Category Archives: Chabad and the Media

FailedMessiah In The Forward

This week’s David Klinghoffer’s Forward column The Disputation deals with the Matisyahu issue and with Chabad in general. Here, for my money (and ego) is the money quote:

For centuries, the role of the Jewish people as a "kingdom of priests"
(Exodus 19:6) calling humanity to the worship of the one God was
suspended. In our day, thanks to the growing interest of non-Jews in
Judaism, that has started to change. Matisyahu may be the best example
of a Jew ministering in this priestly role on a mass scale. His
efforts, however, have won him Jewish detractors, who prefer that Jews
remain anonymous or irrelevant.

Take, for example, the sniping from the peanut gallery coming out of
the consistently sour but readable blog "What
Matisyahu does is unseemly. Few, if any, significant poskim (rabbinic legal scholars who rule on Halacha) would approve. But what bothers me more is blatant trading on Kaballah and Hasidut to
make money. That this does not bother mainstream Chabad may be because
this is what mainstream Chabad has itself done for years."

Indeed, Chabad’s efforts have earned the movement its share of enemies.
The rabbi at the Reform temple where I grew up used to speak out
against the local Chabad emissary; the competition made him nervous.
And in the Orthodox world, a few can’t forget the imbroglio in the
1990s in which some followers of Chabad’s late spiritual leader, the
Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, let it be known that they
expected he would return and reveal himself as the Messiah. Thankfully,
that fever dream has subsided.…

I thank Klinghoffer for quoting me. Still, Klinghoffer is wrong on many counts:

  1. I am certainly not opposed to Jews being a light onto the nations in an active fashion. What I and many other critics of Matisyahu are concerned about has been clearly stated on this blog. Being a light onto the nations or a need to remain "under the radar screen" is not one of them.
  2. Klinghoffer ignores the fact that poskim do not allow what Matisyahu does, and that poskim from Chabad, while the Rebbe was alive, told musicians they could not do what Matisyahu is now doing.
  3. Messianism has not gone away, as even any casual observer of Chabad knows, It is dominant in Israel, France, the FSU, and in Crown Heights. Matisyahu himself is a messianist.

Klinghoffer brushes away these facts just as he brushes away Marvin Schick’s concern about the lessening religious standards in Chabad, something there is much proof for. He also makes it appear as if Schick is an enemy of Chabad, something that is absolutely false – although, to be fair, Klinghoffer may not know this.

How can Klinghoffer make claims that disregard fact? I’ll give you my personal answer. Klinghoffer is a devotee of Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the maverick Orthodox rabbi shunned by many in mainstream Modern Orthodoxy and by most in the haredi world. Lapin has made a career (outside of his business involvements, which have been, in some cases, highly questionable from a legal standpoint) of supporting right wing political causes (he is one of Jack Abramoff’s rabbis) and of "kashering" the religious and extremist right*. To do this, one needs to adopt an ends justify the means theology, which is just what Lapin has done. And this theology drives his disciples, as well.

Several years ago, WorldVision launched a campaign to aid those hurt by suicide bombing and terrorist attacks in Israel. The radio commercial had bombs exploding, sirens wailing. Where was the money going? To the West Bank and Gaza, and only to Arabs. I asked WorldVision why. A spokesperson responded by saying (I paraphrase) that WorldVision helps the most at need. Jews can take care of themselves. The Arabs cannot. I asked about the morality of  using terror attacks against Jews to raise money for Arabs. Terror hurts both sides, was the response.

The Salem Radio Network had a joint campaign with WorldVision to fund this very project. Ads for it ran during both the Dennis Prager and Michael Medved shows. In effect, both shows raised money for the extended families of suicide bombers. I contacted both hosts and explained the problem. Both wanted details that involved many hours of research. I did that research (without pay) and sent the information to Prager and Medved. Prager** banned all ads for that WorldVision campaign from running during his show. But what did Medved, whose rabbi-guru is Lapin, do? He increased the ads and began endorsing that very WorldVision project. Why?

I believe for the same reason Klinghoffer can so easily ignore fact. The ends justify the means.*** It wasn’t worth damaging his (and Lapin’s) relationship with the evangelical-owned and operated Salem radio over the WorldVision project, especially because WorldVision is a major powerhouse in the evangelical world and is, not surprisingly, a major advertiser on Salem stations.

Klinghoffer is a follower of Lapin. To the extent that his article reflects that relationship, it is Lapin – and his theology – that is to blame. The same is true for Medved and WorldVision.

If well-meaning Chabad supporters would focus on keeping Chabad within halakha, instead of kashering every instance of deviation from it, Chabad would be in much better shape, and blogs like would not need to exist.
*Evangelical and other Christian Fundamentalist theology, as it impacts the public square, is not necessarily incompatible with Judaism any more than it is automatically compatible. For example, while Judaism frowns on abortion, it does not ban abortion outright and allows (and sometimes mandates!) abortion for a host of reasons related to the physical and mental health of the mother. This is why many poskim (like some of those ignored by Klinghoffer) do not support the anti-abortion movement. Lapin goes beyond this position to, in effect, kasher all but the most blatantly anti-Jewish positions of evangelicals.

**Yes, it is true that Prager is also a supporter of Chabad. But Prager is not Orthodox, and his views on halakha are not close to Orthodoxy’s.

***By ends in this case I mean ideological ends, not financial gain. In other words, in this case the ends are "ohr lagoyyim" and the means, Matisyahu and Chabad. Rabbi Lapin considers ohr lagoyyim to be a cornerstone of his public work and ideology/theology.



Filed under Chabad and the Media, Matisyahu

Chabad In National Geographic


Front row, second and third from right: Rabbis Levi and Mendel Feller. Third row, third from right: Their uncle, Rabbi Shmuel Lew. Carolyn Drake, National Geographic. {Rabbi Moshe Grossbaum may be in the back left with his nose and mouth obscured by the crown of a hat. Facing left, first from the left in row three, may be Rabbi Motti Grossbaum.]

National Geographic has a photo series on Chabad in Crown Heights. Note the picture of the parochet has been cropped to cut out the "Yechi" slogan, and somehow, none of the photos have any "Yechi" material in them, even though it is very common throughout Crown Heights and in 770 itself. The price an outside photographer pays for entrance? High.

[Hat tip: Nachum Lamm.]


Filed under Chabad and the Media

Former WJC Head “Reports” On Chabad

Avi Becker, a former senior official with the World Jewish Congress, writes in Ha’aretz on the virtues of Chabad. First Dr. Becker repeats the standard lines about Chabad’s growth after the death of the Rebbe:

The extent of the Chabad network, with 4,000 centers in 70 countries, is unprecedented in the Jewish world and is difficult to explain in conventional sociological terms. The expansion continued despite the loss 11 years ago of its renowned spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who championed the cause of bringing Jews together and under whose direction Chabad became famous for its aggressive marketing of Judaism.

Chabad’s growth is not all that difficult to explain. Shlichus (Chabad ‘missionary’ work) is a jobs program. It is the family business and the family calling all rolled up into one. When the Rebbe died he left hundreds of teenaged students whose only training and only aspiration was to be a Chabad shaliach. The family business expanded to accommodate them. This, combined with the opening of Russia and the FSU and oligarchs who quickly saw the advantages of having Chabad on their side – and the very real disadvantages of the opposite – explains much of Chabad’s growth. But numbers of centers do not tell the whole story. Many centers are operational only in the most restricted sense. The shaliach raises money and does a few – very few in some cases – programs that attract only a tiny number of people. Another Chabad "center" shows on the map, but few people are influenced or helped. This "center" helps Chabad’s overall PR image at least as much as it helps local Jews.

And, after all, it is Chabad’s PR image that is paramount. Dr. Becker continues his "report":

Chabad has recently underscored efforts to shake off the messianic image that has adhered to certain sectors of the movement; it has rejected out of hand the extreme sect that has transformed Schneerson into the messiah. The organizers of the New York convention went out of their way to express their opposition to messianic elements.

Really? Can we see that "rejection" in writing, please? Messianic signs, banners and flags fill Chabad communities worldwide. Chabad’s major educational and religious institutions are controlled by messianists. Chabad institutions in entire countries are dominated by messianists. So where is the "rejection," Dr. Becker?

But, more to the point, Chabad’s "anti"-messianists do not themselves reject the view that the late Rebbe is the messiah – far from it. They reject publicizing that view, because that view hurts fundraising and outreach efforts. No major "anti"-messianist leader has ever said publicly that the late Rebbe is not the messiah – and none ever will.

Chabad is expert at using naîve secular Jews, like Dr. Becker and Alan Derschowitz, as its "kashering agents." Chabad is successful at this largely because the Jewish media fails to do its job. Just as it provides minimal reporting on the activities of the Federations, which, after all, are "representative" of all Jews, it provides far less hard coverage of Chabad, that represents so few. But Chabad has changed the theology of Judaism in ways that demand our attention.

Asking a dead man for blessing and advice – and expecting and
"receiving" an answer – once the sole purview of polytheistic
religions, is now a mainstay of Judaism.The focus on the personality and charisma of a supposed messiah now surpasses the deeds that messiah must do to be authentic. And a second coming of the messiah – once an exclusively Christian concept
that marked the divide between Christianity and Judaism – is now a
standard Jewish belief.

But these are theological issues, issues that effect the heart and soul of Judaism, not its pocketbook and stomach, and as such they are lost on the Steinhardts, Derschowitz’s and Beckers of the world, who care more about nostalgia and warm cholent than they do about truth.

Once upon a time in a land far away, truth mattered. But no more.


Filed under Chabad and the Media

The Forward On The NYU Rebbe Conference

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.

More on the conference here. More on the Forward’s coverage of Chabad here.

UPDATE: New York Jewish Week coverage follows below:

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.


Filed under Chabad and the Media

Norman Lamm Steps Up At NYU Rebbe Conference


Steven I. Weiss reports on Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s response (at the NYU Rebbe conference) to the presentations of Eliot Wolfson, Moshe Hallamish and Alan Brill:

My main concern in reaction to this admirable presentation of the arcane thought of R’ Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is how easy it is to twist it into a radical messianism that is now taking place in meshichistic circles in Brooklyn and especially in Kfar Chabad. Let me recap two of the salient points in the paper and ask whether it might have been better for the Rebbe’s "secret of secrets" to be kept secret if only for the spiritual welfare of his flock. […]

Early in his paper, Professor Wolfson avers that "the secret of the secret"…is that "in its most inwardness, the soul is conjoined to divinity…the soul is consubstantial with God," and refers to this as "an insight that significantly closes the gap separating the human and the divine, a gap that is typically assumed to be a basic tenet of Biblical and rabbinical Judaism."

While this is not alien to Kabbalistic thinking, the idea of yichud refers to unification with the sephirot, never — to my knowledge — with the  ohr ain sof itself. The adept must therefore steer a careful course between depicting the highest stages of religious consciousness and the erasure of the ultimate gap between God and man. […]

Is this not easy to distort into justification that the Rebbe as Messiah is part of the Godhead? …is it not easy to find in this concept a "source" for a kind of Sabbatian antinomianism and moral nihilism — especially if one believes moshiach has arrived, in the form of Rabbi Schneerson?

I wonder if this distortion could and should have been avoided by responsible leadership of a movement that has not lost its vitality. And that too is a serious question: is the continued vitality somehow connected to the underlying esoteric theology of the movement in its most radical form?

Weiss reports that Wolfson’s reaction to this was that Rabbi Lamm’s presentation was not "academic." So Weiss retorted to Wolfson:

But I proposed that it is academic, at least as far as moral philosophy is an academic subject, and Wolfson replied "you’re right."

Wolfson’s "unbiased," "academic" remarks about the Rebbe follow:

“Menachem Mendel Schneerson is larger than life,” said
Elliot Wolfson, a professor at NYU and scholar of Chasidism. “To speak
of him is fraught with danger.”

And yet that’s precisely what a cadre of academics and scholars of
Chasidic thought are attempting to do this week as they tackle a
variety of themes related to the Rebbe and his legacy. Coming to NYU’s
Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, from as far as
Australia, Israel and the U.K., the academics are presenting at a
conference billed “Reaching for the Infinite, the Lubavitcher Rebbe,
Life, Teachings and Impact.”

A collaborative effort by Professor Lawrence Schiffman of NYU,
Professor [and Chabad rabbi] Naftali Loewenthal from the University of London and
Professor Elliot Wolfson, the conference will examine the various
facets of the Rebbe as scholar, mystic, leader and teacher.…

Anticipating the magnitude of the enterprise, Professor Wolfson
suggested in his [opening] remarks, that the more one learns about the Rebbe, the
more they understand how much more is yet to be known. Indeed, trying
to get to know the Rebbe, he said, is ultimately an attempt of
“Reaching for the Infinite.”

Something is very rotten in NYU.


Filed under Chabad and the Media, Chabad Theology

The Forward And NYU’s Rebbe Conference


What will not be seriously discussed at NYU’s Rebbe conference? Birthday gatherings like the one advertized on this poster.

NYU is hosting the first academic conference on the Rebbe in the US. Bar Illan held a similar conference three years ago.

The Forward’s ‘report’ from the Bar Illan conference was filed by Yori Yanover, a man with close emotional and financial ties to Chabad. Yanover’s report smeared Rabbi Dr. David Berger.   Worse yet, nowhere did Yanover or the Forward note Yanover’s ties to Chabad or Yanover’s previously held anti-Berger views. (Yanover has compared Berger’s work to Nazi propaganda and has written worse about Berger himself.)

So, who is covering this year’s NYU conference? Steven I. Weiss, the reporter who strongly downplayed Chabad messianism in his coverage of the Rebbe’s 10th yartzeit 16 months ago. Weiss is also on record as believing Chabad references to a living Rebbe ("Yechi adonaynu moreynu v’rabaynu melech hamoshiach l’olam voed!" , "The Rebbe, shlit’a", "The Rebbe, he should live many long and happy days", etc. ) to be allegorical and therefore not a problem halakhicly.

Weiss is blogging from the conference and has this to say about Allan Nadler, the only* presenter who can reasonably be called a critic of Chabad:

Is Israeli Politics Ever Out Of The Discussion?

Yesterday, Allan Nadler presented a paper on Mitnagdic Opposition to the Rebbe that quickly became about how the various ultra-Orthodox groups came into conflict, with Israeli politics as part of the conflict; that’s when my eyes glazed over.

At the end of the talk, back into consciousness, Yaakov Ariel of North Carolina — an Israeli — contradicted Nadler not on anything that explicitly furthered knowledge of the main topic, but about Israeli politics.

My eyes glazed over again.”

Nadler is the only critic of Chabad presenting. Weiss has just admitted to ignoring him. (It makes one long for the return of Seth Lipskey.)

So, how academic is this "academic" conference?  This is what Eliot Wolfson, one of the three conference organizers has to say:

“Menachem Mendel Schneerson is larger than life,” said Elliot Wolfson, a professor at NYU and scholar of Chasidism. “To speak of him is fraught with danger.”

And yet that’s precisely what a cadre of academics and scholars of Chasidic thought are attempting to do this week as they tackle a variety of themes related to the Rebbe and his legacy. Coming to NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, from as far as Australia, Israel and the U.K., the academics are presenting at a conference billed “Reaching for the Infinite, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Life, Teachings and Impact.”

A collaborative effort by Professor Lawrence Schiffman of NYU, Professor Naftali Loewenthal from the University of London and Professor Elliot Wolfson, the conference will examine the various facets of the Rebbe as scholar, mystic, leader and teacher.…

Anticipating the magnitude of the enterprise, Professor Wolfson suggested in his remarks, that the more one learns about the Rebbe, the more they understand how much more is yet to be known. Indeed, trying to get to know the Rebbe, he said, is ultimately an attempt of “Reaching for the Infinite.”

Rabbi Berger was not invited, apparently because Schiffman, Wolfson and Lowenthal (a Chabad rabbi) consider him to be a "polemecist" against Chabad. Yet those who are academic polemecists for Chabad – like Schiffman, Wolfson, and Lowenthal – fill the schedule. The Rebbe’s only biographer was also not invited. (He’s on the outs with Chabad.) Schiffman admits to liking his work but, he’s not an academic, so no invite.

Bias? It seems so.

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Filed under Chabad and the Media

Rabbi David Berger Not Invited To NYU Rebbe Conference


Steven I. Weiss has a post on Rabbi Dr. David Berger explaining his current position on Chabad. Rabbi Berger also notes that he was not invited to present at NYU’s academic conference on the Rebbe to be held next week. The conference – organized by Chabad apologist Lawrence Schiffman and Chabad rabbi Dr. Naftali Lowenthal, and funded by Chabad supporter and apologis George Rohr – appears to have only two potential critics of Chabad out of perhaps a dozen or so presenters. The only biographer of the Rebbe, Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, has also been left out of the mix. This may be because, unlike Rabbi Berger, Deutsch is not an academic. Still, he has the only biography in existence, and has broken new ground with his work. Both Berger and Deutsch are pariahs within Chabad; this may be the real reason neither is presenting.

The lone critic of Chabad on the agenda is Alan Nadler, an academic expert on the Vilna Gaon and mitnagdim.

SIW is covering this event for the Forward. If his recent comments and his history of reporting on this issue are any indication, Chabad will get off easy – but not too easy. But Chabad doesn’t have to worry. Their mole at the Forward will eventually take care of matters by deleting Weiss reports from the Forward’s website.


Filed under Chabad and the Media, Chabad History, Chabad Theology