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Eminent Rabbi’s Remarks Revive Debate About Orthodox Resolution

July 4, 1996
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

One of the most eminent Orthodox rabbis in America, Ahron Soloveichik, says he is concerned that his views have been misappropriated by messianist Lubavitchers.

The controversy surrounding Soloveichik, a renowned decisor of Jewish law, comes in the wake of a recent move by the Rabbinical Council of America to condemn the belief of some Lubavitchers that the late Menachem Schneerson is the Messiah.

Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe, died June 12, 1994.

Soloveichik, a dean at Yeshiva University and the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Chicago, declined requests for an interview but referred a reporter to a member of his immediate family, whom he authorized to speak on his behalf.

Soloveichik’s recent comments condemning the RCA resolution have been misunderstood, said his family member, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that he not be named.

The family member said that “some people who read the statement thought it might imply certain beliefs of the Lubavitch rebbe being Moshiach” on Soloveichik’s part, “and it wasn’t his intention to make a statement about that.”

The resolution approved in June by the RCA, which represents about 1,000 centrist Orthodox rabbis, said:

“There is not and has never been a place in Judaism for the belief that Mashiach ben David [Messiah son of David] will begin his Messianic Mission only to experience death, burial and resurrection before completing it,” said the RCA resolution.

While many Lubavitchers acknowledge their beloved leader’s death and have dedicated themselves to carrying on his work reaching out to Jews wherever they may be, a significant segment of the Lubavitch movement continues to believe – – and publicly promotes that belief — that the rebbe died and will be resurrected as the Messiah.

Soon after the RCA adopted the measure, Soloveichik was approached by a number of Lubavitch Chasidim from the movement’s messianist faction.

They appealed to Soloveichik, who is 79 and in poor health, for support, saying that they were being persecuted by other Jews for their beliefs.

In response, Soloveichik issued a statement saying that the messianists’ belief in the role of the rebbe even after his death “cannot be dismissed as a belief that is outside the pale of Orthodoxy.”

“Any cynical attempt at utilizing a legitimate disagreement of interpretation concerning this matter — that was, and continues to be in the forefront of those who are battling the missionaries, assimilation and indifference — can only contribute to the regrettable discord that already plagues the Jewish and particularly, Torah community,” the statement said.

Some, including those who pushed for the resolution, say the views of Lubavitch messianists are little different from the Christian view of messianism.

Those views also destroy the fundamental argument against Christianity that Jews have been using for nearly 2,000 years, said Rabbi David Berger, the author of the RCA resolution.

According to Soloveichik’s spokesman, the issue the rabbi was lending his name to is the fact that he does not feel that it is appropriate to attack Lubavitch publicly because certain individuals may have certain beliefs, or to label them as apikorsim, or heretics.

The resolution never mentioned the Lubavitch, but it was clear who it was targeted at.

“The issue for him was not one of whether the Lubavitcher rebbe is Moshiach,” Soloveichik’s relative said. “He was only addressing himself to the fact that he feels it’s wrong to publicly demonize Lubavitch.”

Rabbi Shmuel Butman, chairman of the International Committee to Bring Moshiach and the chief spokesman for the messianists, began to fax Soloveichik’s statement to reporters.

Soloveichik’s public approbation amounted to an endorsement and vindicated the messianists’ views, Butman said.

He had the Chicago rabbi’s statement published in last week’s edition of the two major Orthodox newspapers in the United States: the Algemeiner Journal and The Jewish Press.

In The Jewish Press, the statement was accompanied by a long article explaining the halachic justifications for the messianists’ view.

That led Soloveichik to issue a second statement this week, on his yeshiva’s letterhead, distancing himself from the messianists.

“I regret that some may interpret my statement in a way that suggests that I was endorsing specific views or claims concerning Moshiach instead of regretting attacks against Orthodox Jews who might hold those views.

“Jewish unity and communal comity are poorly served by our attacking each other in public,” he wrote.

A well-known figure in the centrist Orthodox world who has been a longtime student of Soloveichik’s condemned the way Soloveichik’s words were presented by some within Lubavitch.

“Using Rabbi Soloveichik in this way is a tremendous disservice to one of the great Torah giants of our generation,” said David Luchins, a senior assistant to Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

“I am certain the Lubavitcher rebbe would be deeply pained by this use of Rabbi Soloveichik’s name,” he said.

Despite Soloveichik’s effort to distance himself, Butman is still working hard to present Soloveichik’s views as validating the messianists’ views.

Soloveichik “clearly stands behind his first statement,” Butman said.

Butman condemned the Orthodox Jews who, in his view, are trying to marginalize the messianists.

“They are attacking the sacred right of a Chasid to believe that his rebbe is Moshiach, which is most vicious and unfortunate,” said Butman.

Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a leading member of the Lubavitch movement’s umbrella organization who has cautioned against what he called “the extreme statements and activities that some have engaged in,” said in a statement this week: “Some aspects of this belief are complex and should be dealt with sensitively by scholars and rabbis.”

He said he welcomed Soloveichik’s evaluation of the “complexity of this issue as addressed by his statement.”

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