Will the Rebbe Return?



Dennis Prager

Irresponsible Slander
Chabad teaches Jews about Judaism—not about the Rebbe as Messiah.

David Berger, a Modern Orthodox Jew who is a professor of history at Brooklyn College, published an attack on Chabad in a recent issue of Commentary magazine. The attack was based on Berger's new book, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference. As a great admirer of Commentary for more than 30 years, I read the article with much anticipation. It was, however, the only article I ever read in that journal that was unworthy of it. Not because the subject is unworthy of exploration and certainly not because any Jewish group should be immune from sharp criticism, but because Professor Berger built his case largely by quoting unnamed Chabad sources.

Nevertheless, the attack, as irresponsible as it may have been, is an important one that needs to be addressed. Professor Berger argues that if we are to take Judaism's beliefs seriously, all Jews (especially Orthodox Jews, whom he accuses of sinful silence regarding Chabad beliefs) must confront Chabad for believing that the late Chabad leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, "the Rebbe," was the Messiah, and deeming him a divine being. In essence, he accuses Chabad of having beliefs as alien to Judaism as those of Jews for Jesus.

As I intend to defend Chabad, full personal disclosure is necessary. I am not a member of Chabad, I am not an Orthodox Jew, and my regular synagogue is Reform. I do, however, have extensive experience working with Chabad. I have lectured for Chabad in many communities around the world and I am on the board of directors of the Conejo Jewish Day School, a Chabad-run community school in Agoura, Calif.

In all my years dealing with Chabad rabbis, I have never heard a hint of the beliefs Professor Berger accuses Chabad of espousing. Of course it is possible, in the sense that almost anything attributed to unexpressed beliefs is possible, that all or some of these scores of rabbis I have worked with believe the Rebbe was or still is the Messiah or even divine. But since neither I nor any other non-Chabad Jew I have talked to has ever heard their local Chabad rabbis say this, the charge is meaningless and irresponsible. What some unnamed Chabad rabbis in Brooklyn say is of no significance in the day-to-day Jewish programming of Chabad houses around the world.

As a Jew who has devoted much of his life to making the case for ethical monotheism, I am very sensitive to any Jewish deviation from monotheistic beliefs. But if there are any Chabadniks who so deviate, they are so few and so ostracized that they merely represent the proverbial tree that fell in the forest.

As for the belief that the Rebbe was or is the Messiah, it may well be true that this is not a fringe belief among Chabad rabbis. But, again, I have never heard this in decades of involvement with Chabad. Among those Chabad rabbis who believed this or who still believe it, this belief is entirely personal and plays no role whatsoever in the outreach work of Chabad. Chabad teaches Jews about Judaism, not about the Rebbe as Messiah. There is no parallel between Chabad and Jews for Jesus. Drawing such a parallel is as immoral as it is intellectually dishonest. Chabad believers in the messiahship of the Rebbe have been utterly silent about it in the presence of other Jews, while the very essence of Jews for Jesus has always been to proselytize other Jews—to bring Jews to belief in Jesus as God as well as Messiah, and thereby to make Jews into Christians. If you do not believe in Jesus as Messiah and as the son of God, you cannot be a Jew for Jesus. Is there any analogous criterion for membership in Chabad? Of course not. Shame on anyone who likens the two groups.

Nevertheless, it is fair to assume that the belief in the Rebbe as Messiah may well motivate some Chabad couples to leave their homes, their culture, their families, and their friends to cheerfully live among largely irreligious Jews and non-Jews in the remotest areas of the world. And if so, more power to them. Obviously there is no equally compelling belief among members of other Jewish groups to make similar sacrifices for Jewry.

But isn't this belief Jewishly sinful? Not in my opinion, and not in the opinion of many Orthodox Jewish sources and some leading non-Chabad Orthodox rabbis such as Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, who has defended Chabad Jews' right to their beliefs about the Rebbe.

I cannot help but think that part of what animates some Orthodox Jews to attack Chabad (and remember, most Orthodox Jews do not attack Chabad, which is precisely what bothers Professor Berger) is old-time misnagdish antipathy to another expression of Orthodoxy. Since the beginnings of Hasidism, some Orthodox Jews have resented the "worship of God through joy" and mysticism that permeates Chabad: "You mean how many pages of Gemara a Jew knows is not of utmost importance? Heresy!"

Envy may be at play as well. Just about anywhere there are Jews on this planet, there is a Chabad presence thanks to the ubiquitous Chabad House. Other Orthodox Jews greatly outnumber Chabad, but Orthodox rabbis and lay people overwhelmingly live only among other Orthodox Jews. Indeed, there is often suspicion and bewilderment among many Orthodox Jews about Chabad rabbis moving their families to places with virtually no other Orthodox Jews, no kosher food, no mikvah, no Orthodox minyan. Yet, these young Chabad men and women move anywhere and everywhere, often to be utterly alone, and do so with big smiles and unrelenting enthusiasm.

I have come to deeply admire these Chabad shlichim (emissaries). I admire their happy and non-judgmental dispositions. I have never met a dour Chabad rabbi. These couples are personable, funny, vibrant, happy, and, given their largely fundamentalist beliefs, remarkably non-judgmental of others. After spending 10 years writing a book on happiness, I have come to value happiness as a moral, not just psychological, necessity. Happy people do a lot more good for humanity than the unhappy and whining. And these people tend to be happy—and remarkably accepting. They see other Jews as fellow Jews, not as non-halachic sinners. For years I wondered how Chabad can so frequently invite this non-Orthodox Jew to lecture for them, especially since the Orthodox world of Professor Berger almost never invites non-Orthodox Jews. One day I realized the answer: The Orthodox ask, "Does he drive on Shabbos?" while Chabad asks "Does he help us bring Jews to Judaism?"

In sum, though I do not share Chabad's Orthodox halachic observances or the messianic claims some of its rabbis hold regarding the Rebbe (though what Jew would not at least hope that they are right?), along with many other Jews, I acknowledge the great things Chabad does for Jews and Judaism. Chabad deserves Jews' gratitude, not vitriol.

© MOMENT 2002


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