Rabbi's Death Splits Ultra-orthodox Sect Thousands Await His Return As Messiah. Leaders Are Troubled.

Posted: June 28, 1994

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Removing his shoes and stepping inside the rough marble tomb where Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was laid to rest, Shimon Dadon took a scrap of paper from his pocket and scribbled something in Hebrew.

"A prayer," said the Israeli school principal, "that he will return, soon."

Dadon then ripped the paper into tiny bits (so no mortal eye could see what he had written) and dropped them on the fresh grave. The pieces fell among hundreds of other scraps of paper - prayers for strength, prayers for wisdom, and prayers that Rabbi Schneerson, grand rebbe of the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher sect, would return and reveal himself as Moshiach, the messiah.

Lubavitch leaders are distressed by it. Experts on religious history chalk it up to zealotry heightened by grief.

But virtually nothing can convince thousands of Rabbi Schneerson's followers that the rebbe, who died three weeks ago at age 92, will not be resurrected.

Amid burning candles and police barricades erected to keep mourners off the grave, as many as 1,000 people filtered through the tomb each day. Drawn by traditional descriptions of Moshiach's character that they say match Rabbi Schneerson's, most are certain that his physical body will be restored. When, and how, no one will say - that's for God to decide.

By yesterday the number had finally dwindled enough so that the New York City Police Department could end a 25-member detail assigned to keep order at the cemetery.

Still, rumors abound of a rift between Lubavitchers who await the rebbe's resurrection and those who do not. Lubavitch leaders insist that only a small percentage of the sect's estimated 200,000 members believe Rabbi Schneerson is the messiah and will rise from the dead.

But in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, world headquarters of the Lubavitcher Chassidei Chabad movement, Rabbi Schneerson - the Sorbonne- educated engineer and religious scholar who led the sect for 43 years and built it into an influential force in modern Judaism - is fiercely revered as the Moshiach.

On street corners, small knots of Lubavitcher men in black hats, dark suits and voluminous beards talk expectantly of the return of the rebbe and the dawn of a messianic age free of war, sickness and poverty.

Prayers and mitzvot (good deeds) intended to hasten Moshiach's coming are commonplace. A ragged woman in the doorway of a restaurant smiles as she asks passersby to "do a mitzvah for the homeless." Coins rattle like tambourines in her paper cup.

From posters and bumper stickers, window cards and marquees, the cherubic rebbe smiles through a frothy white beard. Around his face are phrases such as ''Long Live the Rebbe King Moshiach Forever" and "Moshiach Is on His Way."

On Kingston Avenue, just a few blocks from Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, the International Moshiach Center does a brisk business in the paraphernalia of messiah-worship.

A set of bookshelves overflows with literature by and about Rabbi Schneerson. A second set holds rebbe T-shirts, keychains and fluorescent- painted tambourines for celebrating the dawn of the messianic age.

On the tiny shop's main counter are dozens of videotapes, audiocassettes and Good Cards - credit-card-sized religious tracts that remind the holder that acts of goodness "can tip the scales" to bring Moshiach. The rebbe - who used satellite broadcasts, giant menorah displays and networks of fax machines and computers to promote Jewish orthodoxy - would, no doubt, have approved.

The Moshiach Center's director, Rabbi Yosef Y. Shagalov, is a small, intense man with wispy hair, dark, wary eyes, and a beeper attached to his belt.

Even though the rebbe never said he was the messiah, Rabbi Shagalov says he never doubted it.

"There were certain midrashes (Jewish religious commentaries) that said Moshiach would rise from the dead," he said. "We hope it will happen imminently."

At Lubavitcher headquarters, the sect's emerging leadership says such talk of a resurrected messiah is the product of grief and mourning, not spiritual insight.

Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, head of Philadelphia's Lubavitch community and chairman of the movement's international executive committee, stepped out of a

closed-door meeting at 770 Eastern Parkway last week and said that "people are so worked up" over the rebbe's passing that they often don't understand the implications of what they're saying.

He called the notion of a resurrected messiah a Christian construct, ''totally alien" to Jewish belief.

"Do the people who are talking tell you that we believe all Jews will be resurrected?" he asked. "Do they tell you that in Judaism the resurrection of the dead and the coming of Moshiach are separate beliefs? Those who are talking about this are in no state of mind to say anything. They are in a state of shock."


For much of his life, Rabbi Schneerson accepted the adoration of his followers and did nothing to discourage the belief that he was the Moshiach mentioned so often in his lectures and writings.

Now that he is gone, the situation is all the more problematic, because Rabbi Schneerson, a childless widower, never appointed a successor. He is, in effect, the end of the dynastic line of Lubavitcher Zaddikim, or masters, that dates to late 18th-century Russia. His will left less than $50,000 to Agudus Chassidei Chabad, the Lubavitcher's administrative branch. It mentioned a niece, but left nothing to her, and ignored a nephew who had sued the rebbe over the ownership of certain valuable religious documents.

Most troubling of all for some Lubavitchers, it makes no mention of how members of the sect should proceed in the event of his death.

Outside the tomb, Miriam Greenwald, 27, bit her lip and said that for many followers, the rebbe's death was simply unimaginable.

"I believed he would live forever," said Greenwald.

She grasped the hand of her 5-year-old son, Nachum, and gave it a squeeze. Nachum had just graduated from kindergarten at the Lubavitch Yeshiva school, and wore an orange cardboard crown emblazoned with a photograph of Rabbi Schneerson and the words "Long Live Our Rebbe." A second son, David, 3, played among the tombstones, until his grandmother, Tova, reminded him that this was sacred ground.

"It's hard to keep your faith going, but you have to," said Greenwald, who lives in Flatbush. "I personally believe that the rebbe is the messiah and he will rise up.

"This" - she nods toward the tomb - "is only temporary."

Other Lubavitchers aren't so sure.

While some lighted candles inside the tomb - which also holds the rebbe's predecessor, his father-in-law - or stopped outside to weep at the grave of his beloved wife, Chaya Mushka, Sarah Muchnik tried to convince another woman that the religious leader's memory could best be served by continuing his work.

"It remains to be seen whether he will bring Moshiach," said Muchnik, 38, of Crown Heights. "You want things to be good? Do something good. That doesn't happen from just believing."

Rabbi Benjamin Klein, 58, an aide to Rabbi Schneerson for 38 years, chewed at the end of a cigar, peered over his eyeglasses, and said it is lamentable that the rebbe's passing has inspired such pain and confusion among his followers.

He has little doubt that Rabbi Schneerson possessed all the characteristics of a messiah - wisdom, understanding, knowledge. But that, he said, doesn't necessarily mean the rebbe was Moshiach.

"If I say you can be president, it doesn't mean you are the president," he said. "It means you have the qualifications to be president. It is the same thing in this case."

But Rabbi Klein came up short when asked why the rebbe never visited Israel. The Lubavitch movement is such a strong social and political force in the Jewish state that some of Rabbi Schneerson's followers even built him a home there.

Rabbi Klein said he isn't sure why the rebbe never visited the Holy Land. But the reason, he said, was probably practical - and not, as some Lubavitchers believe, the restraint of a messiah whose presence there would have signaled the start of Moshiach's reign.

"You don't go to Israel for fun and entertainment," Rabbi Klein said. ''If he had gone he would have settled there," and that would have had a negative effect on his followers elsewhere in the world.

That explanation would not suffice for Rabbi Shalom Ber Friedman.

Having traveled from Milan, Italy, to visit the rebbe's tomb, he said he was convinced that Rabbi Schneerson's passing had only enhanced his power.

"There was not enough force in him to change this black world," said Rabbi Ber Friedman, 64. "His force is much greater now, and that's why he has gone for just a little while."

Given the nature of religion and of mankind, it's understandable that some Lubavitch members are loath to give up their belief that Rabbi Schneerson was the messiah, says Riffat Hassan, a professor of religious studies and inter- religious dialogue at the University of Louisville.

"Underlying all religion is the inevitability and finality of death," said Hassan, who has written and lectured extensively on messianism. "If not for death, I believe there would be very few people who believe in God. . . . When we say we are redeemed by a messiah, we are saying we can live forever."

The need for messianic feeling runs so deep in the human consciousness that it often transcends the religious community and touches people outside it.

Don Walker, 36, was bicycling near the rebbe's tomb when he suddenly felt the need to pray.

Walker, who is black and Christian, said it mattered little that some of Rabbi Schneerson's critics blamed his fundamentalist views and his control over social conditions in Crown Heights for the much-publicized tensions between Jews and African Americans there.

"I don't know why I came in," he said. "I was just riding by and I decided I had to come in. I went in and said a prayer for him."

Even as Walker spoke, the Lubavitch movement was moving, painfully, toward the kind of "post-messianic community" that Hassan said usually arises after the death of a charismatic leader.

A letter written last week by members of the international executive committee laid the framework for a future without the rebbe.

Developed out of the lectures and writings of Rabbi Schneerson, it leaves all major policy decisions to the Chabad international council and its executive committee; refers personal religious and managerial questions to a triumvirate of rabbis; calls for a panel of objective judges to resolve conflicts, and gives the council the sole right to approve any new or existing institutions or foundations named in the rebbe's honor.

Rabbi Shemtov, who helped draft the letter, said too much attention has been paid to a rumored power struggle among Lubavitch leaders and to a potential rift between factions who expect Rabbi Schneerson's earthly return and those who do not.

For now, he said, the only appropriate course is grief.

"There is deep pain, deep loss," he said, fighting back tears. "It is an impossible time."

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