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We Know What We’re Not: David Berger, Chabad Messianism, and Theological Self-Definition in Judaism

By Roseanne Dillon


Since the 1994 death of Chabad-Lubavitch’s beloved seventh Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Hasidic Jewish sect has found itself in the midst of a controversy. Members of the sect had declared Schneerson to be the messiah during his life, and after his death, rather than abandon this belief, some adopted a “second-coming” theology, claiming that he would return. David Berger, the leading opponent of so-called Chabad Messianism, published The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference in 2001, admonishing the Orthodox Jewish community for allowing this belief to be propagated under the banner of Judaism.\ud Berger’s argument against the Chabad Messianists is evidence of a larger phenomenon in Judaism. Like Berger, who considers Chabad Messianists’ beliefs un-Jewish because they too closely resemble Christianity, others in Jewish history have understood Jewish identity against the religious other. I observe this phenomenon in two historic moments. In late antiquity, the Jewish Rabbis began to define Judaism as a religion rather than an ethnicity, constructing orthodoxy and heresy against the orthodoxy and heresy of Christian heresiologists. Again in the Middle Ages, Maimonides wrote Jewish law that was part anti-Christian polemic, stating that a messiah who dies before completing the redemption is certainly not the messiah. I argue that in each of these moments of external challenge to the Jewish community, an internal event is seen as threatening to topple the already shaky wall around Jewish identity. The anxiety that Jewish identity will become unrecognizable compels some Jews--to wit Berger, Maimonides, and the early Rabbis--to revive Jewish theological self-definition through categories of orthodoxy and heresy in order to strengthen the border around Jewish identity. When these moments of anxiety pass, dogmatic formulations fall away and the community returns to being something between a religion and ethnicity

Year: 2010
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