The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference

BookThe Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference

The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference

With a New Introduction

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization


March 1st, 2008

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This book is a history, an indictment, a lament, and an appeal, focusing on the messianic trend in Lubavitch hasidism. It demonstrates how hasidim who affirm the dead Rebbe's messiahship have abandoned one of Judaism's core beliefs in favour of adherence to the doctrine of a second coming. At the same time, it decries the remarkable equanimity with which the standard-bearers of Orthodoxy have granted legitimacy to this development by continuing to recognize such believers as Orthodox Jews in good standing. This dramatic abandonment of the age-old Jewish resistance to a quintessentially Christian belief is a development of striking importance for the history of religions, and it is an earthquake in the history of Judaism. David Berger chronicles the unfolding of this development from a personal viewpoint. He describes the growing concern that impelled him to undertake an anti-messianist campaign-publications, correspondence, and the sponsorship of a Rabbinical Council of America resolution excluding this belief from authentic Judaism. He argues that a large number, almost certainly a substantial majority, of Lubavitch hasidim believe in the Rebbe's messiahship; a significant segment, including educators in the central institutions of the movement, maintain a theology that goes beyond posthumous messianism to the affirmation that the Rebbe is pure divinity. While many Jews see Lubavitch as a marginal phenomenon, its influence is in fact growing at a remarkable rate-to the point where its representatives are poised to dominate Orthodox religious institutions not merely in isolated outposts but in several major countries throughout the world. This book analyses the boundaries of Judaism's messianic faith and its conception of God. It assesses the threat posed by the messianists of Lubavitch and points to the consequences, ranging from undermining a fundamental argument against the Christian mission to calling into question the kosher status of many foods and ritual objects prepared under Lubavitch supervision. Finally, it proposes a strategy to protect authentic Judaism from this assault.

‘The principle is right, the passion is right, and the deeply classical nature of David Berger's book is very moving. It is rare that the scholarly study of Judaism so intensely engages with living Judaism. Berger's erudite ferocity is exhilarating.’  Leon Wieseltier

‘Carefully and vigorously argued . . . a compelling, jarring, deeply disturbing polemic and precisely what Professor Berger intended it to be: “[A] memoir, a history, a religious tract . . . an indictment, a lament, and an appeal.” It is passionate, yet scholarly and precise. Its message is emotional and religiously inspired, yet its careful treatment of evidence bears the unmistakable mark of a seasoned scholar.’  Yaakov Kermaier, Tradition

‘Throughly engrossing book . . . 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 . . . Astute historian that he is, he offers trenchant and compelling explanations for this lack of aggressive Orthodox reaction to this latest false messianism . . . an articulate, thoughtful, and passionate book.’  Benny Kraut, Shofar

‘Until now, no one has made the case as forcefully as Berger . . . If its j’accuse is ignored and its author dismissed, it will mean that the leadership of Orthodoxy is too timid to confront a major challenge to Jewish faith, and that would be tragic indeed.’  Jack Riemer, Moment

‘A courageous and important book . . . It is courageous because it is the first book of its kind and is directed against an icon of Orthodoxy. It is important because it has something important to say to a number of different constituencies . . . carefully and clearly argues, and generally persuasive . . . enhanced, in this regard, by its memoir form, which draws the reader into Berger’s legitimate agony as his awareness of the problematics of Chabad messianism grows along with his equal despair that no one else seems to care.’  Lippman Bodoff, Midstream

‘A courageous and very troubling memoir . . . His criticism cannot be easily dismissed . . . Berger has performed an important service to world Jewry by raising an issue that for too long has been swept under the rug.’  Lifestyles Magazine

‘A profoundly fascinating and at the same time a profoundly disturbing story of admiration turning to adulation, thence through mass hysteria and mysticism to messianism . . . authoritative.’  Geoffrey Alderman, Jewish Journal of Sociology

‘Passionate, powerful, brilliant . . . records not only conviction, but evidence and argument . . . 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.’  Jacob Neusner, Jerusalem Post

‘Compelling . . . imperative reading, as it carefully and systematically documents the true nature and scope of contemporary Lubavitch missionary work.’  Allan Nadler, Forward

‘A passionate account of one man’s involvement in a controversy that may well be one of the new century’s major religion stories.’  Alan Cochrum, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

‘The growth of Lubavitch does cause concern, and Berger’s book must be read to why it can be a danger to all of Judaism. This book is a brilliant exposition of the parameters of contemporary messianism . . . both the author and the publishers must be commended for their courage and openness.’  Uri Ben Alexander, European Judaism

‘Years from now, this work will likely be seen as a primary text that formed part of the internal Jewish debate.’  N. R. Deutsch, Choice

Author Information

David Berger, who received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, is Professor of History at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University. For many years he was Broeklundian Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and co-chair of the Academic Advisory Committee of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. He is a Fellow and Executive Committee member of the American Academy for Jewish Research, and a member of the Council of the World Union of Jewish Studies, the Academic Committee of the Rothschild Foundation Europe, and the editorial board of Tradition. He has been a visiting professor at Harvard and Yale, and from 1998 to 2000, he served as President of the Association for Jewish Studies. He is the author of 'The Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages' (1979), which was awarded the John Nicholas Brown Prize by the Medieval Academy of America, and co-author of 'Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration?' (1997), a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in Jewish Thought.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Note on Style and Transliteration10
Introduction to the Paperback Edition12
1 From Heroism to Heterodoxy: The Crisis of a Movement and the Danger to a Faith49
2 The New Messianism: Passing Phenomenon or Turning Point in the History of Judaism?63
3 Aborted Initiatives and Sustained Attacks77
4 The Second Coming: A Rejoinder86
5 Revisiting the Second Coming98
6 The Rabbinical Council of America Resolution107
7 The Council of Torah Sages121
8 The Spectre of Idolatry126
9 On False Messianism, Idolatry, and Lubavitch136
10 Debating Avodah Zarah140
11 Judaism is Changing Before Our Eyes156
12 From Margin to Mainstream: The Consolidation and Expansion of the Messianist Beachhead162
13 Explaining the Inexplicable179
14 What Must Be Done?188
APPENDIX I: On a Messiah who Dies with his Mission Unfulfilled: Selected Quotations196
APPENDIX II: The Parameters of Avodah Zarah204
APPENDIX III: Tosafot on ‘Association’ (Shituf)220