FailedMessiah.com is published by Shmarya Rosenberg
Email Address: failed.messiah – at – comcast.net
“Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” – Elie Weisel. ~~~ “The seal of G-d is Truth.” – Rabbi Hanina, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 64a.
I was drawn to Chabad-Lubavitch, a grouping in Orthodox Judaism, because it seemed to be the perfect combination of social service and religious mystery. Long before the pop-Kabbala craze made famous by Madonna, Chabad was teaching a form of Jewish mysticism to Jews like me who had grown up in secular homes. And it combined that mysticism with social service. Chabad had a drug treatment facility in LA, poverty programs in New York City and Jerusalem, underground outreach in what was then the repressive Soviet Union – and a rabbi just around the corner from practically every Jew in America, even those in Jews who found themselves in Iowa, Texas and Minnesota, far away from the costal centers of Jewish life. Under its charismatic leader or rebbe, Chabad focused on macro issues – for example, opposition to the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, promotion of prayer in American public schools, and the staging of public displays of Jewish religious symbols on government property – promoting an in-your-face, unique and unapologetic brand of Judaism that included any Jew, no matter how removed from Jewish life he might be, in its body politic. As a Chabad wag is fond of saying, “All Jews are members of Chabad – some just don’t know it yet!”
My involvement in Jewish life predated my joining Chabad. I was active on my college campus, with a national Jewish fraternity, with an international Jewish student group, and in the effort to rescue the small endangered Black Jewish community of Ethiopia. It was this last involvement that would lead to my excommunication.
Soon after joining, I asked Chabad to help with this rescue. I spoke with Chabad leaders, men close to the Rebbe. Chabad would not undertake such a mission without permission from the Rebbe, I was told. (His immediate predecessor had been described as the “Pope” of Orthodox Judaism.) After months of waiting, asking, and waiting again without a response, I sent a certified special delivery letter to the Rebbe in Brooklyn. In it I listed some things Chabad could do to help the Ethiopian Jewish community. After each item, I asked a simple question: Is Chabad doing this? If not, why not? I also asked if the Rebbe considered these black Jews to be Jewish.
I already knew the answers to the first part of those questions. Chabad was not doing these things. Less than 40 years after the Holocaust, I wanted to know why.
Two months passed. The Rebbe did not answer my letter. I decided to leave Chabad. Before doing so, I gave my contacts in the Chabad leadership another chance to get an answer from their leader.
They returned with an answer. The Rebbe had read my letter. He directed me to continue the work I was doing to help Jewish communities, especially the work I was doing locally. And, if I wanted to resolve any dispute over the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews, I should do so through the leading Orthodox Jewish legal authority in the United States. The Rebbe did not feel himself competent to decide this complicated issue of Jewish law.
The Rebbe had answered my letter but had not answered any of my questions – and Chabad was not helping Ethiopian Jews. Still, I saw hope. If this leading Orthodox legal authority would endorse rescue, surely the Rebbe would order his followers to help.
So I worked on it, months later getting that endorsement. Soon after, I took a leading Ethiopian Jew to Washington to meet with senators, representatives and State Department officials. After successful meetings, we decided to go to New York to meet with Jewish religious leaders to line up support for rescue. Our first stop was Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn where we were refused a meeting with the Rebbe. However, the chief judge of the Chabad religious court agreed to see us. He endorsed rescue and our efforts.
Four months later, Operation Moses, the rescue operation that saved thousands of Jews from Sudanese refugee camps bordering Ethiopia, would begin.
Fast forward 20 years. Chabad was still not involved with Ethiopian Jews, but the issue did not seem so pressing after the rescues were completed. I remained in Chabad, working at times for the organization in America and Israel. I went to rabbinical school, studied and was about to take the equivalent of rabbinic boards. A large Israeli-based Chabad magazine was publishing a series of letters from the now late Rebbe. These were private correspondence meant to answer difficult and often intimate questions. The Chabad publication got around privacy issues by removing the name of the correspondent. In my case, the letter read “To Mr.___, S. Paul, MN 55116.”
The letter was an answer to my letter on the rescue of Ethiopian Jews. The original may have been lost in the mail. More likely, it was taken by an alert aide who recognized its potential damage to Chabad and the Rebbe’s reputation. The letter is a collection of excuses. Why other things, like American Jewish spiritual needs, are more pressing than saving poor, starving Black Jews and therefore must come first. Fanciful denials of Chabad involvement in Washington lobbying and Israeli immigrant absorption – two well-publicized Chabad activities. But worse yet was the tone, so mean, spiteful, and uncaring about the suffering of Ethiopian Jewry.
Because the Rebbe could not bring himself to write the phrase “Ethiopian Jews” – perhaps a good indication that he, despite rabbinic rulings to the contrary, did not consider them to be Jews – he wrote the phrase, “the matter that you are so concerned about.” Because of this, and because the letters the Rebbe responded to were not filed with those responses, Chabad did not realize the true import of the letter, and they published it.
I waited a month before responding. Then I published my letter to the Rebbe along with the Rebbe’s response on my blog started for that purpose, http://www.FailedMessiah.com. Because I refused to take down the blog, I was excommunicated. That means:
1. I can no longer be counted as part of a prayer group.
2. I cannot lead prayers or receive any religious honors.
3. I have been shunned by members at the request of the rabbis.
4. Members are urged not to do business with me or to see me socially.
5. I cannot work in religious-related business.
6. I have completed rabbinic training but cannot sit for what is the equivalent of my boards.
7. I have been told that there is no repair for my soul and that I will burn eternally in hell.
I have also:
1. Been threatened.
2. Had websites hacked and destroyed.
3. Had my home address and telephone number posted on the internet.
4. Had thousands of dollars of magazine subscriptions and other materials illegally charged to my name.
Would I do it again? Yes, I would.
UPDATE: January 2007 – I no longer have an interest in being a rabbi. My religious beliefs have changed much since I started this blog. For more details, please read this:
October 24, 2006
What I Believe
I received an email from a man I greatly admire, although I often disagree with him. David Klinghoffer wrote with a suggestion, which I’ll paraphrase: “Why not write a post on what you actually believe rather than simply bitching about every rabbi in the world?” Fair enough. This post will explain my “theology,” so to speak. But there will be plenty of bitching involved, because what I complain about has so shaped my worldview that I cannot make my case without mentioning it.
I’m evolving. If you’d asked me three years ago, I would have spouted rhetoric largely indistinguishable from Avi Shafran, but with some carping about nepotism, cronyism and the missed opportunities generated by same added in. But that was then. I’ve seen enough since then to realize that my initial revulsion at the business of the haredi world, suppressed so long ago, was well justified. And I’ve seen that non-haredi Orthodoxy is no better.
I’ve also learned that many if not the vast majority of “facts” presented by the likes of Aish HaTorah, Agudah and Chabad are false, nothing more than slick, often cult-like PR.
Jewish belief is based on a mesora, on tradition handed down from father to son, teacher to pupil, from Mount Sinai until today. But a mesora is based on trust, on the honesty and credibility of the fathers and teachers who pass it down.
The lies of the kiruv movement and the lies and misbehavior of the so-called gedolim, the deification of a false Brooklyn prophet, and all those criminal convictions, indictments, investigations, abuse coverups and the like have real impact – they destroy the mesora, break the links in the chain, so to speak, that once bound us. If today’s rabbis lie to us, why not Rashi? Why Not Moses?
And, indeed, if the findings of archeology, genetics, astronomy, and so many other scientific disciplines are to be believed – and they should be, in part because they independently confirm each other’s work – our forbearers did quite a lot of lying. Either that, or they spoke in the language and style of their day, using myths to teach spiritual truths, never intending those myths to be taken as literal truth, And this, David, is what I believe. Those myths contain some of humankind’s earliest memories, often in fragmentary form, of what came before civilization after the great ice age ended and humans discovered agriculture, built the first cities and began to live for the first time in groups larger than an extended family or band. They tried to make sense of their world and to communicate in a non-literate society important information to their children and grandchildren in ways it would be remembered without writing – through myth.
Our unique contribution to these early myths was to emphasize the power of God over the powers of the demigods, stars and other natural forces. It was to bring God into this world. Most cultures viewed the Creator or Sky God as being too remote, unknowable and unreachable to be dealt with – hence the pantheons of the ancients. Jews returned God to this world where we are commanded to make a home for him, both in our hearts and in our actions. We are also commanded to carry this message to the nations of the world.
But we do neither, instead obsessing over ridiculous minutia in halakha and defining ourselves down in the process. Worse yet are the lies and corruption, the stealing and fraud, the Abramoffs and the Lanners, the Balkanys and the Kolkos, rabbis Lau, Amar and Metzger, Elyashiv and the seemingly endless list of other black hatted and black garbed fools we call leaders.
So there you have it. I no longer believe in the mesora as preached in Orthodoxy. I follow halakha for the most part due to simple inertia. I find little religious inspiration in Judaism. Yet I still believe in God the Creator who many billions of years ago made room for specks of dust like us and started the process that brought us – and brings us – into being.
Think of the words of the marvelous Eric Bazilian song made famous by Joan Osborne:
What if God was one of us / just a slob like one of us / just a stranger on the bus / trying to make his way home…
God is in exile because we put Him there. He’s with those poor children as their rabbi fondles their penises and as other rabbis lie to cover it up. He sits in the fraudulent beit dins and in the special assemblies called to fake non-existent lunch programs. He was there with Abramoff as he stole from poor Indians and gave to rich Jews and He was there when rabbis looked the other way. We, all of us, those who stole and those who lied, those who abused and those who covered up, and those who just closed their eyes and would not see – have turned God into a lonely old man riding a bus, a liar, irrelevant, lost.
I can’t bring God home, but I can stop covering for and associating with those who abuse Him.
That is what I believe.