Steven I. Weiss
November 11, 2005
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe was the subject of a groundbreaking three-day conference at New York University this week, a generally laudatory program that could set the tone for how the charismatic leader and his movement will be presented in future academic settings.
"What we are really going to do [with this conference is] set off a mode of research," said the event's organizer, Lawrence Schiffman, a Judaic studies professor at New York University. The conference, he added, was "in certain ways a communal research project."
Several of the sessions featured basic introductions to the rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement's basic rituals and slogans, including its trademark declaration: "We Want Moshiach [Messiah] Now." Many presenters also offered detailed explications of Schneerson's thought. These were based on a review of his extensive writings, which are relatively unfamiliar to Jews outside of Lubavitch circles.
Most speakers steered clear of any criticism of Schneerson's theology or leadership. In fact, one of the Lubavitch movement's harshest critics, Queens College history professor David Berger, received as much criticism as Schneerson himself.
Organizers did not invite Berger, whose 2001 book, "The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference" (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization), is the most prominent attack on the Lubavitch. Berger has argued frequently that the Lubavitch movement has put itself beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism by allegedly encouraging followers to see Schneerson as the messiah and to worship him as if he were divine. As a result, Berger said, Orthodox rabbis and organizations should boycott Lubavitch rabbis and institutions.
Professor Shaul Magid of Indiana University Bloomington said in his presentation that Lubavitch assumptions about Schneerson's immortality can find root in Jewish sources from the pre-rabbinic, pre-Christian era. "David Berger is right that it is not Orthodox, but he's wrong that it is not Jewish," Magid said, adding, "An indictment of heresy against contemporary Chabad is an indictment against the entire system of Chabad, as well as perhaps Kabbalah generally."
Schiffman defended the decision not to invite Berger, saying, "I think he'll be the first to tell you that he's not interested in approaching this topic from an academic perspective."
Berger told the Forward, "I have good reason to believe that I was not invited because of the controversial nature of my involvement in this matter, and a reasonable case can be made that a fierce partisan is not an appropriate participant in an academic conference." But, he added, "At the same time, one has to be careful of partisanship on the other side that obscures the problems -- to put the matter moderately -- that mark the aftermath of the rebbe's career."
The conference featured a mix of Lubavitch and non-Lubavitch scholars.
One Chabad participant, Chaim Rapoport, said the approach at the conference was quite different from what you would find at a Lubavitch Yeshiva. "The academic style, in essence, is the study of a subject -- it's very detached," Rapoport said in an interview with the Forward. "With the rebbe, there'd be a sense of awe" if his followers had run the program.
Despite the academic setting, repeated iterations of nonacademic assessments entered the discussion. For instance, Lubavitch scholars frequently answered questions posed to the non-Lubavitch scholars, basing their answers on personal experience and understanding as opposed to academic research. And a sense of awe was detectable in nearly all the presentations dealing with Schneerson and his work; there wasn't much criticism, not even from non-Lubavitch scholars.
Schiffman acknowledged as much, saying, "People are amazingly impressed by most of the record" of his work. "When you get a literature going [about Schneerson], maybe people will be more critical," Schiffman said. "You have to start somewhere."
The most critical assessment of the Lubavitch came in a presentation by Tufts University professor Stephanie Wellen Levine. Professor Levine had studies the Lubavitch community while living in it, and this lead to her 2003 book, "Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls" (New York University Press). In her presentation, Levine discussed the Lubavitch youth who had abandoned ritual observance. As she recounted the story of one young woman who had started seeing a non-Jewish man, a distinct murmur grew in the audience. One Lubavitch woman left the presentation so quickly that she forgot her purse.
Lubavitch messianism itself was criticized strongly by Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor and former president of Yeshiva University, in response to a presentation on Schneerson's esoteric thought. Lamm asserted that Schneerson's statements could be misinterpreted to create a "distortion" leading to "moral nihilism." In an interview with the Forward, Lamm asserted that such open efforts to declare Schneerson the messiah would not have been tolerated before his death. "When he was alive, no one would have dared to discuss this," Lamm said.
While Lamm's presentation was an unexpected deviation into the topic of Lubavitch messianism, the topic was the subject of the conference's final session.
During the session, Naftali Loewenthal, a professor at University College, London, explained how a Chabad theology could exist that did not consider Schneerson to be the messiah. In another presentation at the final session, Professor Avrum Ehrlich of Shandong University made the case for why messianism was an essential element of Schneerson's thought and the Lubavitch movement's development.
None of the presenters at the conference attempted to define the Lubavitch movement's current understanding of messianism that has developed since Schneerson’s death or quantify how many Chabad followers believe that Schneerson is the Messiah.
"The fact of the matter is that there's no way to get the information in a reliable manner," Schiffman said. "The only way to get that information is by spending a large amount of money on a study, but even then, you don't know how to interpret what they're saying" because of the doctrines of esotericism within the sect.
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