Few topics within the Orthodox world are as instantaneously divisive as Chabad. For most, Chabad represents a slightly weird group that does a lot of good by bringing people closer to Judaism. Most people think of them very highly, even if they don’t have so much to do with the group. For many, though, they represent a serious threat to Orthodoxy in our times.
First and foremost among Chabad’s detractors, at least chronologically, was Rav Elazar Menachem Shach, one of the leading spiritual leaders of the previous generation. Rav Shach felt that Chabad’s emphasis on attempting to bring the mashiach deviates from the traditional focus of normative Judaism. He felt they were changing basic beliefs and practices, famously saying that Chabad is “the cult closest to Judaism.” He also felt that a certain line from the sichot of the Rebbe was heretical.
The controversy between Chabad and Rav Shach, though, mostly died down. It is viewed just like many disputes between tremendous religious leaders throughout Jewish history. It was certainly no more bitter or divisive than, for example, the fight between Rav Yehonasan Eybeschutz and Rav Yaakov Emden. Aside from a few hardcore misnagdim, most view both as legitimate and move on.
What makes Chabad controversial nowadays, though, is their messianism. At the forefront of this fight, which has much more support than Rav Schach’s issues do, is YU’s Dean of Revel, Rabbi Doctor David Berger. Rabbi Berger, an expert in the field of Jewish responses to Christianity, sees a tremendous danger in Chabad. He feels that the current Chabad beliefs that the Rebbe is either still alive or will return as mashiach is very reminiscent of Christian beliefs, and that the acceptance of Chabad will erode the traditional Jewish response to Christianity. Jesus isn’t the Messiah because he died. The same should hold true of the Rebbe.
Now, were that the extent of the problems with Chabad’s messianism, this controversy wouldn’t be so strong. Yes, some believe that Chabad’s belief in the Rebbe as mashiach is heretical because it inherently includes a denial of the real mashiach when he comes. That is a small minority though. Most think that the belief in the Rebbe as mashiach is just a folly. And while being foolish might not be the best of things, it is not heretical. No, the real issue with Chabad comes from those who blur the lines between the Rebbe and God.
I will start with , in which Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, director of Chabad in Los Angeles, states clearly heretical beliefs. Judaism believes that God runs the world, not the Rebbe. Now, it is possible that Rabbi Cunin himself understands the difference and doesn’t actually attribute Godhood to the Rebbe. But do all of his followers listening know this? Do all of the Chabad students who hear this and similar statements know this?
This is the crux of the entire Chabad issue in our times. There are some Lubavitchers nowadays who clearly have heretical beliefs. They blur the line between a man – a great man – and God. This is the basic definition of avodah zarah. The Rambam, in the first chapter of hilchos avodah zarah, explains how idolatry started in the world. First, people worshipped the Sun and the Moon as God’s emissaries. Then things got out of hand until they were worshipped as individual deities. We can see a chilling and clear repetition of the process here.
The question, though is numbers. Chabad defenders will claim that those who blur the line between Rebbe and God are an infinitesimal fraction who are ostracized anyway. The hardcore detractors will tell you that they all believe it; it’s just that a good chunk are smart enough not to admit it out loud. Personally, I find both claims hard to believe. I myself have been in schools where there is a picture of the Rebbe on the eastern wall of the classroom so that they can see it while they Daven (or Daven towards it). I also find it hard to believe that they all believe the Rebbe is God. I know far too many who don’t give off any inkling of believing that. So where is the truth? As always, it’s somewhere in the middle.
This comes up in more than just theory. It has daily practical questions. Can you count a Chabad person for a minyan? Can you eat meat slaughtered by a Chabad person? Does uncooked wine that they touch become stam yeinam? The easiest and most direct way is Rabbi Berger’s suggestion that you have to ask for a categorical denial of heretical beliefs before treating any Lubavitcher as a non-oved avodah zarah. Unfortunately, this is not so practical due to how offensive it can be. Once again, it all boils down to a question of numbers. If a significant number of Lubavitchers have heretical beliefs, then we have to assume that they all are heretics until we see a denial of such beliefs. If the number is not at all significant, though, then we have a right to assume that no individual is a heretic until they actually espouse such heretical beliefs.
Of course, if someone would hold that believing in a dead messiah is itself heretical, then this goes out the window. And while some Lubavitchers will tell you that it is also a small minority who believe that, this doesn’t seem to be born out by reality. The number of yechi statements and kippot, especially in places like Crown Heights and Kfar Chabad, is staggering. Rabbi Berger, who does find such beliefs heretical, thinks you have to ask for a denial of any belief in a dead messiah. But those who feel that belief in a dead messiah is just silly and not heretical wouldn’t require such a question.
What cannot be neglected, and is usually overlooked, is that no one denies the good that Chabad does. Rabbi Berger gets an incredibly bad rap in Chabad, and understandably so; but it’s also clear that those who spoke ill of him haven’t actually read what he says. Everyone thinks it’s a good thing that Chabad encourages Jews to do more mitzvot. The issue is that whether those good things justify legitimizing heretical beliefs. An idolater who also does good deeds is still an idolater and halacha has certain rules about how we relate to idolaters. This is difficult because any discussion of the critiques of Chabad is viewed as a condemnation and taken very defensively. It is silly to dismiss all of the claims out of hand, as some of them are quite legitimate. I am not here to offer an opinion about whether all of Chabad are idolaters, some are, or almost none are. There really is no way to know. But because we can’t know, it really creates an awkward situation regarding how to react.
Practically, though, it doesn’t usually matter so much anyway. You can usually infer a Lubavitcher’s beliefs when you first see him. If you walk into a Chabad Shul and there is a picture of the Rebbe in the direction you are Davening, it’s a pretty good indication to stay away. If it looks like any other Shul to you, that is usually sending a statement that they don’t have such beliefs and it should be fine to Daven there. If someone is wearing a yechi kippah, it would probably behoove you to find out exactly what he believes so that you can know how to react. The uncomfortable interactions come up in those one-time meetings with Lubavitchers. But, for the most part, it is usually not hard to know where they stand, and therefore you can know how to react.
The most poignant and important thing to remember, however, is that even though there are a few (read: one) source that may imply that a dead person can come back as mashiach, this can’t be true. As Rabbi Berger (and Rabbi Zev Leff, among others) have pointed out, the belief that a dead man cannot be mashiach has been our response to Christianity and a central belief for almost 2000 years. It would be a travesty to allow that to erode.