Sunday, September 16, 2018

Not a herem in the classical sense

David Berger is an Orthodox Jewish scholar. He belongs to the so-called Modern branch of Orthodoxy. This is his controversial and divisive book “The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference”. It's a sharp polemical attack against the Lubavitcher Hassids, also known as Chabad or Habad. While Chabad is generally considered to be an Orthodox Jewish denomination in good standing, Berger argues that its strongest faction is heretical and cannot be considered Jewish.

Many Chabad Hassids believe that the late leader of their movement, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (often simply called the Rebbe) is or may be the Messiah. To Berger, belief in a Messiah who has died in an unredeemed world is a heresy which effectively places the believer outside the Jewish fold. Worse, Berger argues that many Chabad supporters regard the Rebbe as divine! Although Schneerson died in 1994, his most devote followers claim that he has only gone into occultation, that he is immortal, that his body is imperishable, etc. The Rebbe is said to be omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and the creator of the world. His humanity has been completely replaced with the divine essence (sic). In effect, Menachem Mendel Schneerson isn't just the Messiah. He is God, or a manifestation of God on Earth.

Sounds familiar?

Yes, Berger believes that this is idolatry (or something close to it – the Jewish case against idolatry is apparently somewhat complex). Above all, it's similar to Christianity, with its belief in a Messiah who died in an unredeemed world, supposedly rose again, is presently invisible and in some sense divine. Apparently, “Jews for Jesus” and other Christian missionaries have already pointed to Chabad Messianism as an argument that even Orthodox Jews believe in a “resurrected” Messiah who has already arrived…they just picked the wrong guy! Another parallel is to Sabbatianism, a 17th century Jewish movement centered on Sabbatai Zevi, a Messiah pretender who failed in his mission when the Ottoman sultan forced him to convert to Islam. Both the successes and failures of Sabbatianism created a serious crisis within the Jewish community. Berger fears that the rapid spread of Chabad Hassidism around the world will lead to similar, or even worse, outcomes. At a minimum, it will make it harder to withstand Christian missionary offensives.

For this reason, Berger advocates what amounts to a purge of the Messianist faction of the Chabad Lubavitcher from the Jewish community. All Messianist rabbis should be removed, Jews should not appear before rabbinic courts headed by Messianists, Messianist ritual slaughterers should not be recognized and their meat shouldn't be seen as kosher, Jewish schools should not employ Messianist teachers, etc. Nor should Jews donate to Messianist-controlled campaigns and institutions, some of which are fairly important. For instance, the Lubavitcher are the strongest Jewish organization in the former Soviet Union. It's interesting to note that Berger doesn't call for a wholesale purge of Reform and Conservative Jews. He believes that cooperation is still possible with them, but not with Chabad Messianists, despite the fact that the latter group is Torah observant.

At one point in the book, the author reassures the reader that he doesn't advocate “a herem in the classical sense”, herem (perhaps best translated “taboo”) being the Hebrew term used for Joshua's massacre of Jericho's inhabitants. Well, thank you, but I suspect many Jews do view Berger's purity tests in precisely this light! To Berger, being Jewish isn't simply a matter of orthopraxy or community belonging. The faith is fundamental. However, this is historically problematic, since Jews have always functioned as a community or even ethnicity, not simply as a faith-based group (the latter concept sounds evangelical Christian). Thus, many Jews regard Berger's one man campaign against Chabad as divisive or slightly crazy. Since Chabad is apparently a strong force within Judaism, it's not very likely that his proposals will be universally heeded. Another problem is that Berger may be wrong – I don't know if he is, but that is apparently a common criticism of the author. The critics argue that most Chabad supporters aren't Messianists, or that the Messianist faction isn't heterodox. The “divine” terminology surrounding the Rebbe could be explained as mystical allegories. After all, the Hassids are Kabbalists and have long regarded their rebbes (leaders/main teachers) as direct conduits of divine blessings. Perhaps Berger has simply misunderstood the major trends in Jewish mysticism?

That being said, the quasi-divine elevation of Rebbe Schneerson after his physical death in 1994 is intriguing on several levels. It does resemble the apotheosis of Jesus. Both Schneerson and Jesus were believed to be the Messiah during their respective life times, both failed (at least to outsiders), both were said to have survived their bodily deaths, and both were subsequently apotheosized by their followers as a dramatic response to their temporal failure. It's also interesting to note that the speculations surrounding the divinity of the Rebbe are even more extreme than the Christian view of Jesus. While Jesus is said to have been both true man and true god, the Rebbe's humanity seems to have been completely obliterated by his divinity. This is closer to Gnosticism and resembles, almost to the letter, how certain Shia Muslim sects view Imam Ali. Another obvious parallel is with Hinduism – compare, for instance, the status of Sathya Sai Baba. Note also that the Messiah goes into occultation. This is similar to both Christianity and Shia Islam (and Sai Baba). A skeptical historian could presumably find some ammunition against Christianity when studying the Lubavitcher Hassids. If Schneerson was transformed into a semi-divine or quasi-divine savior almost immediately after his death, what does that tell us about the historical origins of the Christian religion?

Berger's book also raises questions about the Jews themselves. I have already mentioned the tension between religion/orthodoxy and community-ethnicity/orthopraxy. What struck me when reading the book is that Berger's view of Judaism is incredibly narrow. The historical Jewish faith he is defending probably isn't older than Roman Antiquity. It's based on the Massoretic text of the Bible, which was edited by heretical Karaites during the Middle Ages. The main interpretations of the Torah appealed to by Berger are those of Maimonides (Rambam) and Nachmanides (Ramban), both medieval sages. During “Biblical” times, Judaism was manifestly different. At the time of Jesus, it was also incredibly heterogeneous. While Christianity does represent a peculiar mutation, many other Jewish notions were probably also “beyond the pale” by Modern Orthodox standards. What about the Essenes or the Sadducees? What about the Book of Enoch, were the Messiah is a heavenly figure who seems quite unrelated to the House of David? Going forward in time, what about the Kabbala and its strange notions of Enoch as Little Yahweh, worship of a goddess-like figure or belief in reincarnation? It's certainly intriguing that the author sees Reform Jews as more acceptable partners, at least in political or community-related matters, than orthoprax Hassids!

Personally, I'm not Jewish and therefore have no horse in this race, but something tells me the author, barring a real disaster á la Jacob Frank, will remain a lone voice in the wilderness…

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