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Graying of the prophets
Religions confront aging patriarchies

For only the 13th time in its history, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prepared last week to pass its mantle of leadership to a new president—although not to a new generation.  As mourners filled the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City to bid farewell to Ezra Taft Benson, who died at the age of 94, there was no sign of turmoil and little suspense over who would be the next official "prophet, seer and revelator" of the 8.7-million member Mormon Church.  Next in line for the post is Howard W. Hunter, 86, a former corporate attorney and the most senior member of the church's Council of the Twelve Apostles.

Yet concern over Hunter's age and health is prompting some church members to wonder aloud whether the gerontocracy at the top of the Mormon hierarchy is leading the church into troubled theological waters.  Benson bad been in failing health for some time and, according to insiders, had spent his last years under 24-hour care, unable to speak or perform most official duties.  The incoming leader has already suffered a heart attack and a crippling nervous disorder.  "Mormons believe God runs the church and that the president is his voice," says Elbert Peck, editor of the independent Mormon journal Sunstone.  "What are we to believe when his voice is incapacitated?"

The Mormons are not alone in this dilemma.  It is a concern shared by other religious groups that have built gerontocracy into their laws only to find mortality encroaching on faith in divinely anointed leaders.

Brooklyn vigil.  Rabbi Schneerson is hovering near death.  But messiahs cannot die.

Nearly a continent away from Utah, the 92-year-old Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, spiritual leader of a worldwide movement of Hasidic Jews, lies near death in a Brooklyn, N.Y., hospital room.  His failing health poses a profound challenge to the hopes of his devoted followers, many of whom are convinced he is their long-awaited messiah.

The ailing rabbi is the last in a line of grand rebbes of Lubavitch, a movement that began in the 1700s in what is now Belarus.  As its spiritual and intellectual leader for more than 40 years, Schneerson helped turn a small group of Holocaust survivors into the largest Hasidic sect in the world.  Since the mid-1970s, messianic speculation among his followers has focused increasingly on Schneerson himself, even though the rabbi has never publicly claimed the title.  They have waged an international publicity campaign urging Jews to welcome Schneerson as their "King Moshiach," or messiah.  Two strokes since 1992 have left him paralyzed and unable to speak.

Devoted followers must sometimes perform intellectual acrobatics to deal with troubling theological contradictions.  Despite Schneerson's grave condition, for example, his followers insist they do not even consider the possibility of his death.  "We refuse to accept that notion," says Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky, spokesman for the group.  Alternatively, says Zatman Shmotkin, another Lubavitch spokesman, whether or not Schneerson is the messiah, "we believe he will be with us until the moshiach comes.  Then everyone lives forever."

While Schneerson's death might be unfathomable to his followers, Jewish leaders outside the movement are seriously weighing the repercussions.  Some worry that the rabbi's death will cause such anguish among his followers that many will require psychological care.  Others suggest it will set off a theological debate that could easily split the movement.  Allan Nadler, research director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan, suggests some Lubavitchers will argue that Schneerson was "a potential messiah, and that he didn't declare himself because the world wasn't ready." Others might insist that the rabbi was indeed the messiah and "develop their own theology of a second coming or a resurrection."

Along the watchtower. Yet another crisis of theological proportions looms for the Jehovah's Witnesses, an American-born millennialist sect known for its fervent door-to-door preaching.  Its governing body-now down to just 11 men, all in their 70s and 80s- is part of a dwindling generation that according to the faith's teaching will live to see the apocalyptic "end of the age." As time continues to thin the leadership ranks of the 4.4 million-member denomination, scholars say they expect to see shifts in official teachings and reinterpretations of its end-of-the-world prophecies.

Officially known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the Jehovah's Witnesses was founded in Pennsylvania in 1872 by a disillusioned Presbyterian named Charles Taze Russell.  Based on complex biblical calculations, Russell predicted the second coming of Jesus Christ would occur in 1914 and that 144,000 witnesses, mentioned in the Book of Revelation, would be called to reign in heaven as "kings and priests" over a new Kingdom of God on Earth.  Many others would be saved and live forever in the earthly kingdom.

But when 1914 passed, it was explained that Christ had returned invisibly and had begun a countdown to the end of the world.  Pointing to a passage in the gospel of Matthew, the group's leaders declared that the generation alive in 1914 would "not pass away" before the end events occurred.  Merton Campbell, a spokesman for the Watchtower Society, says he "wouldn't want to speculate" on what will happen if that generation dies out.  But with that generation now in its 80s, further reinterpretations are all but certain.  "They'll have to make some kind of change," says Raymond Franz, a former governing-board member.  "It's becoming absolutely untenable."

Whatever the change, it will take some adjustment and may cause confusion and even discouragement among some of the faithful.  But as the Mormons, the Lubavitchers and others are discovering, coming to grips with mortality is never easy—especially, perhaps, when it comes to the anointed. §


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