Yussel

The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The "Heresy" of Chabad

By Joel N. Shurkin

No one talks about it in public. The Jewish press tries to ignore it. Most Orthodox Jews probably wish it would go away. But, in a dispute virtually unprecedented in 500 years, a major and well-known movement in traditional Judaism either is or is not guilty of heresy, a sin that usually brought excommunication.

In Baltimore, the head of Ner Israel, one of American Orthodoxy’s most prominent yeshivas, has declared that some members of the the Chasidic Lubavitch (Chabad) movement can no longer be counted in a minyan (the gathering of 10 Jewish men reqired for certain prayers), give testimony, act as ritual slaughterers or determine the kashrus of food because they are apikoros (unbelievers).

In New York, a prominent Orthodox scholar has fought a lonely, public battle against Chabad and has earned petulant silence for his efforts. Others who have stood up against Chabad have been vilified and attacked, and the whole Orthodox community seems to think any public discussion is bad for the Jews.

It will not, however, go away.

A letter written by Rabbi Aharon Feldman of Ner Israel on June 24, 2003, widely distributed in Orthodox circles but unnoticed elsewhere, was as close to an excommunication as Judaism follows these days. The letter was aimed at those members of the Lubavitcher movement who consider the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to be both the Messiah (Moshiach) and an incorporation of pure divinity. Those who do not accept the pure divinity of Schneerson but still believe him to be the Messiah (perhaps most Lubavitchers) are not subject to his declaration, Feldman wrote quietly, but are considered dangerous because their beliefs may dig “beneath very foundation of Jewish belief in the Moshiach.”

“It is still forbidden to support them or publicize their opinions for it is forbidden to support falsehood. All the more so in this case, where there exists the danger that their belief might spread to the general Jewish community and thus the Torah itself could be erased from Israel, chas v’shalom.”

While Feldman’s letter will have little practical effect—it applies only to Ner Israel and its students and faculty, however prestigious—it has touched off a predictable brouhaha in the Orthodox community. Members of Chabad responded with fury to an accusation of heresy. The letter also exposes a chasm of belief within the Lubavitch community that is tearing the wealthy, ubiquitous group apart.

At first, local Chabad leaders in Baltimore agreed to be interviewed for this story but as the meeting approached, Rabbi Schmuel Kaplan, Maryland director of the movement, said he had changed his mind. He did not want to further divisiveness, he said. Other rabbis, who had also agreed, also backed out. In an e-mail message, Kaplan wrote:

“The Rebbe, of righteous memory, gave us a mandate to devote ourselves to Ahavat Yisroel [love of all Jews] and to spreading the knowledge and practice of Judaism to all segments of our community. Though, with the help of G-d, Chabad Lubavitch of the Maryland region today operates 12 outreach centers, there is still much to be accomplished to fulfill this mission. We cannot afford to part icipate in any kind of discussion or dispute that may divert us from this noble objective.

“Furthermore, the Rabbis and leaders of our community have invested much time and effort over the years to maintain the peace and harmony that characterizes our community. We will not engage in any activity that may jeopardize this unique communal atmosphere.

“As always, we are eager to answer questions from any interested individuals, about any aspect of our movement.”

Kaplan himself has gone out of his way to keep extremists out of his facilities.


The argument has historic proportions. David Berger, an Orthodox rabbi and professor of history at Brooklyn College, says that with the exception of followers of Shabbatai Zvi in the 16th century, “Lubavitch messianists have already generated the largest and most long-lived messianic movement in Jewish history since antiquity.”

The most famous movements before that were the rise of Christianity and the false messianism of Shimon Bar-Kokhba, who was killed by the Romans in 135 C.E., a defeat that led to an unmitigated disaster for the Jews. Berger's 2001 book, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, stunned the Jewish world, not so much for what he said but that he said it all.

That Chabad is still commonly accepted within Orthodoxy despite its heterodoxy, and that its rabbis operate fully within the Orthodox community—sitting on Jewish courts and running non-Chabad yeshivas—infuriates Berger and others. Lubavitchers also run community day schools, act as outreach facilitators to non-observant Jews or Jews who live in or visit remote areas. A Lubavitch family owns the largest glatt kosher meat packing plant in the world, AgriProcessors. Lubavitch often act as semi-official representatives of the Jewish community at public ceremonies.

Previous attempts to get the Orthodox community to shun Chabad—or at least face the problem—have largely failed.

Chabad is a vast organization and much of its support comes from non-Orthodox Jews. It does not use the money on personal luxuries.

At the Chabad synagogue Baltimore, a visitor is welcomed warmly just as one would at any of the Lubavitch synagogues and out-reach centers. The Clark’s Lane synagogue is a small, shabby white building just off Park Heights Avenue. It in no way reflects the extensive wealth of the organization.

One December shabbos eve, about 40 men and boys, all dressed in black and wearing black hats, fill a plain room filled with tables covered with plastic table clothes and worn books. The walls can kindly be described as off-white, the floor, worn. They davened at their own speed, joining only for the various kaddishes [prayers that delineate parts of the service] and a roaring version of the song L’cha Dodi, which inspires a march around the tables in true Chasidic fashion, complete with foot stomping and hand clapping. There are no decorations; clearly few resources have been spent on aesthetics. The only decoration visible is a poster of the Rebbe in the entrance hall, but the faces of other rabbis surround him.

The synagogue is in marked physical contrast to the new outreach center on Old Pimlico Road in Pikesville, donated by a supporter and meant to be as attractive as possible, and to Lubavitch centers elsewhere. Kaplan is in charge there and he has kept supposed heresy from its door.

The great battle

Lubavitch is a perhaps the best known of the Chasidic sects.

Chasidim was founded in the 18th century by Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal-Shem Tov (“master of God’s good name”) as a reaction to hard times in the Jewish communities of eastern Europe and what many thought was a ritual-bound, scholar-ridden yeshiva Judaism. He advocated a Judaism of joy, music, dance, mysticism and an ability to communicate directly to God through tzaddikim or righteous men. Being happy was a major commandment for a Jew.

Chasidim was furiously opposed by the mainstream community led by Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the legendary Vilna Gaon, in one of the greatest religious battles of Jewish history. Despite the excommunication of many Chasidic leaders, Zalman lost the war as Chasidim spread throughout Poland and Lithuania. The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1900 states that half the Jews of the world alive then was Chasidim. In the ensuing centuries, many Chasidic sects have altered their practices toward the mainstream while normative Orthodoxy has adopted some Chasidic practices and customs, a kind of necessary accommodation that apparently goes only so far.

Opponents to Chasidism are called the mitnagdim and while they have become reconciled to the existence of Chasidim, the battle still continues at some level and has some echoes in the current dispute, with Chabad the most frequent target.

The Chabad sect of Chasidim was founded in the 1770s by Rabbi Shneur Zalman and takes the name Lubavitch from a town where many of its leaders lived. Chabad is an acronym for the Hebrew words for conception, understanding and realization, according to Rabbi Tuvia Bolton, assistant dean of Yeshiva Orh Tmimim, a Lubavitch academy in Israel. The yeshiva is located in Kfar Chabad, the main Lubavitch settlement in Israel.

Chabad is famed for its outreach program to bring non-observant Jews back to the fold and provide Jewish food and services for travelers. It has taken its mission literally to the ends of the earth, from Kansas City to Katmandu. Indeed, one of the largest Passover Seders anywhere is the annual service in Nepal’s capital, run by Chabad, mostly for traveling Israelis. Looking for a kosher meal in Boise? Chabad just opened an outreach house in Idaho. Shabbos in Beijing? Lubavitch has a center, catering mostly to the business community., Need bar mitzvah instructions in the Congo? Try Chabad on Avenue Lukusa in Kinshasa. They have “Mitzvah tanks" that roam the streets of New York, stopping men who seem Jewish to encourage them to wear tefillin (phylacteries), While the outreach program was controversial in Orthodoxy when it began, even critics now acknowledge that a large percentage of Jews returning to observance (Baalei Tshuva or BTs) was sent there by Chabad.

Asked why Chabad is so widely accepted and why many knowledgeable Jews would prefer to avoid the theological problems with Chabad, a Conservative rabbi said, “Because they do good things.”

The movement is centered at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, revered as the “Rebbe’s shul." An exact duplicate of “770” was built in Israel, identical brick by brick, so that if the Rebbe ever wanted to visit, he would feel at home. He never visited. It is one of the most controversial of the Chasidic sects, shunned even by other Chasidim, especially the Satmars, the largest Chasidic group (“Jews didn’t wait for a messiah whose wife drives a car”).

A prominent Torah sage, Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, was once asked which non-Jewish religion was theologically closest to Judaism. He famously replied:

“Lubavitch.”

Like most Chasidic sects, the Lubavitcher rabbinate was a hereditary position, but Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitch rabbi, died in 1994 without an heir, leaving the huge and wealthy movement without an obvious future. Many critics believed the messianic movement was a way of keeping Chabad going. Stunned by his death, many in the group either denied it was true (he was buried in Queens and his grave has become a shrine, complete with a nearby fax machine in case someone wants to forward a prayer), or predicted his imminent resurrection as the Messiah.

Schneerson never actually claimed to be the Messiah, but critics say he did nothing to discourage talk of it while he was alive and never denied it. A “white-bearded figure with a brisk, almost military gait and kindly, penetrating blue eyes,” with unquestioned charisma and recognized scholarship, he predicted the imminent coming of the Messiah, one of the prerequisites for the messianic age, and greeted claims that it was he with a wink.

Enter Rambam

As is fitting for a bitter theological dispute in Judaism, the controversy centers on the interpretation of one sentence in the writings of Maimonides—the Rambam—written in the 12th century.

While many Jews are not acutely aware of it, Judaism has a long history of messianism, and in his Mishnah Torah, Maimonides lays out how you can tell the true Messiah when he comes along.

“If a king arises from the House of David who studies the Torah and pursues the commandments like his ancestor David in accordance with the written and oral law, and he compels all Israel to follow and strengthen it, and fights the wars of the Lord—this man enjoys the presumption of being the Messiah. If he proceeds successfully, builds the Temple in its place and gathers the dispersed of Israel, then he is surely the Messiah.”

Then the crucial sentence:

“But if he does not succeed to this extent, or is killed, it is evident that he is not the one whom the Torah promised….”

Under the almost universally accepted interpretation of Maimonides, Schneerson can’t be the Messiah because he died. According to mainstream Judaism, the Messiah must redeem the world and live to tell about it. That belief, among other reasons, disqualifies Jesus. It also leaves messianists among the Lubavitchers with a serious problem: the body buried in Queens.

The late Rebbe “can’t be the Messiah—he is not living—a Messiah has to be living, a living Messiah, not a dead Messiah,” said Rabbi Aharon Solovetchik, one of the greatest Talmudists of the 20th century.

The problem of the Rebbe’s apparent demise also explains why some messianists insist the rabbi did not really die. They took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times asserting there cannot be a yartzeit (memorial service) for him since he is still alive, and recently several dozen of them were arrested for rioting in Brooklyn because a plaque placed in honor of the Rebbe contained the Hebrew abbreviation used to signify someone who has passed away. Many still speak about him in the present tense.

Berger points out that only two messianic movements in Judaism lasted after the supposed Messiah died: Shabbatianism, which also survived the conversion of Zvi to Islam and still has a few followers in Turkey, and Christianity. Both are considered Jewish heresies.

The criticism is unfounded, say Chabad rabbis.

“Maimonides was referring to J.C. [Jesus],” says Bolton. Bolton says that traditional Judaism has always permitted the death of the Messiah because in tradition, the dead will rise again.

If that belief is legitimate Jewish thought, counters Berger, then the only difference between Chabad and Christianity is a case of “mistaken identity.” Christians think it was Jesus; Chabad thinks it was Schneerson.

How many Lubavitchers actually think Schneerson is the Messiah is unknown. Berger says he first thought it was a minority but now thinks otherwise. Bolton says he may be right. The messianists say that all Lubavitchers agree he is Moshiach. No one knows if that is true.

Chabad services regularly include the prayer, the Yehi, in which they pray to “our Master, the King Messiah” in honor of the Rebbe. Lubavitch children regularly chant “We Want Moshiach Now!” at school, and it is clear whom they are chanting about.

The Godhead

But the issue gets more complicated. Some Lubavitchers now believe that the late rabbi has so subsumed his human essence to God that he is now pure divinity, the godhead. They add the word borainu (our Creator) to the Yehi prayer. God.

It is that concept that seems to have stirred Feldman to the battle.

Ner Israel is not a newcomer to the dispute with Chabad. Feldman’s predecessor, Rabbi Schmuel Yaakov Weinberg, was one of the most prominent of the mitnagdim and like the heads of several other yeshivas, put the messianic aspects of Chabad beyond the pale of Jewish thought.

Ner Israel is the second largest Orthodox yeshiva in North America and one of the most prestigious. Its presence in Baltimore is one of the reasons for the high concentration of Orthodox here. Indeed, Weinberg’s opposition to Chabad maybe why Chabad’s presence in Baltimore is weaker than in many other places. About 80 people daven at the Chabad Center on Old Pimlico Road, and not all of them are Lubavitchers. Bolton says it is not possible to count the actual membership.

In response to a student’s question on how to deal with Lubavitchers, Feldman divided Chabad into two groups, those who believe that Schneerson will be resurrected as Moshiach, whom he called the “meshichistim,” and those who believe that “the essence of the Divine is enclothed” in the Rebbe, the “elokistim.”

“In my humble opinion,” he wrote, “the belief of the elokistim runs counter to one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith [of Maimonides] and indeed, the Rambam rules that such people are in the category of heretics. Therefore, their shechita (ritual slaughter) and testimony (including that relating to kashrus [kosher laws]) are invalid and one may not include them in a minyan. Even if their belief is inadvertent, it is already well known (from R. Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk z’’l) that one who holds an opinion of non-belief inadvertently is considered a non-believer nonetheless.”

Since many in Chabad have not publicly stated their beliefs, Feldman wrote that the presumption should be that they are not elokstim. (Berger, on the other hand, will not eat a meal for which any Lubavitcher provided the kosher certification because one never knows. At least one major caterer in New York City refuses to handle meat from Lubavitch sources as well.)

As for those who profess their belief in the Rebbe as the Messiah without the divinity aspect, the meshichistim, he said “they remain within the category of ‘your nation,’ and their testimony and shechita are valid and it is permitted to include them in a minyan. However, great danger surrounds their belief, for it digs beneath the very foundation of the Jewish belief in Moshiach.” However, he wrote, even though they cannot be considered non-believers, they are obviously lacking in “Torah understanding,” and their opinions should not be relied on, “even in issues that do not relate to Moshiach.”

There are no sources in either written or oral law to support the possibility of Schneerson being the Messiah, he wrote. What sources they present, he wrote, are without substance.

“Therefore, one who finds himself among Lubavitchers who observe customs aimed at strengthening their faith…is required to leave, or, if possible, to offer rebuke.”

The letter is not quite the equivalent of excommunication, a practice that went out of style in the 19th century. The most famous excommunication was that of the rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza in 1656. Most educated people still read his works while the names of the Amsterdam rabbis who excommunicated him are long forgotten. More than 100 years later, traditional rabbis excommunicated the leaders of Germany’s Reform movement and others influenced by the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, but after a few generations, when it was obvious the ban had no effect, abandoned the practice.

Nonetheless, the Feldman letter and the opposition of others in the traditional Orthodox community, essentially de-legitimize Chabad. The movement itself seems torn on how to respond in public.

“About 20 percent want to advertise the belief,” Bolton says, “about 20 percent think it would be a mistake to publicize it, and the other 60 percent aren’t sure.”

The Central Committee of Chabad Lubavitch, caught in the middle, also issued a statement.

“The deification of any human being is contrary to the core and foundation of the Jewish faith. The various Talmudic, Midrashic and other sources which seem to ascribe superhuman spiritual attributes to certain righteous people, were never meant to be deification and great care must be taken when quoting them,” the statement said.

“Belief in the coming of Moshiach and awaiting his imminent arrival is a basic tenet of the Jewish faith. It is clear, however, that conjecture to the possible identity of Moshiach is not part of the basic tenet of Judaism. The preoccupation with identifying the Rebbe z’’l as Moshiach is clearly contrary to the Rebbe’s wishes.”

The statement, however, may very well represent a minority opinion within Chabad and it is not clear the messianism is contrary to the Rebbe's wishes.

Raising the dead

Bolton says the requirements for the Messiah are simple and basic to Jewish belief: a Jewish male from the House of David, preferably on his mother’s side. He must be versed in Torah and must encourage others to study Torah by force of his logic and loving explanations. He must fight God’s battles, meaning any influence that weakens Judaism.

“The Rebbe had every quality.”

Every generation has its potential Moshiach, and he was the candidate for his generation. His father-in-law, the Lubavitcher rebbe before him, was the candidate for the previous generation, Bolton says. That he is of the seventh generation is particularly telling, many of his supporters say, seven being a number of great significance.

It is written that before the Messiah comes, he must be preceded by a messianic age and Schneerson announced that age was here before he died.

So what about the body buried in Queens?

That he died only amplifies his qualifications. Rambam, among others, Bolton says, wrote that the Messiah must come from the dead and that the resurrection of the dead is central to Jewish messianic belief. To say otherwise, he says, is to misunderstand him.

“Moshiach is the essence of Judaism, as is the raising of the dead. The two concepts do not contradict one another.”

As to the Rebbe, now in his grave 10 years, “The Jewish body has no connection with death whatsoever. The physical is eternal. Now it seems the spiritual is higher, that the body dies and decomposes. That’s what seems to us, but it is not true. The body is eternal and will be reconstructed,” he says.

“The Rebbe, before he went to cheder [religious school], before he was two, weaved in his mind that the Moshiach will come and make understandable the suffering all the Jews have suffered all these years.”

And the divinity of the Rebbe? “Every single Jew incorporates divinity.”

Rabbi Jonathan Seidemann, a spokesman for R. Feldman said the letter “speaks for itself.”

© Copyright 2004, Joel N. Shurkin. All rights reserved.

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