I emailed Rabbi Dr. David Berger on Friday to ask him about his choice of venue for his valuable new article on the state of Chabad messianism. We exchanged emails and, with Rabbi Berger’s permission, I am publishing his response:
In response to your question about publishing an article regarding Lubavitch on a Yated-run website despite the fact that 1–the website is guilty of objectionable behavior in the Slifkin matter, and 2—the decision makes me an easy target for Lubavitch critics who will disqualify anything written there by pointing to R. Schach’s hostility to the movement:
I want religious Jews, decidedly including haredim, to be aware of the realities addressed in the article. Many haredim who read Yated’s website are not disciples of R. Schach with respect to this issue and are entirely susceptible to misleading propaganda about Lubavitch. Thus, one such Jew told me just two weeks ago that I should forget about Lubavitch messianism since the Lubavitch hasidim themselves have forgotten about it.
In addition, there are very few forums in any sector prepared to publish this information. At this juncture, the Jewish Observer will not. Jerusalem Reports was approached by Littman after my English book appeared and expressed no interest. Thus, when the Jerusalem Post asked me to write about the 770 court decision, I complied with the request. When Mordecai Plaut–with whom I had had no prior contact–read that article, he asked me to address the question of the actual beliefs of Lubavitchers, and after some hesitation I agreed. Within limits, I take the opportunity to keep this issue alive whenever such an opportunity presents itself. Fair-minded people who read the article will judge its persuasiveness on the merits. (Most of what is written in the article is already in the book, especially the Hebrew version, but few people are willing to read books. This, of course, does not prevent them from expressing firm opinions about subjects with which they are barely familiar.)
Of course Lubavitch hasidim will say that the article is posul because of where it appeared, but they would say–and have said–the same thing about other venues as well. What would they say if I published it in “Failed Messiah”? Would the Jewish Week or Forward (which wouldn’t publish it anyway because of its length and possibly also because of its subject matter) be less subject to attack as posul? Similar things were said–not altogether unjustly–when I published my article about avodah zarah in Haaretz. As I wrote in the book, I decided to publish a follow up article in Hatzofeh because of this criticism only to discover that practically no one reads Hatzofeh. When the RCA passed its resolution it was skewered as a worthless organization. (I published a brief passage about Chabad in the current Tradition at the end of a review essay on Irving Greenberg’s book about Christianity.) I suppose the most concise response to your question would be that Lubavich hasidim and their sympathizers already say that anything I write is null and void since I am a mendacious, Torquemada-like, Osama bin Laden-like hater who declared his hostility toward Lubavitch on the day he was born. (Both of those analogies have appeared in print, the former in First Things, the latter in the Algemeiner Journal.) Plenty of people believe this.
There are indeed some readers who might have been receptive to this article in another forum who will discount it in this one, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Having said all this, let me add something about the website itself. I have no ongoing familiarity with it. In fact, after receiving the editor’s email message, I had to find the URL through a Google search for “Mordecai Plaut” and “Yated.” I do not doubt that it contained material relating to the Slifkin affair that I would find objectionable. As a Modern Orthodox Jew, my ideological orientation is hardly identical to that of the editors of Yated Ne’eman. Nonetheless, I begin by saying that to me, haredi Jews are not the Other. I identify with them much more closely than I do with the editors of Haaretz or the Forward, where I have published and would publish again.
In addition, let me share an experience with the website in question that goes against the stereotype of a rabidly anti-Lubavitch entity that would do anything to besmirch the movement. First of all, I was asked to do a piece that would be as factual as possible and relatively free of editorializing. Second, a lengthy half-sentence was deleted by the editor in large part because of a policy that attempts to keep “ki’ur” to a minimum. The article contains the following sentence: “Another [Lubavitch rabbi] wrote that ‘we Lubavitch hasidim believe that Lubavitch is Jerusalem, 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 even ha-shetiyyah in which (referring to the Rebbe/ark) God’s Being and Essence rests.’” In my original submission, the sentence continued as follows: “and he went on to say that the prohibition against shittuf, i.e, associating God with something else in a manner that would normally constitute Christian-style avodah zarah, applies to the sun and moon, but not to tzaddikim, who are one with God.” I argued that this additional information is crtitically important, but the editor felt that it was not important enough to overcome the larger editorial policy. I did not draw a line in the sand and allowed the deletion. While I think the editor’s decision was mistaken, I admire the commitment to avoiding what he sees as unseemly content, a commitment that overrode any desire to add additional unfavorable information about Lubavitch. I ask myself if I can think of any other forum that would be so fastidious, and I come up empty.
Finally, let me take this opportunity to say something about R. Schach. Modern Orthodox Jews see his Lubavitch campaign as an egregious example of his extremist zealotry, and outside the circle of his disciples, the Traditionalist Orthodox see it as an unfortunate idiosyncracy. But those all-too-few Jews who have come to understand that Lubavitch Hasidism after the Rebbe’s death has visited a historic catastrophe upon the Jewish religion need to acknowledge that R. Schach saw what we did not. I write much more respectfully about the Rebbe than R. Schach did, and I wish that the critique had been formulated somewhat differently. Nonetheless, I have developed enormous respect for his prescience and his courage. Would that such prescience and such courage were not in such short supply.