In a major blow to a decade-long campaign to play down divisions within the Chabad-Lubavitch ultra-Orthodox movement, the sect’s Israeli leadership appears ready to publicly distance itself from a significant messianic strand within the movement.
The unexpected development has been forced on the Chabad leadership by a spreading tide of anger toward the movement this week, after a rabbi from the messianic strand declared that, were Israel properly run, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would be “hanged from the gallows.”
Rabbi Shalom Dov Wolpe, a Chabad educator and author, launched into a tirade about Israel’s negotiations with Palestinians at the conference of a right-wing organization he runs, S.O.S. Israel.
“The terrible traitor, Ehud Olmert, who gives these Nazis weapons, who gives money, who frees their murderous terrorists, this man, like Ariel Sharon, collaborates with the Nazis,” Wolpe said on Wednesday, January 2, in remarks that were shown on Israeli television news.
A Chabad spokesman in Israel, Moni Ender, lashed out at Wolpe for his comments.
“This is not Lubavitch. Rabbi Wolpe is talking by himself. We have nothing to do with him. He makes dirt for Chabad,” Ender said.
Wolpe is the most popular leader of the messianic strand of Chabad, which holds that the 1994 death of the Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson did not challenge the belief held in parts of the sect that he was the messiah. Wolpe was the first rabbi to go public with this position in 1994. A conflict has festered since then between followers of this belief and others, who present themselves as the mainstream and who reject such overt messianic claims.
Leaders on both sides have struggled to honor a ruling of a Brooklyn-based rabbinical court, issued immediately after the rebbe’s death, that said the movement should not split in two and the factions should not publicly undermine each other. This week, though, Ender told the Forward that Wolpe’s comments are doing such damage to the sect’s reputation that it could become necessary to publicly declare that the messianists cannot act or speak on its behalf.
“If we are needed to make it black and white we are different to [the messianists],” Ender added. “We never talk about politics. If necessary, I will do that.”
Some Chabad leaders in America also directed strong words at Wolpe. Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the Chabad representative in Washington, told the Forward that Wolpe’s comments “contravene the most basic tenets of Chabad philosophy” and are “beyond the pale of what the rebbe would tolerate.”
Mainstream Chabad newsletters did not reference the matter.
Wolpe’s outburst is so problematic because incitement to violence by rabbis has become the ultimate taboo, since rabbinical injunctions were blamed for inspiring Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin in 1995.
In the past, mainstream Chabad leaders have been on the right side of the political spectrum in Israel. During the 1990s, a number of leading Chabad rabbis in Israel were involved in the opposition to the Oslo peace process.
During that time, one messianist rabbi, Yitzhak Ginsburgh, was put in administrative detention for incitement to violence. But at that time, few observers connected Ginsburgh to the Chabad movement.
This time around, the backlash to Wolpe’s comments is taking on Chabad more generally, even resulting in calls to stop it from engaging in its trademark task — taking Judaism to secular Jews. Meretz party Knesset member Chaim Oron has urged the Knesset to issue a blanket ban on all Chabad activists from Israeli army bases. Other politicians have also responded angrily.
Chabad occupies a privileged position among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox groups, being the only major Hasidic group whose members serve in the army. Its rabbis are also regarded as informal chaplains.
It is the threat to this activity that could force Chabad to declare the messianists separate from the movement, Ender said. The sect would “prefer to get to every soldier and every Jew wherever they are, rather than pay the price of Rabbi Wolpe’s comments.”
In America, Shemtov said that Chabad would not comment on whether it would back such a move “unless or until such a situation arises.” He did say that as a rule, Chabad headquarters back Israel: “In general, when the Chabad rabbinate in Israel makes a decision, you don’t find opposition to them in America or around the world. They have a force of authority.”
Wolpe went beyond criticism of Olmert. He claimed that if justice were done, Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak would hang, as well as Olmert. In an interview with the Forward last Tuesday, Wolpe stood by his comments, adding that they were an acceptable way to “show how far [Olmert] has gone.”
The determination of Wolpe and other messianists to make political statements is integrally connected to their belief that the rebbe is the messiah. Working from statements that Schneerson made, opposing land for peace and calling for expansionist policies for Israel, the messianists have tended to promote hard-line right-wing positions.
As to the heat he is feeling from other Chabad leaders, Wolpe said: “What is embarrassing Chabad is that we don’t do anything to stop the Holocaust Olmert is bringing to Israel. What are they doing?”
Statements of condemnation have come from American Jewish organizations, including the Orthodox Union, which has been critical of the Olmert government but said the comments were “beyond the pale of legitimate democratic protest and have no basis in Jewish law or hashkafa (philosophy).”