Twenty years ago, the Messiah didn't come
When the Rebbe passed away, I was a 17-year-old Chabad yeshiva student who believed him to be the Messiah, the king of our generation who would never die.
The sky was clear and blue on Gimmel Tammuz 5754 (June 12, 1994) but for the first time in my life I felt it crashing down on my head. The unconceivable had happened that morning. Two years after suffering a stroke that had paralyzed the right half of his body, and three months after sinking into a coma, the Lubavitcher Rebbe had passed away at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital.
I was 17, a month away from completing my fourth year in Israeli Chabad yeshivas. Like all the Chabad hasidim I knew at the time, I believed the Rebbe was the Messiah. He would redeem the people of Israel, build the third temple, reign as the king of our generation and never die.
All study ceased at the yeshiva. None of the rabbis made a formal announcement. The pagers of hasidim in New York showed two words - "Shma Yisrael" - and seconds later the news spread around the world and opened news bulletins in Israel. Hasidim gathered in Bet Menachem, the main synagogue of Kfar Chabad (the village that serves as the headquarters for the movement in Israel), and opened bottles of wine and vodka. They were certain this was Yom Ha'Hitgalut - the Day of Revelation, when the Rebbe’s messiahship would be revealed. Camera crews gathered around to document an uncommon sight: Ultra-Orthodox Jews getting drunk while their rabbi's body was still warm. Hundreds rushed to Ben-Gurion Airport to try and make his funeral on time.
That night, the funeral was shown live on a massive screen in Kfar Chabad, watching tens of thousands gathered around the Rebbe's Beis Medrash on 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. After a short wait and under pouring rain, the door of the so-familiar house opened. The table that the Rebbe used to lay his prayer books now served as the pier for his coffin. His sirtuk, black frock coat, was draped over it, just like the photographs of the previous Rebbe's funeral 44 years earlier. Around me rose a long wailing sigh: "Noooo." And in those few seconds it took for the coffin to make its way to the hearse, tears began to roll down our faces, hearts clenched as the first realization of loss crept in. We were orphans. Everyone made a kriah, a long tear in our clothes, as if the Rebbe was our own close relative and for the next seven days we observed all the rituals of mourning.
It's customary to believe that the messianic stream in Chabad was born that night, among those hasidim who refused to accept the death of their beloved Rebbe. That is a mistake. The messianic stream came into existence 43 years earlier, on Menachem Mendel Schneerson's coronation as the Seventh Rebbe of Lubavitch. In his inaugural address, he noted that this was also the seventh generation of hasidim and in his writings over the years, the role of the seventh generation was made clearer: This was to be the "last generation of galut (exile) and first generation of redemption."
The Rebbe believed that the coming of the Messiah was contingent on the actions of the Jews, and that they had it in them to bring redemption closer. His belief was based on the Lurian Kabbalah which had developed 400 years earlier in Safed; he combined Kabbalistic mysticism with the Jewish rationality of Maimonides. This was to evolve into the Rebbe's ideology - an efficient set of beliefs for the thousands of shluchim (emissaries) who were sent out to spread Judaism and help every Jew, no matter how far away physically and spiritually he or she may be.
During the last years of his life, he hinted at the Messiah's identity, the house he lived in, his lineage and the prophecies he would make before revealing himself. All these lead to only man – Schneerson himself. "The Messiah is already here, we just have to open our eyes to him," he announced.
Twenty years after Schneerson's death, there remain more question marks over his life and ideas than clear-cut conclusions.
No-one imagined that Menachem Mendel with his secular education and western clothes would inherit his father-in-law's title. He had left his parents’ home to expand his secular education in Berlin, and then Paris, far away from any hasidic center; the level of his religious devoutness at the time remains unclear.
Together with his wife, he was rescued from occupied Paris and sent to neutral Portugal, from where they boarded a ship for New York, thanks to assistance given by his father-in-law and a group of hasidim with connections to the Roosevelt administration. (Yosef Yitzchak, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad, had his own remarkable escape story himself: A Nazi unit entered the Warsaw Ghetto when it was already under German attack and brought him to a boat leaving for the U.S., events that have yet to be acknowledged by Chabad itself). The battle to succeed Yosef Yitzchak lasted for nearly a year and reverberated well into the 1980s, through the bitter legal battle between Schneerson's court and the former Rebbe’s grandson over the ownership of the late Rebbe's library.
The messianic tone wasn't the only thing that set the Rebbe apart from other Haredi and hasidic leaders of the post-Holocaust generation. Unlike them, he did not lead his followers to isolate themselves from the outside world. On the contrary. Along with the extensive shluchim (emissaries) program, he encouraged his hasidim to use modern mass-media, including television abominated by other Haredim, to expose millions, Jews and non-Jews alike, to his teachings. All this was done out of the belief that spreading his word would hasten the coming of the Messiah.
Within Chabad, he totally changed the attitude towards Zionism and the State of Israel. His predecessors were anti-Zionist, but he became a player, from afar, in Israeli politics. Israel's heads of state visited him at 770, Knesset members, IDF generals, even Israeli beauty queens, made the pilgrimage to Brooklyn. He encouraged his followers in Israel to visit IDF camps and put tefillin on soldiers. He fought with all his might against any suggestion that Israel would pull back from the occupied territories.
His venerated father-in-law, whose grave he visited regularly, preached that the Holocaust was divine punishment for the sins of irreligious Jews. Menachem Mendel said instead that the Holocaust was an event beyond human comprehension.
His death left tens of thousands of believers bereft and confused, with unanswered queries to this day. The confusion led to an ideological rift that is still in its early stages. Both sides have difficulty reconciling his teachings and the prophecy that was not fulfilled. The Rebbe's message was clear. If he was not the Messiah, then he was a false messiah. If the Messiah has not arrived in our generation, then he was a lying prophet. The non-messianic stream simply ignore the unequivocal prophecies of redemption knocking at the door and prefer to fall back on the memory of his image as a kindly grandfather who loved his flock. The messianists cling resolutely to his teaching, without compromise - even at the price of ignoring his grave at the Montefiore Cemetery in Queens.
Both factions in Chabad have prospered despite the inconsistencies and question marks surrounding their legitimacy as successors of the Rebbe's teachings: It is hard to see how either of them have remained - or could remain - truly faithful to his message and his path.
The messianic faction does not differentiate between the passion that typified and animated him and the radicalism he avoided throughout his life. It is a more political, more nationalist and, in many cases, a more racist camp.
The anti-messianic faction, on the other hand, has disengaged from the Rebbe's life's work and denies the prophecies of redemption.
The split in Chabad is an expression of the different responses that its bewildered believers have to a prophecy that has not been fulfilled. The denial of prophecy and the denial of death are both irrational responses and flight from the most pertinent question of all: What did the Rebbe himself think? Did he not understand that the path he forged was leading Chabad to lose its values?
Twenty years after his death, the Rebbe's central values – the love of Israel and man, whoever he is, of tolerance and a welcoming Judaism – no longer exist in either faction. Nationalism, aggressive and intolerant Judaism, politics and even destructiveness – those are the exhibits displayed today in Chabad's show window, and most certainly in Israel.
Yossi Saidov, an alumnus of Chabad yeshivas, is the chairman of the Gonenim neighborhood council in Jerusalem.[head] 20 years ago, the Messiah didn't come
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