Monday, April 04, 2011

10 Questions for Dr. David Berger

What follows is a rapid Question and Answer with Dr. David Berger, the dean and Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University and author of The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference.

Dr. Berger has asked me to make it clear that "YU as an institution has nothing whatsoever to do with my views on this subject." and " In no way do I speak for YU when I address this matter."

Read his responses to my rapid fire questions after the jump.

1) Do you eat Chabad shchita? I do not eat shechitah of Lubavitch shochtim unless I have reason to believe that the non-Chabad supervising agency is sufficiently concerned about the relevant issues that it is unlikely that the shochtim believe in the divinity of the Rebbe. I do not regard messianism alone as something that renders the meat unkosher bedieved (or, for the grammarians, be-di-avad). At the same time, I regard the incidence of deification to be high enough to require investigation. If a shochet is a vigorous anti-messianist, I am prepared to assume that he interprets the problematic formulations current in the movement in a kosher fashion, though I confess some measure of unease about this. I was recently asked to write a brief document providing a few sources illustrating the problem of avodah zarah. See the Hebrew attachment entitled avodah zarah 5770, which may be disseminated. [Access it here: Page 1 |  Page 2 | Page 3]

2) Would you pray with a Chabad minyan that used "Yechi" as part of the liturgy? No

3) Would you attend a shiur given by a member of Chabad? Not unless he was willing to assert
publicly that he recognizes that the Rebbe will not be revealed as the Messiah.

4) Would you allow a child or grandchild to attend a chabad school? No. (If the head of the school made the public proclamation that I noted in my previous reply and added that no one would be allowed to teach in the school who would not make the same proclamation, there would be room to think more carefully about this.)

5) What advice or instructions would you give to others on these matters? I would obviously want people to act as I have described my own policies.

6) On what basis do you believe that the belief as the Rebbe as Moshiach should be ruled out?

Here is my most recent effort to summarize this:

After the Rebbe passed away in 1994, believers began to scour the sources for evidence legitimating belief in a deceased Messiah. The most important source is in Sanhedrin 98b, which according to one interpretation speaks of the possibility of a Messiah from the dead.

Before proceeding, let me note that the Rambam’s affirmation that a messianic candidate who does not succeed in his lifetime is known not to be the one whom the Torah promised is utterly clear and unequivocal, and so anyone who asserts (as some Lubavitch hasidim have) that denying the possibility that the Rebbe is the Messiah is a heretical limiting of God’s powers declares the Rambam a heretic.

Since the Rebbe affirmed that the Rambam’s discussion of the Messiah in the Mishneh Torah is binding, every Lubavitch hasid should feel obligated to deny the possibility that the Rebbe will be the Messiah. (The arguments that belief in the Rebbe’s Messiahship is consistent with the Rambam are unworthy of any serious attention.) Setting this aside, and without going into detail, let me summarize my view of the sources:
  1. Some Jews believed that the messianic promise is that King David will return as the Messiah. It is abundantly clear from the liturgy (with one exception) and from a mountain of other evidence that the vast majority of Jews believed that this promise would be fulfilled not through King David himself but through his descendant, Mashiach ben David.
  2. No Jews affirmed that the descendant of David sent to redeem Israel would return from the dead to fulfill his mission, and only a nugatory number regarded this as a possibility. The Rambam ruled this out inprinciple in a highly authoritative work. I know of no direct, explicit critique of his assertion anywhere. Polemical and non-polemical texts insist on this position as a defining element of Judaism.
  3. With the exception of Christians and Sabbateans, no Jews at all believed that this descendant of David might initiate a messianic mission in which he would promise imminent redemption and then die in an unredeemed world. We must remind ourselves that the Rebbe, addressing multitudes of followers, repeatedly and emphatically affirmed that his generation would be that of the ultimate redemption; his audiences manifestly understood these affirmations as an unqualified promise or prophecy. None of the tiny number of sources cited by believers in the Rebbe’s Messiahship to validate the possibility of a Messiah from the dead lends even a scintilla of validation to the absurd proposition that the Messiah, whatever his good intentions, might be expected to mislead the Jewish people about the time of the redemption. Messiah son of David does not fail in his first attempt. Messianic candidates almost always provided, as the Rebbe did, assurances of imminent redemption that turned out to be incorrect. The affirmation that such an individual is Mashiach ben David despite his death in an unredeemed world is precisely what mainstream Jews have unanimously, passionately, and unhesitatingly declared to be false messianism.
  4. In sum, the affirmation that it is even possible that the Lubavitcher Rebbe will be revealed as the Messiah undermines the parameters of the classic messianic faith of Judaism. Lubavitch messianism goes beyond this to declare with certainty that he is in fact the Messiah. This position abolishes Judaism’s criteria for identifying the Messiah even more ruthlessly. In effect, Judaism’s central criterion for identifying the Messiah has been transformed from his ushering in a redeemed world to his providing incorrect assurances about the redemption. In other words, we can be certain that a Rabbi of stature is the Messiah if he tells us repeatedly that the redemption will come in his generation and this assertion then turns out to be incorrect. This sounds like a parody, but it is not. The fact that one non-trivial strain of this movement goes further by attributing literal divinity to the Rebbe makes an already Christian- style belief all the more alien to historic Judaism.

7) What are the sources within Judaism that rules out the possibility of the Moshiach being:
  • A person that dies and comes back to life (not as part of Techiyas Hameisim, just as a separate miracle that Hashem performs, along the lines of the ressurection of the Ben Hashunamis by Elisha).
  • A person that, while alive, sets in motion the process of the Geulah, which plays out after his death. Then, after the Geulah happens, he is ressurected along with all of the other Tzadikim, to take his position as Melech Hamoshiach.
Some of the sources are reproduced in appendix 1 of my book. I attach the version in the Hebrew edition, which is somewhat fuller than the one in the English. [Note: This is available from me by email. Posting it proved too unwieldy -DB]

8) Even assuming that there are explicit sources within Judaism that rule the above out, why is the position that the Rebbe is Moshiach, in your view, at the level of heresy? Why shouldn't it just be a wrong-headed opinion, like believing in Torah UMadah, or that the Medinah is Itchalta D'Geulah, or that believing that the Medina is Itchalta D'Geulah is evil, or that Upsherin is right, or that Upsherin is wrong, etc. etc.

I have never stated unequivocally that this belief is heresy. I think it might be--and even if it is not, it undermines the defining parameters of one of the ikkarei ha-emunah, gives the lie to a fundamental argument against Christianity proffered by Jews through the ages, and tends to lead to avodah zarah.

Here is a selection from the introduction to the paperback edition of my book:
The dismissive reaction that sees this transformation as a trivial matter calls to mind a comic-book story that I read as a boy and have never forgotten. In the third from last frame of the story, two scientists in white lab coats are standing next to a time machine that they have just invented. Concerned that sending something substantial into the past might change history significantly, they decide to begin with a small stone. The caption in the penultimate frame reads, ‘At that moment, a little amphibian, slightly different from the rest, was poking its head out of the water’, and the picture shows the stone, which has materialized at the edge of a beach, about to hit that amphibian on the head. In the final frame, two erect, human-size lizards are standing next to the time machine in lab coats. One says to the other, ‘You see. Nothing happened.’
One of the reasons for this reaction is that many Orthodox Jews cannot think beyond the categories of heresy and non-heresy. From this blinkered perspective, if a belief is not unequivocal heresy, it cannot disqualify its advocates from any position of religious authority in Judaism. In the English edition I do not address these categories until the briefest of remarks in the final full chapter: ‘The messianist belief in itself, with its abolition of Judaism’s criteria for identifying the Messiah, is seen by some as heresy. I have studiously avoided that term, though I do not quarrel with those who use it’ (p. 145). This did not prevent my critics from asserting repeatedly that I labelled the messianists heretics (in David Singer’s version, ‘vile heretics’), and so I need to treat the matter somewhat more fully. Theoretically at least, traditional Judaism has maintained that heretical beliefs can have terrible consequences for their adherents in both this world and the next, and I am loath to make pronouncements about such matters.
One of the great rabbis of the twentieth century famously asserted that, in an age when divine providence is largely hidden, people who maintain such beliefs are not subject to all the consequences described in the classical Jewish texts. But the category of heresy has not been abolished, and it is generally analysed in terms of Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith. (28) The twelfth of these is belief in the coming of the Messiah. I am inclined to think that the way to analyse the issue before us is to ask whether one who abolishes the defining parameters (gedarim, in the language of the yeshivas) of one of the fundamental principles of faith, while affirming the principle itself, is considered a heretic. When pondering this question, it may be worth asking if someone who believes in the messiahship of Jesus (setting aside all the other problems involved in such a belief) thereby denies the twelfth principle of Maimonides. The instinct of most Orthodox Jews would probably be that he or she does. Rabbi Moses Hagiz, an anti-Sabbatian polemicist, drew this conclusion explicitly with respect to the followers of Shabetai Tzevi after his death. ‘They deny the coming of the Messiah because according to them he has already come.’ (29) Hagiz certainly knew that Sabbatians awaited their Messiah’s return with bated breath, but in his view waiting for a Messiah who has already come is the equivalent of denying his coming. Of course there are monumental differences between Jesus or Shabetai Tzevi and the Rebbe, but the common denominator is that the believer identifies with certainty a Messiah who according to Judaism cannot be the Messiah. This formulation opens the way to other examples that can assist us in examining the question before us. 
What, for example, is the status of a firm belief that the Messiah will come but will not be a descendant of David? At a certain point, a change in the parameters of a particular belief can be so fundamental that it becomes difficult to say that the belief itself continues to stand. But even if we assume that we are not dealing with full-fledged heresy, the recognition of spokespersons for Lubavitch messianism as Orthodox Jews in good standing shatters the defining boundaries of the messianic faith of Judaism.
The crucial point that even a belief that falls short of technical heresy may sometimes disqualify its adherents from positions of religious authority or sensitivity can be brought into bold relief by considering a famous talmudic passage and its afterlife. In addressing the issue of Lubavitch messianism, two rabbis have pointed to the statement of a Rabbi Hillel (a later figure than the famous founder of ‘the House of Hillel’) that ‘Israel has no Messiah because he was already consumed in the days of Hezekiah’. (30) These rabbis argue that, despite the Talmud’s strongly worded rejection of this position, Rabbi Hillel is not considered a heretic; surely, then, Chabad hasidim, who in the final analysis believe in the coming of the Messiah, are excluded from this category.
In both instances the point was raised almost in passing, and it does not address a substantial literature on this question from the late Middle Ages through the modern period. (31) It is difficult to say what the majority opinion   has been, although the greatest modern authority to address the question maintained that a contemporary Jew who denies the coming of a personal Messiah on the basis of the plain meaning of Rabbi Hillel’s statement would indeed be classified as a heretic. (32) Nonetheless, the view that such a position does not constitute heresy is of great value for our discussion. Let us assume that these rabbis are correct, and the Jew in question is not a heretic. His ritual slaughter, wine, and testimony are acceptable, and he has a portion in the world to come. Does it follow from this that he qualifies as a serious candidate for the Orthodox rabbinate, for a judgeship in a rabbinic court, and for a teaching position in the religious studies division of a yeshiva? Would the educational institution that he heads, where students are taught that there will never be a Messiah, be considered an appropriate recipient of financial support and full recognition from the Orthodox community? Would the chief rabbis of Israel speak at an event dedicated to the dissemination of this belief in front of a massive poster saying, ‘Israel has no Messiah because he was already consumed in the days of Hezekiah’? This instructive example underscores a key point in the affair confronting us. A position that undermines the foundations of the faith, even if it does not rise—or sink—to the level of absolute heresy, is capable of subjecting Judaism to existential danger.
28 Marc Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised (London, 2004), points to significant differences of opinion through the ages regarding the parameters, the understanding, and (rarely) even the doctrinal authority of some of these principles, but these disagreements, with one exception that we shall address presently, are not crucial for our present discussion.
29 Moses Hagiz, Sefer shever poshe’im (1st published 1714; Jerusalem, 1970), 58; cf. Elisheva Carlebach, 
30 The Pursuit of Heresy (New York, 1990), 93. 30 BT San. 99a.
31 See e.g. Eric Lawee, ‘“Israel Has No Messiah” in Late Medieval Spain’, Journal of Jewish Thoughtand Philosophy , 5 (1996), 245–79.
9) How will we know when the Messiah has arrived? When the Rambam's criteria for mashiach be-vaddai have been met.

10) How accurate are suggestions that the Chabad Messianics are similar to the early Christians who thought of themselves as Jews and of Jesus as a Jewish Messiah? Are the parallels real?
They are real as far as they go, but the overall discussion of the degree of similarity is beset by uncertainties about the complexities of early Christianity and its development.

DB: Part of me feels like I've squandered this opportunity as the questions were quite lame; still I thank Dr. Berger for being so generous with his time, and for sharing his thoughts with me and my readers. 

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