JWR Tales of the World Wild Web
February 19, 1998 / 23 Shevat, 5758

The "Messiah Wars" heat up
Online gets out-of-line

By Binyamin L. Jolkovsky

A Chasidic Rebbe from Borough Park, Brooklyn, says he's beginning to feel Bill Clinton's pain.

Controversial rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, the Liozna Rebbe, claims to have been the victim of character assassination via the Internet. According to a message circulated by anonymous e-mail on several continents, the Chasidic leader, who heads a breakaway anti-Messianic faction of the Lubavitcher Chasidim and serves as an executive at Manhattan's J&R Music World mega-store, was arrested this week after being suspected of embezzling from his employer and for "producing and distributing counterfeit ten-dollar bills."

Though the report was supposedly released by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which serves as the primary Jewish news service for the English-speaking world, officials at the wire service called it a "forgery" and "terrible hoax."

Reached at his J&R offices yesterday, Rabbi Deutsch told JWR: "I never thought that due to my position as a truth-seeker, I'd be made to defend myself against bizarre allegations." He added that he's "beginning to understand what President Clinton must feel like, having continuously to defend himself from a barrage of allegations."

"We're very concerned about this forgery of a JTA story," said the wire service's executive editor and publisher, Mark J. Joffie. "It's clearly a violation of our name and copyright and we're looking into ways of preventing similar situations from arising in the future."

But, he added, "at this point in time, there is absolutely no way to prevent the circulation of even legitimate JTA stories. The technology simply doesn't exist."

A spokesman for the FBI confirmed to JWR that the agency has begun an investigation of the matter.

However, a spokesman for the Lubavitch movement, Zalman Schmotkin, declined to discuss Rabbi Deutsch or the forged report of his arrest. He would also not comment on the harassment the rabbi says he has been subjected to by members of the movement ever since being crowned Liozna Rebbe in 1995.

Liozna is the White Russian town where the Lubavitch movement, also known as Chabad, was born. Rabbi Deutsch, who claims a few hundred followers, told JWR that he took the title because he "wanted to return adherents" of the late Lubavitcher leader, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, "to their mainstream roots" and away from the belief that their departed rabbi will arise from the dead and proclaim himself the Messiah.

Belief in a resurrected Messiah is not accepted in normative Judaism.

Rabbi Deutsch told JWR that he is "certain beyond any doubt" that his frequent denunciations of the "deifying" of the late leader of the Lubavitch movement are the cause of his troubles.

Despite public denials by Lubavitch leaders that the movement doesn't endorse a belief that its late leader is the Messiah, a recent visit to the movement's Crown Heights headquarters revealed a large banner in its main sanctuary proclaiming him the Anointed One. According to a high-ranking member of the Lubavitch community, children attending the movement's educational institutions are encouraged to consider their late beloved leader the Messiah.

And in editions of publications affiliated with some factions of the movement, articles end with the proclamation that their late leader is boreinu, or "our Creator."

Rabbi Deutsch first became embroiled in controversy as the author of an unauthorized multi-volume biography of the Lubavitcher leader, Larger Than Life, which disputes the notion that Rabbi Schneerson was the Messiah. The series was banned by the Rabbinical Court of Crown Heights before its release. Critics of the book take aim at the tome's scholarship, which they've called "shoddy." They also question Rabbi Deutsch's motivation for writing the series.

When he became unable to take his message -- that while the Lubavitcher leader was "a great man, he wasn't and isn't the Messiah" -- to the residents of Crown Heights via his books, Rabbi Deutsch began broadcasting on Saturday nights on the nationally syndicated Talkline Communications Network.

Shortly thereafter, Talkline's president, Zev Brenner, reported receiving harassing phone calls at his home at all hours of the day and night. A tape of some of the calls to Mr. Brenner was obtained by JWR.

When Mr. Brenner asked callers how they had obtained his home phone number, he said, Lubavitcher children, some of whom peppered their calls with profanity, told him that they received it on flyers at school that were distributed by teachers.

Shortly thereafter, the Rebbe was off the air.

When JWR tried reaching the email's original sender -- at nxrprim@cityline.ru -- we received a response wishing us, among other things, a "HAPPY PURIM!!!"

The upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim is traditionally associated with pranks and tricks.

JWR has learned that the anonymous prankster has apologized to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the Lubavitch movement. He did not, however, apologize to Rabbi Deutsch.

However, Rabbi Deutsch, who once accepted police protection after receiving around-the-clock death threats, is wary of the implication that the post was merely a Purim prank.

The "ru" suffix in the prankster's e-mail address identifies the account as originating on a server based in Russia, where a large number of English-speaking Lubavitcher representatives live, the cyber-savvy Rebbe observes. He adds that:"In today's day and age, it's very easy to create aliases and then forward e-mail from one account to another without anyone being the wiser." Thus, a Russian-based account could be used by anyone anywhere.

The Talmud compares one who engages in gossip and slander, who speaks loshon hora, to an individual who opens a feather-pillow in the wind and scatters its contents. Both, say Judaism's sages, are virtually impossible to ever rectify.

The Internet, argues Rabbi Deutsch, "is all the more worse. Feathers, at least in theory, can be gathered. Not so e-mail. One never knows where an e-mail `post' may wind up. It could be in any corner of the world. Worse, without the slightest bit of hyperbole, it's impossible to stop its duplication and distribution."

Binyamin L. Jolkovsky is the editor-in-chief of JWR.


For different viewpoints on the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Messiahhood, see Beis Moshiach Online (for) and Moshiach and the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l (against).

© 1998, Jewish World Review