The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference
|Author||Rabbi Dr. David Berger|
|Publisher||The Littmann Library of Jewish Civilization|
|LC Class||BM615 .B37 2001|
The Rebbe the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference is a book by Rabbi Dr. David Berger on the topic of Chabad messianism and the mainstream orthodox Jewish reaction to that trend. The book is written as a historical narrative of Berger's encounter with Chabad messianism from the time of the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in 1994 through the book's publication in 2001. The narrative is interlaced with Dr. Berger's published articles, written correspondences, and transcribed public lectures, in which he passionately appeals to both the leadership of the Orthodox and Chabad communities for an appropriate response to Chabad-Lubavitch messianism.
Criticism of Chabad-Lubavitch messianism
Berger, an academic expert on Jewish responses to Christianity, particularly claims of Jesus' messiahship and divinity, criticized what he viewed as similar assertions made by some religious leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitc movement about Schneerson shortly after Schneerson's death in 1994. Berger argues that the assertion a person could begin a messianic mission, die, and posthumously return to complete his mission has been unanimously rejected by the Sages and Jewish polemicists for nearly 2,000 years. An example of Berger's proof-texts is the passage in the Talmud which shows that Rabbi Akiva set aside his previous assertions of Simon bar Kokhba's presumed messiahship after bar Kokhba was put to death. To Berger, the Messianists' viewpoint on this issue is outside the pale of accepted Orthodox Jewish belief. Berger has been highly disappointed by the Orthodox establishment's reaction to Chabad-Lubavitch's claims that Schneerson is the Jewish messiah, arguing that there is a "scandal of Orthodox indifference".
His views are shared and supported by many prominent Orthodox authorities, including leaders from the Ashkenazi non-Hasidic Lithuanian (Litvak) institutions, Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel, especially the reactions and statements of its late Rosh yeshiva ("dean") Rabbi Elazar Shach (see Elazar Shach: Opposition to the Lubavitcher Rebbe) and the vehement opposition of the Rabbinical Seminary of America (Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim) in New York, and that of the Rabbinical Council of America (See Chabad messianism: Rabbinical Council of America.)
Rabbi Aharon Feldman, the dean of the non-Hasidic Yeshiva Ner Yisrael: Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, Maryland, wrote a widely-disseminated letter in 2004 which stated that Orthodox Jews should avoid praying in Chabad synagogues that avowed a belief in the Rebbe as the Messiah. He stated that while there is nothing in Jewish law stating that the messianist views of Chabad-Lubavitch are heretical per se, they "dig under the foundations of Torah fundamentals" and any support of them should be avoided.
Berger is a highly popular figure in Modern Orthodox circles. Following Yeshiva University President Rabbi Norman Lamm's announcement that he would retire in 2001, Berger placed second on an online poll which asked who Lamm's successor should be. In 1996, largely at his behest, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States, approved the following resolution:
In light of disturbing developments which have recently arisen in the Jewish community, the Rabbinical Council of America in convention assembled declares that there is not and has never been a place in Judaism for the belief that Mashiach ben David will begin his Messianic mission only to experience death, burial, and resurrection before completing it.
Berger felt that the RCA resolution was a very significant turning point for his cause, as he recounts in his book that after the resolution was approved, "the thunder-bolt struck."
Conflict over Ahron Soloveichik's position
In June 1996, The Jewish Press published a paid advertisement that included a letter with Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik's signature. The letter included the assertion that Soloveitchik believed Schneerson to have been worthy of being Messiah, that the Chabad position that Schneerson was the Messiah could not be dismissed as heretical, and cited a number of sources to demonstrate that he could be the Messiah. The letter also attacked Chabad's critics, and praised Chabad's works.
Many messianists believe that Soloveichik defended their position and bring him as a source to back up their arguments. Yet the letter caused confusion as this was a reversal of Soloveichik's previous position on the matter. In 1994, Soloveichik had told The Forward that Schneerson "can't be the Messiah - he is not living - a Messiah has to be living. A living Messiah, not a dead Messiah." He had also expressed shock at the idea that anyone could suggest that the Messiah could be from among the dead noting that "that could be possible in the Christian faith, but not Judaism" adding that this was "repugnant to everything Judaism represents."
Berger provides a letter from Soloveitchik to a friend in 2000, that resolves the contradiction between his two positions. Soloveichik writes:
To my great dismay. . . publications affiliated with the Lubavitch movement have persisted in stating that I validate their belief that a Jewish Messiah may be resurrected from the dead. I completely reject and vigorously deny any such claim. As I have already stated publicly. . . such a belief is repugnant to Judaism and is the antithesis of the truth. My intent in signing the original letter . . . was merely to express my opinion that we should not label subscribers to these beliefs as heretics. Any statements in that letter which imply an endorsement of their view were not shown to me at the time I signed and I once again repudiate any such ridiculous claim.
David Singer, Director of Research for the American Jewish Committee, wrote a critique of the book in First Things, stating, among other things, that Berger 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." Berger responded at length on the OrthodoxyToday.org website, where Singer's article had been reprinted.
Likewise, Professor Aviezer Ravitzky, of Hebrew University, strongly disputes Berger's claims that new Chabad teachings amount to heresy; however he does not believe that such beliefs are correct. In regards to those who wait for Schneerson to return from the dead as a messiah, Ravitzky stated "Torah does not prohibit a person from being stupid."
Chaim Rapoport has responded with a book-length critique entitled "The Messiah Problem: Berger, the Angel and the Scandal of Reckless Indiscrimination".
Jacob Immanuel Schochet demonstrates that the criticisms are unfounded or distorted. He questioned the many anonymous anecdotes and attributions in Berger's book, as well as Berger's reliance on the innuendo and unsubstantiated accusation by individuals known for their persistent opposition to Hasidism in general and Habad Hasidism in particular.
- Public Responsa from Rabbi Aharon Feldman on the matter of Chabad messiansim (Hebrew), 23 Sivan, 5763 - http://moshiachtalk.tripod.com/feldman.pdf. See also Rabbi Feldman's letter to David Beger: http://www.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/feldman_berger_sm_2.jpg
- Image of the advertisement in The Jewish Press, June 28 1996
- Rabbis Blast Lubavitcher Messianism, Warn Resurrection Talk Echoes Christian Themes, Lucette Lagnado, The Forward, December 2, 1994
- HaRebbi Melech HaMoshiach, David Berger, Urim Publications, 2005. p.75, note 7. (The book is an expanded edition and translation into Hebrew of: The Rebbe, The Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference)
- Singer, David, "The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Heresy Hunter", First Things, May 2003. Reprinted on the OrthdoxyToday.org website.
- Berger, David, "Response to David Singer", OrthodoxyToday.org, accessed May 28, 2006.