Behind the Headlines: Media Coverage of Rebbe’s Death Shows Unique Contributions of a Giant Figure

The story generated levels of media coverage usually reserved in Israel for the outbreak of war or peace.

Yediot Achronot, Israel’s largest-circulation newspaper, devoted 20 pages of its Monday edition to the story.

But it wasn’t just in Israel.

On television and radio stations around the world and in newspapers in scores of languages, the death early Sunday of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was a headline-making event.

The scenes of grief at his funeral in New York, and in Lubavitch communities in dozens of countries, were filmed, photographed and recorded in print with the kind of volume and prominence that generally attends the doings — or deaths — of major national leaders or mega-celebrities.

This saturation coverage, reflecting what editors everywhere believed their public wanted to see or read, seemed at first sight somewhat disproportionate.

After all, the Lubavitch movement is a minority movement within Jewish Orthodoxy, which is itself a minority movement within Judaism as a whole — which, in turn, is one of the world’s smaller nation-faiths.

The rebbe’s death, moreover, was hardly a dramatic surprise. At the advanced age of 92, he had been sick for more than two years, and had been in a coma in a Manhattan hospital for the past three months after suffering a series of strokes.

Without life-support equipment and aggressive medical intervention, he would have died weeks ago.

Assessing the tremendous outpouring of public and media interest can be a useful aid in understanding the man and his unique contribution to the history of post-Holocaust Jewry.

THE ‘MESSIAH FACTOR’

First, one must consider the so-called “Messiah factor.” Clearly this aspect of Lubavitch Chasidism significantly hyped the story of Schneerson’s life and death in the eyes of editors, whether Israeli or Diaspora, Jewish or non-Jewish.

The movement, especially in the last five or six years, has been caught up in a messianic fervor that has led to bizarre and, in the view of most other Jews — Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike –grotesque excesses.

At first, in the middle and late 1980s, the talk of the Messiah’s imminent advent was not focused.

The Chasidim were merely urged to spread the message that belief in the Messiah as a cardinal tenet of Orthodox faith should be seen as real and immediate, not some sort of sciencefiction futurism.

But increasingly it became clear that many in Chabad, when they spoke of the Messiah, meant their own venerated and beloved rebbe — the seventh in a dynastic line reaching back to the founder of the movement, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi — who was elderly and without children or other heirs.

Whether the rebbe himself opposed or condoned this personalization of the messianic trend within his own community remains an open question.

There is evidence that he, too, regarded the idea that he might become the Messiah as not altogether beyond the bounds of possibility.

A second factor that doubtless contributed to this week’s media splurge surrounding Schneerson’s death is the remarkably photogenic — and telegenic — qualities of fervently Orthodox Jews.

Demonstrating this point with remarkable cogency was the extensive local and overseas media coverage given just last week to a visit to Israel by the leader of the Satmar Chasidic move- ment, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, who arrived from the United States attended by 500 followers.

Pictures of his arrival and the attendant celebrations, and articles on his anti-Zionist theology, were carried on CNN and in many of the major newspapers in Europe and North America, including the New York Times, which featured the story on its front page.

But even taking into account these two factors — which each lend attractiveness to the Schneerson story — the extraordinary waves of interest and sympathy that were triggered by the rebbe’s death must be explained, in large measure, by the cumulative effect of the rebbe’s life.

It is no exaggeration to say that Schneerson was the most outstanding figure in Orthodox Jewry in the second half — the post-Holocaust half — of the 20th century, and one of the most outstanding figures in all Jewry during this dramatic period in Jewish history.

ASTONISHING SUCCESS IN PROPOGATING ORTHODOXY

His astonishing success in propagating the message of Orthodoxy has contributed not only to the renaissance and growth of Orthodoxy itself following its decimation in the Holocaust, but also to the character and self-confidence of the entire Jewish nation.

For the Lubavitch community, as for no other Orthodox movement, the propagation of Jewish belief is a key article of faith.

Other fervently Orthodox groups, tragically reduced by the Nazis to a shadow of their former glory, built physical and psychological divisions between themselves and the outside world.

But under Schneerson’s guidance, the Lubavitchers actively sought out that world, sought to grapple with it ideologically, and to bring into it sparks of Chasidic fire.

Granted, many Jews feel uncomfortable with Chabad’s hard-sell brand of missionizing. Indeed, it is sometimes said of the movement’s worldwide network of emissaries, or shlichim, that they divide Jewry into two groups: Chabad Chasidim and potential Chabad Chasidim.

Despite the discomfort, however, there is widespread recognition that these emissaries display a special sort of patriotism — Jewish patriotism.

Translated into the hurly-burly of Israel’s party politics, the Lubavitcher’s patriotism has had a checkered and controversial history.

For close to two decades, from 1970 to 1989, the rebbe — who, for mysterious reasons, never visited to the Holy Land — spearheaded the campaign to have Israel’s Law of Return amended so that it defines a Jew as “a person born of a Jewish mother or converted according to halacha.”

Chabad wanted the last three words added to the definition in order to exclude non-Orthodox converts, striking a blow in its ongoing battle against Reform and Conservative Judaism.

It pressured, persuaded and cajoled all the Orthodox political parties in Israel to demand the amendment.

This provoked countless coalition crises — and led, in the end, to a near-disastrous confrontation between the Israeli political establishment and mainstream Diaspora Jewry.

Early in 1989, the two major political parties, Labor and Likud, impressed by the fierceness of Diaspora feeling, made a stand against this Chabad-led campaign.

Rather than have either one of them give in to the pressure, they joined to form a government of national unity — without the presence of the Orthodox parties.

In the wake of — and, arguably, as a result of — this embarrassing setback, Chabad quickly switched its campaigning to promote uncompromising hawkishness in Israel’s ongoing territorial debate.

Replete with vast advertising budgets, sophisticated use of media, and adroit political arm-twisting, the movement shifted its focus. “Eretz Yisrael is in Danger” becoming the movement’s motto, along with “Prepare for the Messiah’s Coming.”

A STRONG POLITICAL INFLUENCE

Schneerson’s interpretation of Jewish law and lore was that no land may be given up, and his enthusiastic followers set about broadcasting this message in Israel, in America and around the world with all their energy and resources.

Chabad was not alone in its thinking and it soon became an integral part of the Likud-led national camp on the Israeli political map.

The high-point of the rebbe’s political influence in Israel came in the spring of 1990, when another eminent Orthodox sage and leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, mentor of the Sephardic Shas party, preached against the Likud’s hard-line policy on peace.

When Yosef withdrew his party from the Likud-led coalition, Labor’s Shimon Peres set about building an alternative coalition under his own leadership.

His mistake, however, was in anticipating the support of the Ashkenazic fervently Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party.

On the day Peres was to present his new government to the Knesset, orders came through from “770″ — the address of the rebbe’s Eastern Parkway headquarters in Brooklyn — to two Chabad-affiliated Knesset members belonging to Agudat Yisrael to deny Peres their much-needed votes.

The would-be Labor-led coalition crumbled, and the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir assumed the reins of power for an additional two years.

Ironically, that success may yet prove to boomerang against fervently Orthodox power in Israeli politics.

Widespread disgust over the dealmaking led directly to the passage of electoral reform legislation — due to go into effect in the next national election.

The reform provides for the direct election of the prime minister by the voters, thereby rendering him less vulnerable to small coalition partners.

Despite his political meddling, however, the Lubavitcher rebbe will be remembered — in Israel and throughout the Jewish world by followers and political foes alike — as a towering figure, an intellectual and spiritual giant, and a man imbued with inexhaustible love for his fellow Jews and for his fellow human beings.

Thus, while immediate media reaction is often an unreliable yardstick of a deceased person’s lasting stature, in the case of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the media got it right.

NEXT STORY