Tears flow as the Second Coming is postponed

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The Independent Online
IN THE SMALL village of Kfar Chabad, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, a house built for a Messiah stood abandoned yesterday.

The Brooklyn-style 'brownstone' erected two years ago is a replica of Rebbe Menachem Schneerson's home in Crown Heights, New York. It was supposed to have housed the rebbe when he made his return to Israel as the Messiah.

Yesterday, the news broke that the Messiah would not be coming after all. Schneerson was dead. In the lobby of the Kfar Chabad house, tearful followers grappled with the fact that their leader would never climb the stone staircase or browse in the overflowing bookshelves which had been prepared for his arrival.

Many, even now, refused to accept that their leader had been proved mortal after all. 'It's not over. He can still come back as the Messiah.

'Exactly how or when, we don't know, but it could be any minute now - who knows?' said Ari Shishlav, a Lubavitcher follower.

In recent years, Schneerson's name has become associated with an extraordinary outburst of Messianic fervour, which he encouraged among his followers, who believed he would bring about the redemption foretold in the Bible. Children of Lubavitcher followers often sleep with their best set of clothes by their beds, should they need to meet the Messiah in the morning.

The rebbe's death has put paid to this illusion. Any suggestion that the Messiah can rise from the dead is contrary to Jewish doctrine. 'In my view he was ruled out as a Messiah as soon as he had a stroke,' says David Landau, author of Piety and Power, a recent book on the ultra-Orthodox. 'Messiahs don't have strokes.'

The often farcical Messianism of the Lubavitcher sect, however, should not obscure the significance of Schneerson, described by many experts as the most important figure in Orthodox Judaism since the Holocaust. Rebbe Schneerson's extraordinary talent for 'outreach' - what some would call public relations - is credited with bringing about the revival of Jewish orthodoxy.

Paradoxically, though Schneerson was himself a recluse, he always courted controversy and the limelight, not least by meddling in Israeli politics. Always a strong advocate of 'greater Israel', he was notorious for blocking an attempt by Israel's Labour party to form a government in 1990 by ordering two of his followers in the Israeli parliament to vote with the Likud.

More recently his followers were often to be found at Jewish settler rallies, blasting their 'Messiah, Messiah, Messiah' disco- jingles from loudspeakers and selling Messiah stickers.

Rebbe Schneerson's more recent suggestions that he was the Messiah incurred the wrath of his chief rival in ultra-Orthodox power-broking, 96-year-old Rebbe Eliezar Schach, who has accused Schneerson of building up false hopes.

When Schneerson's followers recently produced bumper- stickers saying 'Prepare for the Messiah', Rebbe Schach's men produced another saying, 'Prepare for the false Messiah'.

(Photograph omitted)