A messianism that some call heresy

October 19, 2001
By Jacob Neusner
Research Professor of Religion and Theology
Senior Fellow, Institute of Advanced Theology
Bard College

To Chabad's claim that their Rebbe is the Messiah, Jews for Jesus respond: 'Right idea, wrong man'.

Two fifth columns threaten the integrity of Judaism: theological liberalism run amok and halachic Christianity. Both trends lower the walls that separate Judaism from Christianity - one from the Right, the other from the Left.

The lesser known left column, Dabru Emet, legitimizes the Christian Bible. The group's platform says: "Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book - the Bible, what Jews call Tanach and Christians call the Old Testament." The group's reward is typified by the Archbishop of Canterbury's statement that, in light of Dabru Emet, Christianity has no reason NOT to proselytize among Jews any longer.

But a greater danger to Judaism's insistence that the authenticity of the Torah from Sinai (oral and written) takes precedence over any other claim comes from the Right.

It takes the form of authentic Judaic living, to validate the substance of Christian Messianism. And this threat from within is represented, not by scarcely 200 Reform and Conservative "Dabru Emet" rabbis of little faith, but by the halachic Christianity of Chabad.

In the name of Halacha, which it claims to carry out authentically, Chabad proclaims its deceased rabbi to be the royal Messiah and the embodiment of God, who will rise from the dead to do what he did not do in his initial life on earth. Chabad wins followers by programs of impeccable philanthropy, and uses those followers in a sectarian mission of false Messianism. Chabad Messianists present themselves as the true Judaism, teaching that their Messiah, now dead, will soon rise from the grave. To this, the Messianic Jews and Jews for Jesus and even Episcopalian bishops respond, "Right idea, wrong man."

In the years since the death of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1994, Chabad - with its dead Messiah - has come to predominate in missionary activity among the Jews in tiny communities. Chabad is a potent force: 2,600 institutions around the world, large numbers of English-speaking rabbis, control of most of Judaism in Italy as well as the chief rabbinate of Russia (its Russia budget alone is $20 million a year). It is an organization with immense world-wide financial resources. Theologically, Chabad exploits a veneer of halachic authenticity that threatens the future of Judaism.

For this reason, the accomplished scholar and Orthodox intellectual, David Berger - a professor of History at Brooklyn College - has spent the years since 1994 calling attention to the very real danger to authentic Judaism that is represented by Chabad's Messianism.

In this passionate, powerful, brilliant polemic, Berger marks himself as a sage-prophet - the learning of a sage joined to the authentic vision of a true prophet.

And this authentic voice records, not only conviction, but evidence and argument: who said what in response to challenge, and who stayed mute.

The Rebbe, the Messiah says Berger, is "a memoir, a history, a religious tractÉ an indictment, a lament, and an appeal." He wants Judaism to defend itself by delegitimizing Chabad. This requires denying the kashrut of Chabad restaurants and the legitimacy of its public worship, its synagogues and its books. Even a Torah scroll written by a Chabad Messianist should not to be used, he says. In fact, a Chabad Messianist should not be counted, any more than some other "Messianic Jew," for a minyan.

With exceptional clarity of purpose and an argument that marks the book as a small masterpiece of religious writing, Berger exposes a Chabad theology that believes:

Then comes Berger's "j'accuse": "A substantial majority of a highly significant Orthodox movement called Lubavitch or Chabad Hassidism affirms that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was laid to rest in 1994 without leaving a successor, did everything subsumed under proposition two and will soon return to complete the redemption in his capacity as the Messiah. Hassidim who proclaim this beliefÉ hold significant religious positions sanctioned by major Orthodox authorities with no relationship to their movement."

Berger's detailed account of "this historic mutation of Judaism" is gripping and detailed. He has fought against this heresy despite its power in numbers, money and veneer of Orthodox authenticity.

He has received much private, even anonymous support, but gained only grudging public support, and then at a heavy price. But he has persisted, and, as time passes and Rabbi Schneerson does not rise from his grave in Queens, Berger's defense of authentic Judaism will be vindicated and the many who vilified him will be shamed.

Shabtai Zevi contributed to the history of Judaism little more than an occasion for writing books about the false Messiah. Schneerson, a century from now, will provide a fine living for generations of graduate students doing dissertations on the history of Judaism. And the first book they will open in their study of this weird phenomenon - a signal of the decayed state of post-Holocaust Orthodox faith in particular - is Berger's remarkable contribution.

This is simply the most important book of Judaism, not about Judaism, but of Judaism, to appear this year, and the most urgent in decades.

The reviewer is professor of religion and theology at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
Q&A with 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 exposure of Chabad. It is, he says, of "transcendent importance."

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

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.

Because he is a transparent window for pure divinity, a "man-God," "when you speak to him, you speak to God." There are Chabad hasidim who reject such formulations but there is no question that these beliefs are well represented in the mainstream.

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.

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.

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

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.

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 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.

Elliot Jager


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