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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rabbi Boteach, you're wrong about Chabad

In his Post column "Chabad Messianists: Wrong, but still Jews" (January 20), Shmuley Boteach asserts that the refusal of a rabbinic court in Israel to accept a convert who believes that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah is an "act of serious contempt for a non-Jew who has made sacrifices to ally himself with the Jewish people."

On the contrary, to accept such a convert would be an act of serious contempt for generations of Jews who gave their lives to preserve the theological boundaries between Judaism and Christianity.

Rabbi Boteach maintains that only two of the differences between Judaism and Christianity really count: the belief in the divinity of the Messiah and failure to observe the Torah. Since Lubavitch hassidim observe the Torah, and "no one in Chabad would ever assert" that the Rebbe is divine, the belief in a Messiah who announces that redemption will come in his generation, dies in an unredeemed world, and is then resurrected for his second coming does not disqualify the believer as a fully Orthodox Jew or, if he is not yet Jewish, as a prospective convert.

FOR MORE than a thousand years, Jews have told Christian missionaries that the Jewish denial of a second coming is a bright line dividing the religions. From Nahmanides to R. Hayyim of Brisk, from R. Yom Tov Lipmann Muelhausen to R. Judah Aryeh da Modena, the Messiahship of Jesus was ruled out of court on the explicit grounds that Judaism affirms that once the Messiah begins his redemptive career, he completes it during his lifetime.

In the words of R. Pinhas Elijah Hurwitz of Vilna (1765-1821) in his Sefer ha-Berit, "We are obligated to believe that a Jewish man will come who will begin to save Israel and will complete the salvation of Israel in that generation. One who completes the task is the one, while one who does not complete it in that generation but dies or is broken or is taken captive [Exodus 22:9] is not the one and was not sent by God." Not only does this position stand at the core of the historic Jewish defense against the Christian mission; it served as the criterion for the uncompromising rejection of movements of false messianism after the death of the messianic figure.

THE ISSUE before us is not whether belief in a second coming, which shatters the parameters of the messianic faith of Judaism, is outright heresy. Not every non-heretic has a presumptive right to be welcomed into the Jewish people. To allow a non-Jew to cross the line into Judaism while affirming a belief that Jews through the ages have seen as a defining characteristic of a rival faith is to declare that that belief, while probably incorrect, is acceptable in Judaism. It is to declare that on a matter of fundamental principle, our martyred ancestors were wrong, and their Christian murderers were right.

But this is not the end of it. Tragically, Rabbi Boteach's assertion that no one in Chabad would ever assert that the Rebbe is divine is also misguided. Without engaging in theological niceties, I present quotations from statements by religious mentors in respected Lubavitch institutions in both Israel and the United States.

1. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Ginsberg (written after the Rebbe's passing): Yes, the Rebbe's body is composed of flesh and blood, but as far as he's concerned he is not compelled or limited by anything - not by physical limitations nor by spiritual limitations. He "is what he is." [This refers, of course, to the divine name in Exodus 3:14.] Even as he is enclothed in a physical body, he remains limited by nothing whatsoever and he has the ability to do everything and be everything in an unlimited manner.

2. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Ginsberg (written after the Rebbe's passing): The Rebbe is the "master of the house" with respect to all that happens to him and all that happens in the world. Without his agreement no event can take place, and if it is his will, he can bring about anything, "and who can tell him what to do" ….In him the Holy One Blessed be He rests in all His force just as He is (because of his complete self-nullification to God, so that this becomes his entire essence).

3. Rabbi Sholom Charitonow, asserting that the Rebbe manifests the Essence of the unlimited God and explaining why it follows that even his physical body remains alive in the deepest sense: Interruptions can only apply where there are borders and limitations (as opposed to Essence), which have been utilized to a maximum, making it necessary to proceed to new borders and limitations. Concerning the Essence, however, in relation to which borders and forms do not conceal at all - on the contrary, they actually become united with the Essence - all causes of interruption do not apply. In other words - not only is the interruption unnecessary, it is in fact impossible. This can apply to something which has a form (whether of a physical or a spiritual nature); it cannot, however, apply to something that is eternal by nature, having no form whatsoever.

4. Rabbi Yashovam Segal (written in 2003):

We Lubavitch hassidim believe that the House of our Rabbi in Babylonia [i.e., 770 Eastern Parkway] is the Temple, and the Rebbe is the Ark of the Covenant standing on the Foundation Rock in which [referring to the Rebbe/ark] the divine Being and Essence rests.

He goes on to say that the prohibition against associating God with something else (shittuf), which is the classic category used in Judaism to analyze the status of Christianity, applies to the sun and moon but not to the supremely righteous, who are one with God.

THERE IS much more, but these quotations will have to suffice. If a published report that the prospective convert in question believes that the Rebbe is physically alive is correct, then he belongs to a group suffused with this theology. Thus, it is more than likely that to accept him into the Jewish people is to erase even a line that Rabbi Boteach wishes to preserve.

I do not, however, want to "define deviancy down." Belief in posthumous false messianism is sufficient to disqualify a potential convert. The decision of this rabbinic court provides a small glimmer of hope that Orthodox Judaism will refuse to legitimate the historic betrayal of Judaism that has unfolded in the last decade and a half. I hope against hope that the decision will be allowed to stand.

The writer is professor of Jewish history at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University and author of The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference.

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