The Messiah is dead

Focus, June 20,1994
Rabbi Schneerson, the leader of the orthodox Lubavitcher Jews, the "Secret Regent of Israel" died in New York

By Helmut Kuhn

A light drizzle covers the crowd of mourners. Thousands of black Fedora hats sway to the tumbling rhythm of prayers. From around the globe, the religious Hasidim of the "Lubavitch Movement" came together in front of the synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway to see the unthinkable with their own eyes. The bearded men of the Orthodox Jewish sect had rushed to book flights from Tel Aviv, Moscow, Paris and Frankfurt when they heard the news: Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh and last Rebbe of the Belorussian Dynasty, died at Manhattan's Beth Israel Medical Center at the age of 92. Sunday, 1:50 a.m., Eastern Standard Time.

However, for the mourning crowd, this date is not that important. For them, it is the year 5754, after the destruction of Solomon's First Temple in the Holy City. The banner at Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood reads: „Moshiach is coming“. But now, only the steadfast ones believe in it. Because up there, in the little mahogany-paneled room in the synagogue, is the Messiah's corpse. He is dead – ready for his last journey.

When the simple pine coffin, adorned only with the black coat of the Grand Rebbe, is passing the disciples, some of them get very excited. They rush to the coffin, wanting to touch it with their hands or at least with their umbrellas. Certainly, since his stroke two years ago, the white-bearded man could no longer speak and was paralyzed on one side. And since his heart attack three months ago he was in a coma. But now THIS!?

"We are absolutely sure that the Rebbe will be resurrected," Rabbi Shmuel Spritzer of the Lubavitch Youth Organization says. "We will always remember the power of his soul," US President Clinton said in unctuous tones. This gave an official touch to the physical end of the legend.

After all, the Rebbe was not just a Rabbi: In the 44 years of his leadership, he built up the most powerful Orthodox group in the world – only with a few Holocaust survivors in the beginning. He was the leader of more than 200,000 disciples and 1,847 centres. The empire he left behind stretches from Brooklyn to Europe, to South Africa, Australia, Siberia and the Himalayas. His power was unlimited – his revelation could happen any hour, any moment. Last year, it got announced even in the "New York Times".

But the mute man remained mute. At night, the children still put their finest clothes next to their beds. They are ready in case of his resurrection. The most stubborn try to achieve that by dancing wildly in the streets. Students read about the "resurrection" in the Talmud. The final sophistry of a last hope.

After all, the scholars have carefully calculated: Since the time of Maimonides, only one person in each generation has the potential to bring revelation. He will resurrect the dead, lead all Jews home to the Holy Land and build the Third Temple in the Holy City. In this generation – the Lubavitchers were certain of this – only the Rebbe could be the chosen one.

Mendel, born in Israel in 1973, is one of Rabbi Schneerson's 30,000 disciples who have dedicated their lives to the Chosen One. At 15, he followed his call and studied Torah for four years in Crown Heights. After that, he spent two years teaching at an Orthodox school in Australia. Now he is getting ready for the rabbinate, and he already is permitted to perform ceremonies in the outposts on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the New Year and the Day of Mourning.

If the Rebbe had not died, Mendel would now be back with his friends Shmuel and Jossele on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Every day but Sabbath, he tried his best for the mission, "Shalom, are you Jewish?". He had with him the magazine "Lubavitch International," like Jehovah's Witnesses the "Watchtower." Nevertheless, those who said "no" were given a Yiddish "Be healthy" ("zei gezunt"). He only wants to missionize Jews.

The Lubavitcher Sect ist an exception among the sects of Orthodox Judaism. The "Satmar" or "Boboy" live an isolated life in Brooklyn, in the world of the 18th century. Rabbi Teitelbaum, the leader of the Satmar, was never fond for the Rebbe next door anyway. The quarrels between the two sects has been going on for a long time. While Teitelbaum is only concerned about the purity of souls, his opponent was engaged in converting secular Jews. His fleet of 99 "Mitwa Tanks," modified camper vans, is on tour every day to recruit new members. The old man's Army of Faith is patrolling everywhere – including Israel.

Schneerson himself never set foot on the holy ground. Because according to tradition, once a high-ranking Rabbi enters Israel, he is not allowed to leave the country again. And Schneerson believed that he could accomplish more in Brooklyn. With good reason: his influence was much greater in the faraway Diaspora. On the other hand, the Rebbe accepted only one single secular parliament, the one in Jerusalem.

He tried to use it many times: In 1988, he even created a government crisis in Israel by encouraging his supporters to vote for the splinter group "Agudat Israel". The ultra-Orthodox party won five Seats in the Knesset, far more than expected. The Rebbe wanted to beat the government and push through his version of the "Law of Return" – the right of every Jew to become an Israeli citizen. Together with the Orthodox party "Shas," the Agudat tipped the scales. At that time, Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir had to give in.

Especially American Jews, rather liberal and essential to the survival of the state of Israel, clearly felt blindsided: "It was the biggest crisis between American and Israeli Jews since the birth of the state," explains Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, vice president of the Jewish Reform Umbrella Organization "Union of American Hebrew Congregations" in New York: "I don't know if Israel ever recovered after that."

Even though the Rebbe has never left Crown Heights for almost 40 years – except for a few conversations with his predecessor and father-in-law at the cemetery nearby – his opponents called him "The Secret Regent of Israel".

The old man's disciples in Brooklyn were eager to dispel such opinions. "The Rebbe never contacted politicians," Mendel affirms in Yiddish. But they were seeking his blessing, he admits. Only Moishe, son of Schneerson's closest advisor Yehudan Krinsky and press secretary, admits:

"The Rebbe was involved in every trial in Israel. In the Six-Day War, soldiers kept his picture with them in their tanks; we influence education at schools."

In fact, Schneerson's crew even changed New York's politics: When a Hasid killed a seven-year-old black boy in a car accident and hit-and-run on Aug. 19, 1991, the Black community wanted revenge. During a riot, 19-year-old Lubavitcher Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed and killed. As a consequence, his brother Norman led a campaign against the black Mayor. Flyers were handed out in Crown Heights reading, "Wanted for Murder: David Dinkins." The word "pogrom" spread.

When Lemrick Nelson, accused of murdering Rosenbaum, was acquitted in November 1992 due to lack of evidence, new riots started. The already tense relations between the Black and Jewish escalated – provoked by the campaigning Republican Rudolph Giuliani, who was speaking quite often alongside Norman Rosenbaum in Crown Heights. In the next election – in 1989, Dinkins had narrowly won by 24,000, mostly Jewish, votes – the Democrat lost.

Despite his reclusiveness, Schneerson was a cosmopolitan – almost heretical compared to Orthodox standards: He studied in Berlin and in Paris at the Sorbonne, read Kant and Hegel, and studied mathematics, electromechanics and atomic physics. In the cafés of the Boulevard St. Michel he discussed revolution, communism and world politics. He knew how to use modern technology and media: His Sabbath speeches and Talmud interpretations were broadcast live via satellite to all centers worldwide, where they were recorded, evaluated, archived and passed on to government agencies. A perfect system of information: when the Chernobyl catastrophe happened in 1986, it was a Russian Hasid who informed the world about it – via Brooklyn.

Before his heart attack, the Rebbe received thousands of people at Eastern Parkway every Sunday seeking his blessing. He answered hundreds of letters, and Jews from all over the world showed up for the Defilée (*ceremonial passing) in front of the synagogue. The Grand Rebbe gave everyone a dollar bill with his portrait on it, saying, "Give it to charity."

Many of them tried to catch the gaze of his piercing blue eyes. There was no Jewish politician, whether from Likud or the Labor Party, who did not stop for an audience during a trip to the United States. His position in the Peace Process was unmistakably Orthodox: Not a single meter to Palestinians. His influence was indirect – as always; during the Brooklyn Defilée, via encrypted Sabbath remarks, via satellite to all 1478 centers. The Rebbe sang the same tune as Rabbi Meïr Kahane – who was murdered in New York, the militant settlers of the West Bank and the Hawks in Jerusalem.

There, some kilometers away from the highway in the direction of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Berke Wolf resides in "Kfar Chabad", a faithful replica of the synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway. In the library, even the wooden bookshelves were replicated. The velvet-covered armchair awaits the Messiah. Until then, Berke Wolf looks after this place. Every day he is shuttling between the community of 6,000 souls in the desert and the government quarter. Not a single meter to Palestinians. The Rebbe had his Pontifex Maximus on site with a car phone.

The Rebbe had millions of supporters and sponsors. Rabbi Krinsky once revealed, "$100 million a year, modestly estimated."
The lion's share of the donations came from non-Orthodox Jews, who saw the Rebbe as the personification of true Judaism. 
"The nature of the Lubavitchers touches the constant guilt complex and feelings of inferiority in many modern Jews," says Allen Nadler, director of YIVO, the New York research center. "They perform the play of nostalgia better than any other group."

But now the catastrophe has happened, The Immortal is dead. As soon as his body is buried in the Old Montefiore Cemetery next to the sixth Rebbe Yosef Yizchak Schneerson, and the Kaddish has been spoken, everyone wants to become the successor of the world's most powerful man of the Orthodox movement. After Schneerson had a stroke in 1992, Rabbi Krinsky has been managing the business affairs. He is known as a secular conservative with a knack for business.

But his opponent, Rabbi Lieb Groner, a charismatic religious figure, is already waiting in the wings. He relies on old Mähren (*definition 1: old horses, definition 2: a part of Czech Republic) and Mysteries. Surprisingly, Schneerson does not mention a heir in his will. But why should he? If he had chosen a favorite while still alive, he would have eliminated the basic prerequisite of his reign: his own immortality.

Therefore, the lament of thousands in Crown Heights concerns not only the dead spiritual leader, but also the future of the movement: the banner at Kingston Avenue will soon be removed. "With the Rebbe we have lost the purpose of life", complains a Jewish shopkeeper.

Rabbi Shea Hecht predicts a dark period: "We will now go through a very difficult and painful period." A year may pass before it is clear who will replace him. We will see, if the sect remains united. The disappointment is profound: even at the moment of his death, Schneerson did not reveal himself as the Messiah.

In the 17th century, when the Hasidim movement started in Poland, Galicia and in Lubavitch (Russian back then), it already had happen to the Jews that they fell for a false messiah: Shabtai Zvi, a Mystic from Smyrna.

Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer described the madness of Eastern European believers delicately and cynically in his novel "Satan in Goraj": men bled themselves to death, spent weeks and months without food, praying to force the heavenly entry of Shabtai Zvi on a flying carpet and a lion chariot. Unfortunately, Shabtai Zvi got persuaded by the Turkish Sultan to convert to Islam, Singer writes.

The old man on Eastern Parkway did not burden his disciples with this disgrace. He had made sure that he would not be posthumously revealed as a charlatan. "Did he ever claim to be the Messiah?" his true disciples ask proudly – but he never claimed the opposite.

* translator's note
Translated from German by El Glauner

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