Rabbi David Berger, a historian who is a sharp critic of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, has been appointed head of Jewish studies at Yeshiva University’s undergraduate college in a move that has ruffled some feathers on the campus.
Writing in the college’s student paper, the Commentator, Josh Shteir, a senior at the school and a co-president of the Chabad Club on campus, argued that Berger’s “intolerance” of Chabad is unacceptable at Y.U. The university is affiliated with the Modern Orthodox movement but welcomes Orthodox Jews who practice differently.
“How am I, a student at Y.U., as well as someone with a strong connection to the Lubavitch movement, supposed to understand this appointment and its apparent conflict with the cultural open-mindedness espoused by the University?” he wrote in a missive directed at university administrators.
Y.U. announced last fall that it would hire Berger, who had been a history professor at Brooklyn College for 37 years and had taught part time at Y.U. for almost as long, as a full-time faculty member. He was appointed to the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and later to the Jewish studies department at Yeshiva College, Y.U.’s undergraduate division. Then, as now, some students publicly objected.
Yosef Levine, alumni president of Y.U.’s Chabad group and a 1999 graduate of its business school, said that he campaigned against Berger’s appointment last year because Berger was inappropriately hostile regarding the subject of Chabad.
According to Levine, the trouble began about two years ago when Berger, who occasionally led Sabbath services at Y.U., “dove into ruthless soliloquizing against Chabad” at a post-service “shmooze,” disturbing even non-Chabad students and leading several to walk out.
The debate is centered on Berger’s well-known critiques of the block of Chabad adherents who believe that Menachem Schneerson, the late Chabad leader, is the messiah. Berger, who is Modern Orthodox himself, claims that this belief is tantamount to heresy. In his 2001 book, “The Rebbe, The Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference,” Berger argued that Judaism rejects the idea that the messiah can be a deceased person. That belief, he wrote, has differentiated Judaism from Christianity for 2,000 years. He censures the Chabad movement and the Orthodox establishment at large for what he sees as their lack of outrage in response to the messianic elements in the Lubavitch community.
Berger responded to Shteir’s article with an opinion piece of his own, in which he claimed that Shteir was taking part in a Chabad campaign to silence critics. “[My position on Chabad] is not closed-minded, unless Mr. Shteir believes that open-mindedness requires the abolition of all theological boundaries defining the Jewish religion,” Berger wrote.
Both articles delve into complex hermeneutics, as do many of the dozens of reader responses posted on the Commentator Web site.
In an interview with the Forward, Berger said he was unconcerned about the controversy, which he called “a tempest in a teapot.” He suggested that Y.U. is big enough for both Chabad students and their critics.
“Yeshiva College [does not ask student applicants] about personal beliefs, and I don’t think Lubavitcher students should be asked either,” he said.
Chabad officials agreed with Berger that the controversy should not be overplayed.
“While we don’t agree with Berger, this is not a Lubavitcher issue — it’s a Y.U. issue,” a spokesman for the group said.