Conference Weighs Rebbe’s Legacy
By Steven I. Weiss
November 11, 2005
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe was the subject of a groundbreaking three-day conference at New York University this week, a generally laudatory program that could set the tone for how the charismatic leader and his movement will be presented in future academic settings.
"What we are really going to do [with this conference is] set off a mode of research," said the event’s organizer, Lawrence Schiffman, a Judaic studies professor at New York University. The conference, he added, was "in certain ways a communal research project."
Several of the sessions featured basic introductions to the rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement’s basic rituals and slogans, including its trademark declaration: "We Want Moshiach [Messiah] Now." Many presenters also offered detailed explications of Schneerson’s thought. These were based on a review of his extensive writings, which are relatively unfamiliar to Jews outside of Lubavitch circles.
Most speakers steered clear of any criticism of Schneerson’s theology or leadership. In fact, one of the Lubavitch movement’s harshest critics, Queens College history professor David Berger, received as much criticism as Schneerson himself.
Organizers did not invite Berger, whose 2001 book, "The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference" (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization), is the most prominent attack on the Lubavitch. Berger has argued frequently that the Lubavitch movement has put itself beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism by allegedly encouraging followers to see Schneerson as the messiah and to worship him as if he were divine. As a result, Berger said, Orthodox rabbis and organizations should boycott Lubavitch rabbis and institutions.
Professor Shaul Magid of Indiana University Bloomington said in his presentation that Lubavitch assumptions about Schneerson’s immortality can find root in Jewish sources from the pre-rabbinic, pre-Christian era. "David Berger is right that it is not Orthodox, but he’s wrong that it is not Jewish," Magid said, adding, "An indictment of heresy against contemporary Chabad is an indictment against the entire system of Chabad, as well as perhaps Kabbalah generally."
Schiffman defended the decision not to invite Berger, saying, "I think he’ll be the first to tell you that he’s not interested in approaching this topic from an academic perspective."
Berger told the Forward, "I have good reason to believe that I was not invited because of the controversial nature of my involvement in this matter, and a reasonable case can be made that a fierce partisan is not an appropriate participant in an academic conference." But, he added, "At the same time, one has to be careful of partisanship on the other side that obscures the problems — to put the matter moderately — that mark the aftermath of the rebbe’s career."
The conference featured a mix of Lubavitch and non-Lubavitch scholars.
One Chabad participant, Chaim Rapoport, said the approach at the conference was quite different from what you would find at a Lubavitch Yeshiva. "The academic style, in essence, is the study of a subject — it’s very detached," Rapoport said in an interview with the Forward. "With the rebbe, there’d be a sense of awe" if his followers had run the program.
Despite the academic setting, repeated iterations of nonacademic assessments entered the discussion. For instance, Lubavitch scholars frequently answered questions posed to the non-Lubavitch scholars, basing their answers on personal experience and understanding as opposed to academic research. And a sense of awe was detectable in nearly all the presentations dealing with Schneerson and his work; there wasn’t much criticism, not even from non-Lubavitch scholars.
Schiffman acknowledged as much, saying, "People are amazingly impressed by most of the record" of his work. "When you get a literature going [about Schneerson], maybe people will be more critical," Schiffman said. "You have to start somewhere."
The most critical assessment of the Lubavitch came in a presentation by Tufts University professor Stephanie Wellen Levine. Professor Levine had studies the Lubavitch community while living in it, and this lead to her 2003 book, "Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls" (New York University Press). In her presentation, Levine discussed the Lubavitch youth who had abandoned ritual observance. As she recounted the story of one young woman who had started seeing a non-Jewish man, a distinct murmur grew in the audience. One Lubavitch woman left the presentation so quickly that she forgot her purse.
Lubavitch messianism itself was criticized strongly by Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor and former president of Yeshiva University, in response to a presentation on Schneerson’s esoteric thought. Lamm asserted that Schneerson’s statements could be misinterpreted to
create a "distortion" leading to "moral nihilism." In an interview with the Forward, Lamm asserted that such open efforts to declare Schneerson the messiah would not have been tolerated before his death. "When he was alive, no one would have dared to discuss this," Lamm said.
While Lamm’s presentation was an unexpected deviation into the topic of Lubavitch messianism, the topic was the subject of the conference’s final session.
During the session, Naftali Loewenthal, a professor at University College, London, explained how a Chabad theology could exist that did not consider Schneerson to be the messiah. In another presentation at the final session, Professor Avrum Ehrlich of Shandong University made the case for why messianism was an essential element of Schneerson’s thought and the Lubavitch movement’s development.
None of the presenters at the conference attempted to define the Lubavitch movement’s current understanding of messianism that has developed since Schneerson’s death or quantify how many Chabad followers believe that Schneerson is the Messiah.
"The fact of the matter is that there’s no way to get the information in a reliable manner," Schiffman said. "The only way to get that information is by spending a large amount of money on a study, but even then, you don’t know how to interpret what they’re saying" because of the doctrines of esotericism within the sect.
Lubavitcher Rebbe Meets The Academy
Three-day conference at NYU explores philosophy, mysticism and messianism.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen – Staff Writer
Scholars probed the contributions of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, at a first-of-its-kind conference held earlier this week at NYU.
“Reaching for the Infinite: The Lubavitcher Rebbe – Life, Teachings and Impact” was more apt a title for the conference that took place this week at New York University than even its organizers may have realized.
Trying to convey the impact of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in two dozen or so 20-minute academic presentations, which were delivered at the conference held Sunday through Tuesday at NYU’s student center on Washington Square, was a little like reaching for the infinite with arms only inches long.
This was the first-ever academic conference devoted to the life and work of Rabbi Schneerson, who led the Chabad movement from 1951 until his death in 2004, and helped it grow into the largest Jewish outreach network in the world. Held under NYU’s auspices, the meeting was funded by Chabad supporters George and Pamela Rohr, and Craig and Deborah Cogut, and attended by up to 150 people at a time, ranging from Lubavitch chasidim to Reform rabbinical students.
The conference’s organizer, Lawrence Schiffman, said in an interview that he hoped “to create an intellectual discourse that didn’t exist before” on the rebbe. Schiffman, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert and chairman of NYU’s department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, explained that “the rebbe is a major phenomenon in modern Jewish life.”
There may be no other 20th century rabbi as influential, recognizable — or controversial — beyond his own religious community as Rabbi Schneerson, whose reputation has been somewhat diminished by the controversy surrounding the insistence by many of his followers that he is the messiah, a dispute that has divided his chasidim.
Speakers’ approaches and topics varied widely. Some focused on esoteric aspects of the rebbe’s particular take on kabalistic ideas, some on his Torah scholarship and others on his involvement with politics, both domestic and Israeli, or with art, music and psychology.
Several speakers were Lubavitch chasidim in academia, and others, including Schiffman, can be described as friends of the non-messianist leadership faction of Lubavitch.
While Chabad’s most reviled critic, Brooklyn College professor of history David Berger, was purposely left off of the panel, another longtime critic of messianist aspects of the movement, Allan Nadler, a professor of Jewish studies at Drew University, was invited to participate. His presentation, “Mitnagdic Opposition to the Rebbe,” wandered into opposition by other chasidic rebbes as well, and delved into how it played out in Israeli party politics.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, retired president of Yeshiva University, who spoke on “The Rebbe, Mysticism and Philosophy” on Tuesday, was the first to address Lubavitch messianism head-on.
In speaking for the first time in public about the rebbe, there was much he lauded, asserting that “his genius lay in his exquisite combination of high intellect and his ongoing concern about each and every individual Jew, not only his own group.”
But he also sharply criticized the messianic thrust that the public face of the movement seems to be increasingly taking.
“I do not believe that the rebbe thought himself to be moshiach. But I do think he considered himself a possible candidate,” said Rabbi Lamm. He decried the movement’s “over-emphasis on messianism” and castigated those who now say that the rebbe is the messiah but simply concealed from view.
“To continue this myth of his being moshiach is utter ridiculousness,” he said. It is easy for the messianically-oriented “to distort” the rebbe’s teachings and say “that the rebbe is part of the God-head. That is completely heretical and quite dangerous,” he asserted. “I wonder if this distortion could and should have been avoided by responsible leadership of a movement that has not lost its vitality.”
Naftali Loewenthal, in the conference’s final session, ardently defended his movement from the messianists in a paper titled “Chabad, the Rebbe and the Messiah in the 21st Century.”
He protested their reductionist, myopic focus and called their opponents, who run many of the movement’s institutions, “the spiritual elite” of Lubavitch.
“There are attempts by moshiachists to define the rebbe as just one theme,” said Loewenthal. “But even his messianic thrust was not one-dimensional.”
He said “every Jew has a role to play in the quest to make the world a dwelling place for the divine.”
Several speakers mentioned the difficulty in fully grasping the rebbe’s depth and inner personality. With the rebbe, “you pull the veil aside and there’s another veil,” said Elliot Wolfson, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at NYU. “Even when you open up one avenue to understanding him, there’s another one to open. There is always another veil.”
William Helmreich, a professor of sociology and Judaic studies at the City University of New York, may have best summed up the rebbe’s complexities when he used his presentation on “The Rebbe’s Relation to Jewish Communal Organizations and Religious Movements” as an opportunity to portray him as a man of paradox.
For example, the rebbe seemed “flexible yet his official stance was opposed to contamination by the outside world. He had friends in every denomination but opposed cooperation,” he said.
Helmreich also adroitly plucked from the range of positions, campaigns and views the essence of what made the rebbe successful. In his view, it was the fact that the rebbe communicated that “each mitzvah has value unto itself.”
In other words, performing a mitzvah was not simply a first step, but something of infinite inherent value whose worth could also echo in higher worlds.
“The rebbe sought mitzvahs, not membership, from the Jews he met,” said Helmreich. “It is this focus on mitzvahs that is Chabad’s greatest contribution.”
Alan Brill, a rabbinic expert on Jewish mysticism and associate professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University, spoke about “The Rebbe as a Modern Thinker.”
The rebbe believed “that Judaism changes, that revelation is continuous and progressive, therefore our age deserves new approaches in order reach everyone. He asserts that we are not Godless moderns based on the Enlightenment, but that now God is closer than he ever was before.” The rebbe’s goal, he said, “was to bring 20th century Judaism away from materialism. It was rare in 20th century religion to describe America as full of meaninglessness, neurosis and laziness,” as the rebbe did, Brill said.
“In America at a time of assimilation,” said Brill, the rebbe saw that “more important than the four sons at the seder was to reach the fifth son, who was not there.”
Jeff Shandler, an associate professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University and a maven of American Jewish culture, spoke about the rebbe and media.
Unlike all other chasidic rebbes and fervently Orthodox rabbinic leaders who have recently banned use of the Internet, Rabbi Schneerson saw “technology as not inherently corrupting, but containing the potential to be integrated into Judaism’s spiritual mission.”
And indeed it was video of the rebbe that provided one of the conference’s most compelling moments, during a presentation on the rebbe’s relationship to music by Mark Kligman, a professor of Jewish musicology at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
When he played old videotape of the rebbe, from 1973 and 1980, singing a Lubavitch niggun (wordless melody), everyone in the conference room was riveted. Because it took that grainy black-and-white footage of the rebbe singing, and hundreds of his followers around him responding as one, to finally reveal what all the academic presentations simply could not: the power of the rebbe’s charisma.