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Response to David Singer

David Berger

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Dr. David Berger responds to criticism in an article that appeared on the First Things website and reprinted on OrthodoxyToday.org.

When I wrote The Rebbe the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, I expected enthusiastic approval along with a torrent of denunciation, and these expectations have been duly confirmed. Nonetheless, I was somewhat surprised by the tone of David Singer's essay ("The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Heresy Hunter" [May]), which attributes to me bitterness, rage, barely controlled hysteria, egotism, absurdity and nonsense, all in the service of my aspiration to emulate Torquemada.

Regrettably, Mr. Singer misrepresents or virtually ignores key contentions of the book. Thus, the position he labels absurdity and nonsense is one that I never affirmed, namely, my alleged "claim that the Lubavitcher messianists have had a major impact on the larger Jewish community," which he understands as the acceptance of the Rebbe's Messiahship by significant numbers of non-Lubavitch Jews. Such a contention would indeed be nonsense. Singer asserts that I finally acknowledge on the last page of the book that "most Orthodox Jews still adhere" to the traditional messianic faith, when this assertion already appears on p. 2 (referring there to "the vast majority"). My real point, made clearly on those two pages and repeated throughout the book, is not that non-Lubavitch Jews believe that the Rebbe is the Messiah but that the recognition of believers as Orthodox rabbis establishes that belief as a legitimate option within Orthodoxy. It is this recognition that makes the last decade a watershed in the history of the Jewish religion, wiping out a fundamental distinction between Judaism and Christianity.

Not once in his essay does Singer provide a clear statement of this point, which is the central contention of the entire book. After he has exposed my absurd, nonsensical "stand[ing of] reality on its head" as I conjure up "an all-powerful enemy," he finally turns to my indictment of Orthodox Jewry for indifference and notes my assertion that this indifference has led to a situation in which "the messianic faith of Judaism is dying." But he gives no indication of what I mean by this, continuing to leave the reader with the impression that I imagine that such inaction has led to the spread of this belief throughout the Orthodox community. He goes on to call me as a witness against myself by quoting a paragraph from the book in which I list examples of the delegitimation of Lubavitch messianism by mainstream Jews; he does not, however, acknowledge the overwhelming evidence alluded to in the very next paragraph and throughout the book that these examples do not reflect the dominant reality, which grants Orthodox recognition to Lubavitch messianists all over the world. When he proceeds to note my position that messianists should be removed from positions of religious authority, he presents this as a "witch hunt" without supplying the slightest indication of the argument for it.

Let me elaborate just a bit on that argument. Jews through the ages have declared to Christian polemicists and missionaries that Judaism rejects on principle the position that the Messiah will die in the midst of his uncompleted redemptive mission. Rather, they have argued, Judaism has a set of clear criteria that a claimant must meet in order to be identified confidently as the Messiah. Anyone who denies these propositions, they have insisted, has rejected Judaism.

Now, however, a Christian can approach David Singer and ask how it is that people who openly proclaim their denial of these same propositions are accepted as synagogue rabbis, members and even heads of rabbinic courts, supervisors of kosher food, and principals of yeshivas both inside and outside Lubavitch. After rereading his article in First Things and realizing that not a single word of it is responsive to this question, he would have to reply either that such acceptance is a terrible mistake and needs to be reversed (thereby endorsing my core argument) or that belief in the Messiahship of the deceased Rebbe does not in fact contradict a fundamental Jewish tenet (thereby contributing further to the deformation of his religion).

I am not certain whether the messianists' abolition of the parameters of a basic Jewish belief while adhering to the belief itself is technically heresy, but I do know that appointing those who abolish such parameters as Orthodox rabbis betrays Judaism. In this context, I note Singer's unfortunate assertion that I call the believers vile heretics. The word heresy does not appear in the book until p. 145, where we find the following: "The messianist belief in itself, with its abolition of Judaism's criteria for identifying the Messiah, is seen by some as heresy. I have studiously avoided that term, though I do not quarrel with those who use it." I made the same point parenthetically in an article on a different theme; since Singer quotes a passage from that article, he is doubly aware of his "heresy hunter"'s avoidance of the term heretic (let alone vile heretic) to describe the messianists.

Another central point that goes unremarked in the article except for its appearance in one sentence of a footnote reproduced from the book is my contention that no Jewish source whatever allows for the belief that the true Messiah will unequivocally proclaim the coming of the redemption in his generation, preside over a messianic movement, and then die in an unredeemed world. This is what Jews have always seen as false Messianism pure and simple. The Rebbe, whatever his ambivalence or inconsistencies, unquestionably did all this, and so the issue of a few sources that may countenance the notion of a Messiah from the dead is ultimately irrelevant. Singer would have wanted me to ignore the Lubavitch prooftexts entirely, a procedure that would have left me open to the just criticism that I denounce an entire movement without even engaging its arguments.

We turn now to another fundamental issue that Singer does not address at all. In his second paragraph he notes that some Lubavitch hasidim regard the Rebbe as "a divine being," and he later approvingly quotes a taxonomy of Lubavitch beliefs from the book that includes this doctrine. But when he reports that I "make four assertions in [the] book," this one, to which I devote three chapters and two appendixes, is not even listed. Since Singer does not contest the existence of this belief among important figures in the movement, his failure to deal with it at all is puzzling. I am tempted to say that this is a conscious omission motivated by his realization that he could not address the matter while maintaining the thesis of his article, since he could hardly assert that people who consider the Rebbe an omniscient, omnipotent, and unlimited God-man should be allowed to serve as Orthodox rabbis. My instinct, however, is a more generous one. I believe that such doctrines strike Jews as so alien that even when they read the evidence they cannot quite internalize it, and so they continue to react as if it did not exist. Regrettably, it does, and so even incarnationism threatens to become a belief that does not exclude a Jew from Orthodoxy. Here again-even more dramatically-the theological boundaries between Judaism and Christianity are being erased.

Since I made a point of underscoring the emotional/psychological and intellectual difficulties preventing messianists from abandoning their faith (pp. 25, 123-125, 140), I do not know what to make of Singer's criticism that I have no sympathy for their plight. He goes on to attribute this alleged lack of sympathy to my "remarkable" conviction, demonstrated by a quotation from an unrelated article describing my own religious struggles as a teenager, that a person can coerce himself into proper religious belief. Has Singer, who is himself Orthodox, never been beset by any religious doubts, and if he has, was the course of his inner odyssey entirely unaffected by what he knew Orthodox Jews are supposed to believe?

And so we come to my Torquemada-like "witch hunt." All religions, certainly all Orthodoxies, have boundaries. We are faced with a situation in which someone changes a fundamental component of a religion and then demands to be recognized as a religious leader or functionary in that religion. It appears to be Singer's position that the canons of tolerance require adherents of the religion to accept this demand. Thus, a person can hijack your religion, and if you dare to object, you are Torquemada.

Let me provide a concrete example of the regrettable need to ask questions of Lubavitch hasidim.

A Lubavitch principal was hired by a non-Lubavitch day school in a fairly small Jewish community. After approximately two years, when he had solidified his popularity among members of the board, he began to send his son to school with a skullcap emblazoned with the slogan proclaiming the Rebbe's Messiahship. The rabbi of the community had to engage in a prolonged and very difficult struggle to arrange the principal's departure, one that he had no guarantee of winning. Does Singer regard such a principal as an acceptable role model for Orthodox children? Were he a member of the board, would he have denounced the rabbi as Torquemada redivivus?Finally we reach Singer's concluding point about the usefulness of false messianism as a symptom and even inspiration of religious vigor. Surprisingly, I wrote one sentence in the book that comes close to endorsing this position, to wit, "I even agree that the Messiah campaign has had a salutary effect in enhancing awareness and understanding of the messianic faith" (p. 50). But it should be self-evident that religious vigor manifested in a manner that shatters the fundamental beliefs of a religion cannot convey a right to be seen as a legitimate exemplar of the religion in question.

We confront a fascinating phenomenon of central importance to the internal definition of the Jewish faith and to its historic relationship with Christianity. For countless generations, there was a religion called Judaism where it was understood that anyone pressured to declare belief in a fully divine Messiah who died in the middle of his messianic mission was obligated to die rather than acquiesce. Many did die; some killed themselves and even their children. But today one who makes this very declaration is considered an Orthodox rabbi in perfectly good standing, eligible to preside over a rabbinic court, to teach in a yeshiva receiving support from mainstream Orthodoxy, and to serve as a scribe or ritual slaughterer. When a religion moves from requiring martyrdom rather than declaring x to recognizing one who declares x as a religious authority, that religion has undergone a fateful transformation.

Several Christian theologians and scholars who have read my book have been struck by the potentially monumental significance of this development. Casual observers instinctively see this as the eccentric doctrine of a small sect, but as they ponder the matter they will, I think, recognize that we are dealing with a striking moment in religious history. Orthodox Jews must struggle, in my view, to render this moment as insignificant as possible. I am hopeful, but I am not sanguine.

David Berger is the Broeklundian Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate CenterCity University of New York

This response will appear on the First Things website. Reprinted with permission of the author.


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Copyright 2001-2014 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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