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1.0 out of 5 stars The Professor, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Calumnies, December 25, 2001
This review is from: The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (Hardcover)
The Professor, the Messiah and the Scandal of Calumnies
By J. Immanuel Schochet

Prof. David Berger's recent book. "The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox
Indifference," is the subject of heated controversy. It attacks the Chabad-Lubavitch community,
charging it with false messianism, adopting Christian doctrines, heresy and idolatry.
Unfortunately, professional scrupulosity and a modicum of evidence one expects from an academic,
is missing. For example: on the one hand, Dr. Berger admits that "statistical precision [about the
Chabad community] is elusive, dependent partly on the reading of minds." Yet he insists repeatedly
that "large segments," a "substantial majority" and "mainstream Lubavitch" are guilty of his charges.
In turn, the official leadership of Chabad, which he recognizes to be decidely anti-messianist, is
downplayed to "quite minimal influence on the large majority of Lubavitch hasidim." Is Dr. Berger
really able to read minds?
Dr. Berger rejects pronouncements by two universally respected halachic authorities which support
Lubavitch and condemn the attacks against it. Rabbis Pinchas Hirshprung and Aaron Soloveichik
regard Lubavitch messianism as one side of a legitimate dispute. According to Dr. Berger, their
statements were issued under duress, when they were infirm. In effect he accuses them of violating
the Biblical prohibition not to be afraid of anyone to validate what he deems to be outright heresy.
Surely, then, he must dismiss anything else they said.
The book is a chronicle of Dr. Berger's quixotic battle against Lubavitch over many years. He
complains bitterly that his campaign is ignored by the bulk of orthodox Jewry. The only support he
received was from Satmar, Rabbis Chaim Keller of Chicago and Yaakov S. Weinberg of Baltimore,
disciples of Rabbi Eliezer Schach of Israel, and "distinguished individuals" who remain anonymous.
Except for Satmar, he fails to mention that these rabbis displayed a consistent hostility toward
hasidism in general, and Chabad in particular, for decades before messianism became an issue. Their
offensive statements, with charges of heresy and idolatry, go back at least to the 1950's, a part of
their obsession to resuscitate the historical feud between mitnagdim and hasidim of more than two
centuries ago.
Dr. Berger relates that "heads of non-hasidic yeshivas" shrugged off much of his material "on the
grounds that hasidism in general is idolatry," adding that he does not believe that this was meant
literally. If he were to examine the accessible records he will have to change his mind.
A major concern of Dr. Berger is that the messianists' assumption that the resurrected Lubavitcher
Rebbe may yet be the Messiah, "erases one of the defining characteristics of Judaism in a Christian
world." He cites missionaries who already utilize this assumption to justify their belief in a "second
coming." In other words, he defines Judaism by its differences from Christianity. One would think
that Judaism is defined by its own tradition, predating Christianity by more than a millennium.
Moreover, missionaries keep reprinting books citing numerous passages from Talmud, Midrash,
Zohar, Jewish Bible-commentaries and so forth, to support their claims. Are we now to delete these
passages from our tradition?
Dr. Berger spurns the rabbinic proof-texts cited by the messianists as a "rejected minority position"
which in the face of "overwhelming counter-opinions," have no standing in Jewish law. Thus he
violates a fundamental rule in halachic methodology: in disputes that do not affect actual practice
one cannot say who is right or wrong!
His reliance on arguments in polemical debates is curious. The Talmud clearly dismisses these as
"broken reeds" and "straw", polemical tactics to rebuff opponents.
More curious is his juggling-act. Originally he objected to the very possibility of a resurrected
Rebbe-Messiah. Facing solid counter-views, he invents something new. Now he claims that the
messianists affirm that the Rebbe was already the actual Messiah in his lifetime, started the
redemptive process, and will return to finish the job, analogous to Christian theology. Why is it that
no one ever heard of that before reading the book? No Lubavitcher can possibly say that. It stands
in flagrant contradiction to the Rebbe's explicit statements that the final word in these matters is a
ruling by Maimonides: the reality of the Messiah is established exclusively by his fulfilling the
actual prophecies of the redemption when he appears.
To be sure, the messianist faction has a handful of extremists who uttered obscene and heretical
statements. This lunatic fringe has been excommunicated from all camps. For Dr. Berger to build
a case on them, has as much meaning as building on the lunatic fringe of the mitnagdim which he
condones with a cavalier "I do not believe that they meant it literally."
Dr. Berger worries that the numerous Lubavitchers holding influential positions as chief-rabbis,
rabbis, and other religious functionaries throughout the world, threaten the future of Judaism. He
wants them dismissed. Question: were these people appointed because they are Lubavitchers or
because of their qualifications, including requisite scholarship? Is it conceivable that they know as
much about Jewish law, about what is acceptable and what is not, as their antagonists? Yet Dr.
Berger and his bedfellows arrogate to themselves the authority to be both the prosecutors and judges
over them.
The book's repetitiveness is annoying. Its numerous inaccuracies and crude distortions (as of an
article I wrote) are irritating. Its ignorant insults, such as Lubavitch constructing menorahs "of an
atypical sort because every new religion needs a symbol" when that is the form prescribed by
Maimonides, reveal the author's motivation.
The author notes that even some of his friends regard his efforts as "symptoms of a personal
idiosyncrasy" eliciting "musings about unhealthy obsessions." He should consider this more
Rabbi Schochet is a Professor of Philosophy in Toronto, Canada, and author of numerous books on
Jewish Thought and Mysticism.
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Initial post: Jul 20, 2010 8:36:58 PM PDT
I thought this to be a profoundly thought out review-response.
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