Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Shameful Appointment

The appointment of Dr. David Berger as head of the Yeshiva College Jewish Studies Department was addressed in Joel Shteir's article and Dr. David Berger's response in a previous issue of The Commentator. Dr. Berger, as we know, is the author of The Rebbe, The Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, a screed against Lubavitch Chassidim. Shteir wrote that Dr. Berger's appointment was in conflict with "cultural open-mindedness" and "acceptance."

This is not an issue of closed or open-mindedness. The real issue is that Dr. Berger is a promoter of division whose radical views should not be legitimized by our university. Yeshiva University has brought upon itself shame and disgrace by appointing an advocate of baseless hatred.

Dr. Berger begins by claiming we are trying to "intimidate and silence him." That he should attempt to paint himself as a victim is absurd. As an academic, he is free to express his opinions, but that does not mean that those opinions deserve respect or that Yeshiva University should reward an advocate of such views with a department chairmanship. Freedom of speech is a two-way street. When you voice your offensive vision, don't call it "intimidation" when people respond to it. Dr. Berger was even given the last word in The Commentator a few weeks ago.

I have been to Chabad Houses in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Israel and China and never once met anyone who says the Rebbe is "pure divinity." That is pure poppycock. I have furthermore been to many Chabad Houses where the Rebbe is not thought to be the Messiah. Undoubtedly there are those who espouse that view, but to vilify an entire Chassidic sect with roots to the Ba'al Shem Tov is nothing less than abhorrent. No organization has done more good for Judaism around the world, literally bringing Torah and Mitzvot to Jews no matter where they are physically or religiously. Chabad is not "hijacking [our] religion." It is driving Judaism around the world and inviting so many to return to it. Dr. Berger ignores the unparalleled and multi-faceted good done by Chabad; to see in Chabad an "existential threat to the Jewish religion" not only ignores the obvious opposite reality, but enters Dr. Berger into the realm of fringe fanaticism that he himself decries.

Dr. Berger argues that there is a need to ask questions of a Lubavitch Chassid who serves as a "rabbi, a dayyan, a Jewish Studies principal, and, in the context of avodah zorah, a shochet, a sofer, and a wine producer." In the context of avodah zorah? No such context exists! His own article is written in the context of unsubstantiated mistruths about a "very substantial number" of phantom Chassidim who view the Rebbe as the equivalent of Jesus.

The interrogation of Lubavitchers is unwarranted. Implementing this policy would accomplish nothing but harm many innocent people and devastate the unity of the Observant Jewish Community at a time when we desperately need to work together.
Dr. Berger has no right to demand that so many Lubavitch Chassidim be denied "automatic Orthodox legitimacy," when Lubavitchers are far more stringent than many of us in many facets of halacha and they include scholars in Jewish law and philosophy every bit as accomplished as Dr. Berger.

Bringing the issue closer to home, he further states in his article that he does not see "the need to ask questions of Lubavitch students" at YU, but only because we don't ask questions of those not "fully committed" to Orthodoxy. His condescending comparison between Lubavitch and nonobservant students is both naive and offensive. He further equates Lubavitch Chassidim to Conservative Jewry when he says that he does not advocate anything "more draconian than the policies maintained by moderate Modern Orthodox Jews toward traditional Conservative Jews," as if the two groups are remotely comparable. Ignoring semantics for all practical purposes, this proposal is very close to a threat of excommunication. Dr. Berger's words are a profound personal insult to those committed Orthodox Jewish students affiliated with Chabad Lubavitch - an insult that demands an apology.

In light of the comments made by Dr. Berger in his article, one can only imagine the "analytical and non-polemical" classroom discussion in his messianism course at the Revel Graduate School. It is beyond imagination to think that his extremist analysis of Chabad does not make its way into the classroom, and is not accorded special deference, as the professor's point of view.

As members of the "orphaned generation," we students of Yeshiva University should applaud "all those who have thus far been silent"- those who have refused to join Dr. Berger's foolish anti-Lubavitch crusade, and who refuse to recognize him as the arbiter of Orthodox legitimacy.

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