NEW YORK (Jan. 27)
“Mashiach madness” is reaching a feverish pitch.
Billboards in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv herald the arrival of the Lubavitcher rebbe, who has said that he would not go to Israel until the messianic age arrives.
A 40-foot banner announcing his status as the Messiah sweeps across the Lubavitchers’ synagogue at their Brooklyn headquarters. Believers are taking out ads in newspapers announcing the fact that their rebbe is the Messiah.
And now, the Lubavitch leader is scheduled to be “anointed” on Sunday, Jan. 31, when his followers in more than 25 locations around the world will be hooked up by satellite to the movement’s international headquarters in Brooklyn to chant simultaneously, “Our master, our rabbi, our teacher, King Messiah, live forever!”
“This will be the coronation of the rebbe as Melech haMashiach (King Messiah),” said Rabbi Shmuel Butman, chairman of the International Campaign to Bring Moshiach.
His campaign, once considered marginal within the Lubavitch community, has moved steadily into the mainstream since the 90-year-old rebbe suffered a debilitating stroke last year and has been unable to contain the growing zealousness over his status as the Messiah.
The fervor is causing tension among the Lubavitch and between the Hasidic movement and other Jewish groups, as an increasing number of Lubavitchers cross the delicate but critical line between stating that their rebbe has the potential to be the Messiah and stating that he is, indeed, already anointed by God to redeem the world.
A LEADERSHIP VACUUM
In the leadership vacuum that followed the rebbe’s stroke, the messianic movement has also laid bare the factiousness among the heads of Lubavitch organizations who are each claiming to be the interpreter of the rebbe’s wishes.
According to the office of Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a member of the rebbe’s official secretariat, “Butman does not speak for the Lubavitch movement.”
That may be true, but it is no secret that an overwhelming majority of Lubavitchers believe that their rebbe is the Messiah.
Rabbi Leib Groner, one of the rebbe’s closest aides, estimated that “99.9 percent of all Hasidim, if not 100 percent,” agree.
But no matter how widespread the belief, the Mashiach fever has worried at least a few of the rebbe’s aides and many non-Lubavitchers, who say it is costing the movement its credibility in the larger Jewish community.
It is there, in the non-Orthodox Jewish community, that the group has focused its work on outreach and has gained the appreciation of many Jews whose lives have been touched by the Lubavitch emissaries who bring Yiddishkeit to far-flung places.
According to Krinsky, the public pronouncements proclaiming the arrival of the Mashiach do damage to the movement’s ability to reach un-affiliated Jews by making Lubavitch seem bizarre.
“When a person hears that the rebbe is Mashiach and they can’t comprehend it, they tend to shun it, to look upon it derisively, to scoff at it. To present the rebbe that way is terribly unfair, terribly irresponsible and destructive,” he said.
Clearly, the ability to control how the rest of the world views their rebbe is slipping away from Krinsky and other Lubavitchers who regard themselves as custodians of the rebbe’s intentions.
“These overzealous pronouncements are in no way an official expression, but we have no way of controlling what people think,” said Krinsky.
Efforts to quell the fervor have gone unheeded. “People are going their own way. There’s not much anyone can do about it,” said one Lubavitch insider.
The latest to proclaim the rebbe’s status as Messiah was Rabbi Yitzhak Springer, an administrator at the Lubavitch yeshiva located at the movement’s headquarters, who placed advertisements trumpeting the fact in New York-area Jewish newspapers during January.
Springer ran ads in English, Yiddish and Hebrew-language Jewish weeklies in New York proclaiming the rebbe to be “the King Messiah.”
REBBE’S AIDES ISSUE DISCLAIMER
The rebbe’s aides responded to the ads by issuing a disclaimer stating that “no organization, group or individual may purport to reflect the official policy of the Lubavitch movement without permission.”
They requested that anyone doing so “cease and desist from such activities and/or pronouncements which are misleading and create serious confusion.”
The ads have also sparked passionate response from prominent non-Lubavitchers, all of whom find odious the Lubavitch movement’s claims to the Messiah.
Rabbi Marc Angel, immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, a mainstream Orthodox rabbis group, circulated a news release calling the messianic claims of the Chabad movement “horrifying and dangerous.
“Public proclamations by Chabad discredit the rebbe and the entire movement. It should put all Jews on guard concerning the true nature of the Lubavitcher movement,” said Angel.
Rabbi Binyamin Wallfish, executive director of the RCA, said that the current “Mashiach madness,” as some have called it, “makes the movement look kind of silly. I have very grave doubts that these people understand what they’re saying. They would be better off if they stopped talking about it.”
And Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said that “when he was well, the rebbe discouraged people calling him the Messiah.
“Now some of his devotees are taking advantage of his ill health. It seems very dangerous. Jewish history has a history of messianic pretenders, and once they died or did something wrong, it proved to be the downfall of that particular movement.”
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive director of the Conservative movement’s congregational arm, the United Synagogue, said that the current frenzy “certainly causes tension between people who would like to support Lubavitch and those who find calling the rebbe Mashiach offensive.”
When asked if the incapacitated rebbe is aware of the current frenzy, Krinsky said, “He is not aware of the chaos going on in the streets and the splintering of opinion.”