While the 89-year-old Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson convalesces in his Brooklyn home after a stroke he suffered March 2, his followers around the world are praying for his recovery and pondering the future of the movement he has headed for more than 40 years.
Known as Chabad Lubavitch, the movement has stirred admiration from many outside its fold who credit it with helping bring secular Jews back to a knowledge and appreciation of their religious heritage. In New York and other major cities, young men in the Lubavitcher movement drive through neighborhoods in vans known as "mitzvah tanks," distributing information on Judaism and demonstrating Jewish rituals. Mitzvah is the Hebrew word for good deeds.
The Hasidim--the Hebrew word for "pious ones"--dress in the traditional Hasidic style: black suits and black flat-topped felt hats. Beards and curled sideburns are other hallmarks of their appearance.
Whatever admiration the movement has drawn has been more than offset by strong criticism from liberal Jews who charge that Schneerson has manipulated his followers in an effort to make ultra-Orthodox Judaism a dominant political force in Israel.
Schneerson has never set foot inside the Jewish state. This has been another source of controversy, as is the belief among many of his followers that he is the Messiah--a belief that Schneerson has declined to address in public.
The Lubavitcher movement is one of several movements of Hasidic Judaism, a branch of the faith that emphasizes emotional experience and joyful worship in contrast to other branches of Judaism, which tend to focus on the intellectual component of faith. Hasidic Jews also stress the role of the rebbe , a single spiritual leader who presides over others in the movement. In general, Judaism is egalitarian in its approach to religious leadership. But to Hasidic Jews, a rebbe is a man whose unique qualities enable him to come closer to God than other people and enable him to act as a mediator between God and the believer.
Hasidic Judaism originated as a mystical revival movement in southeastern Poland in the 18th Century by Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer, also known as the Baal Shem Tov--Master of the Good Name--who was regarded as a miracle worker. The movement was an emotional lifeboat for Jews suffering from poverty and persecution. Many were also recovering from bitter religious disillusionment after an experience with a man known as Shabbethai Tzvi, whom they had come to regard as a false Messiah.
Baal Shem Tov wrote no books but simply practiced his message: that devotion, zeal and heartfelt prayers are more important to God than learning. Underlying Hasidic thought is the concept of the world found in the Kabbala, the mystical writings of Judaism that began to appear around the 12th Century and are enjoying a revival today. In particular, Hasids were drawn toward the writings of Isaac Luria of Galilee. His teaching--that devotion could lead a mystic away from the material world toward reunification with God--appealed to Jews in stressful situations.
The Lubavitcher movement was founded by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of the Russian village of Lyady in the 18th Century. Its other name--Chabad--is an acronym for the Hebrew words for wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Schneerson is a descendant of Zalman and the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe.
Born in the Russian village of Nikolaev, Schneerson was a child prodigy. In 1929 he married Haya Mushkah Schneerson, daughter of then- Rebbe Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, in Warsaw. He studied engineering at the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne in Paris.
In 1941, Schneerson followed his father-in-law to the United States and succeeded him as Lubavitcher rebbe upon his death in 1950. Since then, Schneerson has been spiritual leader of a movement that claims more than 100,000 followers in Israel and another 150,000 in the rest of the world.
Years ago, when asked why he had never visited the Jewish state, Schneerson said: "My place is where my words are likely to be obeyed." In the United States, he said, "I am listened to, but in the land of Israel I won't be heard. There, our youth will follow only somebody who has sprung up from its own ranks and speaks its own language."
One of the most outspoken Israeli critics of the movement is Rabbi Eliezer Shach, the head of a yeshiva movement from Lithuania who has denounced Schneerson as a false Messiah.
As Schneerson's health falters, his followers in Israel are circulating petitions urging him to reveal himself as the Messiah and erecting billboards calling on the Lubavitcher faithful to "prepare for the coming of the Messiah." In response, Schach recently told his own followers: "Woe is to a moschiach who needs petitions and street advertising." Moschiach is the Hebrew term for Messiah.