In an extraordinary essay, David Berger argues that the followers of the Lubavitch Rebbe revere him not just a Messiah, but a God - thus writing themselves out of Judaism altogether.
By David Berger (January 11, 1998)
In the fall of 1995, I published an article in Jewish Action, the journal of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which decried the silence of rabbinic leaders regarding the declaration on the part of many Lubavitch hassidim that the late Rebbe is the Messiah. This silence, I argued, combined with the acceptance of Messianists as Orthodox Jews in good standing, fundamantally transforms Judaism, betrays the Messianic faith of our ancestors, and grants Christian missionaries victory with respect to a key issue in the millennial debate between Judaism and Christianity. At its annual convention in June 1996, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) responded to this challenge with a declaration that "there is not and never has been a place in Judaism for the belief that the Messiah, a son of David, will begin a Messianic career only to experience death, burial, and ressurection before completing it."
In the aftermath of both the article and the RCA resolution, defenders of Lubavitch presented documents which allegedly demonstrated the acceptability of this patently un-Jewish doctrine. They also circulated a letter in the name of highly distinguished Rabbi R. Ahron Soloveichik of Chicago, which he had authorized only in part and which contains material flatly contradicting statements that he had issued several months after the Rebbe's death, when he affirmed that this belief is possible in Christianity but not in Judaism and is "repugnant to everything Judaism represents."
In addition, they argued that Lubavitch hassidim, unlike Christians, observe Jewish law and do not regard their Messiah as the Diety. While I addressed the documents in some detail, I responded to the last point delicately, reluctantly, and briefly. However, recent developments have made this caution obselete and irresponsible.
First, despite the isolated efforts of a handful of brave Hassidim, the dominant institutions of the Lubavitch movement are either overtly Messianist or unwilling to declare unequivocally that the Rebbe is not the Messiah. A formal legal ruling (psak din) has just been issued by the head of the Crown Heights Rabbinical Court, the Rabbi of Kfar Chabad, the Lubavitch Vice-Chair of Agudat Ha'rabanim, and other major leaders of the movement, asserting that Jewish law requires belief in the Messiahship of the Rebbe.
In my view, this declaration alone is sufficient to exclude its promulgators from Orthodox Judaism; Lubavitch leaders who wish to salvage the movement's standing as an expression of authentic Judaism face the urgent obligation to repudiate the ruling publicly. Any Lubavitch instituition that fulfills this obligation by assuring us of the summary dismissal of anyone who teaches the Messiahship of the Rebbe will deserve to be placed at the apex of our philanthropic priorities.
Though the belief that the rebbe is the Messiah is itself a repudiation of a fundamental doctrine, at this point it is only the beginning. We now confront an incredible reality which has surged beyond the confines of false Messianism and the "mere" affirmation of a Second Coming. A process which developed over decades, even generations, in Christianity and the seventeenth-century movement of the Messianic pretender Shabtai Zvi is unfolding with blinding speed in Lubavitch Messianism. To a historian, this is a gripping drama, the opportunity not of one lifetime but of many; to a believing Jew, it is the bizarre rerun of a nightmare. The Lubavitcher Rebbe is becoming God.
For example, in the fall of 1996, the Israeli weekly Sichat HaGeullah printed a revised version of the standard Messianist slogan which read "May our Master, Teacher, and Creator (instead of 'Rabbi') the King Messiah live forever," and a few weeks later it declared that it is permissible to bow to the Rebbe because "his entire essence is divinity alone."
A Messianist catchism published in Safed describes the Rebbe, who is still physically alive, as in charge "of all that happens in the world. Without his agreement no event can take place. If it is his will, he can bring about anything and who can tell him what to do?...In him the Holy One Blessed be He rests in all His force just as He is...so that this becomes his entire essence." Another Israeli publication (Peninei Geullah) reported approvingly that the Rebbe was addressed after his apparent death as "Honored Rebbe, the Holy One Blessed be He."
In a French journal, the date of the Rebbe's death, 3 Tamuz, was described as the day of the King Messiah's apotheose" (i.e. ascent to heaven as a divinity), while an English article in the journal Beis Moshiach characterized the Rebbe as the "Essence and Being of God enclothed in a body,", emphasizing that these are "neither wild exagerations nor poetic parables." Finally, it concluded, "so [who is our God?]...The Rebbe, [King Messiah], that's who.", In the summer 1997 edition of The Jewish Observer, the journal of Agudath Israel in the U.S, Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller of the Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago cited the Beis Moshiach article, alluded to a New York Times advertisment which urged that prayers be directed to the Rebbe, and spoke of a frightening turn toward Avoda Zarah (idolatry).The director of the Chabad Regional Headquarters of Illinois, a mainstream Lubavitch organization which lists 15 institutions, has disseminated a response which affirms that the material cited by Rabbi Keller is perfectly acceptable and that an exceedingly righteous man can become "indistinguishable" from God. The evidence for this, which circulated in limited editions among believers in his divinity, consists of an absolutly literal understanding of citations that speak of the presence of God in rabbis and prophets (but never suggest, of course, that those rabbis are omniscient and omnipotent).
Rabbi Keller was kind enough to share with me his trenchant rejoinder to this letter, which, I hope, will find its way into print.
It is evident, then, that this belief, that the Rebbe is literally God and that he should be the object of prayer, has entered mainstream Lubavitch. In the terminology of Jewish law, this is idolatry. One who teaches this theology and urges that it be ritually expressed is an inciter to idolatry, not an admirable educator or practioner of outreach. One who supports an institution in which this is taught violates a prohibition so severe that there is a requirement to die rather than transgress. If a believer in this theology slaughtered an animal ritually, it has the status of a non-kosher carcass, which can undermine the kashrut of a restaurant or a home. A divorce document signed by such a believer or a Torah scroll written by him are invalid. A non Jew who converts to this sort of Judaism remains, nontheless, a non- Jew.
Despite its polemical tone, I regard this article as a vehicle for information whose implications should be beyond debate. Our ancestors gave their lives rather than worship a divine Messiah. To the extent that if we so much as consider the acceptance within Orthodox Judaism of people who direct prayers to a deceased Rabbi perceived as the omnipotent, omniscient Deity, we launch an assult upon the very core of the Jewish religion.
(David Berger is a professor of history at Brooklyn College, an ordained rabbi and president of the Association for Jewish Studies in the United States).
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