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A Historian’s Polemic Against ‘The Madness of False Messianism’

This article was originally published in the October 19, 2001 issue of the Forward.

The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference
By David Berger
Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 195 pages, $29.50

For the past two millennia, Jews have powerfully resisted — often with their very lives — the Christian notion that the messiah arrived, was betrayed by refusals to accept him and then perished physically, only in order to undergo apotheosis, or rebirth as part of the Godhead. In a religion that is otherwise relatively unconcerned with doctrinal heresy, the idea of Christ as messiah reborn and God incarnate defined idolatry for Judaism in the post-pagan world. Moreover, the Jewish rejection of the concept of a messiah who dies without having fulfilled the biblical prophecies of redemption but is reincarnated to save those who accept him into their hearts lies at the center of the historic Jewish-Christian theological dispute. The grand exception to the rabbinic principle that retains the Jewishness of non-observant members of the community (captured in the talmudic dictum, “An Israelite, though he has sinned, remains an Israelite”) is a Jew who voluntarily accepted the belief in a false messiah.

Yet as Rabbi David Berger, a Brooklyn College professor and former president of the Association for Jewish Studies, reports in his compelling new polemic, “The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference,” one of the most prominent movements in the contemporary Jewish world — Lubavitch — is preaching a form of messianism that is, theologically speaking, almost indistinguishable from Christianity. To make matters worse, Rabbi Berger writes, the vast majority of Orthodox Jews don’t seem to mind.

The recitation of what has become known in shorthand as “the Yehi” (“Long live our master, teacher and rebbe, King Moshiakh for ever and ever”) is now a standard part of the Lubavitcher liturgy. It is recited in Lubavitch synagogues and yeshivas before donning tefillin, during the grace after meals and even at the conclusion of the Neila service on Yom Kippur. Lubavitch spokesmen and publications regularly refer to their late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (who, at least according to the office of the King’s County coroner in Brooklyn, died in 1994), not only as the living “Melekh Ha-Moshiakh” (King-Messiah); they extol him as “the Honored Rabbi, the Holy One Blessed Be He” whose yahrzeit is the day of the rebbe’s “apotheosis” and who is the “Essence and Being of God enclothed in a body.” Lubavitcher chasidim appear to pray to the image of the rebbe, whose portrait can be seen adorning the mizrach (eastern) walls of their synagogues (in blatant violation of Jewish law), and write of him as if he were God incarnate. To cite just one Lubavitch source from Rabbi Berger’s book, an article in the chabad journal Beis Moshiakh concludes with the following line that transposes the popular Sabbath hymn “Eyn K’Eloheinu” from God to Schneerson: “So, who is Eloheinu [our God]?… The Rebbe, Melekh Ha-Moshiakh, that’s who.”

Yet, despite the obviously heretical nature of this messianic faith in Schneerson (through a painstaking scholarly analysis, Rabbi Berger accurately defines it as idolatry), few, even among the most pious Orthodox, seem to care. “Jews shrug,” he writes with astonishment, “go about their private and communal business, and assume that all is well, while their traditional messianic belief collapses around them.”

At this point, the reader might also shrug and sigh that the Lubavitchers are a relatively small and highly beneficial group who devotedly spread Judaism throughout the world. They take their Yiddishkayt to places where no other Orthodox Jews dare to go and selflessly serve otherwise leaderless Jewish communities lacking the resources for conventional Jewish establishments and high-priced rabbis. Their false messianism, it might be reasoned, can surely be viewed as a rather benign oddity, more than compensated for by all of the good work the Lubavitchers do. For such deeply mistaken Jews, Rabbi Berger’s book is imperative reading, as it carefully and systematically documents the true nature and scope of contemporary Lubavitch missionary work. In a chapter titled “From Margin to Mainstream,” the author traces the expanding reach, influence and power of the Lubavitchers in today’s Jewish world, and suggests that they have been brilliant and steadfast in their campaign to establish as normative Judaism their distorted messianic version of the faith.

One of the most dangerous consequences of the messianic carnival that has overtaken Lubavitch society during the past two decades has been its exploitation by fundamentalist Christian missionaries. Reporting on a California highway billboard with the phone number of a Christian mission to the Jews, a picture of Schneerson and the words “Right Idea: Wrong Person,” Rabbi Berger concludes with sadness that “the profound theological differences between Judaism and Christianity have been reduced to a matter of mistaken identity.” This perverse development has also led Dennis Prager — the national radio show host whom this reviewer has long considered a dangerous Jewish version of Jerry Falwell — to propose in earnest that the Jewish community embrace Jews for Jesus so long as they repudiate the idea of Jesus’s divinity and stop proselytizing to the mainstream Jewish community. This proposal is, as Rabbi Berger accurately reports, based on Mr. Prager’s analogy between Jews for Jesus and “some wonderful chabad Jews who believe the last Lubavitcher Rebbe was the messiah.”

Rabbi Berger has written an important book that reviews in detail his arguments with messianic Lubavitchers over the past seven years and chronicles his deep disappointment with the tepid response of the Orthodox Jewish establishment to his campaign against their idolatrous faith. Since the mid-1990s, he has been the most learned and eloquent Orthodox opponent of Lubavitch messianism, and this book — largely structured as a memoir of his unhappy experiences as the lonely defender of traditional Jewish messianic belief — tells a chilling story of the Lubavitch community’s descent into the madness of false messianism and idolatrous worship of Schneerson as well as the impassivity of many of the world’s leading Orthodox rabbis and institutions in the face of that outrage.

To be sure, Rabbi Berger’s tale does not only recount his many failures; it also records some victories, most notably his success in having the Rabbinical Council of America, the world’s largest body of Orthodox rabbis, issue a statement at its annual convention in 1996 that condemns Lubavitch false messianism. But such victories have been both limited and short-lived. And it is doubtful that the Orthodox establishment will adopt his stringent practical proposals about how to deal with the problem, such as declaring meat slaughtered by Lubavitch shochetim non-kosher, banning Lubavitch educational institutions and shunning synagogues led by Lubavitch rabbis or cantors who do not explicitly repudiate Schneerson-worship.

Rabbi Berger repeatedly bemoans the indifference of the Orthodox establishment to what he considers the death of traditional Jewish messianic faith. The book ends with the following chilling “Epitaph”: “May the soul of the authentic messianic faith of the Jewish people be bound up in the bond of life along with the souls of the exalted martyrs who sacrificed their lives to preserve it.”

I cannot help but admire Rabbi Berger for his idealism and tenacity in waging a good fight against an obvious perversion of traditional Judaism. Unfortunately, his best efforts are undermined by both his naivete about contemporary Orthodox Jews and his misplaced generosity toward the deceased grand rabbi. Throughout his book, he wonders how it is possible that piously observant Jews stand idly by while one of their most cherished beliefs is being so twisted. He offers a range of possible explanations for this indifference, but ignores the obvious.

To begin with, in the heat of his passionate indictment of “Orthodox indifference,” Rabbi Berger at times understates the degree to which the Lubavitchers have already lost credibility with much of the ultra-Orthodox world. The largest chasidic groups, such as Satmar and Belz, long ago declared the Lubavitchers – their rabbis, educational institutions and meat – completely treyf. The same is true of some of the most important misnagdic (i.e. non-chasidic, ultra-Orthodox) rabbis in both Israel and the Diaspora. Years ago, for example, when asked which religion was theologically closest to Judaism, Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, the eldest sage of Israel’s misnagdic community, famously quipped: “Lubavitch.” Rabbi Shach very clearly pronounced his judgment of the Lubavitcher rebbe as a moshiakh sheker (a false messiah) in 1988, long before Rabbi Berger took up the cause.

Still, he is certainly correct in claiming that the majority of Orthodox Jews – ranging from the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel to the modern Orthodox mainstream – seem to care little if at all about Lubavitch messianic heresy. But it seems to me that this is because so few of them today retain the traditional, passive belief in miraculous messianic redemption. Jews are living in a de facto post-messianic era, not in the sense that the messiah has come, but rather because supernatural redemption is not nearly so sorely needed as it was in the pre-modern era of Jewish powerlessness and incessant suffering. The establishment of Israel has realized politically the most difficult aspects of the messiah’s mission. What has been left for the savior to do – such as the establishment of animal sacrifice in a rebuilt temple – is not something that most Jews today, including the Orthodox, exactly relish, though they give it lip-service in their daily prayers. The good Modern Orthodox members of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue or the Hampton Synagogue are hardly waiting on the rooftops of their town houses and seaside mansions to be redeemed from the misery of their earthly existence, only to be able to slaughter sheep and pigeons in Jerusalem.

As for the significant number of religious Zionists – the settlers of Gush Emunim in particular – who view Jewish rule over Eretz Yisrael Ha-Shleyma (the entire territory of biblical Israel) in apocalyptic terms, they long ago departed from the essentially quietistic and passive posture of traditional Jewish messianism. Since early talmudic times, the rabbis mandated passive waiting for supernatural redemption and firmly condemned any political attempts to hasten the redemption (known as dehikat ha-ketz, literally pushing the end) as a heretical usurpation of the messiah’s role.

Once traditional Jewish messianic faith has either lost its urgency or been corrupted by political extremism, as it has in our days, further distortion of that belief ceases to appear as a grave heresy. It is viewed, at the very worst, as a curiosity and, at best, as poignant and charming. And this is precisely what sets the tenor of the centrist Orthodox response to Lubavitch messianism.

Rabbi Berger’s alarm at Lubavitch messianism and his campaign against it began in earnest only after the rebbe’s death. Although he cites numerous statements of Schneerson that fully lend themselves to the belief that he is the messiah, he seems unable to bring himself to the unpleasant conclusion that contemporary chabad messianism is the direct result of many years of Schneerson’s teachings and that it fully reflects his intentions. So that, when it comes to what the rebbe actually taught, Rabbi Berger proves to be off the mark, and it is the Lubavitcher messianists who have got it right. The man was as much of a false messiah in life as he is posthumously.

What is at stake here is not merely the accurate interpretation of a deceased rabbi’s teachings and legacy. Rabbi Berger’s pious respect for Schneerson’s memory severely compromises his best efforts to combat the Lubavitchers’ adoration of him. To return to the analogy with Christianity, Jews’ historic rejection of Christian theology would have been fatally weakened were it combined with a deep respect for Jesus and his teachings. Resistance to heresy, to say nothing of idolatry, can ill afford reverence for the central object of its belief.

Rabbi Nadler is the director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University. He is writing a book on the reception of Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy in modern Jewish culture.

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