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February 05, 1993 - Image 12

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1993-02-05

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NC

The Messiah Quarrel

ARTHUR J. MAGIDA SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH NEWS

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2/5/93

J

ith ads appearing
in Jewish news-
papers proclaiming
that the Lubavit-
cher rebbe is the Messiah
and an attempt to "crown"
him as the redeemer having
been foiled last Sunday, a
debate is swirling within
and without the Lubavitch
movement over its future
and credibility.
Close observers of
Lubavitch, some of whom
deeply sympathize with its
mission and its ac-
complishments, fear that the
current bickering is only a
prelude to schisms that
could seriously — and
perhaps, permanently
—fracture the movement
after the death of its leader,
Rabbi Menachem Mendel
Schneerson.
Outsiders say that in lieu
of strong leadership from the
90-year-old rebbe, who suf-
fered a severe stroke last
March, and in the absence of
an heir apparent to him,
some Lubavitchers are
casting about for a way to
"institutionalize" Rabbi
Schneerson's strength and
charisma. Declaring him the
Messiah may be one way to
perpetuate the rebbe's ac-
complishments and per-
sonality, these outside
observers say.
"They can't replace the
rebbe, and they can't ignore
him," said Queens Univer-
sity sociologist, Samuel
Heilman, who has written
extensively about Orthodox
Judaism. "So they're trying
to create an icon out of him.
What we're looking at is not
so much about the Messiah
as about the leadership of
the movement."
Reform Rabbi James
Rudin, interreligious affairs
director of the American
Jewish Committee, said
some Lubavitchers are
undergoing "anxiety and
panic. They're losing the
rebbe, but they still want to
keep the rebbe. But playing
around with the Messiah is
playing around with
`radioactive' material. When
it really sets in that he is not
who they say he is and he
doesn't meet the criteria, the
3-D's will set in: disillu-
sionment, disappointment
and despair."
Recalling past Jewish
movements that focused so
extensively on the Messiah,
Reform Rabbi Martin Siegel
of the Columbia Jewish
Congregation said,

"Historically, messianic
movements collapse if the
Messiah doesn't come.
That's what I don't want to
happen with Lubavitch,
which has helped renew
Jewish spirituality."
Addressing many Jews'
skepticism (or outright
cynicism) toward the notion
of Messiah, Rabbi Siegel,
who has studied with a
Lubavitch rabbi and visited
the movement's Brooklyn
headquarters, said, "We
should not denigrate the
concept of Messiah. There's
a difference between hoping
for a Messiah, and saying
that someone is the Messiah.
It is not up to us to say who
the Messiah is. He will tell
us. Nor is it up to me to
comment on the Lubavitch's
claim."
Chasidim at Lubavitch's
international headquarters
in Brooklyn's Crown
Heights are now splintered
into factions that either
claim they are speaking in
the rebbe's name or are ac-
ting in the spirit of the last:
orders that he com-
municated to them before
his stroke. The larger fac-
tion, which opposes publicly
proclaiming him the Mes-
siah, includes some of the
rebbe's most trusted long-
time aides. A smaller faction
argues that such statements
are the logical conclusion of
the rabbi's campaign to
educate Jews about the mes-
siah.
Three weeks ago, the
smaller faction — led by
Rabbi Yehudah Springer
—placed ads in several New
York-area Jewish news-
papers stating that the rebbe
is the Messiah.
At a ceremony last Sunday
in Crown Heights marking
the 43rd anniversary of the
rebbe's ascent as the seventh
Grand Rabbi of Lubavitch,
the larger faction managed
to prevail over others who
had sought to "crown" him
as the Messiah.
Originally, Rabbi Shmuel
Butman, chairman of the
International Campaign to
Bring Moshiach, had said
the ceremony would be - "a
public declaration and proc-
lamation" of the rebbe as
"King Messiah." He
retreated from this position
at the event by stating,
"This is not a coronation. No
human being has the power
to anoint the Messiah. The
only one that has the power
is the Almighty." ❑

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