“Onward, Schneersonian Soldiers”

In 1974, a new apparition began to make its appearance in the streets of Manhattan. Even in that hubbub of crowd and clamor, this strange vehicle attracted attention.

It was a standard van of the “U-Haul” or “Ryder” variety. Its back door was rolled up, showing a cargo of one large wooden table, two wooden benches, and a dozen young men with beards and black hats. From a loudspeaker taped to its roof issued forth a medley of Chassidic songs played on high volume—that is, high enough to make itself heard above the din of a Manhattan street corner. Large posters taped to the sides of the moving van proclaimed: “MITZVAH TANK”, “Teffilin on board” and “Mitzvot On The Spot For People On The Go.”

The article History of the Mitzvah Tank on Chabad.org goes on to explain that the late “Rebbe,” Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had “sent his tanks into the battle for the soul of the American Jew.”

These Mitzvah Tanks, sponsored by a small branch of Judaism called Chabad Lubavitch, have been on the streets of New York and many other large American cities ever since then, as well as in Israel. After Schneerson’s death in 1991, they have been remodeled at times to do double duty as Messiah Mobiles. For pics of this incarnation, see the previous article in this blog series, Messianic Jews—Without Jesus.

For many of Schneerson’s followers, who were suspicious before his death that he might be the promised Messiah (Moschiach in Hebrew) to come, became absolutely convinced after his death that he was … no, IS … indeed the Messiah. Some believe he didn’t really die, but was just “hidden from view” until it is time for him to be revealed in his King Messiah role. Others believe he did die, but will soon be resurrected to take up his crown. And some even believe that he is, in some sense, so close to God now that he has become a version of God himself, being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.

Having been in his “spiritual army” for years promoting his Mitzvah Tanks and related ideas, they have now added being the emissaries of King Messiah.

But let’s go back to the original Tank maneuvers first, as described on Chabad.org:

If a large part of American Jewry had ceased to come to shul [synagogue] each morning to don tefilIin [see picture at left] and pray, the Rebbe was going to bring the tefillin to them. He was going to send one of his students to stop the American Jew on a city sidewalk. “Excuse me, sir,” the lad would say. “Are you Jewish?” If the answer is affirmative, the young man would continue: “Would you like to put on tefillin today? It’s a mitzvah.” The American Jew will be invited to step up onto the truck, roll up his left sleeve, bind the tefillin to his arm and head and recite a short prayer.

If the American Jew is a she, she would be offered a free kit containing a small tin candlestick, a candle, and a brochure with all the information necessary to light Shabbat Candles that Friday evening—the proper time (18 minutes before sunset), the blessings in Hebrew and English, and a short message on the importance of ushering Shabbat into her home. He or she would also be offered literature on the Rebbe’s other “mitzvah campaigns” or assistance in anything from having a mezuzah checked to finding Jewish school for their child.

Eventually, the Ryder vans were replaced with mobile homes equipped with shelves for books and comfortable seating for a quick discussion or even an impromptu class. But the concept remained the same: Go out there and get a Jew to do a mitzvah. “Mitzvah” means “commandment.” A mitzvah is one of the 613 divine instructions to the Jew contained in the Torah. The word also means “connection”: a deed that connects the human being who performs it with G-d, who commanded it.

Before the Rebbe’s “mitzvah campaign”, the mitzvah was a private deed, performed by the “religious” Jew at home or in the synagogue. So it was only natural that the Rebbe’s approach raised many an eyebrow: “Tefillin on a hippie?” “What’s the point of doing one mitzvah on the way to lunch in a non-kosher restaurant?” Mitzvot were seen as the details that made up a religious Jew’s lifestyle—pointless when not part of the whole package.

The Rebbe saw things differently. As a connection between man and G-d, as a bridge between Creator and creation, a mitzvah is a deed of cosmic significance, a deed of infinite value unto itself. Citing Maimonides, the Rebbe repeated time and again: a single person performing a single mitzvah, could be the deed that tips the scales and brings redemption to the entire world and all of creation.

And of course, redemption of the entire world is another phrase for “the coming of the Messiah” to set up his kingdom.

(Note the comment on this poster: “Long live the Rebbe, King Moshiach forever.”)

 To understand a bit more about how Chabad, a small branch of Judaism, ended up making the amazing claim that their late leader is actually the Living Messiah of the whole world, we need to explore their history a little. First you need to know about Hasidism. This word comes from a Jewish word that means, essentially, “piety,” or “loving kindness.” The Jewish Virtual Library defines this Jewish movement this way:

 The Hasidic movement started in the 1700’s (CE) in Eastern Europe in response to a void felt by many average observant Jews of the day. The founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (referred to as the “Besht,” an acronym of his name) was a great scholar and mystic, devoted to both the revealed, outer aspect, and hidden, inner aspect of Torah. He and his followers, without veering from a commitment to Torah, created a way of Jewish life that emphasized the ability of all Jews to grow closer to G­d via everything that we do, say, and think. In contrast to the somewhat intellectual style of the mainstream Jewish leaders of his day and their emphasis on the primacy of Torah study, the Besht emphasized a constant focus on attachment to G­d and Torah no matter what one is involved with.

…Today, Hasidim are differentiated from other Orthodox Jews by their devotion to a dynastic leader (referred to as a “Rebbe”), their wearing of distinctive clothing and a greater than average study of the inner aspects of Torah.

…There are perhaps a dozen major Hasidic movements today, the largest of which (with perhaps 100,000 followers) is the Lubavitch group headquartered in Brooklyn, NY.

Out of this movement in the 1700s came several branches. One of them was the Chabad-Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews:

 What is Chabad? Chabad-Lubavitch is a large movement of Hasidic Jews that originated in the Belarus town of Lubavitch in the late 18th century. “Chabad” is a Hebrew acronym that means wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Often called just Chabad or Lubavitch, the movement is based in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and is known for its aggressive outreach, a campaign waged by young couples dispatched around the world as emissaries or shlichim. There are more than 4,000 emissary families worldwide, working in places as unlikely as the Congo. The organization estimates that nearly 1 million children attend Chabad schools, camps and holiday programs.

The first Chabad-Lubavitch rebbe was Shneur Zalman. The movement was centered in Lubavitch from its beginnings until the early 20th century. The persecution of Jews leading up to World War 2 led to the sixth rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, escaping to America and setting up a new world headquarters for the group in Brooklyn.

Schneersohn had no sons from which to pick a successor to his dynasty. At his death in January 1950, it was obvious that one of his two sons-in-law would inherit his role as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In January 1951, his son-in-law Menachem Mendel Schneerson accepted pressure from many of the members of the movement to assume the leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch group. Here are Schneersohn and Schneerson in the 1940s.

For the next forty years, until a stroke slowed him down in 1992, followed by his death in 1994, Schneerson’s leadership and many projects changed the face of Lubavitch from an obscure sect of Judaism to one of the most influential and widely-known Jewish groups in the world.  And … perhaps the most controversial—especially since the move by many within its ranks to widely and publicly promote the Messianic claims for Schneerson after his death.  Its influence far outreaches the number of its dedicated adherents.  One estimate of its financial clout is that it is a “billion dollar” movement.

A 2010 article titled “American Messiah” put it this way:

 Lubavitchers make up about one quarter of 1 percent of the world Jewish population. Yet it would be hard to find an engaged Jew, of any denomination or none, who does not have an opinion about Chabad, usually a strong one. Many admire Chabad for its institution-building, the devotion and selflessness of its emissaries, and its bold representation of Judaism in the public square—whenever a huge menorah is illuminated somewhere, from Washington to Moscow, it is usually a Lubavitcher who built it. That is why so many Jews who are not Orthodox, and sometimes not even particularly observant, praise Chabad and help to fund its activities.

Or as the Wiki article on Chabad noted in a more earthy and poignant way about its wide influence:

One of the great figures of Israeli Orthodoxy, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman is reputed to have said:

 “I have found two things in every city I have visited, Coca-Cola and Lubavitcher Hasidim.”

But the claims by many Lubavitcher’s that Messiah has come doesn’t mean that his coming has brought “peace on earth” just yet … even within the Chabad movement. Not only do many Jews from other branches of Judaism vehemently reject the messianic claims for Schneerson, but the claims have split the “Chabadniks” themselves into two warring camps. An article titled “The Lubavicther Rebbe as god” noted:

… The voice of moderates who believe the Rebbe is in fact dead (though most of this group still adhere to his belief of his ultimate resurrection and coronation as messiah) is increasingly cowed, with violent brawls breaking out and spilling on the streets on a regular basis leading to scores of hospitalizations and arrests.

One Israeli media article described an incident in 2007 when the “messianic” faction and the “anti-messianic” faction of the organization both decided to hold conferences at the same time at the headquarters in Brooklyn:

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.

This, along with the Mitzvah Tanks and Schneerson’s military metaphors for ministry, leads me consider a twist on an old Christian hymn…

“Onward Schneersonian soldiers, marching as to war.”

But actually I can’t imagine that the Rebbe himself would ever have condoned the fisticuffs! What’s wrong with this picture? (Not that it is a whole lot different from similar brouhahas that have broken out in “Christian” settings throughout history right up to the present between opposing factions over doctrinal or procedural matters! I’m pretty sure that Jesus wouldn’t condone most of what goes on “in His name” at rancorous church meetings all the time either!)

What is it about the Schneerson messianic claims that has led to this unusual state of affairs? Stay tuned for details in the next Wild World of Religion blog entry.

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