Who controls Lubavitch headquarters?

Casual observers imagine that the messianists are a minority.

chabad rabbis 298 88 (photo credit: Chabad)
chabad rabbis 298 88
(photo credit: Chabad)
A recent court decision has awarded control of the headquarters of Lubavitch Hassidism in Brooklyn to the "non-messianist" Agudath Chasidei Chabad. This ruling, which has elicited considerable coverage in the Jewish media, highlights the tensions between reality and perception that cloud the understanding of this ongoing controversy. The main synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway has been controlled for some time by hassidim who believe not only that the late Rebbe is the Messiah but that he remains physically alive. Slogans proclaiming his Messiahship adorn the synagogue, including the cover of the ark containing the Torah scrolls; worshippers form an aisle through which he marches as services begin, and children point to him as he sits in his superficially empty chair. Many, probably most, hassidim of this sort endorse the theology expressed in a 2003 article by an Israeli rabbi, who affirmed that "we Lubavitch hassidim believe that Lubavitch is Jerusalem, the House of our Rabbi in Babylonia (i.e., 770 Eastern Parkway) is the Temple, and the Rebbe is the ark of the covenant standing on the foundation stone in which (referring to the Rebbe/ark, not the foundation stone) God's Being and Essence rests." (Hebrew readers can access this article by clicking on "Ekronot be-Olam ha-Hasidut" at http://www.hageula.com/?Row1D=5&CTopic=3&STopic=4&PHPSESSID=fe17b307d12b9ad705fb592d099a652f .) From the perspective of Jewish law, there can be no material difference between a church and a synagogue in which congregants worship the divine Essence manifested in an invisible human being whom they face during prayer. THE LAWSUIT was triggered by a violent confrontation in which such congregants defaced a plaque placed on the exterior of the building by the moderates. The plaque's intolerable offense was that it referred to the presumably living Rebbe with an honorific abbreviation characterizing the righteous dead. In the course of the legal proceedings, the hassidim who control the synagogue argued that they represent the majority of the community and that the court has no authority to intervene in a theological dispute. The judge agreed with the last assertion and took no position on the first; he maintained, however, that he has every authority to rule on a question of property law, and the building in question, he said, clearly belongs to Agudath Chasidei Chabad. Journalists who have asked leaders of the victorious group what changes they intend to institute now that they presumably have the authority to do so have thus far been provided with assurances lacking in specificity. One of the difficulties these leaders face is that believers in the Rebbe's Messiahship indeed constitute a majority of the Crown Heights community, though the percentage who attribute to him continued physical life and/or divinity, while certainly substantial, is more difficult to assess. Moreover, spokespersons for Agudath Chasidei Chabad itself explicitly affirm that there is a real possibility that the Rebbe will reveal himself as the Messiah, and their opponents' assertion that they themselves believe this firmly though covertly may well be correct. THE REACTION in the Jewish community at large is distorted by profound misperceptions of the real status of messianist belief within Lubavitch. Casual observers, abetted by a conscious campaign of disinformation by the moderate establishment, imagine that the believers are a tiny, if noisy minority, and that they are in a state of precipitous decline. They further imagine that the putative majority, including virtually all emissaries, reject the Rebbe's Messiahship decisively. In fact, the movement's major educational and communal institutions both in the main population centers and worldwide are either in the hands of overt believers or suffused by this belief, and large numbers of emissaries affirm it. Skeptical readers can find the evidence for this assessment in my book on Lubavitch messianism, preferably in the updated Hebrew version, or in the very brief summary article at http://www.thejewishweek.com/top/editletcontent.php3?artid=3518. WHAT THEN does this court ruling mean for Judaism? From a narrow perspective, the victory of Agudath Chasidei Chabad may mean that the prayer service at Lubavitch headquarters will no longer be marked by overt messianism and Rebbe-worship, though this result is far from certain. From a larger perspective, however, this victory may strengthen the misimpression that Lubavitch hasidism is dominated by Orthodox Jews in the traditional sense. Moreover, this misimpression, serious as it is, pales in the face of a still deeper problem. For reasons that I have tried to address in my book, even when Jews, including Orthodox Jews, are aware that a particular Lubavitch leader or emissary believes in the Messiahship of the Rebbe, they generally accept him as an authentic Orthodox authority. Such acceptance can remain intact even after they hear him attribute divine characteristics to his deceased Messiah. When they are told that a Lubavitch hassid believes only that the Rebbe may be the Messiah, they celebrate his moderation and adherence to mainstream Jewish tradition. In sum, this generation has presided over a historic transformation of the Jewish religion. We now live in a world in which Judaism affirms the possibility of the Second Coming of the Messiah - and perhaps even of his divinity - as a fully acceptable belief. The recent court decision, while it may (or may not) stop the overt worship of the Rebbe-Messiah in Lubavitch headquarters, will probably further anesthetize the larger community. Suffused with the warm glow of self-congratulation at our embrace of tolerance and love of our fellow Jews, we will continue to acquiesce in the ongoing Christianization of the Jewish faith. The writer is Broeklundian Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His book, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (Littman) has now appeared in an updated Hebrew version, Ha-Rebbe Melekh ha-Mashiach, Sha'aruriyyat ha-Adishut, ve-ha-Iyyum al Emunat Yisrael (Urim).