"Joy to the world the Lord has come."
This misquote from Isaac Watts, along with a link to a Chabad Web site, appears on a billboard. Not a real billboard, but a Photoshopped one that appears on the Web site of a Chabad activist in the U.S.
Rabbi Ariel Sokolovsky is a Moldova-born Chabad rabbi in Portland, Oregon, and a more amiable soul would be hard to find.
Yet Sokolovsky maintains a blog he entitled "Rebbegod" and refers to Schneerson as "Rebbe-Almighty" among other adulatory sobriquets.
Drawing on rabbinical sources, he attempts to show that this is not as revolutionary as it sounds. He concedes that there are few people like him who will openly call the Rebbe God. He claims, however, that many people believe it, but do not say so openly for fear of scaring people away from Chabad altogether.
While he argues that the Rebbe and God are not the same thing exactly, he says that he does not object to people thinking that they are the same thing.
He recounts an incident in which he confronted his teacher - a senior Chabad rabbi from the former USSR - as to why he would not openly declare the Rebbe to be God. According to Sokolowsky, the senior rabbi jokingly warned him: "there can be many gods but only one Moshiach."
Menachem Mendel Schneerson has by most accounts been dead for 12 years. Yet the details of Schneerson's life and death are mired in controversy, with wide discrepancies between the hagiographic account perpetuated by his followers and the scholarly research.
Chabad accounts of his early life tell of a brilliant student who excelled at the great universities of Berlin and the Sorbonne. After gaining degrees in subjects including nautical engineering, he subsequently fled to New York during World War II, where he worked on top secret military work.
But according to research by Professor Menachem Friedman, after he married a distant cousin, the daughter of his predecessor as "Rebbe," they lived far from any Jewish life during much of the 1930s - residing along with her sister and brother-in-law in a non-Jewish suburb of Paris. Eyewitnesses who knew them reported that she was often seen in modern dress and he bareheaded.
While in Paris he acquired his only formal education: he took a two year vocational course in electrical engineering at a Montparnase Vocational College where he achieved mediocre grades. He left for New York, where he spent the war as a worker at the Brooklyn Naval Yard.
Following the death of his father-in-law, Schneerson took up the reins as the grand rabbi or "Rebbe" of Lubavitch. Lubavitch was founded by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, a venerated figure who founded his sect on the principles of "Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge" (the Hebrew acronym of which is "Chabad"), as a response to criticism of the new Hasidic movement for its obscurantism and superstition. The modern movement that is Chabad-Lubavitch is a far cry from that noble dream.
The Chabad headquarters in the Crown Heights district of New York has become a battleground of different factions within the movement.
The voice of moderates who believe the Rebbe is in fact dead (though most of this group still adhere to his belief of his ultimate resurrection and coronation as messiah) is increasingly cowed, with violent brawls breaking out and spilling on the streets on a regular basis leading to scores of hospitalizations and arrests.
Even the installment of a memorial plaque can cause a riot; as one rioter told the press: "He's alive - they are writing that the Rebbe is dead!"
At the front of the main room at Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights sits the Rebbe's empty chair - its cushions unruffled for more than 12 years. The chair is kept as it was during his lifetime.
Before the daily afternoon prayers, a number of the men perform the ritual of unfurling a Persian rug, moving the Rebbe's chair out from under a desk, fiddling with his prayer shawls and books as if he were about to walk in and take his seat.
The prayers conclude as normal, but the service is followed by singing and chanting with Hora dancing around the central podium. "Long live our Master, our Rebbe, King Messiah," sing the dancing men and boys as they form conga lines - a routine part of this thrice-daily ritual.
The dancing suddenly stops and a sudden hush silences the room. Four young boys each brandishing a large yellow flag bearing the Rebbe's crest part the dancers and move alongside the platform that supports the Rebbe's chair and desk.
Raising the flags high they chant in unison: "We want Moshiach now! We want Moshiach now! WE WANT MOSHIACH NOW!"
A man of about 40 years of age carefully reverses the rituals that had prepared the Rebbe's chair for prayers as the rapt crowd watches. The service terminated, the men stand at ease. Many are wearing yellow lapel-pins, signifying commitment to extremist messianism.
Members of the congregation were happy to explain:
What do the pins signify?"It symbolizes our dedication to the Rebbe above all else."
Above all else? Above God? "As far as we are concerned, we can pray to the Rebbe and he can deal with God for us."
Is that not turning the Rebbe into a god himself, an idol of your own creation? "The Rebbe was not created; the Rebbe has always been around and always will be."
If one believes in God but leaves the Rebbe aside, is one still Jewish? "When the messiah reveals himself, those who didn't see him won't be saved, so you should work on..." He is interrupted. "Look, what you need to do is start with God and work your way up to the Rebbe."
While it may seem bizarre to describe electrician-cum-rabbi M. M. Schneerson in this way, many of the people seen as messianist view Schneerson as a demigod. They are loathe to state this explicitly, but they will assign him characteristics of God, pray to him and, when pressed, suggest that there is really no difference between him and God. Since the Rebbe was perfection personified, he is greater than any man that ever lived; ergo he is godly - omnipotent, omniscient and unlimited.
Virtually no one within the movement today is willing to deny that Schneerson was the greatest man that ever lived nor that he was perfect.
None have a problem with praying to Schneerson, using his books for divination in place of the Bible. Even amongst those viewed as moderates, "the Rebbe" is often substituted for God in normal conversation, sprinkling their remarks with comments such as "may the Rebbe help you" or "the Rebbe is watching over us."
Even among the moderate minority, the distinction between Schneerson and God is decidedly blurred. Asking adherents whether Schneerson will return as the Messiah is unlikely to yield a directly negative response.
Along a tight passageway and up an uneven stone staircase in a Safed building is the library that sits at the heart of Lubavitch. In this ancient city can be found one of the movement's pre-eminent institutions.
A few hundred students are grouped around desks in a cavernous library, in a scene identical to those in hundreds of Yeshivas around the world. The din produced by the animated discussions contrasts with the silence of non-theological academic libraries.
While some of the students, who come from all over the world, are learning traditional Jewish texts, many are studying the works of M.M. Schneerson.
A list of monthly award recipients (the prize is a set of Schneerson's complete works) reveals that of the 10 scholars who will receive prizes this month, four are named "Menachem Mendel," as is the rabbi who chose the recipients. This is not due to the rabbi favoring a namesake, for around one third of the Yeshiva's 400 students are so named.
Massive posters bearing Schneerson's image adorn every wall. A sign instructing the students to keep their dormitories tidy concludes by invoking the "Living" Rebbe.
Schneerson wrote of his father-in-law as the messiah, though the previous rebbe had recently died. Adherents believe that when the Rebbe referred to his father-in-law, this was code for the Rebbe himself.
Why do they think that Schneerson is alive? "The Rebbe was no normal human being," is the response. He was a polymath who "studied under Einstein in Berlin" before "inventing the atom bomb."
How do they view the connection between Schneerson and God? "The Rebbe is not something different from God - the Rebbe is a part of God," says a British teenaged student.
Does this not 'idolize' Schneerson, in the literal sense? "We cannot connect to God directly - we need the Rebbe to take our prayers from here to there and to help us in this world. We are told by our rabbis that a great man is like God and the Rebbe was the greatest man ever. That is how we know he is the messiah, because how could life continue without him? No existence is possible without the Rebbe."
Would they go so far as to describe the Rebbe and God as one and the same, as some extreme Messianists have done? "No, some people have gone too far and described the Rebbe as the creator.
"They say that God was born in 1902 and is now 105 years old. You can pray to the Rebbe and he will answer, and he was around since the beginning of time. But you must be careful to pray only to the Rebbe as a spiritual entity and not the body that was born in 1902."
Does the Rebbe have a will of his own? What if the Rebbe and God disagree? "That is a ridiculous question! They are not separate in any way."
So the Rebbe is a part of God. "Yes, but it is more complex than that. There is no clear place where the Rebbe ends and God begins."
Does that mean the Rebbe is infinite omnipotent and omniscient? "Yes of course," an Argentine student says in Hebrew. "God chose to imbue this world with life through a body. So that's how we know the Rebbe can't have died, and that his actual physical body must be alive. The Rebbe is the conjunction of God and human. The Rebbe is God, but he is also physical."
Chabad members have become irrecovably fixated on their dead leader. If the seemingly inexorable rise of the vocal yellow pin brigade progresses apace, the movement founded to bring rigor and intellectualism to Hasidic Judaism may well face a benighted future.
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