Sunday, December 18, 2005


Q&A with Historian David Berger

Veteran Brooklyn College History Professor David Berger has a reputation for being both a scholar and an outstanding lecturer. A kippa-wearing Orthodox Jew, Berger received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. Despite his soft-spoken scholarly demeanor, Berger is passionate about his expose of Chabad. It is, he says, of 'transcendent importance.'

Q) Does mainstream Chabad really believe that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is a Jesus-like diety?

A) Religious mentors in the major yeshivas of Chabad in both Israel and the United States, publications issued by mainstream Chabad, and influential, highly educated Lubavitch laymen, take the following assertions literally: The supremely righteous, of whom the Rebbe and Moses are the chief exemplars, annul their own essence to the point where their entire Essence is that of God. It is permissible to bow to them with this understanding. For this reason, the Rebbe is omniscient, omnipotent, and entirely without limits. He is 'indistinguishable' from God.

Q) Because he is a transparent window for pure divinity, a 'man-God,' 'when you speak to him, you speak to God.'

A) There are Chabad hasidim who reject such formulations but there is no question that these beliefs are well represented in the mainstream.

Q) Nevertheless, what about those who insist that Chabad's messianist camp is a minority faction? Regrettably, this assertion is pure propaganda. In Crown Heights, the main synagogue at Lubavitch headquarters is a messianist stronghold where the Rebbe's messiahship is proclaimed at every prayer service.

The Rabbinic court is messianist; the largest men's school (Oholei Torah/Oholei Menachem), the women's seminary Machon Chanah, and other educational institutions are shot through with messianism; the messianist slogan is on a banner posted on the headquarters of the Chabad Women's Organization; and much more.

In Israel, the rabbi of Kfar Chabad signed a rabbinic ruling that Jewish law requires belief in the Rebbe's Messiahship, and the major columnist of the journal Beis Moshiach is a mentor in Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim there.

The large Chabad school system in Safed teaches the Rebbe's Messiahship.

Over 60 Israeli rabbis, including chief rabbis of several towns, signed the messianist ruling.

The situation among emissaries is somewhat better, but that ruling was signed by many of them, including the Chief Rabbi of the former Soviet Union and 16 of the major emissaries there. There are indeed non-messianists in Chabad, but they are clearly outnumbered.

Q) People joke that 'Chabad is the religion closest to Judaism.' Why take their theology so seriously?

The inclination to joke about this development is one of many reasons for the failure of mainstream Orthodoxy to act. In fact, Chabad is a movement of monumental importance. Observant Jews are profoundly dependent on its emissaries all over the world, it plays a major role in kosher food preparation and supervision worldwide, its rabbis dominate or are poised to dominate Jewish communities in a startling number of countries.

While your question reflects a widely held perception, that perception is so off the mark as to be the near opposite of the truth.

It will be exceedingly difficult to save Judaism from this catastrophe precisely because of the central role of Chabad in Jewish life.

Q) If that's the case, why don't Orthodox authorities speak out? Have any disassociated themselves from Chabad?

A) I devote an entire chapter - 'Explaining the Inexplicable' - to this question, and the forthcoming issue of Modern Judaism will publish a somewhat elaborated version entitled 'The Fragility of Religious Doctrine: Accounting for Orthodox Acquiescence in the Belief in a Second Coming.'

Among the reasons for this acquiescence are: The 'good things' done by the movement, the desire for unity, the dependence on Chabad, the conviction that this is a transient insanity, a blinkered concern with one's own subgroup, and the instinct that people who look and behave like hassidim must be Orthodox Jews. Moreover, Orthodox education no longer focuses on polemical literature against messianic Christianity. There is a startling degree of theological relativism among even very Orthodox Jews.

'Judaism,' I write in the book 'which was once a great faith, is now an agglomeration of dress, deportment and ritual.' Add to all this the financial and political influence of Chabad, and the difficulty of waging this battle is thrown into even bolder relief.

Q) Nevertheless, don't you agree that bringing lost soul's to Chabad's brand of Judaism is better than having them lost to Judaism altogether?

A) A reasonable question. One of the major obstacles I face is the need to convince people that it's the wrong question.

The answer to this question is 'yes,' though the answer becomes less unequivocal if we are speaking about belief in the Rebbe as divine. In fact, we face a very different question.

Is it acceptable to smash the boundaries of the faith to pieces if doing this will attract thousands or even hundreds of thousands of irreligious Jews to the transformed religion?

Recognizing Chabad messianists as Orthodox rabbis in good standing abolishes Judaism's criteria for identifying the Messiah and awards victory to Christianity on a key issue in the historic Jewish-Christian debate.

One does not undermine Judaism in order to save it.

[Berger was my professor at Brooklyn College back in the 1970s]

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