The Rebbe as Messiah

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I’m a few years late, but I’ve finally gotten around to starting Professor David Berger’s The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference — his theological memoir about Chabad messianism.

The book is rooted in Berger’s contention that beliefs about the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Messiah-ship is widespread in Chabad circles and that this belief subverts and transgresses normative Jewish theology. As the title suggests, the book is directed at Orthodox Jews who have continued to allow Chabadniks to have prominent communal roles while supporting or facilitating this heresy.

One of Berger’s most interesting observations has to do with the role of pluralism in perpetuating the status quo:

Modern Orthodox Jews have long endorsed the ideal of toleration, and in many contexts they cooperate with secular, Reform, and Conservative Jews whose ideological distance from them is greater than that of Chabad messianism…As for the so-called Ultra-Orthodox, even they have become accustomed to living with religious variation in a larger Jewish community; at worst, Lubavitch would be another group of inauthentic Jews. In all circles, pluralism moderates the intensity of the reaction.

Which raises the question: Should the liberal/pluralistic Jewish community be bothered by the fact that many (perhaps most) Chabadniks believe that their dead leader is the Messiah and will be resurrected from the dead (or isn’t really dead at all)?

Do we who encourage inclusivity and diversity have grounds for opposing this belief? And if not, what about Jews for Jesus? We might object to their missionary work, but many among us might object to Chabad’s missionary work, as well.

I’d love to hear some of your thoughts, but here is my initial half-baked reaction, and it’s rooted in a recently much-debated concept: peoplehood.

Chabad expresses sincere and intense investment in the Jewish people. In fact, they are the best of the best when it comes to expressing a sense of responsibility and care for their fellow Jews. That is certainly not the primary thing that comes through with Jews for Jesus.

Then again, I am not inclined to make “peoplehood” with its vague and indeterminate boundaries and definitions the only criterion that’s necessary and sufficient for involvement in the Jewish community. Thoughts?

Posted on September 20, 2007

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