Remembering the Lubavitcher rebbe 21, 2004
By Daniel Ben Simon

The memorial ceremonies surrounding the 10th anniversary of the passing of the Lubavitcher rebbe are overshadowed by controversy: Is Menachem Mendel Schneerson dead or still alive?

Members of the Hasidic sect Chabad have been preparing for months for this event, which will take place this evening when thousands crowd into the Yad Eliyahu stadium in Tel Aviv.

But a giant pall hangs over these celebrations. It turns out that other Hassidim from the Chabad clan intend to hold a separate event in the Rebbe's honor, with thousands convening at the large amphitheater in Bat Yam. The latter will celebrate without making any reference to the rabbi's death, as though he were still alive and continuing to shower his love on the movement that viewed him as the messiah.

A note of sadness, not to say gloom, has therefore crept into the central celebration. What was supposed to be the biggest event of the decade is about to expose the deep rift within the extended Chabad family. The thousands at Yad Eliyahu will participate in a memorial service, while their competitors in Bat Yam will take part in a colorful and merry celebration. While participants in Tel Aviv will hear sermons and speeches and Torah wisdom delivered by great contemporary rabbis in memory of the rebbe, the Hassidim in Bat Yam will dance and sing in the rebbe's honor.

It is already clear that most Hassidim will rush to Yad Eliyahu, because most have come to terms with the rebbe's death and have turned over a new leaf in the history of the Hasidic movement.

Bat Yam meanwhile will host Chabad youths and others who refuse to accept the rebbe's departure. Despite having heard of his burial plot, and despite not having seen him since his death, they are convinced that his body and spirit still hover above, undetectable by the human eye.

The dispute between the two camps dissipated any festive atmosphere yesterday at Kfar Chabad, where the Hassidim went about their business and displayed no special bustle in preparation for the big day.

"That's how it is by us," explained Daniel Gordon, a Chabadnik. "The special bustle will take the form of mental preparation for the big day. A person who wishes to receive special powers on a given day will do well to prepare himself mentally. Therefore we can say that the rebbe's big day leads all Hassidim to increase their studies of the rebbe's doctrine. The rebbe left behind 200 books, and by studying them, we bond with him."

Gordon will not be taking part in the ceremonies today. The dispute has caused him such grief that he decided to steer clear of both the official and unofficial gatherings.

Shlomi Katz, on the other hand, will be attending the festivities in Bat Yam. No, he hasn't heard of the rebbe's death and he refuses to answer the question of whether the rebbe is alive or dead. "We don't call it departure," Katz said after prayers at Kfar Chabad's central synagogue. "We avoid talking about it."

Two souls are vying for the body of the Chabad movement. At the rebbe's death, followers inherited an earth-shaking matter. Some of them believe he is still alive, some know for certain that he has passed away. Witness the fact that a funeral took place and the coffin was interred. But faith is one thing, reality another. The Hassidim's approach to this tough dilemma has also been characterized by the rule that says you should practice what you preach.

And as if that weren't enough, no Hasidic authority has been found since the rebbe's death to settle the dispute between the camps.

"I am among those who believe the rebbe is still alive," Katz declared in a tone of certainty. "But others say: `We saw a burial ceremony so we're through.' Despite that they still believe, as we do, that he is the messiah and that he continues to lead us."

Advocates of the living rebbe are certain that the other group's members are working in their own way to cater to public opinion. According to them, the realists are afraid of being perceived by the public at large as moonstruck, and therefore gave in to the prevailing mood on the street and adopted the concept that says the rebbe is dead.

"Tell me, was the victory in the Six Day War rational?" Katz threw out. "Of course not. So then the rebbe is also beyond the reason of most people."

Were it up to him, Rabbi Menachem Brod would cancel the alternative gathering this evening in Bat Yam. Brod, the famed spokesman for Hassidism, is heartbroken every time he refers to the second gathering. He sees it as an utterly alien disaster that can bring about a split within the large Chabad family.

"There is only one gathering and that is the gathering at Yad Eliyahu," he announced. "The other gathering is private, of no importance."

Brod is concerned that the controversy will spark anarchy within Hassidism, leading to a situation in which each person does as he pleases. "Someone needs to run Hassidism or else there will be chaos," he added.

Brod is horrified at the notion that the argument surrounding the rebbe's condition will cause a split. "It is very worrying," he stressed, "because you need to ask yourself whether these people are aware of their actions. Don't they know they're sowing a split in the movement? Why did they have to hold their event on the same day as ours?"

Although the event is a memorial service for the rebbe, the Hassidim coming to Yad Eliyahu call it a hilulah - a celebration in memory of a saintly rabbi. The messianic believers coming to Bat Yam call it a geulah - a salvation.

"Despite the atmosphere of controversy," Gordon said in a conciliatory tone, "we mustn't forget that both gatherings are praying for the same cause and yearning for the Messiah to be revealed. Each side expresses it in its own way."

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