This article is in response to the commentary piece by Rabbi Bruce Warshal, publisher emeritus of the Jewish Journal of South Florida, which appeared on page 7 of the March 21 edition of the St. Louis Jewish Light. It pains me to express my strong disagreement with the content and tone of Rabbi Warshal’s piece which was headlined, “Is the Lubavitcher Rebbe the Messiah?”
I consider Rabbi Warshal to be a respected colleague in Jewish journalism, and I have often expressed my admiration for his writing, especially his thoughtful recent piece stating why Jews must be involved in efforts to stop the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. On the other hand, I strongly disagreed with Rabbi Warshal’s lengthy, two-part defense of the current book by former President Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. At the same time, I respect Rabbi Warshal’s right to his views, and feel that his comments on the Carter book were based on a careful reading of its contents.
Regrettably, in Rabbi Warshal’s piece on his experience of receiving a flyer while taking a walk a few months ago in Times Square from “two Chabadniks handing out literature,” jumps to the harmful and I believe incorrect conclusion that the entire worldwide Chabad movement deserves to be accused of bizarre beliefs based on a flyer that he “assumes” is “official Chabad doctrine” based on the fact that the flyer contained the address “770 Eastern Parkway” in Brooklyn, which was the headquarters and home of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbe or spiritual leader of the Chabad movement. Journalists, like our physician colleagues, have a solemn obligation to “first do no harm,” and we are obligated not to “assume” facts without doing some simple fact-checking.
According to Rabbi Yosef Landa, Director of Chabad of St. Louis, the flyer from which Rabbi Warshal quotes “is the work of unknown individuals, and has no official connection with Chabad whatsoever.” Rabbi Landa also asserts that the outlandish views expressed in the flyer do not reflect the official views of the worldwide Chabad movement, and that Chabad officials have “tried, in some cases successfully, to legally challenge the unauthorized uses of the name Chabad.” He adds, however that “consequently, some of these mavericks have resorted to simply using the address of ‘770 Eastern Parkway’ on their flyers in order to mislead the public,” adding that “unfortunately, an address cannot be legally protected.”
Despite the above, easily obtainable facts, Rabbi Warshal, in his piece writes, “The pamphlet says it comes directly from 770 Eastern Parkway, so I assume that it is official Chabad doctrine.” To base a harshly critical and potentially harmful column against an entire worldwide Jewish movement on an “assumption” is deeply disappointing.
Over the years, I have received countless flyers from people on the street, some of them purporting to be Jews or of Jewish origin, who support Hare Krishna, Rev. Moon’s Unification Church, the Hineni Ministries (Jews for Jesus) and other movements. If one of these flyers contained the address of a mainstream Jewish organization, I would not “assume” that it was authentic without firm verification.
I do not believe that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, was the Moshiach, or Messiah, but it is clear that the Rebbe was, in the words of Rabbi Norman Lamm, a leading Orthodox rabbi, “an indomitable leader, a preeminent scholar and a truly creative visionary of organization.” Rabbi Sholom Riskin, a leading Israeli rabbi, in a New York Jewish Week article, said that Rabbi Schneerson was “truly the great leader of this past generation.”
Because of Rabbi Schneerson’s towering intellect, powerful charisma and personal magnetism, there is a group of his followers who have asserted that he was or is indeed the Messiah, but this was never “official Chabad doctrine.” Rabbi Landa in St. Louis says that “it should come as no surprise that we occasionally attract some ‘strange birds'” but that “there’s very little that the official Chabad authorities can do to stop this.” In any event, the worldwide and St. Louis Chabad movements have never advocated the outlandish views quoted by Rabbi Warshal in the pamplet he received on Times Square.
It is highly regrettable that an entire worldwide and local movement, which is a strong force for good in the Jewish community, has been tarred with the brush of a strange and unofficial faction. Even more regrettable and inaccurate is the lumping together of Chabad with Jews for Jesus, to which it bears absolutely no similarity. Rabbi Landa has described the comparision as “obscene.”
I was also taken aback by Rabbi Warshal’s criticism not only of Chabad, but of Chasidism in general, and the exalted position of its rabbis. “No one stands between a Jew and his or her God,” writes Rabbi Warshal, adding, “That’s the distortion that Chasidism introduced into Judaism, whether a particular Chasidic rabbi believes that the Rebbe is the Messiah or not.” At the Torah class at my home congregation, which is Reform, the wise words of Chasidic rabbis are often quoted with respect. In the class at Shaare Emeth, the commentaries of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Chabad Rebbe, are sometimes among the rabbinic sages quoted in the handouts. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber, who had backgrounds in traditional and liberal Judaism wrote and spoke respectfully of Chasidism. Far from being a “distortion,” Chasidism’s great rabbinic sages have helped us gain greater clarity on the meaning of our sacred texts. Surely our great rabbis, including Rabbi Schneerson, are deserving of the greatest respect.
Here in St. Louis, Chabad now has four centers: The Lazaroff Chabad Center in University City; Chabad of Chesterfield; The Source Unlimited; and Chabad on Campus, directed with great skill by Rabbi Hershey Novack and his wife Chana, which works in close cooperation with Hillel at Washington University. Just yesterday, at the Wohl Building of the Jewish Community Center, I saw scores of Jewish families taking part in Chabad’s annual “Matzo Baking Workshop.”
Worldwide, there are over 3,200 Chabad centers and educational programs. Back in 1978, in Morocco, a North African Arab country, I was with a group of Jewish journalists who visited a Chabad Jewish day school, whose students ranked at or near the top academically in nearly every subject nationwide. In the former Soviet Union, Chabad did truly heroic work in helping rescue victims of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, making sure children who had been born with serious birth defects from the nuclear meltdown, received medical care either in Russia or Israel.
Rabbi Yosef Landa is respected by his rabbinic colleagues from all streams of Judaism, and he serves as chairman of the St. Louis Rabbinical Council, the rabbinical organization of all Orthodox and Traditional rabbis in St. Louis. Rabbi Landa is active in communitywide programs, including participation in last summer’s rallies in support of Israel during the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Our tradition teaches us that we can disagree with our colleagues without being disagreeable or engaging in ad hominem attacks. The great Sages and Rabbis Hillel and Shammai 2,000 years ago in the Land of Israel, often disagreed with one another on biblical or other text legal interpretations, but always with great mutual respect and even with personal affection and friendship. I have affection and respect for both Rabbi Yosef Landa, a leader in our community, and for Rabbi Bruce Warshal, a respected Jewish journalistic colleague. It is my hope that this article helps set the record straight to asssure that the many good works and official views of the Chabad movement can be clarified and appreciated. It is written to foster shalom bayit, peace in our household of the Jewish community. It is my hope that it will foster mutual respect among all Jews in our community, locally and nationally.
Robert A. Cohn is editor-in-chief emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.