The empty chair
The brawl at the convention of shluhim, the messianic response at the “unity conference,” and the empty chair. Neta Sela makes sense of the upheavals in Chabad
Last Hanukkah Chabad hassidim lost three of their members who were on their way to distribute Hanukkah donuts and menorahs at IDF bases in the Eilat area. The terrible accident shocked the Chabad movement,
especially because the three young men were on their way to do a mitzvah, and it is well known that “those on their way to do a mitzvah are not harmed.”
Since they believe that things don’t just happen, the Chabadniks attempted to understand why the tragedy occurred.
The sweeping conclusion was that the accident occurred because of a lack of unity in Chabad, and that this was a sign from on high that the situation must be rectified. On the shloshim, the 30th day after the young men’s death, Chabad hassidim all over the world held dozens of meetings, conferences, and conversations on this topic, and a decision was made to hold a large “unity conference” in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha’umah.
The empty chair (Photo: Nir Calderon)
Since the Lubavitcher Rebbe died 12 years ago, the Chabad movement has known no peace. One faction recognizes that their beloved Rebbe has died, and another faction believes that he is the Messiah and is still alive. The word “mamash,” (“really,” “truly”), an essential part of Chabad’s messianic jargon, is especially significant because the three Hebrew letters in “mamash” are the same as the first letters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s names, Menahem Mendel Schneerson. The messianists who believe the Rebbe is still alive say that our generation is too spiritually debased to actually see him. From time to time there are Chabadniks who say that they have seen him recently. The messianists are easy to identify, because they wear a yellow “Messiah” pin on their lapel.
The unity conference problems began when the messianists heard that Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Krinsky, a major Chabad figure and head of the Agudas Chasidei Chabad organization, planned to attend. Before the Rebbe’s death he handed Rabbi Krinsky the reins of the Chabad establishment, including management of Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Since the Rebbe’s death 770 Eastern Parkway has become the site of raging clashes, and there is even a trial going on over control of Chabad headquarters. The gabaim at the synagogue there are part of the messianic group, while control over the building itself is in the hands of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, headed by Krinsky.
Some three months ago the conflict reached the boiling point. On the first of the month of Kislev, during a meeting of shluhim, Chabad emissaries, several hundred shluhim entered the synagogue with Rabbi Krinsky and other anti-messianists in order to hold a conference.
The messianists were on the other side. At last year’s meeting, after a long period when they weren’t allowed in, the shluhim and Rabbi Krinsky managed to hold a convention within the Rebbe’s synagogue. The convention was considered a success, and Chabad media reports referred to the “Temple” being “purified” because, according to a Chabad source, “the messianists exploded and interpreted it as a provocation. This year they were not prepared to let this happen again.”
They made their decision and stuck with it. When the messianists convened on one side and their opponents on the other, it was only a matter of time. It started with the messianists singing a song about the Rebbe being the Messiah, continued with fisticuffs on both sides and broken benches, and ended with the local police called in and a number of people arrested.
On the day the unity conference was supposed to take place in Jerusalem, SMSes were sent to thousands of Chabad hassidim telling them to come protest Krinsky’s attendance at the conference. In addition, word was spread that the conference had been canceled. The attempts to cancel the conference failed, but there was a surprise in store for the many people in attendance.
As the evening was in full swing a number of bereaved parents came onto the stage, among them the parents of the young men who had been killed in the accident last Hanukkah. Another parent invited to come onto the stage was Rabbi Yosef Chaim Ginsberg, who lost his 10-year old son in a traffic accident. Rabbi Ginsberg is one of the more ideological members of Chabad’s messianic faction, and serves as the head of a Chabad yeshiva in Ramat Aviv. With considerable courage he gave a rousing speech reflecting his messianic beliefs. “Are you looking for unity?” he shouted. “Look at our people! There is wonderful unity among them. Everyone agrees that the Rebbe, the King, the Messiah, still lives, and this is how we educate our children. All of our people agree that the only work today is to receive the righteous Messiah.”
The messianists (Photo: Nir Calderon)
The heads of the Chabad establishment were forced to sit quietly and listen while Rabbi Ginsberg pulled the rug out from under them. The conference ended, but the response was not long in coming. A week later the anti-messianic Chabad establishment sent its heavy hitter onto the stage: Rabbi Yoel Cohen, called “the repeater” because he would repeat the Rebbe’s words for the hassidim and put them into writing. From New York he heard about events at the unity conference and feared that the Ginsberg precedent would repeat itself at the conference planned for a week later. The evening that the conference took place he gave an interview to the Chabad journal Kfar Chabad.
“Chabad has only one path, paved and clear,” screamed the headline, “unity among chassidim is the most important thing, and we need to invest all our energies in that because it’s a matter of life or death. But as for the ‘method,’ we must vehemently condemn it, not allow it any legitimacy, or give it any room. To declare before the largest public that this ‘method’ has no connection to Chabad,” shouted Rabbi Cohen, “we have no right to desert the younger generation and to stuff them full of lies.
“Writing ‘shlita’ (may he live a good long life, Amen) in and of itself makes a mockery, but this is not enough for them,” he said angrily of the messianists, “and they also continue with the words, ‘yibadal lechaim tovim,’ (may he be set aside for long life), which makes an even greater mockery.
“All the dastardly deeds of the enlightened and the Yevsektsia (the Jewish section of the Soviet Communist party), who attempted to besmirch the honor of our holy teachers with all kinds of endeavors, are nothing compared to the defamation caused by the messianist,” said Rabbi Cohen, shocking Chabadniks by comparing them to those who had turned in the previous Rebbe, Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, to the Communist authorities.
The response to Rabbi Cohen came about two weeks after the unity conference, when the messianists held their own conference at the Tel Aviv Culture Hall in honor of yud shevat, the date Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson became Lubavitcher Rebbe. A red velvet chair was left empty on the stage for the Rebbe, and one of the chassidim poured wine into the cup on the table. To judge according to human eyesight, the chair remained empty until the end of the conference.
Even the biggest messianists were well aware that they could not ignore Rabbi Cohen’s fighting words. “In recent days we heard what Rabbi Yoel Cohen said,” Rabbi Ginsberg began, “that, God forbid, our faith has no basis.” “The same Cohen who declared a year before gimmel tamuz (the date of the Rebbe’s death) that anyone who thinks, God forbid, that something will happen to the Rebbe should throw his tallis into the ocean. That anyone who thinks that the Rebbe, the King, the Messiah, can die should get up and leave. This is what I heard with my own ears and this is what others heard.” continued Rabbi Ginsberg, “He is the person who said that it isn’t so certain that the sun will rise tomorrow. But that our Rebbe will live forever—that is true. He screamed this from every possible pulpit.
The response at Tel Aviv Culture Hall (Photo: Nir Calderon)
“Suddenly gimmel tamuz came, and we stupid Jews believe that if the Rebbe says such and such a thing and the whole world is screaming the opposite, we remain true to our belief. We don’t know anything, we are nothing, but if the Rebbe says that he lives forever and will bring about redemption, we should believe that we will be redeemed in our body, truly.”
Yehuda (not his real name), a Chabadnik and expert in Chabad beliefs, was forced to admit that “Ginsberg is right. Rabbi Yoel Cohen said what he said. He is the one who established the messianic movement and was the first to cry, ‘Yechi Adoneinu,’ (Long live our Master.) He bequeathed this sentence to the entire world,” said Yehuda, nothing that Rabbi Cohen had taken back what he’d said several days after the Rebbe died. In an article published after the Rebbe’s death, Rabbi Cohen said, “We were mistaken in saying that one and one makes two.” Today he is the greatest opponent of Chabad’s messianist stream.
Rabbi Cohen explains the gap between his words at that time and his belief today by saying that “since the Rebbe’s life was a spiritual life you can’t see him, but by seeing the vitality that is affected by the general soul (of the Jewish people) on the ‘body,’ in this way it is compatible for us with the most complete certainty, as if we saw the Rebbe himself.”
Yehuda belongs to the anti-messianist faction of Chabad. When asked how he deals with the public’s confusion between the factions, he says that he has already taken the line that there are two groups. “They are a different faction and a different Chassidism. There are messianists and there is Chabad,” he explains.
So all attempts at unity have actually come to naught?
“What was it that someone said? Besides all the other problems we now have the problem of unity. Since they began talking about unity, the schism has grown wider.”