NEW YORK — DID a tiny, 88-year-old man, who hasn't left Brooklyn for 40 years and never speaks on the phone, sabotage the Israeli Labor Party's hopes of forming a government? It is a tantalizing question, considering the deadlock between the two biggest parties - Labor and Likud - that allows a small minority to decide who governs Israel.
A longtime debate over the transatlantic influence of the man in Brooklyn, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, spiritual leader of the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect, flared anew in April. Labor was all set to present a new coalition government after years of sharing power with the right-wing Likud party. At the last moment, two members of the religious Agudat Israel party pulled out, dashing the hopes of Labor leader Shimon Peres.
The two who changed their minds are followers of Rabbi Schneerson - known as ``the rebbe.'' They withdrew after learning he opposed Labor's stance favoring talks with the Palestinians to swap land for peace.
Rabbi Schneerson refuses to grant interviews. But his aide and confidant, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, says one of the two Knesset members simply called and asked if the rabbi had changed his position on trading land for peace, and was told that he had not.
Critics within the Jewish community are disturbed about Rabbi Schneerson's role in Israeli politics and assert that a rabbi has no place dictating secular events.
``His influence is not much beyond those few Knesset members,'' says Rabbi Alexander Schindler, leader of the 1.3 million-member Reform Judaism movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations. ``But those four or five votes make the difference.''
Rabbi Schindler says the Lubavitch power comes more from public-relations prowess than from broad-based support. ``It's like a tin drum - it makes a lot of noise, but it doesn't have a lot of substance,'' he says. ``They have 100 ways of letting the Israeli government know what they want, [such as] maintaining two paid lobbyists at the Knesset.''
This is not the first time Rabbi Schneerson has played a decisive role in Israeli politics. In the final two weeks of the September 1988 election campaign, a weakened Agudat Israel party turned to the rebbe for support. With his endorsement they won an unexpected five seats in the Knesset.
``He's always accused of meddling,'' Rabbi Krinsky says. ``If there is one organization in the world that has a right to meddle in Israel, it is Lubavitch.'' He points to the 344 Lubavitch-run schools, hospitals, and other centers in Israel, the large numbers who emigrated to Israel at the rebbe's urging, and the willingness of Lubavitchers to serve in the Israeli Army, despite their exemption from the draft.
Hasidism, which began in 18th-century Russia, is an adaptation of traditional Jewish Orthodoxy that emphasizes joy in religious devotion and a constant, direct union with God.
The Lubavitch are the largest and most active of a half dozen Hasidic sects based in New York. Shunning many modern influences, including television, they favor religious study and observance. Even their dress - long beards, black coats and hats for the men - is symbolic of a dedication to traditional values. ``The proof is in the pudding,'' Rabbi Krinsky says, pointing to their close-knit families and low divorce rate.
Lubavitch's total membership probably does not exceed 100,000, a small number compared with other Jewish movements. But few are as dedicated as Rabbi Schneerson's followers, who come by the thousands on Sunday afternoons for a moment with the great leader.
``They come from all over the world just for a little eye contact,'' Rabbi Krinsky says. The rebbe gives each visitor a few words of advice along with a one-dollar bill, symbolic of charity - a tenet of Judaism. Rabbi Schneerson's portrait adorns Lubavitch homes, and in Israel, many a tank driver is known to have gone into battle with a picture of the rebbe watching over him.
Some Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Schindler, consider the devotion to Rabbi Schneerson ``cult-like.'' Yaakov Elman, who teaches at the orthodox Yeshiva University in New York, says Lubavitchers are not brainwashed, but expresses concern over their total subservience to the rebbe.
Rabbi Krinsky says just the opposite is true. ``There is no blind obedience. The rebbe says to use your own initiative, your own intellect,'' he says.
Enthusiastic Lubavitchers actively seek to proselytize the millions of nonobservant Jews. ``They will literally go to the ends of the earth for him,'' Dr. Elman says.
``We try to keep the embers of Judaism burning,'' Krinsky says. Lubavitch run extensive charitable operations, including renowned drug rehabilitation programs. They claim to have 1,000 institutions around the world, from Budapest to Bombay.
Reformist Jews like Rabbi Schindler are quick to praise Lubavitch for these programs. But they say it is wrong for any religious group to foist its political views on nonfollowers. ``When they invoke the name of God,'' Schindler says, ``I say, `Maybe God doesn't know anything about the Panama Canal treaties.'''
``Should clerics mix in politics?'' asks Elman. ``It's done all the time in the Middle East. Maybe that's part of the problem there.''