Monday, March 28, 2011

The Good Rabbi Berger

A guest post by Arthur

Firstly, I am a Lubavitcher. I learned in Lubavitcher yeshiva and I once was an agnostic as to whether the Lubavitcher Rebbe was Moshiach. That, however, ended when he died. I now believe that the rebbe has as much a chance of being the redeemer as King David (about whom we say lives forever), Rabbi David Berger, or Bob Dylan.

The subject of this post
Secondly, I believe that Dr. Berger’s quixotic battle is, at least in his mind, “for the sake of heaven.” I also believe (or would like to believe) that Dr. Berger takes no joy in having become the poster child of those whose hatred of Lubavitch precedes the “rebbe is moshiach” issue. While some of Dr. Berger’s recent articles have been mean spirited and some of his latest arguments have bordered on personal attacks, I cannot fault him. My fellow Lubavitchers have done a very good job pillorying him and he is only human.

That being said I believe Dr. Berger is misguided in his battles against those who say that the rebbe is moshiach.

Firstly, the number of Lubavitchers who believe the rebbe is moshiach is not as large as he claims. While I do not have empirical research to prove my point, I can reference my social circles as anecdotal evidence. The number of meshichistim amongst my friends and former classmates do not exceed the number of those who are anti-meshichistim (considering that I am an “anti” it is probably skewed towards more “antis”). This is not to argue that meshichistim do not exist, nor is it to claim that they are in the minority; my point is only that meshichistim do not comprise the vast majority of Lubavitchers as Dr. Berger asserts.

Secondly, if we were to ask my fellow Lubavitchers who believe the rebbe is moshiach: “What would you do if Rabbi David Berger announced tomorrow that he is the moshiach?” Many would say they would wholeheartedly follow Rabbi Berger to the Holy Land. (Perhaps this question should be the litmus test that, as Dr. Berger suggests, we put before all Lubavitcher rabbis, ritual slaughterers and communal leaders). My point being that even the “belief” on the part of “the average” Lubavitcher meshichist that the rebbe is moshiach is more akin to the declaration: “I’d like to believe that the rebbe is moshiach,” rather than “I believe the rebbe is moshiach to the exclusion of anyone else.” Again, I am basing this on my social circles, which include shluchim, meshichistin teaching in “anti-Meshichist yeshivas,” and anti-meshichistin teaching in “meshichist yeshivas”.

Many Lubavitcher meshichists still cling to the belief that the rebbe is moshiach because to them giving it up would call into question their worldview, or worse their view of the rebbe (This is an observation, not a justification). In this way, my fellow Lubavitchers are similar to those within the past Bush administration, especially our former vice president, who cling to the belief that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (I am not trying to be flippant here). Rightly or wrongly, it was this belief that committed Lubavitchers “to battle” and giving it up would call into question their justification for the “war.” So these Lubavitchers hold on to this belief, or at least give it lip service. [Side Note: While we can argue about the validity of the texts my fellow Lubavitchers use as “proofs” for their argument that Moshiach can come from the dead, they can still (properly or improperly, I do not purport to be a Torah scholar) point to various “sources” in Talmud and other Jewish texts. Using questionable texts has been part of Jewish tradition. Just ask those Sephardim, and Lubavitchers, who do not eat milk and fish together, especially when many Torah scholars believe that this edict was not the ruling of Maimonides, but a printing error.]

As for the elohistin or those who claim the rebbe didn’t die, Please. You cannot blame meshichist Lubavitchers for these people any more than you can blame Rabbi Chaim Vital, the Arizal or Rabbi Yosef Karo for the Kabbalah Center. You also cannot blame the tenets and actions of Israeli meshichism on their American counterparts. Let’s face it, religious fundamentalism is alive and well in the Holy Land and the Israeli branches of Judaism are often beyond the pale of what we Americans Jews believe. This applies to the Reform movement whose Israeli branch does not accept patrilineal descent; the Israeli branch of Conservative Judaism that still believes that Torah is the word of God; religious Zionists in Israel whose theology of “Ischaltah Degeultah” is at times as troublesome to Americans as meshichism; and Lubavitcher meshichistim who consider their Israeli counterparts to be beyond the pale and controlled by thugs.
Finally, I should note here that the belief of a “rebbe” as an avatar like being and a conduit to heaven is not germane to Lubavitch. It is part of much Chasidic philosophy, for example, within Breslov, and can also be found in the writings of the students of the Ba'al Shem Tov and Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch. Having said this, I believe that Dr. Berger is missing the point of meshichism.

While, on the surface it seems to be an issue of theology, scratch that surface and I believe you will see that meshichism is an anti-elitist backlash. Meshichistin are by and large Crown Heightsers and Ba’alei teshuva (I know this is an oversimplification). This is not to disparage these groups. However, the common thread between them is that in his lifetime, the rebbe treated these groups as he did the Lubavitch elite, those who served as shluchim and those with “yichus”.

Since the rebbe’s passing, however, these two groups, especially Crown Heightsers have lost their champion. Many Lubavitchers have left Crown Heights to Monsey, Flatbush and other parts of New York, especially anti-Meshichists, just to get out of Crown Heights. Queens (the site of the rebbe’s grave) has, for many Lubavitchers, replaced Crown Heights as the center of Lubavitch (The pilgrimage by chasidim to the burial ground of their rebbe is also not germane to Lubavitch. Again, ask Breslover about the importance of Uman).

In fact, many anti-Meshichists, avoid Crown Heights entirely when visiting New York , or refer to Crown Heights , and especially “770,” as “the occupied territories”. Lubavitch, unlike other “Frum” Jewish communities, both Chasidic and “black hat”, is unique in that its best and brightest are sent away from its “headquarters”. It is not unusual to see young Lubavitcher Torah scholars living in “ergetz vu,” Mississippi, or serving as Chabad House rabbis at universities. In other “Frum” community, these young men and women would be the “roshei yeshivas” and teachers of the next generation.

While this may sound somewhat disparaging to my Crown Heights brethren, the exodus of our best and brightest out of Crown Heights over the past 50 years has led to “brain drain” within the neighborhood that calls itself “Lubavitch World Headquarters.” If you are a smart and dedicated Lubavitcher, staying in Crown Heights is not an option. (There are many brilliant Lubavitchers living in Crown Heights, but you get my point) It may therefore come as no surprise that in “post 3 Tammuz” Lubavitch, the brain trust that leads the movement (Agudat Chasidei Chabad) is by-and-large comprised of non-Crown Heightsers (with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky being the obvious exception).

As for ba’alei teshuva: The “frum” world’s dirty little secret has always been that while it welcomes ba’alei teshuva into the community with open arms, once inside that fold, the frum community treats ba’alei teshuva like second class citizens. Lubavitch was unique in that while the chauvinism against Ba’alei teshuva was displayed by many “FFBs”, the rebbe countered this with his unabated love and support of Ba’alei teshuva. With the rebbe gone, however, Lubavitch has become as bad as the rest of the frum world and Ba’alei teshuva have lost their supporter. This brings us to the Moshiach wars, which on the whole pits Crown Heightsers against most shluchim, ba’alei teshuva against lifers and “mainstream Lubavitchers” against “the fringe.”

I believe that Meshichism is more of a social struggle between the “Have nots” and the “haves” as it is about believing that my dead rebbe is coming back as the moshiach. Crown Heightsers and “the fringe” are attempting to reclaim their role within the nexus of the Lubavitcher world. The chant of Yechi has become their weapon, and 770 has become their battleground. (Dr. Berger's problem I believe is that he is a historian. If he was a sociologist like Dr. Samuel Heilman, he'd be eating this up.) I admit that I am oversimplifying things. But I believe that my version of the story is closer to the truth than the one being promoted by Dr. Berger (or perhaps, like the Gaon of Vilna, the one being fed to him by those with a bone to pick with Lubavitch). I believe that if Dr. Berger dug deep into the matter, and perhaps took people at their word, he would see that his portrait of Lubavitch is skewed and that we Lubavitchers are not all rabid messianists, (I admit that some have crossed the line. But I am not here to defend those people). And since I believe that his heart is pure, I am sure that this will bring much joy to Dr. Berger.

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