has the Rebbe's approval from the grave.

Green's Crown Heights apartment is lined with bound volumes of Schneerson's writings. Like other Lubavitchers, Green studies Schneerson's words daily. But as a messianist, he also uses the books to communicate with the Rebbe. Recently, he asked if he should become an emissary.

"I wanted his blessing," Green said, explaining how he wrote a letter and tucked it inside a book of Schneerson's collected letters he picked at random.

Green's eyes dance as he describes the moment he reopened the volume to the page where he had placed his letter -- to find Schneerson's answer on the page on which his eyes would fall.

"The first thing I saw was: 'I am happy to hear that you have become the rabbi of the city and anxiously wait to hear the good news of your activities there.' I read that and knew," he said. "It's incredible, these messages. You can see how he's clearly talking to you."

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