David Berger, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference

(Portland, Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001.)  Without a doubt, the central argument of David Berger’s The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference will strike a Messianic Jew differently than your average Orthodox rabbi or layperson, who are presumably Berger’s intended audience. For many of us, a particular line of debate about the Messiah is old hat: how a person who appeared to leave the stage of history at his death (resurrection notwithstanding) cannot be the Messiah; how the unredeemed state of the world means that, according to the unanimous Jewish interpretation of the messianic idea, the Messiah cannot have come. Indeed, we have heard it all too many times.

So naturally it piques our interest when we hear reports that certain Chabad Lubavitch hasidim are proclaiming their late Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson z”l, to be the Messiah.  As Messianic Jews, we may read these reports with interest, perhaps finding in this development some form of validation – that if these quintessential pious and devout Jews believed in a messiah who had died, we have ammunition against those who would write us out of Judaism.  Other Jews may find it little more than a curiosity, still others are scandalized.  David Berger, for one, does not like it one bit.

{josquote}…if pious and devout Jews believed in a messiah who had died, we have ammunition against those who would write us out of Judaism. {/josquote}

Berger writes with passion, and his work could be described as a journal of his personal struggle against the idea that the late Rebbe is the Messiah.  As such, it is polemical and occasionally agonizingly repetitive. An Orthodox Jew and longtime history professor who recently became head of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva College, he gives us a narrative interwoven with articles and letters he has written during this struggle, concluding with an assessment of how widespread (from his perspective) this heterodox belief actually is within Chabad. He provides two appendices containing technical discussions of halakhic issues and messianic texts.  In his articles (mostly for Orthodox publications) and letters (to various rabbis and rabbinical councils) he lays out his argument: that these messianists believe things that are historically outside the pale of Judaism and are insidiously dangerous to the true Jewish messianic faith.  For his stand on these issues, he has received both criticism – from messianists themselves and from non-messianists who feel that public criticism of the messianists is unwarranted – and accolades.

It is certainly interesting to get a brief (albeit biased) look at the Chabad messianists’ apologetic and theological world.  The rapid development of how the Rebbe is understood is evident in variations on the messianists’ mantra “May our Master, Teacher, and Rabbi, the King Messiah, live for ever” (known as the Yechi, after its first Hebrew word). One variant, replacing “Rabbi” with “Creator,” has implications that, unsurprisingly, astound and dismay Berger. He quotes an article in a significant Orthodox weekly journal, Beis Moshiach, where the (obviously messianist) author calls the Rebbe the “Essence and Being [of God] enclothed in a body”: So who is our God?  Who our Father?  Who our King?  Who our Redeemer? Who will save and redeem us once again shortly?  The Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach.  That’s who.”[1]

{josquote}“So who is our God?  Who our Father?  Who our King?  Who our Redeemer? Who will save and redeem us once again shortly?  The Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach. {/josquote}

So Berger’s complaint is really twofold: first, he finds the claims that the Rebbe is or could be the Messiah to undermine the true Jewish messianic faith, which, as he sees it, repudiates any concept of a “second coming;” second, the apparent identification of the Rebbe with God by attributing to him omnipotence or calling him “indistinguishable from God” falls into the category of avoda zara (strange worship, i.e. idolatry). Berger finds either of these beliefs to be outside the boundaries of the Jewish faith.

Concerning the first claim, Berger debates various respondents to some of his articles, spending much of the time wrangling over the meaning of a fairly small number of messianist proof-texts that may or may not (depending on who you ask) lend legitimacy to the idea of a Messiah who is raised from the dead to complete the work he left unfinished at his death. These texts include the famous discussion of the Messiah in Sanhedrin 98b of the Babylonian Talmud, Don Isaac Abravanel’s Yeshuot Meshicho, Berakhot 2.4 in the Jerusalem Talmud, and a letter by the Sedei Hemed (R. Hayim Hezekiah Medini [1832-1904]). Berger cogently argues that these texts do not necessarily allow for the possibility of such a Messiah, and he reminds his readers that one or two texts, even if they definitively allowed for a Messiah that dies before the completion of the messianic work, would not overturn the overwhelming consensus of the Jewish tradition.

The problem with his assertions on this point (now I’m the biased one!) is found in the nature of messianic literature in Judaism. While there certainly is the sentiment, largely in response to Christianity, that the Messiah will be a military-political ruler who will bring the redemption without dying, there is also a deeply ingrained reticence on the part of the sages to be too specific about such matters or risk getting caught up in messianic fervor, having been disappointed so many times.

One great exception is Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, 1135-1204), who is very clear on what the criteria for the Messiah are. The Rambam has specific criteria, such as the Messiah fighting God’s wars, ingathering the Jewish exiles to the land of Israel, and rebuilding the Temple.[2]  In response, the messianists point to the exodus of Soviet Jews to Israel (which the Rebbe had helped facilitate in his lifetime) as being the beginning of the ingathering of exiles and the renovation of 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, the headquarters of Chabad, as tantamount to the rebuilding of the Temple. So Berger has a problem: if even the ever-precise Rambam is used to buttress the claims for the Rebbe as Messiah, even his most coherent arguments based on more obscure and less specific texts will likely have limited results convincing those messianists who truly believe.

Beyond the idea that the Rebbe is the Messiah and what that means, Berger documents various published instances of the Rebbe being described with such attributions usually associated with God:

A messianist catechism published in Safed describes the Rebbe, who is still physically alive, as in charge “of all that happens in the world. Without his agreement no event can take place. 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 . . . so that this becomes his entire essence.”  Another Israeli publication (Peninei ge’ulah) reported approvingly that the Rebbe was addressed after his (apparent) death as ‘Honored Rabbi, the Holy One Blessed be He’. In a French journal, 3 Tammuz (the date of the Rebbe’s death) is described as the day of the King Messiah’s ‘apotheose’ (i.e. apotheosis, or ascent to heaven as a divinity).[3]

To most knowledgeable Jews, such assertions from Chabad hasidim are nothing if not unexpected. They appear to be a logical extension of “an absolutely literal understanding of citations that speak of the presence of God in rabbis and prophets.”[4] Some apologists for the messianists attribute these expressions and statements to “theomorphic ascriptions” or “theomorphic metaphors” that rather than making ontological statements about the Rebbe, ascribe to him characteristics of the one who sent him, i.e. God.[5] To some, however, this development in Chabad messianism is not altogether unexpected. At one point, Berger hints that the attribution of some level of divinity to the Rebbe is a logical extension of Lubavitch theology – that, in fact, even before the Rebbe, Christianity and Lubavitch had much commonality with respect to the idea of incarnation.[6]

Even if an amount of blurring of the boundaries between humans and the divine on some level is inherent in Chabad theosophy, it is difficult, based on a collection of such quotes from a few Chabad publications and journals, to get a clear handle on precisely what such messianists believe about the Rebbe. And because the Chabad community tends to be tight-lipped about the prevalence of the messianists in their midst, it is difficult to have a good idea how many such messianists there are, let alone how many of those flirt with belief in the Rebbe’s divinity-again, whatever that may mean. Berger reports, however, that messianists dominate the central institutions of Lubavitch. For example, the Yechi is featured in all prayer services at the Chabad headquarters in New York.[7] Also, messianists run many camps (he reports children reciting additions to the Grace after Meals prayer asking God to bless the Rebbe) and schools, in some of which it is common practice to pray toward a picture of the Rebbe.[8]

In his polemic against both the idea of a “second coming” and that of the Rebbe’s divine nature, Berger’s main concern is clear: it threatens the time-honored boundaries between Judaism and Christianity. While he is certainly concerned about young children being raised to perpetrate avoda zara, it is clear that his primary concern is how Jews will be able to respond to Christian missionaries when they learn that a Messiah who dies before completing the redemption, and subsequently returns to complete it, is an acceptable Jewish idea. Indeed, outside his analysis of the Rambam, as well as a couple other texts that allude to such a possibility, fighting the missionaries appears to be pretty much the only reason he offers to reject the belief in a dead messiah returning.[9]

For Berger, that a potential messiah who dies is disqualified from being the Messiah is not only central to the Jewish messianic faith, it is also a core belief of Judaism. As noted above, he is passionate about this, and does not shy away from a touch of melodrama in appealing to the Orthodox rabbinic establishment.

As we observe the death throes of a fundamental Jewish belief, let us not deceive ourselves as to the identity of its executioners. They are not the messianists.  Sectarians can establish sects; only the mainstream can transform a religion . . . The messianists have launched the assault, but Orthodox Jewry writ large has administered the fatal blow.[10]

Some of Berger’s detractors argue that historically the idea that the fundamental distinction between Judaism and Christianity is that one believes in a messianic “second coming” and the other does not is problematic. Indeed, many messianists have little, if any, interaction with Christianity, in contrast to Berger, who acknowledges that his sensitivity on this point may have something to do with his background in Jewish history and sometime involvement in Jewish-Christian relations and anti-missionary efforts.[11]

Much of the aforementioned melodrama may come from Berger’s frustration at the absence of a groundswell in the Orthodox community to write the messianists out of Judaism. He encourages his readers to investigate the soferim who write their sifrei Torah and mezuzot, and the butchers who provide their kosher meat, and boycott them if they do not publicly express their disavowal of messianist beliefs. But it appears that the rabbinical bodies and influential rabbis to whom he has written, as well as Orthodoxy as a whole, has on some level decided that diligent observance of Torah overrides even the most problematic of doctrines.

{josquote} Indeed, the besorot describe the Messiah as fulfilling his mission in a way that was so unexpected, his closest disciples and friends did not see it coming.{/josquote}

As Messianic Jews, we would likely find ourselves defending the Chabad messianists on this point. Indeed, the besorot describe the Messiah as fulfilling his mission in a way that was so unexpected, his closest disciples and friends did not see it coming.  Though we certainly find the Rebbe’s messianic credentials problematic, we would emphasize peoplehood and fidelity to the obligations of the covenant as being more central to Judaism than specific doctrines about the nature of the messianic mission. Indeed, the besorot describe the Messiah as fulfilling his mission in a way that was so unexpected, his closest disciples and friends did not see it coming.

And just as Berger mentions sarcastically that the messianists could study Christian theology to avoid having to “reinvent the wheel,” so I, with some trepidation, suggest that we may have something to learn from the Chabad messianists about how to express our devotion to Yeshua as Jews without leaning exclusively on our Christian antecedents.[12] At the very least, we can be inspired by their zeal for the Rebbe and passion for messianic redemption.


David Nichol is a member of Ruach Israel Messianic Synagogue in Needham, MA.



[1] Aryeh A.Gotfryd, “The Rebbe’s Answer: A Dream Come True,” Beis Moshiach, 16 Aug. 1996, quoted in David Berger, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (Portland, Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001), 83.

[2] Berger, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, 21.

[3] Ibid., 92-93.

[4] Ibid., 93.

[5] Ibid., 109.

[6] Ibid., 105.

[7] Ibid., 68.

[8] Ibid., 88.

[9] Ibid., 113, 130.

[10] Ibid., 149.

[11] Ibid., 74.

[12] Ibid., 106