Salvation or Destruction? the Meaning and Consequences of Lubavitch Messianism

Article excerpt

The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, by David Berger. London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001. 195pp. $29.50.

At supper one night at a friend's home in Montreal in the mid-1960s, I was seated next to a very prominent Orthodox rabbi/scholar/teacher of mitnaged heritage, himself linked by marriage to an even more illustrious Lithuanian gadol, who shared the profound historic disdain of mitnagedim for hasidism. Strikingly, however, he expressed willingness to reconsider his stance on hasidism generally because of his regard for the religious direction of the Lubavitch movement. "Only in our day and age must we consider whether hasidism is consonant with Judaism," he declared, "and that is because of the Lubavitchers and their emphasis on Torah study." How ironic, then, to read one generation later the charge of David Berger, another eminent rabbi/scholar who is by and large far more sympathetic to hasidism, that the belief of an influential sub-group of Lubavitcher hasidim in their deceased Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as the "King-Messiah," represents a "catastrophe," a dire threat to the integrity of Judaism and its fundamental messianic idea.

This reversal is ironic perhaps, but, in light of the events and trends discussed in the work under review, quite understandable. In this thoroughly engrossing book, which is at once memoir and intellectual history, theological tract and religious polemic, ominous jeremiad and clarion call to action, David Berger traces in detail his evolving seven-year battle with Lubavitch messianism and messianists. Berger has waged this war of words virtually single-handedly, through published essays in the Jewish press and periodical literature, as well as through personal oral appeals and letters to the key Modern Orthodox and Yeshiva-world rabbinic leaders and institutions in the United States and Israel. (Some of these earlier writings are, in fact, reprinted as chapters in this book.) He has tried to galvanize Orthodox opposition to what he perceives to be the calamitous gradual legitimization of Lubavitch's false messianism, a legitimization based on the booming silence on this matter emanating from Orthodox quarters. This book summarizes his past efforts, while simultaneously pondering and castigating the critical failure of nerve of Orthodox Jewish leadership, which, with only a few exceptions, has not publicly joined his struggle. (He has received private support and commendations from such disparate sources as Yeshiva University President Norman Lamm, Former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, individual members of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, and members of the Israeli rabbinic establishment. Only the Rabbinic Council of America, by official organizational resolution, has taken a public stance against the false messianic idea implicit in Lubavitch messianism.)

Berger's abiding Orthodox religious commitment, deep familiarity with religious texts and ideas, and specialized training in historical scholarship have singularly positioned and qualified him to embark on this defense of Judaism; indeed, his biography is integral to this story and vital for comprehending his self-conceived mission,(1) His case against Lubavitch messianism is clear and distinct. The Rebbe died on June 12, 1994. Proponents of his messianic status, therefore, not only must believe that the messiah can be a dead man resurrected -- an utterly problematic claim within the corpus of traditional Jewish texts, given that there is only one possible talmudic source, read according to one interpretation of Rashi, which could possibly support this view; even more implausibly, they have to believe that a redeemer [read the Rebbe] has come, has announced the beginning of redemption, has died before consummating his messianic mission, and that he will one day return to complete his unfulfilled task. This idea, Berger insists, cannot be substantiated by any halakhic or hashkafic sources and is unprecedented in Jewish history. …