Divine inspiration

A renegade Chabad House in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood is offering to teach you how to read the future – for a fee.

School of Prophets (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
School of Prophets
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Tell your readers that we believe in the messiahship of the rebbe,” the hassid states, “otherwise, your article is pointless.”
Tall and lean, with a thick black beard that spills over onto his dark suit, on which is affixed a yellow flag pin denoting his allegiance to the messianic stream of the Chabad hassidic movement, the young man continues to remove his tefillin from his arm as he answers questions.
“Yes,” he says, “this is where the first lesson of the School for Prophets will be held later in the evening,” handing me a small brochure emblazoned with a picture of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The brochure bears the phrase “may our master, teacher and rabbi, the messiah king, live forever,” the motto of Chabad messianics, or “meshichistim.”
This small one-room Chabad house in the Florentin neighborhood of Tel-Aviv will soon host a bizarre gathering of fringe hassidim, curious locals and, of course, the media.
Shmuel Portman Hapartzi is not a rabbi, although he is billed as such in several articles that appeared prior to the start of his course. A short man with a cadaverous face, bushy beard and Russian-style cap perched on his head, Hapartzi is the founder of the newly established school, which he has dedicated in the names of “Cain and Abel.”
His course, divided into four sessions, will cover what he says are the basics needed for one to, eventually, become worthy of a religious vision.
For NIS 200, participants are guaranteed to learn how to assess a person’s nature from their physical appearance, interpret dreams and understand the basics of prophecy and divine inspiration.
The final lesson, the brochure promises, will teach participants to connect with angels and communicate with them.
THERE IS some overlap in content between this course and the standard Kabbala studied by many hassidim.
However, the difference between Hapartzi’s course and the traditional Jewish mysticism being studied in kabbalistic yeshivot, is that mainstream Judaism doesn’t promise any practical applications as a result of the study of these subjects.
Walk into any mainstream yeshiva, or even one belonging to the most extreme believers of the messiahship of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and ask to be taught to be a prophet and you will most likely be laughed right out of the building.
JUST PRIOR to the course’s first session later that evening, a curious mix of people begins to enter the Chabad house.
Two of the participants wear the scraggly beards and black kippot denoting Chabad hassidim, but they are outnumbered by the eccentrics and street people who seem to compose the rest of the gathering.
Of course, outnumbered is a misleading term, as there are only around 15 people in the small room, and the majority of them are, unsurprisingly, members of the media out for a story.
While the participants gather around a small table in the corner, with the “rabbi” at the head, the press take their places at the back of the room and begin scribbling notes. A television crew sets up a camera and begins filming and I place a digital audio recorder on the table as Hapartzi begins to speak. As he lectures, he passes around computer printouts of his course materials. Each packet is emblazoned with the logo of his “school,” an eye wearing a crown.
As the rain pours down in buckets outside, Hapartzi begins speaking, halting frequently and seeming ill at ease with public speaking, though he gains some confidence as he continues.
One can understand what anybody else is feeling, he says, merely by looking at their face. Asked by one reporter how this is possible, he replies calmly that just as one can gaze at an apple and know something of its flavor merely by the color of its peel, one can learn to read signs on people’s faces to understand their deepest emotions. You can also understand these matters, he continues, “by the sound of one’s voice.”
“Even today, in our days, and at this precise moment, [prophecy] can be revealed to all. According to the words of the rebbe, the world is ready and we just have to open our eyes,” Hapartzi believes. “Studying the wisdom of the expressions can teach us this.”
Asked why his course is named after Cain and Abel, the participants in the world’s first murder according to the Bible, he explains, “First of all, it is to interest people to ask this question and to use this opportunity to reveal the matter of Cain and Abel.” He then launched into a rambling kabbalistic explanation referencing reincarnation and other esoteric concepts.
One participant, who identified himself as Uri, agreed to discuss what brought him to the course. A skinny man wearing a dirty baseball cap over a ragged mullet, Uri smelled of refuse, something that other participants seemed not to notice. A janitor by trade, Uri says that he came to the course because he wants “to contribute something” to society.
“I have read the books and I cannot do this [prophesy],” he says. “This is part of life. I want to do this for myself and if I can contribute I will,” he continues. “I have dreams.”
AS THE lesson ends and the journalists begin cornering participants to obtain quotes for their stories, I go outside with Hapartzi to ask him about the genesis of this project. The heavy rain having turned into a light drizzle, at least for the moment, people have begun walking the streets again and patrons can be seen entering and exiting the trendy cafes across the street. A mixed neighborhood, Florentin is home to both urban poor and trendy hipster and an unlikely neighborhood for prophesy, although Hapartzi doesn’t seem to think so.
He says that he does not have rabbinic ordination nor does he work full time in Judaic studies. He works for a firm in Tel Aviv during the day, he says, and promotes his vision during the evenings.
“I am a simple Jew who learns Torah and observes the commandments and tries to encourage others to do the same,” he says by way of introduction.
A Russian immigrant, he says that he has “been religious for 20 years. After I became religious I immediately started studying hassidism [and] these things that I am teaching are of great personal interest to me and it is hard to find rabbis that will teach these topics. So I am teaching these matters as can be found in the holy books. I collected this material, only from kosher sources, and I organized them for four lectures.”
Asked what attendees should expect to gain from his course, he replies that “someone who attends the course will receive the knowledge from kosher sources for all of the material [listed in the course syllabus].”
As to whether participants who complete the course and receive their certificate will be considered prophets, Hapartzi explains that “the level of prophecy itself is a very high level, and you are only a prophet if you receive prophecy from on high, but all of the Jewish nation are potential prophets if we work on ourselves. What will a man receive from this course? If he observes the Torah and works on himself, [then the course] will give him the tools to advance to the levels of divine inspiration.”
STANDING IN the corner, a young man who identified himself as Yigal claimed to be the co-director of this particular Chabad house. Since he is not a rabbi himself, it is highly unlikely that this storefront mission is an authorized and official Chabad institution.
Yigal is also a Chabad messianist. This messianism is expressed in the belief that the last and final rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was the Moshiach, or messiah, and that his second coming will herald the messianic age as foretold by the biblical prophets.
Prophecy students study textbooks.Prophecy students study textbooks.
DESPITE CASES of extreme messianism like this one, mainstream Chabad hassidim are largely normal and down to earth, says Prof. Yoram Bilu.
Bilu, a researcher and expert on Chabad messianism at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explains that while Chabad hassidim believe in spreading knowledge of Kabbala and the mystical tradition, they deny that students of Jewish esoterica will be able to become prophets.
The Lubavitch movement operates thousands of missions around the world dedicated to the strengthening of Jewish identity and to bringing secular Jews closer to religious observance, including the kabbalistic tradition. A common joke in religious circles is that “anywhere in the world you can find Coca-Cola, you can find Chabad.”
However, the professor is careful to point out fringe cases such as Hapartzi’s are not representative of Chabad- Lubavitch.
Due to scheduling issues, members of the Chabad hierarchy who had agreed to speak about this issue were unavailable prior to press time. However, regular members of the Chabad community heaped scorn on the idea of the course.
“Can I become a prophet now?” questioned one Chabad woman with a scornful laugh. “Yeah, right, sign me up.” Just as most national-religious Jews do not engage in price-tag attacks or fight with Arabs, almost no Chabadniks believe in the teachings of fringers such as Hapartzi, said another hassid.
Given that there were more reporters than participants at the lecture series’ inaugural evening, one member of a mainstream Chabad community questioned why such an event has garnered so much press coverage.
Shahar Ilan, vice president of research and information for the NGO Hiddush, has worked as a religious affairs correspondent for several newspapers. Asked why such an event would receive so much media attention, he replied that “this is the part of journalism that is meant to entertain.”
“Importance is one criteria [for choosing what to cover] and entertaining is the other. Strange stories are meant to entertain,” Shahar said.
Entertainment seems to be the order of the day, Bilu agrees.
Comparing current trends in Judaism, including the Na Nahs and the members of the national-religious camp who believe that settlement of Judea and Samaria will bring the messianic redemption, Bilu says that the 20th and 21st centuries are seeing a renewal of messianic fervor not seen since the “last great messianic awakening in Judaism in the 17th century.”
However, he says, extreme manifestations such as schools of prophecy are still confined to the fringes and should not be taken as a sign of mainstream messianic thinking.
While the belief in the rebbe as the messiah certainly seems strange to many secular, and even Orthodox, Israelis, Bilu notes that “most of the meshichistim I am talking to are not crazy.”