By DEBRA NUSSBAUM COHEN/JTA
"Reaching for the Infinite: The Lubavitcher Rebbe - Life, Teachings and Impact" was more apt a title for the conference that took place last week at New York University than even its organizers may have realized.
Trying to convey the impact of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in two dozen or so 20-minute long academic presentations, which were delivered at the conference held November 6 to November 8 at NYU's student center, was a little like reaching for the infinite with arms only inches long.
This was the first-ever academic conference devoted to the life and work of Schneerson, who led the Chabad movement from 1951 until his death in 1994, and helped it grow into the largest Jewish outreach network in the world. Held under NYU's auspices, the meeting was funded by Chabad supporters George and Pamela Rohr, and Craig and Deborah Cogut, and attended by up to 150 people at a time, ranging from Lubavitch hasidim to Reform rabbinical students.
The conference's organizer, Lawrence Schiffman, said in an interview that he hoped "to create an intellectual discourse that didn't exist before" on the rebbe.
Schiffman, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert and chairman of NYU's department of Hebrew and Judaic studies, explained that "the rebbe is a major phenomenon in modern Jewish life." There may be no other 20th-century rabbi as influential, recognizable - or controversial - beyond his own religious community as Schneerson, whose reputation has been somewhat diminished by the controversy surrounding the insistence by many of his followers that he is the messiah, a dispute that has divided his hasidim.
Speakers' approaches and topics varied widely. Some focused on esoteric aspects of the rebbe's particular take on kabalistic ideas, some on his Torah scholarship and others on his involvement with politics, both domestic and Israeli, or with art, music and psychology.
Several speakers were Lubavitch hasidim in academia, and others, including Schiffman, can be described as friends of the nonmessianist leadership faction of Lubavitch.
While Chabad's most reviled critic, Brooklyn College professor of history David Berger, was purposely left off of the panel, another longtime critic of messianist aspects of the movement, Allan Nadler, a professor of Jewish studies at Drew University in New Jersey, was invited to participate. His presentation, "Mitnagdic Opposition to the Rebbe," wandered into opposition by other hasidic rebbes as well, and delved into how it played out in Israeli party politics. Rabbi Norman Lamm, retired president of Yeshiva University, who spoke on "The Rebbe, Mysticism and Philosophy," was the first to address Lubavitch messianism head-on. In speaking for the first time in public about the rebbe, there was much he lauded, asserting that "his genius lay in his exquisite combination of high intellect and his ongoing concern about each and every individual Jew, not only his own group." But he also sharply criticized the messianic thrust that the public face of the movement seems to be increasingly taking.
"I do not believe that the rebbe thought himself to be moshiach. But I do think he considered himself a possible candidate," said Lamm. He decried the movement's "overemphasis on messianism" and castigated those who now say that the rebbe is the messiah but simply concealed from view.
"To continue this myth of his being moshiach is utter ridiculousness," he said. It is easy for the messianically-oriented "to distort" the rebbe's teachings and say "that the rebbe is part of the God-head. That is completely heretical and quite dangerous," he said. "I wonder if this distortion could and should have been avoided by responsible leadership of a movement that has not lost its vitality." Naftali Loewenthal, in the conference's final session, ardently defended his movement from the messianists in a paper titled "Chabad, the Rebbe and the Messiah in the 21st Century." He protested their reductionist, myopic focus and called their opponents, who run many of the movement's institutions, "the spiritual elite" of Lubavitch.
"There are attempts by moshiachists to define the rebbe as just one theme," Loewenthal said. "But even his messianic thrust was not one dimensional." He said "every Jew has a role to play in the quest to make the world a dwelling place for the divine." Several speakers mentioned the difficulty in fully grasping the rebbe's depth and inner personality. With the rebbe, "you pull the veil aside and there's another veil," said Elliot Wolfson, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at NYU. "Even when you open up one avenue to understanding him, there's another one to open. There is always another veil." William Helmreich, a professor of sociology and Judaic studies at the City University of New York, may have best summed up the rebbe's complexities when he used his presentation on "The Rebbe's Relation to Jewish Communal Organizations and Religious Movements" as an opportunity to portray him as a man of paradox. For example, the rebbe seemed "flexible yet his official stance was opposed to contamination by the outside world. He had friends in every denomination but opposed cooperation," he said.
Helmreich also adroitly plucked from the range of positions, campaigns and views the essence of what made the rebbe successful. In his view, it was the fact that the rebbe communicated that "each mitzvah has value unto itself." In other words, performing a mitzvah was not simply a first step, but something of infinite inherent value whose worth could also echo in higher worlds.