on 1 July 2011
This fascinating book is about the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and its late Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-94).
This work is a well written account containing much interesting information. The writer has clearly put a lot of work into this book and traveled widely to visit the various Chabad houses dotted all over the USA.
I must admit, however, that I did find it a bit overburdened at times with narrative causing each chapter to be unnecessarily lengthy - but this may be just a male response! The disturbing thing about the book is that the writer was clearly overawed by the Rebbe's shlichim [emissaries] - and one can even see why. But this has resulted in an insufficiently critical perspective. For example, shlichim are very persuasive in their assurances that they are not out to hijack Judaism, yet a Google search for Orthodox synagogues brings up, among other things, the Chabad-Lubavitch website which siphons people off to various Chabad houses and does not give an overall listing of Orthodox synagogues.
Furthermore, the book barely touches on the theological aberrations of this movement (e.g.: God-in-everything [which is a distortion of the authentic Biblical teaching that God is everywhere or `omnipresent'] and reincarnation). Of course, it can be argued that such an analysis was not the author's intention. Nevertheless, as this is a book for lay-people, this would have been helpful.
There is somewhat more emphasis on the bizarre practices involved in trying to keep in touch with the Rebbe after his death. The question of whether some of this constitutes praying to the Rebbe is raised [pp.228, 277-278, 284], although the writer shies away from discussing any possibility that spiritism is involved in contacting spirits of departed people (contra Deuteronomy 18:9-14, for example). However, an entire chapter is at least devoted to the key controversy in Jewish circles: namely the Rebbe's alleged Messiahship.
From an interfaith perspective, I found two especially interesting issues. The first is that the movement comes across as a kind of counterfeit of the New Covenant Faith as introduced by Jesus of Nazareth, who is arguably, and despite detractors, the best Jew who ever walked on this Earth.
The second is the messianic element in this movement. The chief opponent of this in Orthodox circles is Rabbi David Berger of the Rabbinical Council of America, who has attempted to persuade the Orthodox community that it must act vigorously to delegitimate what he has described as "the false messianism and avodah zarah prevalent in the Lubavitch movement." [The Rabbinical Council of America]
Rabbi Berger has expressed his grief over this trend in these words: "Despite a 1996 RCA resolution that was a source of deep gratification, these efforts have not met with much success, so that I live with the unspeakably distressing consciousness that after devoting much of my career to the study of the Jewish-Christian debate, I have seen the Orthodox rabbinate of my generation destroy defining elements of the religion they are charged to protect and obliterate the fundamental theological distinctions between Judaism and Christianity that our ancestors gave their lives to preserve." [Ibid.] But this merely raises the question as to whether the boundaries of Judaism are really as tight as Rabbi Berger would like.
Clearly Lubavitcher messianism undermines a major plank in Rabbi Berger's thinking and raises the question of whether post-Yavneh rabbis have been on the wrong tack in rejecting Jesus of Nazareth as the true Messiah. It is interesting to compare Rabbi Berger's remark with a comment by the late Gershom Scholem in the introduction to his book on Sabbatai Zevi (1626-76), an earlier false Messiah who converted to Islam under threat. With characteristic perceptivity, Scholem wrote:
There is no way of telling a priori what beliefs are possible or impossible within the framework of Judaism. ... . The "Jewishness" in the religiosity of any particular period is not measured by dogmatic criteria that are unrelated to historical circumstances, but solely by what sincere Jews do, in fact, believe, or at least consider, to be legitimate possibilities. [Sabbatai Sevi: The mystical Messiah (1975), p.xi]
So, then, rejection of Jesus' Messiahship is in the end not an issue of truth, but rather of current Jewish consensus. Leading Orthodox Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm, quoted by Fishkoff, evidently finds this aspect of the Chabad-Lubavitch worrying as it undermines the currently-accepted paradigm:
"If they believe the Rebbe could have been Moshiach, fine, I agree. Many people could have been the Moshiach, and he had a far better chance than most. But to say he's the Moshiach after he died? The whole polemic we've had with Christianity for two thousand years is that we say a Moshiach who did not accomplish world peace, who did not accomplish the redemption of Israel and the world, is not Moshiach. And here we're told that [the Rebbe] can be. If that's the case, why were we so reluctant to accept Jesus?" [p.268].
Indeed, why? How could we have missed him when the Scriptures are so plain? This is probably the greatest tragedy in the history of mankind and explains so much of what is going in the world today. Think how different the course of human history would have been if Jesus of Nazareth had been universally embraced from the start as Word of God, Messiah, and King of Creation.
Rating this book is something of a dilemma. For style and reportage, I would rate it highly. But, because of important omissions and inasmuch as this book could be used to provide propaganda for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, I have to set my rating low.