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The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Heresy Hunter

David Singer

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The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference
David Berger
Littman Library, 195 pp.

David Berger would seem an unlikely candidate for the role of heresy hunter. A mild-mannered professor of Jewish history at Brooklyn College and Yeshiva University, he has been a liberal advocate of tolerant pluralism within the ranks of Orthodox Judaism and a willing participant in theological dialogue with Christians. But in his recent book The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (2001), he has emerged as a would-be Torquemada on the Orthodox scene, demanding a policy of "intolerance" and "exclusion" toward those he deems to be heretical to Orthodoxy.

What has driven Berger to outrage--and what commends the interest even of those outside the world of Orthodox Judaism--are the messianic claims emanating from sectors of the Lubavitcher (also called "Chabad") movement of hasidic Jews. In a public campaign, groups of Lubavitcher hasidim have declared that their leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson--affectionately known as "the Rebbe"--is the long-awaited messiah of the Jewish people--and this despite the fact that Rabbi Schneerson died in June 1994. Some of the messianists allow that Rabbi Schneerson died, but insist that he will return from the grave to complete his messianic mission; others go further, claiming that the Rebbe is in fact alive; while still others contend that Rabbi Schneerson is not only the messiah, but a divine being. In all of this, the Christian motifs are obvious--and that is precisely what enrages Berger. He excoriates the Lubavitcher messianists as vile heretics, accusing them of undermining classic Jewish teaching about the messiah and facilitating Christian missionizing of the Jews. Berger simply refuses to accept hasidim who champion what he bitterly terms a "kosher-style Second Coming."

The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference is Berger's report from the front lines of his war against the Lubavitcher messianists. The tone of the book is one of barely controlled hysteria, reflecting Berger's sense that he is all alone, fighting a rear-guard action against a large and powerful enemy. Berger retains a "slender thread of hope that it is not too late," but he clearly expects the worst in his struggle with the messianists. Indeed, much of the book reads as if the struggle has already been lost. It is no accident that the last page of the book carries the title "Epitaph," and begins with the sentence: "The classical messianic faith of Judaism is dying." In his introduction, Berger states categorically that for "much of Orthodox Jewry, the classic boundaries of the messianic faith of Israel are no more"; still further, he observes that "virtually all Orthodox Jews [today] belong to a profoundly different religion from the one they adhered to in 1993."

Presented with such sweeping assertions about a group normally categorized as "ultra-Orthodox," we must raise a series of pointed questions: Are a majority of Lubavitcher hasidim in the messianist camp? Have the Lubavitcher messianists dramatically altered perspectives in the larger Orthodox community? Does the evidence truly point to a "scandal of Orthodox indifference?" And, most importantly, do the Lubavitcher messianists really have nothing worthwhile to teach Jews today?

As a trained historian, Berger could be expected to open up broad vistas on the Lubavitcher movement. In fact, however, his analysis is narrow in the extreme. The Lubavitcher messianists do not just occupy center stage in The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, they occupy the whole stage. Reading Berger's book, one would hardly know that the Lubavitcher brand of hasidism has a rich and fascinating history spanning more than two centuries. Berger does not mention the Tanya, a masterwork of Jewish mysticism written by Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of the Lubavitcher movement. Moreover, he passes over the role of dynastic succession in Lubavitch, which produced six outstanding leaders prior to the Rebbe. Even the hallmark missionary zeal of the Lubavitchers, which has made them familiar figures in far-flung Jewish communities, receives only passing reference. All in all, Berger's relentless focus on the messianist doings of the last several years produces a cartoon version of Lubavitcher history.

To gain an overview of the Lubavitcher movement we must look elsewhere. Menachem Friedman's brilliant essay "Chabad as Messianic Fundamentalism" is quite useful in this regard. (The essay can be found in Accounting for Fundamentalism [1994], University of Chicago Press, Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds.) The essay was written when Rabbi Schneerson was still alive but had suffered a stroke (this occurred in March 1993; the Rebbe died fifteen months later) that left him partially paralyzed and incapable of speech. For the Lubavitcher hasidim, this was a terrible time of testing, but for Friedman, as a sociologist of religion, it was an ideal moment to take the measure of Lubavitch. Friedman understood that, with Rabbi Schneerson near death, the Lubavitcher movement had reached a decisive turning point in its history. Friedman went so far as to express doubt that the Lubavitcher movement could "continue to exist without the bonding cement of the Rebbe." If Lubavitch did survive, Friedman confidently asserted, it would be as an "entirely different sect."

The Lubavitcher dynasty was founded by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady in the second half of the eighteenth century. From the very outset Lubavitch was characterized by a powerful sense of mission, a feeling engendered by Zalman's uphill struggle to advance the hasidic cause in his home base of White Russia. This region was a stronghold of the mitnagdim--rabbinic opponents of hasidism--and they actively conspired to have the Lubavitcher leader jailed by the Czarist police in 1798. Down to today, Lubavitcher hasidim tell and retell the story of the incarceration and release of Shneur Zalman, seeing in it proof positive of the need for constant struggle in spreading the message of Chabad. Thanks to Zalman's pioneering efforts, Friedman observes, "the concept of mission [became] a permanent factor in Chabad consciousness and practice."

Like other hasidic groups--Satmar, Belz, etc.--the Lubavitchers carry the name of the city--Lubavitch--that became the "capital" of their sect. But the Lubavitcher movement is also known by a second name--Chabad--that is derived from Shneur Zalman's theological masterpiece, the Tanya. (Chabad is an acronym formed from the first letters of the Hebrew words for wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, the intellectual attributes of the Divine which, according to Zalman, are present in every Jew.) Within the ranks of Lubavitch, the Tanya is regarded as a sure guide to religious reality, a holy book in the fullest sense. As such, Friedman indicates, it generated a vast literature of commentary and super-commentary in which the teachings of Zalman were "explained, developed, and embellished." Friedman describes the long-term consequences in the following terms: "Chabad hasidism is based not only on the personal affinity of the hasid and his rebbe, but also on intensive study of written religious literature. This dimension of identity and a sense of belonging places Chabad on an intellectual plane and underscores its unique universal . . . character among the various hasidic movements."

Shneur Zalman, in dynastic fashion, was succeeded by his son Dov Baer, who was followed by his son-in-law Menachem Mendel and then, in turn, Mendel's own son Samuel. These three leaders consolidated Lubavitch as a movement, firming up its theological and institutional foundations. This was all to the good, since the lengthy period that followed--from the 1880s through the end of World War II and beyond--was one of unrelieved crisis. It was left to Sholom Dov Baer (son of Samuel) and Joseph Isaac (son of Shalom) to find a path forward for Lubavitch in response to the breakdown of traditional Jewish society, the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, and the creation of the State of Israel.

Sholom Dov Baer's "presidency," as the Lubavitchers call it, coincided with dramatic changes in East European Jewish life. The impact of modernization in its various forms shattered the foundations of traditional Jewish society. In response, Sholom Dov Baer went on the offensive, declaring war on all manifestations of the new in Jewish life. Zionism, Jewish socialism, Jewish enlightenment, religious reform--all of these were condemned in the strongest terms. Sholom Dov Baer was convinced that the appearance on the historical stage of Jewish "enemies of the Lord" pointed to the impending coming of the messiah. But for the messianic end to actually come about, he firmly believed, it was first necessary to spread the message of Chabad throughout the Jewish world. Hence the founding in 1897 of the Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch yeshiva, whose students, the "pure ones," were trained to serve as movement emissaries. In sum, Sholom Dov Baer gave the Lubavitcher sense of mission a distinctly messianic cast.

For all his efforts, Sholom Dov Baer was unable to halt the erosion of religious observance and authority even in his home territory of White Russia. At the symbolic level, this failure was signaled by the Chabad leader's departure from the town of Lubavitch in 1915. The Lubavitcher movement now entered an era of permanent "exile," with Joseph Isaac assuming the mantle of leadership during the terrible years of the Bolshevik revolution and the Holocaust. Joseph Isaac experienced the lash of communism and Nazism firsthand: in 1927, he was expelled from the Soviet Union for organizing underground Jewish education; in 1940, he fled Nazi-occupied Warsaw for the United States, leaving behind part of his family. Joseph Isaac's departure from Europe marks the nadir of the Lubavitcher movement, as Friedman indicates: "First, the Soviet revolution had totally undermined the status of Chabad in its birthplace and in the land where most of its hasidim lived. Then World War II had brought the annihilation of traditional religious Judaism throughout Eastern Europe. [Now] the rebbe had to flee to that 'different' America, modern and secular in character and nature."

At this point, Chabad theology came to the rescue of Lubavitch by providing a compelling rationale for Joseph Isaac's taking up residence in the United States: it was part of God's plan for the coming of the messiah. America, the Lubavitchers explained, was the mystical "lower hemisphere," a realm in which the Torah had not been given. But now Joseph Isaac had taken the audacious step of entering this realm, with the intention of promoting Chabad's message of religious observance. This transformative act, when brought to completion, the Lubavitchers asserted, was certain to usher in the final redemption. Thus, in a flash, outreach to non-Orthodox Jews in the United States became a central component of Lubavitcher messianism.

It was left to Joseph Isaac's son-in-law and successor Menachem Mendel Schneerson--the Rebbe--to fully operationalize Lubavitch outreach activities to non-Orthodox Jews. Friedman paints a fascinating picture of Rabbi Schneerson, who emerges as a figure of, indeed, messianic proportions. The Rebbe managed to combine exalted spirituality with the organizational skills of a Fortune 500 CEO. He achieved a complete mastery of Judaism's sacred texts, even as he pursued a secular education at the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne. Moreover, he came to the fore as the Lubavitcher leader in 1951 in part because of his secular credentials, but even more so because he claimed the ability to "speak" with his deceased father-in-law. What Friedman terms the Rebbe's "internal contradictions" gave him a larger-than-life aspect, adding greatly to his charisma.

As the head of the Lubavitcher movement, Rabbi Schneerson gave himself over entirely to a single cause: promoting religious observance among non-Orthodox Jews in the United States and, indeed, in the far reaches of the globe. Not surprisingly, these efforts aroused a strong sense of messianic expectation within the movement. This quickening of the messianic pulse was further strengthened by developments on the world stage, most especially the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and the Gulf War. For the Lubavitchers, events in Russia had particular meaning, since the Communists were the sworn enemy of Chabad and had forcibly separated Joseph Isaac from his hasidim. From this vantage point, the death of communism had the stamp of the messiah written all over it; as Friedman notes, "the matter [had] been rectified and the circle . . . closed, with victory ultimately belonging to Chabad." As for the Gulf War, it was seen by the Lubavitchers as epitomizing the messianic era, since, to cite Friedman again, it was a conflict "in which Israel did not participate and in which Jews were not harmed."

Friedman tellingly observes that "messianic dynamics, by their very nature, must become increasingly active." Inevitably, then, the spiraling force of messianic expectation within Lubavitch became caught up with the question of the Rebbe's own standing as the possible messiah. Already in the 1970s various Chabad publications hinted that Rabbi Schneerson was the long-awaited messiah of the Jewish people. By the time that Friedman came to write his essay in 1993, he could state as a matter of course: "Today, virtually all Chabad hasidim recognize the Rebbe as the messiah and no longer hesitate to express their views in public." Rabbi Schneerson's response to this was ambivalent; at times he expressed anger at such talk, while at other times he acquiesced in it. What was crystal clear, however, was the Rebbe's own belief that the messianic dawn was at hand.

As Rabbi Schneerson entered his ninth decade and the final messianic breakthrough failed to occur, his followers increasingly found themselves walking a narrow bridge between hope and despair. The elements playing into this situation are well described by Friedman:

The fact that the Rebbe has no children and has never groomed a successor from among his more distant relatives during his decades of "presidency" renders the issue of continuity of the Chabad dynasty a threatening question. The messianic response is virtually the only one capable of allaying these fears. . . . To the Chabad hasidim, the Rebbe's advanced age and the absence of an heir has become a somewhat paradoxical basis for messianic faith: if the Rebbe has no heir, then he must have no need for one, for he is soon to reveal himself as the messiah, whom death cannot conquer.

Not long after Friedman wrote these words, the Rebbe died, on June 12, 1994, at age ninety-two. It is at this point that David Berger takes up his story.

With the stage now properly set, we may turn directly to a consideration of Berger's key claims. He makes four assertions in his book: a majority of Lubavitcher hasidim (the "Lubavitcher messianists") continue to maintain that Rabbi Schneerson is the messiah despite the fact that he is dead; the Lubavitcher messianists falsely argue that there are sources within Judaism that allow for a dead messiah; the Lubavitcher messianists have had a profound impact on the larger Orthodox community; the response of Orthodox leadership to the Lubavitcher messianists constitutes a "scandal of Orthodox indifference." Berger presses these claims with the zeal of a prosecuting attorney: he rails against the Lubavitcher messianists for "shattering . . . a core belief" of Judaism, and he denounces Orthodoxy at large for permitting "one of [Judaism's] key pillars to be undermined."

Berger is quite open about the special mix of influences that shapes his perspective on the Lubavitcher messianists. To begin with, there is Berger's personal faith: "I actually believe in the traditional messianic faith of Judaism. Anyone who does not . . . cannot generate the same level of concern about its deformation." Then there is Berger's professional involvement as an academic specializing in the history of Jewish-Christian debate and Jewish messianism: "[T]here is a tense, complex interplay between personal commitment and disinterested scholarship. . . . Seeing [Lubavitcher messianism] through a historical prism has alerted me to its capacity to refashion the parameters of Judaism. What others see as an episode, I see as a watershed." Finally, there is Berger's Jewish activism, which, in 1978, led him to coauthor a brilliant anti-missionary tract entitled Jews and "Jewish Christianity" (KTAV). Much of the argument in this pamphlet, Berger notes, "would have to be discarded . . . if Lubavitcher messianism became an acceptable variant of Orthodox Judaism." Across the board, then, Berger's approach to Lubavitcher messianism is strongly confrontational.

On the issue of how many Lubavitcher hasidim continue to believe that Rabbi Schneerson is the messiah, Berger is very impressive, basing his claims on solid investigative reporting. Nothing less than this will do, given the sharply opposed claims put forward by the two main Lubavitcher factions. On the one side are the "messianists," who assert that "virtually everyone believes [that Rabbi Schneerson is the messiah], even if some oppose public affirmations"; on the other side are the "non-messianists," who maintain that "the [messianists] are a very small number of mostly marginal hasidim of relatively recent vintage who know how to make noise and intimidate." Berger is alert to the fact that "statistical precision is elusive" in this area, since it is "dependent partly on the reading of minds." Still, a close examination of the issue leads him to conclude that a "large segment--almost certainly a substantial majority" of Lubavitcher hasidim are of the messianist persuasion.

Given the difficulties involved in gauging popular opinion, Berger wisely chooses to focus on key Lubavitcher institutions and leadership cadres. This avenue of approach yields the startling finding that opposition to messianism is limited in the main to Lubavitcher representatives working in local Jewish communities in the United States and, to some extent, in Israel. The rest of the field belongs nearly exclusively to the messianists, a large and dynamic element busy proselytizing its views. Here, for example, is Berger's description of the situation in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the world center of Lubavitch:

The central synagogue in 770 Eastern Parkway . . . is indisputably the headquarters of a messianic sect, where the [messianist] slogan is a regular component of the liturgy. A large sign displaying the [messianist slogan] adorns the front of the Lubavitch Women's Organization Headquarters in Crown Heights. Rabbi Shmuel Butman [a leading messianist] serves as Director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization. Oholei Torah/Oholei Menachem in Crown Heights, the largest school for boys and young men, employs faculty who play prominent roles in messianist publications. . . . The head of Tomchei Temimin, another major men's yeshiva in Crown Heights, signed a messianist approbation to a major messianist book published in 1999, and a mentor there participated in its preparation. Machon Chanah, an important seminary for women, also in Crown Heights, teaches messianist doctrine to the point where a recent convert from Christianity left the school after a short while, complaining that this was what she had abandoned when accepting Judaism.

Extending his analysis to Israel, Europe, and beyond, Berger finds a situation still worse. Much of the evidence for this is derived from a messianist rabbinic ruling, issued in 1997, requiring all Jews to accept the messiahship of Rabbi Schneerson. Within a year, 150 Lubavitcher rabbis worldwide had endorsed the ruling, thus making it possible to take the measure of the messianist rabbinic elite. About the Israelis on the list, Berger tells us: "Many are identified as chief rabbis of cities, towns, or settlements. . . . Others are synagogue rabbis, judges in rabbinical courts, members of local offices of the rabbinate, [and] instructors in advanced yeshivas." The signatories from the former Soviet Union, Berger indicates, are "the leading Lubavitcher emissaries there. Their posts range from Moscow to Riga to Kazakhstan, from Tashkent to Rostov to Kishinev." In more general terms, Berger notes: "Messianism abounds in France, where . . . the head of a significant Lubavitch institution holds mass gatherings on the messiah . . . and coordinates programs with [messianists] in Antwerp and Brussels. [There is a] messianist head of the rabbinical court of Montreal. A fervent messianist sits on the non-Lubavitch rabbinical court of Sydney. In [London], the vice-president of the Chabad Community Center [insists] that 'every true Lubavitch' hasid is a messianist."

While Berger operates with the broad categories of messianist and non-messianist, he is careful to note the variations within both camps. These nuances are beautifully brought to the fore in the following passage:

On one end, there are a relatively small number of hasidim who recognize that the Rebbe is not and will not be the messiah. Then there is a considerably larger group of those who say that he may or may not be. Among these, some add that he is the most likely candidate. In the fully messianist camp, there are both tactical and theological divisions. The tactical question is whether to proclaim this belief to the world or to keep it private because of the Rebbe's directive to publicize only those teachings that are likely to find a receptive audience. On the theological front, there are those who believe that the Rebbe died in a sense no different from any other righteous man, but will soon be resurrected to assume his messianic mantle. Others believe that he survives physically in a state that is at least in some sense transformed, while the remainder insist that there has been no change whatever.

Cutting across these lines, there is the question of how to interpret the assertion, proffered by the Rebbe himself, that a rebbe is the Essence and Being of God. While even some non-messianists can and do maintain an understanding of this principle amounting to [idolatry], most of them have habits of mind that militate against a literal reading. Messianists, who begin with the belief that the messiah-rebbe is greater than Moses and the ministering angels, are much more likely to adopt [this idolatrous view].

Berger holds firm to the view that there is no place in Judaism for a dead messiah. This stance seems straightforward enough, but he manages to complicate it by casting his argument in terms of prooftexts. Again and again, he asserts that there is no textual basis in Jewish sources for the notion of a messiah coming from the dead, yet again and again he is forced to retreat on this point. To be sure, the number of prooftexts that the Lubavitcher messianists are able to cite in support of their view is small, but the mere fact that they exist is damaging to Berger's position.

Why, then, is Berger so preoccupied with the issue of prooftexts? The answer, I believe, is that it derives from Berger's involvement (both academic and personal) in Jewish-Christian debate, where prooftexts are a central bone of contention. It is worth noting in this context that the single longest chapter of Berger's anti-missionary pamphlet, Jews and "Jewish Christianity," is entitled "'Proofs' of Christianity in the Hebrew Bible." Since for Berger, Christianity and Lubavitcher messianism are parallel phenomena, it makes perfectly good sense that he would maintain this emphasis on prooftexts when dealing with the latter. This turns out to be a serious tactical blunder.

Take Berger's admission that "two thousand years of messianic literature [has been] scoured [by the messianists] to find a handful of broadly relevant, though inapplicable, quotations (and several more irrelevant ones) to demonstrate that Judaism may countenance the belief in a messiah who returns from the dead." To which he appends the following remarkable footnote:

Anyone impressed by the citations and arguments [of the messianists] should consider the following brief observations, which assume familiarity with those arguments:

  • Transmigration of souls is not resurrection.
  • Concealment, transferral to the lower Garden of Eden, or elevation to a heavenly location la Moses or Elijah are not the same as death and burial. . .
  • With respect to Sanhedrin 98b: according to the second interpretation in Rashi . . . the text is irrelevant to our issue. Even according to the first, which was surely a minority reading and is not presented as Rashi's own belief, one talmudic sage asserted that if the messiah will come from the dead, he will be Daniel, not someone like Daniel. . . .
  • A small minority of Jews believed that King David will return as the messiah, but this meant King David himself, not one of his descendants.
  • Even Jews who believed that King David would be the messiah (or the vanishingly tiny number who may have left open the possibility that Daniel might be) did not believe that a Davidic figure born (or reborn) during or after their lifetime would begin the redemptive process only to die or be buried before its completion. Such a position is utterly alien to the most basic messianic posture of all non-Sabbatian Jews through the ages.

Berger's text and footnote make a strange pairing. In the text, Berger exudes confidence, using exactly one sentence to dispose of the messianist claim that there are sources within Judaism that allow for a dead messiah. In the footnote, Berger is nervous and uncertain, writing at great length about the messianist prooftexts, splitting hairs all along the way. What is going on here? The answer becomes clear later in the book, where he writes:

One of my reservations about writing the article [on which this part of the book is based] . . . stemmed from reluctance to publicize the messianists' interpretation of the handful of rabbinic sources that they cite to buttress their doctrine. Some readers insufficiently anchored in a millennial Jewish consensus might, I feared, lose their moorings and conclude that belief in the Second Coming of the Rebbe is after all an acceptable option in Judaism. It was for this reason that I buried my response to those citations in a footnote encapsulating the key points and kept it brief, almost cryptic.

Berger may think that he "kept it brief," but his footnote in fact sticks out like a sore thumb. Perusing it, the fair-minded reader can only conclude that there are indeed a handful of Jewish sources that affirm the possibility of a messiah coming from the dead. The more Berger tries to deny this--and he devotes three full chapters to the subject--the more he appears to be engaging in a cover-up. All of this is quite unnecessary, since Berger could have rested his case against the Lubavitcher messianists with a simple invocation of what he himself terms the "millennial Jewish consensus" against belief in a dead messiah. In choosing to do battle with the messianists over each and every prooftext, Berger comes out on the losing end.

When it comes to his claim that the Lubavitcher messianists have had a major impact on the larger Orthodox community, Berger unfortunately shows signs of having been done in by an overheated imagination. Is it the case that "for much of Orthodox Jewry, the classic boundaries of the messianic faith of Israel are no more?" Certainly not. Have Orthodox Jews experienced a religious "earthquake" involving the "shattering of a core Jewish belief?" Certainly not. Is it true that "virtually all Orthodox Jews [today] belong to a profoundly different religion from the one they adhered to in 1993?" Certainly not. Berger's assertions in this regard go far beyond exaggeration; indeed, they stand reality on its head. Truth be told, the Lubavitcher messianists have had zero impact on the religious outlook of Orthodox society.

Evidence of the absurdity of Berger's claim is his silence about Orthodox "converts" to the belief system of the Lubavitcher messianists. Berger fails to cite even a single instance of a non-Lubavitch, Orthodox Jew suddenly embracing the view that Rabbi Schneerson, though dead, is indeed the long-awaited messiah of the Jewish people. The reason is simple: such individuals do not exist, at least as a statistical reality. On the very last page of his book, Berger finally makes a gesture toward acknowledging this when he notes in passing that "most Orthodox Jews . . . still adhere [to traditional Jewish teaching about the messiah]." But this very same page carries the title "Epitaph," and employs alarmist language about the "death throes of a fundamental belief" and "brink of extinction."

It is the occupational hazard of the heresy hunter to come to believe that he faces an all-powerful enemy who exerts vast influence. Clearly, Berger has fallen into this trap. Too bad, since what really needs explaining is why the messianists have not made any headway in the broader Orthodox community. A large part of the answer has to do with the impact of secularization. To the degree, however, that religious instinct is also involved, it is perfectly clear that non-Lubavitch, Orthodox Jews continue to violently recoil from any notion of a dead messiah. This instinct was honed in relationship to Christianity, and fully carries over into the way the masses of Orthodox Jews have responded to Lubavitcher messianism. Stressing this point is important because Berger would have us believe that the "messianic instincts of [Orthodox] Jews have atrophied" and that "what was once known to every Jewish tailor and shoemaker has, in the twinkling of an eye, become a matter of doubt for Orthodox rabbis." Fortunately, this is nonsense.

Berger's mention of Orthodox rabbis brings into focus the fourth of his claims: what he terms the "scandal of Orthodox indifference." The failure of these rabbis to take a firm stand against the Lubavitcher messianists has led, Berger argues, to a situation in which the "classical messianic faith of Judaism is dying." Berger notes: "Sectarians can establish sects; only the mainstream can transform a religion. . . . The messianists may have launched the assault, but Orthodox Jewry writ large has administered the fatal blow." Berger cannot abide the passivity of mainstream Orthodox leadership, the "remarkable equanimity with which the standard-bearers of [Judaism] have allowed one of its key pillars to be undermined."

Berger's claim of Orthodox indifference does wonders for his ego, since it reinforces his sense of himself as a lone warrior against the Lubavitcher messianists. In fact, however, his claim is wildly overstated. To begin with, there is the inconvenient fact that the messianists have been denounced in various Orthodox quarters. On this point, I cite no less an authority than David Berger himself.

In important respects, the belief has been delegitimated. The Rabbinical Council of America is on record. [So is] the Israeli Rabbinate. A number of the most important yeshivas in the world--Ponevezh, Telshe, Chofetz Chaim, Philadelphia, much of Lakewood, some of Ner Israel--have placed Lubavitch messianists . . . beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. . . . There are ad hoc prayer services in Jerusalem where messianists are not counted toward a quorum, and I have been told of a yeshiva in Brooklyn that threatens its students with expulsion if they pray in the messianist institution down the block.

How Berger can make this statement and at the same time talk about a scandal of indifference is a mystery.

Berger's reference to the Rabbinical Council of America in this context is both telling and ironic, since it was in response to Berger's direct appeal that the RCA passed a statement denouncing Lubavitcher-style messianism. Berger devotes a full chapter of his book to this subject, boasting of his intervention with what is in fact the largest Orthodox rabbinic organization in the world, and detailing the process by which it came to pass the following resolution: "In light of disturbing developments which have recently arisen in the Jewish community, the Rabbinical Council of America . . . declares that there is not and never has been a place in Judaism for the belief that Mashiach ben David [i.e., the messiah] will begin his messianic mission only to experience death, burial, and resurrection before completing it."

But for Berger, that resolution, however necessary, is not nearly enough. He calls for a "genuine communal policy" that will go beyond general denunciations of the messianist stance to the religious quarantine of individual messianists. "The most important principle," he declares, is that "no messianist should be treated as an Orthodox rabbi or functionary in good standing." He demands a "loyalty oath" of Lubavitcher hasidim suspected of being messianists, noting that "failure to follow this admittedly unpleasant procedure is an abdication of responsibility." Adding further to the atmosphere of a witch hunt, Berger calls for the dismissal of Lubavitcher messianists currently holding positions in the Orthodox community as congregational rabbis, Jewish educators, ritual slaughterers, or religious scribes. Berger insists that all this is "absolutely mandated by Jewish law" and "must be followed even in difficult cases."

Berger doesn't flinch from the irony of his position: "I am an advocate of tolerance urging intolerance, a believer in inclusiveness preaching exclusion, an adherent of unity fomenting division." Not once in The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference does Berger evince the slightest sympathy for the predicament of the Lubavitcher messianists, for the fact that they honestly believe that the Rabbi Schneerson is the messiah. In Berger's view, the messianists have only one option: to abandon their heretical belief.

Berger's indifference to the plight of the Lubavitcher messianists is only strengthened by his conviction that individuals can coerce themselves into proper religious belief. This remarkable position is set forth in autobiographical terms in a book review he published in 1993:

In my mid-teens, I experienced periods of perplexity and inner struggle while reading works of biblical criticism. While I generally resisted arguments for the documentary hypothesis with a comfortable margin of safety, there were moments of deep turmoil. I have a vivid recollection of standing at an outdoor [sabbath service] in camp overwhelmed with doubts and hoping that God would give me the strength to remain an Orthodox Jew. What saved me was a combination of two factors: works that provided reasoned arguments in favor of traditional belief and the knowledge that to embrace the position that the Torah consists of discrete, often contradictory documents was to embrace not merely error but [heresy].

The implications of this for the Lubavitcher messianists are clear: they, too, can walk away from heresy if they only have the will.

Is Lubavitcher messianism without any redeeming merit? Berger's answer is an unequivocal yes, but there is reason to rethink the matter. Clearly, at the level of theology, the messianists have administered a jolt to Orthodox Judaism. The appearance on the Jewish scene of hasidim espousing a version of Second Coming theology is bizarre and disorienting. Still, under current conditions, the religious tremors it has set off may prove a boon for Orthodox belief. Let me explain.

Readers of Berger's book cannot fail to gain the impression that belief in the messiah is a central religious concern of Orthodox Jews today. For the bulk of the Orthodox, however, this is just not so. Certainly in the "modern Orthodox" camp, which is Berger's home base, messianic expectation exists more as a verbal formula to be repeated than as a live religious option. (The non-Orthodox long ago abandoned belief in a personal messiah; they look instead to a messianic age.) The classic formulation of the Maimonidian principle--"I believe with complete faith in the coming of the messiah, and even though he may tarry I await him each day, hoping that he will come"--lacks existential meaning for a majority of Orthodox Jews in the contemporary context. This has everything to do with the impact of secularization, which has weakened the "plausibility structure" (the phrase is Peter Berger's) of all faith affirmations, and made the messianic hope seem like a pious dream. Ironically--and this returns us to a point made above--the very same process of secularization goes a long way toward explaining why the messianists have run into a stone wall in seeking non-Lubavitch, Orthodox converts to their position.

Seen from this perspective, the messianic fervor of the Lubavitchers--messianist and non-messianist alike--is a welcome indication that the religious juices continue to flow in Orthodox Judaism. This ties in with a crucially important point about the belief in the messiah made decades ago by the great German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig:

The expectation of the coming of the messiah, by which and because of which Judaism lives, would be . . . empty babble, if the appearance again and again of a false messiah did not render it reality and unreality, illusion and disillusion. The false messiah is as old as the hope for the true messiah. He is the changing form of this changeless hope. He separates every Jewish generation into those whose faith is strong enough to give themselves up to an illusion, and those whose hope is so strong that they do not allow themselves to be deluded. The former are the better, the latter the stronger. The former bleed as victims on the altar of the eternity of the people, the latter are the priests who perform the service at this altar. And this goes on until the day when all will be reversed, when the belief of the believers will become truth, and the hope of the hoping a lie.

What Rosenzweig understood, and what Berger does not begin to comprehend, is that genuine longing for the coming of the messiah is bound to trigger periodic eruptions along the lines of Lubavitcher messianism. Simply put, this is the price of religious authenticity. Far worse than the disruptive presence of the Lubavitcher messianists on the current Orthodox scene would be their total absence. An Orthodox Judaism in which hope for the messiah remained permanently fixed at the level of pious affirmation would be nothing more than a religious mummy. Call them crazy, call them heretics, the Lubavitcher messianists bear powerful, if strange, witness to the continued vitality of Judaism's belief in the messiah.

David Singer is Director of Research at the American Jewish Committee

Copyright (c) 2003 First Things 133 (May 2003): 42-49.

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