In what may yet come to be regarded as the heyday of the Lubavitcher hasidim's outreach program, Jewish youngsters during the 1970s descended on Brooklyn's Crown Heights district nearly every weekend to spend the Sabbath with the followers of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Other hasidic groups (particularly the Satmar of Brooklyn's Borough Park) did not hold with such practices, finding something unseemly in opening their homes to the worldly, uninformed, and essentially nonbelieving. But the Lubavitcher hasidim prided themselves on their hospitality, openness, and-perhaps most of all-their tireless efforts to nudge a generation of lost Jewish souls toward spiritual return. Indeed, their rebbe had made such efforts a matter of official policy.
In their pursuit of lost souls, the Lubavitchers embraced the technology rejected by other essentially separatist religious communities: the Satmar hasidim, the Roman Catholic monasteries, or the Old Order Amish. With telephones, faxes, videotapes, computers, elaborate “Mitzvah Mobiles” (the sound trucks that traversed Manhattan to encourage nonpracticing Jews to join them in obligatory daily prayers), and even a worldwide radio network, the Lubavitchers spread the word. Since the death of the Rebbe on June 12, 1994, however, the Lubavitchers have put this technology to a new use-promoting the words, stories, and even images of the late Rebbe in a way that brings to mind certain parallels with the “dead hasidim” who continued to follow Nachman of Bratzlav after his death in 1810, and that has made it nearly impossible for the Lubavitchers to choose a successor to their rebbe.
Perhaps nothing characterizes day-to-day life among the Lubavitcher hasidim more than enthusiastic optimism. They go about their tasks with an unwavering confidence that the rebbe is a tzaddik (a saint), and that he is simultaneously their guide and protector. Stories about his powers are traded as eagerly as small boys swap baseball cards, all of which is to say that a hasid (literally, a pious one) is principally defined by his all-encompassing discipleship to a rebbe.
The Jewish youngsters who descended in crowds on Crown Heights to hear and see the Rebbe often asked what would happen when he died, for they knew that he was childless and that no successor was being groomed. What they didn't know, however, was how upsetting (to say nothing of inappropriate) such inquiries seemed to the Lubavitchers. To imagine life without the Rebbe was tantamount to heresy. Sometimes an official spokesman would remind the crowd that the span of a Jewish life was traditionally calculated at 120 years, and reassure the students that the Rebbe possessed enormous vigor. And, indeed, his vigor was impossible to discount as he led his hasidim into frenzies of song and dance during the gatherings that were the high point of every student visitation. In the summer of 1994, however, following a series of strokes that left Schneerson largely incapacitated, the Lubavitcher movement had to face the unthinkable head-on.
As Nachman of Bratzlav felt himself slipping into the arms of death, he turned to his anxious disciples and said, “My light will glow till the days of the Messiah.” They took his remark to mean that there was no need to find another spiritual leader to replace him, and in the 185 years since his death, the Bratzlaver hasidim have continued rebbe-less. They speak of Nachman in the present tense and reread his thirteen stories from one generation to the next. In the ultra-Orthodox quarter of Jerusalem's Mea Shearim, one can find Rebbe Nachman's intricately carved chair-broken into small pieces, smuggled over the Russian border, and then patiently reassembled-prominently displayed in the chief Bratzlaver synagogue where his stories are read each Sabbath morning.
Nachman's tales provide what is arguably the most intriguing literature produced by a hasidic tradition that has valued the use of story as a way of appealing to the Jewish masses ever since the days of the Baal Shem Tov, hasidim's founding spirit. Nachman, the Baal Shem's grandson, perfected this storytelling-as-preaching into a high art-one recognized as such by Martin Buber and many others. But the very idea of a hasid without a rebbe is odd in the hasidic world where one's devotion to a spiritual leader is the defining difference between ultra-Orthodoxy and “mere” Orthodoxy. A hasid who cannot have an “aloneness” (y'chetus) with his rebbe-where the petitioner seeks council, advice, and most of all, blessings-is an anomaly within the hasidic world. Small wonder, then, that the Bratzlavers are known as the “dead hasidim” and that their very movement seems so paradoxical.
One might rightly argue that the living presence of a rebbe is not required if one has recourse to his continuing instruction, but this is an intellectual argument; hasidic life relies, first and foremost, on the palpable interactions that bind troubled souls to the higher powers incarnate in the rebbe. The Bratzlavers are an apparent hasidic contradiction of hasidic life.
Imagine how the Bratzlavers might have developed had there been camcorders and videotape during the days of Nachman, and you will have some idea of what the future of Lubavitcher hasidism might look like. For if it is true that Chabad (as the movement is widely known) relies on technology to spread its message as well as to keep effective track of its worldwide organization, it is even truer that the words, and image, of the Rebbe have always been at the very center of their elaborate technological web. Generally speaking, hasidim do not much approve of photographs. But it is hard, probably impossible, to find a Lubavitch household that does not have a painting or photograph of the Rebbe on prominent display.
And that, as they say, is merely the tip of the iceberg. Virtually every official pronouncement the Rebbe uttered has been meticulously preserved-sometimes on videotape or audiocassette. The many sermons (sometimes lasting for as long as four hours) that he delivered on the Sabbath, when recording and even writing are not permitted, were captured by the remarkable efforts of a member of the Rebbe's court, Yoel Kahn, who painstakingly memorized every sentence, every paragraph, and then later reproduced a full text for the Rebbe's approval. Skeptics may have their doubts about the accuracy of such an enterprise, but as the hasidim like to put it, if there is such a thing as a photographic memory, why not an audiographic one? Besides, what matters is that these archives-accurate or not-will become an enduring legacy and an abiding presence.
Just recently, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the Rebbe's longtime aide, spokesman, and executor of his will, announced the discovery of three handwritten notebooks from the Rebbe's early years in Warsaw, Paris, and Nice-random thoughts covering everything from issues in Jewish literature and customs to mathematics and medicine. They are, in Krinsky's words, “a treasure of incalculable value,” for they will help to fill in the lineaments of the Rebbe's complicated portrait.
Of even wider significance may be the publication of Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson by a mainstream publisher (Morrow) who plans aggressive marketing of the Rebbe's thoughts to three very different audiences: the Lubavitcher community (numbered conservatively at two hundred thousand), the wider Jewish community, and a growing American readership hungry for inspiration.
In short, if the thirteen stories of Nachman have been sufficient to hold his legacy intact for nearly two centuries, there is every reason to believe that an analogous situation will apply to the Lubavitcher hasidim as their now badly shaken movement enters the twenty-first century. One sign of the shape such a future might take could be seen in the gathering of Lubavitcher hasidim on the occasion of the first anniversary of their rebbe's death. Many steadfastly refused to use the traditional word, yahrzeit, for such a remembrance, preferring to call June 12, 1994, “the event”; nor would they, like the dead hasidim of a bygone age, talk about Rebbe Schneerson in the past tense. For them, he remains a living presence, one whose pronouncements will be as palpable and awe-inspiring in the future as they were in the past.
In the headquarters of the Lubavitcher movement at 770 Eastern Parkway, the small room that once served as the Rebbe's office has been preserved, less as a relic (although outsiders will surely see it as precisely that) than as a living vessel for his legacy. Here, one can see the intricately carved, velvet-coverd chair on which he sat as well as other intimate reminders of his earthly presence. During the anniversary mourning period, prominent Lubavitcher families were allowed to spend a few precious moments in a simulated “aloneness” with their spiritual leader. In such an atmosphere of profound grief, mixed as it must be with confusion, doubt, and an insistence that the Rebbe has, or will somehow, cheat death, there is no talk about a successor. Who, after all, could bind together such a large, far-flung movement, much less presume to replace the Rebbe in the hearts and souls of his hasidim?
Nonetheless, thorny matters persist, and none more unsettling than whether or not Menachem Mendel Schneerson is the Messiah. Even the Rebbe's calculated interference with Israeli elections (he sent over planeloads of hasidim who hold dual-citizenship with instructions to vote for candidates from the religious right) was not as distressing to mainstream Jews as were the banners and postcards, chants and dancing devoted to the proposition, “Long live our master, teacher, and rebbe, King Messiah, forever and ever.”
Mainstream Judaism continues to believe in a generalized Messianic spirit, but also remembers a string of false messiahs (Sabbetai Zevi, who converted to Islam in 1666 rather than be executed, is perhaps the most notable example) and the catastrophes they occasioned. For many non-hasidic Jews, the fervor that swirled around the Rebbe during his last days was embarrassing-not only because it seemed so excessive, but also because it struck them as much more Christological than authentically Jewish. Many conservatively inclined Lubavitchers (including Rabbi Krinsky, the movement's chief administrator) did what they could to dampen the ecstasy that a handful of fervent Messianists tried to unleash.
If there is little doubt that the future of Chabad lies in cyberspace, it is less clear about which rebbe will be called up on the Internet. Some continue to insist that he is, then and now, nothing less than the Messiah, while others hope that the movement will eventually return to its roots in hasidic tradition and teaching. This much is clear: Rabbi Schneerson never claimed to be the Messiah. In fact, when Lubavitchers in Israel first published pamphlets announcing the claim, he ordered the entire batch destroyed. But the notion continued to resurface, and when one of the Rebbe's strokes left him without the ability to speak, the Messianic die was effectively cast. Every nod of his head, every glance of his eye, was interpreted as another sign that the longed-for Messianic age was just around the corner.
The question that visitors to Crown Heights posed, the question of what will happen after the Rebbe's death, has not yet been answered. And the ongoing debate may yet splinter the Lubavitch world. But it is more likely that hasidim will keep faith with their fallen leader, poring over his writing and watching his transfixing face beaming back at them from their VCRs.
Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College and Executive Editor of Academic Questions, a publication of the National Association of Scholars. He spent the 1970-71 academic year in Crown Heights on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.