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As they do every year, this year, too, the messianists in Israel's Chabad Hasidic movement (whose followers believe that even though he has passed away, the Lubavitcher rebbe is the Messiah) decided to have a mass celebration on the anniversary of the rebbe's birthday, on the 11th of the Hebrew month of Nissan (in April). They organized a large "birthday party" in the sports stadium at Yad Eliahu in Tel Aviv, and combined it with an advertising campaign: Signs were plastered on buses all over the country, calling on the public to ask for a blessing from the rebbe - by dialling a certain phone number. It's hard to understand why they decided on such a campaign this year of all times, since this is not a "round" date (this is 102nd anniversary of the rebbe's birth). Maybe these were preparations for the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the death of the rebbe, about a month from now, on the 3rd day of Tamuz. Maybe the Chabadniks wanted to exploit the economic distress in the country, under the assumption that it would increase the flow of requests for a blessing. And maybe they simply wanted, by means of the campaign, to return to the public's awareness.

Whatever the reason, the local Chabad establishment, which is opposed to the messianists (as is the New York-based international Chabad establishment), decided to fight against the campaign. When the messianists ignored the beit din (rabbinical court) of the Hasidic movement, which ordered them to stop the campaign because it harmed the rebbe's image, the Chabad Youth Organization asked Haifa District Court (chosen because of the place of residence of Yaron Bar Zohar, initiator of the bus campaign) to order the messianists to honor the ruling of the beit din. The system disappointed them: The court refused to issue the requested injunction, explaining that it cannot force the messianists to obey a voluntary beit din, whose authority they do not recognize. Meanwhile, the Chabad establishment is continuing the struggle within ultra-Orthodox community, mainly through the dissemination of pashkvilim (huge public notices posted in the ultra- Orthodox communities) against the messianists. But the Chabad spokesman in Israel, Menahem Brod, one of the main activists against the messianists, says the movement is also considering continuing the battle in the courts, "perhaps in the context of a basic clarification of the question of whether anyone who so desires has a right to use the name `Chabad.'"

The bus campaign and the battle against it have once again intensified the internal struggle between the members of Chabad - an arena that had quieted down over the past few years after becoming very heated after the death of the rebbe. In general, the establishment seems to have succeeded in its battle: The messianist groups have been very isolated; they have no entree into the establishment and they have been forced to establish a separate organizational network; and only one of the six Chabad yeshivas in Israel, in Safed, is identified as a messianist yeshiva.

`Moderate' believers

But the picture is even more complicated. The Chabad establishment has in fact been preserved as anti-messianist in nature, but in larger circles of the movement, mainly among the newly religious (hozrim b'tshuva) who join it, the popularity of messianism is increasing. It's no wonder: Except for the messianic belief, what unique quality does Chabad have to sell the newly religious to get him to prefer it to other religious streams? In addition, as one of the members of Chabad puts it: "Many members of the movement, apparently most of them, continue to believe that the rebbe is the Messiah, although in a more `moderate' way than the active messianists. They oppose conducting public campaigns on the subject, mainly on the assumption that this will only arouse opposition to the movement, but in their hearts they continue to believe that the rebbe is the Messiah."

That's the reason why the Chabad establishment preferred to "kill" the messianists gently: not to attack them head on, but mainly to ignore them and to ensure that they be kept away from any job within the establishment. For example, after members of the establishment became aware of the strong presence of newly religious among the messianists, they decided not to appoint any more shluchim (the people who coordinate the activities of the branches of the movement all over the world) who are newly religious, and who haven't yet studied for at least a few years in the established Chabad yeshivas. On the other hand, both determination of this policy and other anti-messianic activities were conducted without a public declaration of war, so as not to cause trouble among that same large majority that supports the idea of the rebbe's messianism, even if they don't support the vocal messianists. Apparently, that is precisely the reason why the messianists are interested in provocations such as the bus campaign, which are aimed at inciting the battle against them on the part of the establishment, which wants quiet, and reigniting the debate.

Rabbi Zimroni Tzik, director of the Chabad House in Bat Yam, is one of the leaders of the messianist branch. He is a very veteran "newly" religious person - from the early 1970s - who, during the rebbe's lifetime, already established Iton Hageula ("The Newspaper of Redemption"), which already then emphasized the messianic campaign. After the death of the rebbe, he started the weekly Torah portion newsletter Sichat Hageula. The belief of the messianists, as Tzik explains, includes the assumption that the rebbe didn't die at all: "We don't talk about his death, nor about his histalkut [`departure' - the term used by other Hasidim, a common religious term to describe the death of a tzaddik, a righteous person - Y.S.]. We believe that he is alive and well, and has only `disappeared' temporarily, and that he will reveal himself at any moment. Just as Moses disappeared for 40 days when he ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, and the delay of his return caused the Israelites to commit the sin of the Golden Calf, so we believe that the disappearance of the rebbe is also a test to see whether we will continue to adhere to his path."

The idea of a "test" enables the messianists to deal with the fact that 10 years have passed, after all, and the rebbe who "disappeared" has not yet been revealed again. However, even Tzik is aware of the possibility that the more time passes without the rebbe being "revealed," the more doubts will arise regarding the assumption of messianism. He therefore directs the answer on this issue to God: "That's exactly the reason why we turn to God and implore: We did everything we could, now do your part and `reveal' the rebbe." And, in fact, the messianists have a tendency to "demand" that God "reveal the rebbe once again."

One of the extremists among them, Meir Baranes, even published a series of ads in the press a few years ago, which addressed God on this issue, and organized a "demonstration" with a similar demand. According to spokesman Brod, they accept the fact that the rebbe died, "but they believe, as is written in the sources regarding the Messiah, that he will be the first to return to life when the dead are resurrected."

The belief in a Messiah who has already appeared and is supposed to be revealed once again reminds many critics of Chabad of Christian belief and, indeed, this fact in itself has increased the motivation of critics. For example, the late Rabbi Eliezer Schach (who was the leader of the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox community), who persecuted the members of Chabad during his last years of activity, is said to have made the witty remark that "Chabad is the religion closest to Judaism."

Tzik himself is not bothered by the similarity to Christianity: "After all, Judaism came before Christianity. So if Christianity has elements that were influenced by Judaism, do I have to reject my belief because of that? It's exactly as though someone were to say that we should eliminate the prostrations during the Yom Kippur prayer, because it is reminiscent of the bowing by Muslims at their prayer."

Maybe God himself

If for outsiders the belief of the messianists demands an explanation, in intra-Chabad contexts, it is their opponents who have to explain themselves, because during the lifetime of the rebbe, they all believed that he was the Messiah, mainly because the rebbe himself encouraged this belief. That's why the anti-messianists focus mainly on their opposition to the idea that the rebbe did not die, and not to presenting him as the Messiah. Only a handful of particularly outspoken and courageous anti-messianists rely on the Midrash that says that in every generation there is a person who is capable of being revealed as the Messiah, but only if the generation deserves it and God is willing does that same person realize his potential. Those people will therefore say that in his lifetime, they really did see the rebbe as "the Messiah of our generation" - i.e., that he was the one with messianic potential in our generation, but with his death, it turned out that he hadn't realized his potential.

There are conflicting reports about the rebbe's identification with the messianic campaign: His writings contain expressions that can only be explained as meaning that he saw himself as the Messiah, and on various occasions he even encouraged those who began the messianic campaign during his lifetime.

On the other hand, there is also evidence that on other occasions, he actually reprimanded them. Prof. David Berger, a lecturer in Jewish studies at Brooklyn College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who in the past decade has dealt intensively with what is happening in Chabad, estimates that the rebbe himself was divided on this issue: "He had a tendency to identify himself as the Messiah, and at the same time he was hesitant about it. He managed to restrain himself until his last years, but then his opposition steadily waned, and that's why the messianic expressions increased during those years."

Berger, himself an Orthodox Jew, has conducted a bitter private campaign against Chabad in recent years, claiming that some of the messianists are no longer satisfied with identifying the rebbe as the Messiah, but identify him as God himself. He cited, for example, an issue of Sichat Hageula in which the messianic slogans were changed a little to "Long live our master, teacher and creator," instead of "our master, teacher and rabbi"; a messianic pamphlet distributed in Safed, which stated that "the Holy One blessed be he in all his strength, as he is, resides in the rebbe"; a story in the newsletter Peninei Geula that told of a woman who wrote to the rebbe after his death, addressing him with the words "the honorable rabbi, the Holy One blessed be he, may he live a long life," and her request was granted, et al.

Berger has published a series of articles in the Orthodox press in the United States (and one in Haaretz), and has also personally spoken to a number of rabbis, demanding that these phenomena be defined as idol worship (avoda zara), with the full halakhic (Jewish legal) implications: a ban on sending students to an institution that educates toward such views; a ban on eating the shechita (ritually slaughtered meat) of a person who holds these views, and so on. In addition, he also aims his barbs at the Chabad's messianic belief itself. He emphasizes that although it is not idol worship, it is definitely a deviation from the principles of Jewish messianic belief. He is most concerned about the fact that educators and rabbis who hold these views are serving in general rabbinic positions. He therefore has demanded that these people be removed from their jobs. Moreover, Berger believes that "because the messianic belief has become so widespread in Chabad, every Chabad rabbi who wants to be appointed to a position in the Orthodox system must provide clear answer to questions regarding his belief in messianism, and only if he gives clear replies that he doesn't believe in the messianism of the rebbe, can he be accepted."

To Berger's surprise, he says, he discovered "indifference and even deliberate refusal to deal with this subject." It was to this indifference - as much as to the phenomenon of messianism itself - that he devoted a substantial portion of his book, "The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference" (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001).

`Process of modernization'

Prof. Menahem Friedman, of the sociology department in Bar-Ilan University, who specializes in ultra-Orthodox society in general, and in recent years has deal intensively with the story of Chabad (he is writing a biography of the Lubavitcher rebbe), is not surprised by the indifference: "It's part of the process of modernization in Orthodox society. In a modern society, even if it is religious, everyone is busy with his own affairs and lets the other behave according to his own understanding, as long as he doesn't try to `invade' his territory."

How has the death of the rebbe, and the conflict concerning messianism, affected the overall activity of Chabad Hasidism over the past decade? One would have expected that a movement based on the charismatic personality of the rebbe would steadily decline without his living presence. In fact, although the movement is less prominent in terms of large campaigns and new initiatives - which is natural, since there is no authority to decide and to give instructions regarding new directions for action - the activity is apparently continuing at full steam. Brod, for example, says that at the annual shluchim conference, which takes place in New York every November, "the number of shluchim who began their activity during the past decade is now more than double the number of all the other, more veteran ones." He estimates the present number of them in the world at over 4,000.

However, Friedman for one believes that in the more distant future, there will be a big change in the balance of power between the establishment and the messianists: "There's no getting away from it: The `fire,' the great enthusiasm, exists specifically among the messianists. That's why I believe the other shluchim will work less according to the instructions of the world headquarters in Brooklyn, and will be taking more independent decisions, and in effect will become more and more a part of the regular Orthodox communities, each one in his own place of residence. So that in the final analysis, over time the name `Chabad' will actually become identified more with the messianists."

Maybe what will happen then to Chabad is what has already happened to another Hasidic movement that has been in operation for almost 200 years without an admor (a Hasidic religious leader), namely the Bratslav Hasidim - where the new, populistic members have stolen both the name and the attention from the veteran Hasidim, whose worldview and personality is more profound.