Forward.com

2007 Web Marketing Association Award

Lawsuit Over Chabad Building Puts Rebbe’s Living Legacy on Trial

The neo-Gothic brick building at 770 Eastern Parkway, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, has become the defining symbol of Chabad Lubavitch as the ultra-Orthodox movement has spread around the world with its philosophy of reaching out to all Jews.

The building was once the headquarters of the Hasidic movement’s grand rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who preached in the downstairs synagogue until his death in 1994. Today, though, the building is at the center of a sometimes violent schism between the rebbe’s followers.

In a lawsuit winding its way through New York Supreme Court, two groups of Chabad leaders are fighting for control of the synagogue in 770, which sprawls through the basement of the rebbe’s former residence and a building next door. This week, the judge in the suit decided that neither side had an open-and-shut argument, and so the case would go forward to a full-blown trial.

At stake is the ultra-Orthodox movement’s most famous synagogue. But the trial will also help decide the public face that Chabad presents to the world. In short, will this be a movement defined by a Messiah, or not?

On one side of the dispute are the tight-lipped global leaders of Chabad, who own the buildings above the synagogue and oversee the flow of Chabad rabbis to almost every corner of the earth. On the other side is a group of leaders elected from the local Chabad community of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, who say the movement’s global leaders are trying to publicly blur and deny what they describe as its doctrine about the late rebbe’s status as the messiah.

The roots of the lawsuit lie in a fracas over just this very matter back in 2004. In the middle of a November night, a band of rowdy youngsters tore out a plaque that had recently been installed at 770 by the global leaders of Chabad, who own the building. The youths were angered by the plaque because it referred to Schneerson with a Hebrew acronym used for dead people, which conflicted with the youngsters’ view that the rebbe is a still living messiah.

There probably would not have been a protracted lawsuit if it were not for the fact that the views of the young vandals coincided with the elected leaders, or gabbais, of the religious congregation in the basement of 770.

In his affidavit, the lead gabbai, Rabbi Zalman Lipskier, wrote that “the real issue in dispute involves conflicting views on how our faith views the passing of the Grand Rebbe Schneerson and whether or not at this time he may be referred to publicly as the Messiah.”

Lipskier and the other gabbais were chosen most recently in a 2005 election that was open to Lubavitch community members in Crown Heights. The gabbais have long been able to control discourse in the synagogue because they have run the day-to-day affairs in the downstairs area of the building. For the lawsuit, they have submitted documents showing that they pay the electric bills and also that they have paid for the entryway in which the offending plaque was installed.

In the wake of the plaque-stealing incident, however, the organization that owns the building, Agudas Chassidei Chabad, decided that no one else would dictate what happens on the organization’s property.

Arguing before the court, the organization’s lawyer, David Zaslowsky, said that “there should be little doubt that on the day we moved in back in 1940, if we wanted to put a plaque on that building we’d have the right to do that, and that plaque could say anything we wanted.”

A recent visit to the synagogue downstairs indicated the strong influence that the messianic gabbais have over the sanctuary. During the services, most worshippers joined in a spirited prayer that celebrated the rebbe as the messiah. On the northern wall of the sanctuary is a long banner that says “Live Our Master, Teacher, Rebbe King Moshiach Forever and Ever.”

“What does it mean, he is alive?” said Yitzhak Fuchs, a 47-year-old congregant who was standing outside in a worn suit.

“We learned the king messiah is not going to die. He is going to disappear, but he’s not dead,” said Fuchs, who, like many of the other worshippers, wore a small, yellow lapel pin with a crown and the word messiah in Hebrew.

The unanswered question at the core of the lawsuit is whether the global leadership of Chabad — men like Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky and Rabbi Yisroel Shemtov — actually disagree with Fuchs and the gabbais about the rebbe’s status as messiah.

A number of affidavits in the lawsuit assert that almost all Chabad leaders do privately believe that the rebbe was the messiah but have been afraid to talk about it publicly, for fear of scaring off the unaffiliated Jews who attend Chabad services around the world.

The head of Chabad in southern Ohio, Rabbi Sholom Kalmanson, gave an affidavit in which he argued that while most Lubavitchers believe that the rebbe is the messiah, “others believe that while the scenario is possible, it should not be a public position. A very small minority have abandoned the notion that the rebbe is Moshiach.”

Kalmanson is no longer recognized by the New York offices as an official representative of Chabad.

In the court case, the global leaders of Chabad avoid commenting on the messiah issue, and state that the matter to be settled is one of real estate and not religious dogma. But the court papers nonetheless record the back and forth on the issue.

One statement, signed by close to 250 Chabad rabbis, identifies the rebbe as the messiah. Another, signed in 1998 by eight of the most powerful Chabad rabbis, says that “the preoccupation with identifying the Rebbe as Moshiach is clearly contrary to the Rebbe’s wishes.”

David Berger, a rabbi and historian who has studied the question and been very critical of Lubavitch theology, said that neither side in the case would deny that the rebbe is the messiah. But he also noted that this does not mean there are not significant theological differences in the debate. According to Berger, there are strenuous disagreements within Chabad over whether the rebbe died to return in the future or just disappeared for a time.

In any case, Berger said, the top leaders in Chabad “don’t want it to be in the liturgy. They realize it’s very bad for the movement.”

In the basement at 770, the fervent messianists appear to be carrying the day for now. Despite repeated attempts to install a new plaque, the only sign of it today is a gap in the wall, with messy streaks of plaster. In the middle of the gap is a brown stone that was originally put there by the rebbe. As men walk into the synagogue at all hours, they touch the stone and kiss their fingers.

Fri. Mar 16, 2007


Post a Comment:
Your Name: (Required)
Your Email Address: (Required)

Remember this info
The Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, the Forward requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Comments

NLG said:

How very, very sad that these factions cannot find a way to resolve their dispute short of litigation in open, secular court. I cannot imagine the Rebbe would have approved of something like this at all.

Wed. Mar 14, 2007

YOCHANON FELKER said:

THE LATE RABBI MUST BE TURNING OVER IN HIS GRAVE & WONDERING WHAT KIND OF MESHUGGANAHS HE LEFT BEHIND THAT THEY MOCK HIS MEMORY BY ACTING IN THIS MANNER.THEY SHOULD GO TO THEIR STUDIES & END THIS DISGRACEFUL BEHAVIOR.

Wed. Mar 14, 2007

Jack said:

Forward loves these stories, chabad is the biggest and largest and strongest Jewish org in the world! like it or not, yes a few crazy people...

Wed. Mar 14, 2007

Joseph said:

B"H.... People are still talking,doing and searching.So, who's gone?

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

Eli said:

"I cannot imagine the Rebbe would have approved of something like this at all.”

This is incorrect. In fact, the Rebbe himself initiated litigation in several instances, when the future of the movement, its possesions (including the 770 building) and principles were at stake. The Rebbe not only "would have" litigated this topic, but he actually did. And he won, on this very topic -- which is why the Lubavitch movement will win once again.

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

Bill Lipton said:

Is this the way to respect and honor one who is believed to be a messiah?

Shame on those who removed the plaque -- and on any who would support their actions. The status of the physical has nothing to do with the spiritual ... the body is where and what it is and the tense, term, for it is dead.

Now decide on the spiritual -- these "people" have insulted, hav e through their actions rejected, the very premise \of their prtestations. What are they ??? Goyim!

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

mike said:

well i am one of those that will stay away from the mechugahs. I am the moshey not the Rebbi.

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

Howard said:

The Dead Rebbe

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

mw said:

The Rebbe pushed us to do more -- no matter how well we did.

Let's get to work, and stop the BS.

As Ambassador Ayalon said, when the Messiah comes back, we'll ask him if it's the first or second time.

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

Daniel said:

On what grounds can we conclude the Rebbe is the Messiah? Where is the evidence? Have not the Jewish people been through enough of these "messiahs" before? It seems to me that if you are still waiting for Messiah Menachem Mendel Schneerson to return, you are no better than the Christians who are waiting for their Messiah Jesus to return.

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

Avi said:

The key to the success of Chabad is that they feed Jews for free. Simple, but effective. The fact that they are a bunch of blaspheming ignorant people who dress similar to Ultra Orthodox Jews only worries a few people. Who cares today that history is repeating itself? The fact that they are taking over the Jewish world by corruption or by force (see the Chief Rabbinate in the FSU) and that they are unchallenged theologically shows how lacking in any sort of historical perspective and knowlege we all are. In the past, my ancestors died rather than accepting false messiahs.

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

LF said:

Unfortunately its for an unpleasant reasen,but the fact of the matter is that due to this article we are talking about Moshiach.Therefore let us all resolve to heed the Rebbes call and add in goodness and kindness to ready ourselves and the world to greet Moshiach.

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

jlb11230 said:

It seems to me that you can't have it both ways. Either the rebbe is dead, the way of all flesh, in which case he is not Moshiach, or he is alive, in which case he satisfies the definition of a Shoteh, one who is deranged. One of the Talmudical definitions of a Shoteh is a person who sleeps in a cemetary. It seems to me that this is the equivalent of a lose-lose situation.

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

Mark Zanger said:

In the end, a messiah is someone who unifies. The late Rebbe had a great vision of unifying the Jewish people, but he has left a deeply divisive dispute. I think it was the duty of the Rebbe to provide for succession, and to leave a clear message about the dangers of worshipping a physical person. This failure should not obscure many positive things that he did, but it has to be acknowledged as the cause of the dispute described, as a potential embarassment for all the Jewish people, as a divisive point in the Jewish community at large, not just the Chabad movement. No real messiah would cause such a problem. I hope we can all find a way to revere the legacy of this great Hassid without making more divisions among the Jews.

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

Jacob Switzer said:

An old joke: What religion is closest to Judaism? Answer: Lubavitch

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

Chofetz Cgaim said:

Query: If one Comments on this article, is he or she guilty of Loshon Hora (if the rebbe is still alive) or just bad taste?

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

Moshe Davids said:

Rav David Bar Hayim has long warned of the theological dangers in Habad. His shiurim can be heard at www.machonshilo.org

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

Yaakov said:

i defenitly think this falls int he category of loshon harah. talking about it and spreading it is surely loshon harah against an entire group of Jewish people.

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

Sam said:

how was the article published on Friday March 16 if it's still Thursday March 15? maybe the rest of the article is false as well?

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

Mike said:

I can not believe that Jews will take this to non Jewish court in American.

Maybe they can ask for a court in Iran.

Up to them

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

David Sternlight said:

Clearly the matter of the identity of Moshiach is a matter of belief, not proof. One cannot "prove" something from ambiguous texts subject to alternative interpretations. As Jews who do not believe in the divinity of another's Messiah, we should be particularly sensitive to this point.

Since it is a matter of belief, no court is going near that issue. Instead, as we see, it is strictly a case of property law.

Thus everyone (including but not limited to the Forward) should cool it and let the process unwind, reporting only factually as court events transpire. Gratuitously publishing conflicting opinions is not only old news, but also serves only to inflame. Let's keep ahavas yisroel constantly in mind.

Thu. Mar 15, 2007

Joseph Matheson said:

Dan the Ma accuses the Forward of bismirching his sect. But his sect need no bismirching. It has self bismirched itself. I find the article quite respectful and objective. But hey, many of yours are not comfortable looking in the mirror. Much of what would seem to be offending you and yours, is in the readers comments and has nothing to do with the Forward. But your comment itself, doesn't come across as too nice. Face it your movement has eggs all over it's face, and you can neither go about your business as if all is honky dory. Until your movement recognises it's shortcomings in humility and publicly, until your Rabbis as for forgiveness from those they misled, you have no business in being educators.

Fri. Mar 16, 2007

richard rafael said:

regardless of which of the two warring sides wins, one must view the entire lubavitcher movement and its terribly annoying prostyletizers with great suspicion. sure they rescue aimless, directtionless jews from total alienation from the jewish people. here in pittsburgh, they are without a doubt the biggest brown nosers of local politicians. their opportunism is so transparent that its embarrassing. also, they are bankrolled by a few "hozeri b'tchuvah" while most of the lubavitch community here is poor and in great need of something more than a spritual boost. it would be very nice indeed, if this movement kept itself out of the headlines and away from politicains and photo-ops, and devoted more time to caring for the poor in this community. without the required "conversion"

Fri. Mar 16, 2007

aleph said:

The late Rebbe allowed a cult to form over his personality and charisma just like many Hindu gurus whose followers have pictures in their houses to worship, adore and remind them of their leader. It is a sad state; as if as Jews we are stupid enough to constantly reenact the golden calf and adoration of Moses dilemma. The difference in this case is that while we do not know if Moses’s leadership is to blame at Mount Sinai it is fair to assume that the late Rebbe succumbed to self aggrandizement and egotism to the extent that his belief in himself exceed his love for his followers and fellow Jews. It is hard to accept the Lubavitch, they seem to be a weird sub-cult run by stupidity.

Fri. Mar 16, 2007

Daniel said:

I think it is entirely appropriate to talk about this matter openly. What is there to hide? Some want to hush-hush the whole thing - sweep it under the rug. But a real live Messiah whose body lies in a grave is worthy of discussion, don't you all think?

But I have a couple questions, excuse my ignorance please.

1. Did the late Lubavitcher Rebbe ever claim himself to be the Messiah?

2. The Chabad Rabbis who believe him to be the Messiah must have their reasons, right? I was just wondering if anyone knew what their reasons are? Is it just because he preached a vision of unity? There has to be more, no?

There will be no Messiah to miraculously cause all peoples to live in peace and harmony. I believe it is up to us to bring about this peace. If that's what you mean by "bringing the Messiah", then what do we need him for? At least we don't need any more fake Messiahs.

Just do what we ought to do. What more do we need. The Torah is in our ears already. Is not that enough? If we can't repair the world with THE TORAH we already have, what good is the Messiah?

Fri. Mar 16, 2007

Barry said:

If we were to regard everyone as though they were the Messiah, looking for a gentle word or an outstretched arm, then if they were not to reveal themselves in our time, it will not have mattered.

Sat. Mar 17, 2007

Joseph Matheson said:

Aidel Daniel asked, 1. Did the late Lubavitcher Rebbe ever claim himself to be the Messiah? May be yes maybe not, but he was recorded on camera more than once encouraging enthusiastic singers singing yechi for him smiling broadly thru his beard as they went. He also hinted broadly, many times that salvation is at hand and he was waiting for them to do their bit.

2. The Chabad Rabbis who believe him to be the Messiah must have their reasons, right? I was just wondering if anyone knew what their reasons are? Is it just because he preached a vision of unity? There has to be more, no?

Their stated reasons are puerile at best. In vulgar language it's the equivalent of saying that he was the greatest thing since sliced bread (or earlier). He is the greatest, he is a prophet who foresaw everything, created the state of israel and is (not was cholileh) responsible for it's security. There is a website called rebbegod.com or thereabout. He was greater than Moses (who sinned and was punished. That one, never sinned, there u go!) Don't we all have our reasons for many things?

Sat. Mar 17, 2007

Joseph Matheson said:

convenient follies gleaned from the various comments: “How very, very sad that ..... I cannot imagine the Rebbe would have approved of something like this at all.” says nlg, what would indicate that we are looking at a small trivial dispute. however, what is @ stake here is the jewish faith no less, as misrepresented by both parties of the dispute. as to the rebbe disapproving, it was his megalomania that created this mess. Jack tells us “Forward loves these stories, chabad is the biggest and largest and strongest Jewish org in the world! like it or not, yes a few crazy people...” them? jewish? the largest? if that is true, we are better off all converting to zoroastrian hottentots that would have more -ruchnius- don't you think jack? what few crazy u are talking about? 3/4 of crown heights? tzfat-qabbala town- and kfar chabad?

“....Therefore let us all resolve to heed the Rebbes call and add in goodness and kindness to ready ourselves and the world to greet Moshiach.” LF tells us.

Trouble with MMS, is that his goodness was no goodness, his kindness was no kindness, he was unfortunately a megalomaniac fetishist. chotei umakhtee et harabbim. his sect messitim umedichim et yisroel. until such time that the portraits are removed from their synagogues and they refrain from peddling the MMS and kabbalah, they are bechezkat akkum lekhol davar shebikdusha.

Mark Zanger said: “In the end, a messiah is someone who unifies. The late Rebbe had a great vision of unifying the Jewish people, but he has left a deeply divisive dispute. I think it was the duty of the Rebbe to provide for succession, ..." His great vision, was nothing but the hallucination of one with superiority complex. He couldn't have provided for successors as he believed himself the ultimate redeemer

Sat. Mar 17, 2007

Martin said:

The last Lubavitcher Rabbi was one of the giants of the last generation, in leadership and wisdom. Unfortunately, he though of himself as Messiah, but not because of megalomania. I believe that he based it on the writings of his father-in-law, the previous Rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Yitchok.

The last two Lubavitcher Rabbis have led Chabad down the wrong path. One wonders what the great Rabbis of Lubavitch of previous generations are thinking about what happened to their great movement, if they do indeed know what's happening on this world.

Sun. Mar 18, 2007

Martin said:

The last Lubavitcher Rabbi was one of the giants of the last generation, in leadership and wisdom. Unfortunately, he though of himself as Messiah, but not because of megalomania. I believe that he based it on the writings of his father-in-law, the previous Rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Yitchok.

The last two Lubavitcher Rabbis have led Chabad down the wrong path. One wonders what the great Rabbis of Lubavitch of previous generations are thinking about what happened to their great movement, if they do indeed know what's happening on this world.

Sun. Mar 18, 2007

molly said:

is this really true really a pity

Sun. Mar 18, 2007

Max Kohanzad said:

Please replace 'neo-Gothic' with 'Mock Tudor'!

Sun. Mar 18, 2007

MF said:

In his autobiography the rebbi is asked whether or not the Moshiach will be Hasidim or Misnagdim, and to his followers surprise he says Misnagdim. When they ask why he simply explains that the Misnagdim will only accept one of their own, whereas the Hasidim will be more open minded. Of course he was a Hasid. Case closed.

Tue. Mar 20, 2007

Joseph Weiss said:

Yes it is true that there are rifts etc. and other disturbing stuff that seem to place a cloud over the great contribution Chabad has in the world.

Say what you want. Many people I come accross have been affected positively by the Rebbe's followers around the world. Few can compare to the selfless love that they express to fellow Jews. There is much misconception about who they are and what they stand for. I will always hold them in complete respect for all the good they contribute to the Torah world and for Jews all over.

Wed. Mar 21, 2007

Daniel said:

Joseph Weiss, I agree with that. I respect the Chabad movement also. I just am reluctant to get too close because of this very issue. I am sure that I am not the only one who feels this way. With so much potential to draw Jews from all over the world to a lifestyle in-line with Torah teachings, this issue about the late Rebbe is a repellent. It's like putting water on the fire you are trying to start. That's the real pity I think.

Thu. Mar 22, 2007

John Baskind said:

How can anyone hold this nonsense to be real. The Rebbe, very publicly, died and was buried, despite the all-night carousal at his grave that very evening. To suggest that he is either living or Moshiach is an absurdity that only serves to show the depth of the connection which Hasidism has with Catholicism.

We have always suffered from a glut of false Messiahs and the people whose desperation or unfulfilled fantasies urge them to follow. The Rebbe himself said nothing on this issue and perhaps should have.

I had the greatest respect for the Rebbe, and followed him for a time--a time that would been longer if not for this Messianic nonsense, which bears no relation to Judaism in any way.

...which begs the question of whether the Messianic faction --or, G-d forbid, the entire movement of Chabad Lubavitch--has lost its way and is no longer Jewish.

Historically we have had this difficulty before, when Rome decided to turn the historical Jesus into a god and ram that down our tribal throats.

As Yochanon Felker says below, they should go to their studies. At least, do as the Bratslavers do, and follow the Rebbe as the last in the line of Rebbes of Lubavitch.

Fri. Mar 23, 2007