Was the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson the Messiah? Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, former director of Chabad of Marin County, says it doesn't matter.
"It's a nonissue, whether he's Moshiach [the Messiah]," Dalfin says. "His accomplishment was to have people study Moshiach and act Moshiach-like."
Dalfin, now a Los Angeles-based author and lecturer who has followed and observed Schneerson for 25 years, discusses the Rebbe-Moshiach question with 14 leading Jewish figures in his new book, "Conversations with the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson."
Among other issues, the author and his interviewees address the worldwide influence of Schneerson, the Chabad Lubavitch movement's seventh leader. They also debate whether a rational person can accept that the rebbe was, and perhaps still is, the Messiah.
Dalfin, who is now director of the Jewish Enrichment Center of Los Angeles, spent a year traveling in America and Israel talking to such prominent Jews as Yeshiva University president Norman Lamm, novelist Chaim Potok and former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.
All of the interviewees met or were affected by the rebbe, and they offer a broad range of voices from the Chassidic, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform perspectives.
The book was released June 20, marking the second anniversary of Schneerson's death, on June 12, 1994.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, notes that Schneerson may in fact have foretold the death of Hoenlein's father. But mostly Hoenlein discusses Schneerson himself, and how the rebbe figured into Hoenlein's work bridging divisions within the Jewish community.
Some of the interviewees did not always agree with Schneerson.
"From the point of view of his fundamentalism, of certain stands he took politically, especially vis-à-vis Israel, he almost succeeded in splitting the Jewish people," Potok told the author.
"So you have this balancing act, and you have to be very honest about the good and the not-so-good."
But Potok, who has written about the conflict between modernity and Orthodoxy, and about young men who left Chassidism to pursue secular ambitions, acknowledges that Schneerson is a charismatic leader who made a worldwide impact.
Shoshana Cardin, chair of the United Israel Appeal and national vice chair of the United Jewish Appeal, tells of arguing with Schneerson and his followers over whether the Israeli government should recognize only those Jewish converts whose conversion was made according to halachah (Jewish law).
But she also speaks of Schneerson's warmth and of his accomplishments. Cardin was Schneerson's emissary in the Maryland area, and stood up for Chabad during strife between African Americans and Chassidim in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn.
Though Lamm is not a Chabadnik, he calls Schneerson "preeminently the most distinguished, most important Jewish manhig [leader] in my lifetime and probably in the last century."
Recalling that Schneerson was the spiritual leader of the movement to retain territories Israel won in the Six Day War, Shamir explains how he benefited politically from the rebbe's system of worldwide contacts and emissaries.
But perhaps the best gauge of how far Schneerson's voice reached comes in a story about Potok's daughter.
Traveling in Ireland, she met someone who, upon learning that she came from the East Coast of the United States, promptly asked if she knew a man named Schneerson.