I personally know of many prodigal sons and daughters of Lubavitch, people who left the famous Hasidic movement for a variety of reasons. Their stories are all too familiar to me. Some became disillusioned with its values and philosophy; others could no longer reconcile the contradictions of a modern vs. pre-modern lifestyle. In each of these personal narratives, it is always the individual who redefines his or her own identity.
For members of any closed society, it is typically the community that does the defining. To leave this kind of world within a world takes a virtual Kierkegaardian leap of faith– into the realm of the unknown, where one undergoes a new kind of genesis. Or perhaps to use a more platonic metaphor, leaving Lubavitch is a lot like the man who left his fellow prisoners in the cave, only to discover a different kind of reality (The Republic, Book 7). Yes, life is a series of miniature rebirths. Here is a story about one man’s rebirth that I think many of you will find fascinating.
Shmarya (Scott) Rosenberg is the owner of the Failedmessiah website. Shmarya’s spiritual journey is a remarkable one. He, like many of us, has taken the road less traveled. His story began when the late Lubavitcher Rebbe refused to get involved with the rescue of Ethiopian Jews. The Rebbe’s refusal ultimately resulted in Shmarya’s exodus from Lubavitch.
In a personal letter he received from the Rebbe to Shmarya, the Rebbe wrote that “spiritually” rescuing American Jews from assimilation was an urgent matter that took precedence over rescuing the “Jewish” community of Ethiopia. Rabbi Schneerson probably felt that saving American Jews was a matter of triage. However, most of the other great rabbis of that era like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rav Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, supported the rescue efforts regardless of the practical Halachic doubts some of them had concerning the “Jewishness” of the Ethiopian Jews. Even as of today, Lubavitch still refuses to have any kind of outreach with Ethiopian Jews, despite the fact they underwent Orthodox conversions in Israel.
It is difficult to blame Shmarya for his animus against the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, but his alienation from the movement has led him to a renewed sense of personal and spiritual discovery. Shmarya has long since become a voice of Jewish conscience. He routinely holds the Orthodox world accountable for its countless misdeeds and foibles.
Much in the spirit of the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, Shmarya reveals the Monty Python-esque characteristics of nearly all the great Orthodox rabbis of our present generation, and most of these anecdotes are outrageous. After reading his blog, one gets the inescapable feeling that the age of Gedolim (authentic rabbinic scholars who embody the best qualities of Judaism) has become either of thing of the past, or is an endangered species.
In a century or two from now, future generations will find this material historically valuable; students will read Failedmessiah much like we now study the 17th century diaries of Samuel Pepys from London. Anyone interested, may want to read Shmarya’s critique of Rabbi Shafran, who recently blamed the Haiti earthquake on Jewish cartoonists who dared to castigate Orthodox outreach programs. His stories on the “holy Kabbalists” usually depict them as con-artists, who prey (pun intended) upon the gullible public. For the most part, Shmarya exposes a ruthlessness that exists within the Lubavitcher organization itself which its supporters never see. Frankly, Chabad can gain great wisdom from his criticisms.
To his credit, the Failedmessiah has literally forced the entire Orthodox world to become more circumspect and responsible with its members’ group behavior. Without his website, it is doubtful whether the yeshiva world would ever have taken ownership of the pedophilia cases that exist within their rank and file members and spiritual leadership. Really now, shouldn’t the Orthodox members police their communities for everyone’s sake?
Historically, such issues have always plagued Jewish traditional observant communities. Prior to the Internet and blogging, these scandals would have most certainly been swept under the rug, away from public scrutiny. However, thanks to Failedmessiah and other bloggers that he has inspired, a conspiracy of silence is no longer possible.
Sigmund Freud was one of the first modern secular Jewish thinkers to see the profound spiritual and ethical disconnect of the “religious” people of his era. He realized that it is far easier to worship God through mechanical ritual than it is to behave as an ethical human being. Freud subsequently viewed religion as a neurosis–and probably for good reason. When one observes the kind of shenanigans the Orthodox in Israel perpetuate daily in Israel, it is obvious that we do a pretty good job creating our own brand of anti-Semitism without the help of David Duke and his ilk. Shmarya Rosenberg provides an invaluable service for the Jewish community by forcing all of us to examine our shadow side.
Often called the “Charles Darwin of human consciousness,” psychologist Carl Gustav Jung writes about the shadow archetype that exists in all cultures around the world. The shadow represents the part of the human personality that is anti-social, primitive that most of us choose to be unaware of in our lives. Jung laments that most of his patients haven’t the slightest clue or suspicion of the war that is raging within their psyches. The vast majority of people understand nothing about this inner being, and prefer to remain in a state of unconsciousness until the shadow explodes into consciousness–often with a fury that is nothing less than frightening. Those few people who are aware of its power, choose never to reveal the darker natures they carry inside.
Jung notes: “Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”
Shmarya Rosenberg has done a magnificent job alerting the Orthodox Jewish world to a perverse or dysfunctional side of its personality that it would love to keep buried from all public view. Unfortunately, the prophetic task of critiquing should really be carried out by the Orthodox rabbinic community itself instead of Shmarya–but such men have refused to step up and be counted because they are afraid of being tarred and feathered by the zealots. Self-knowledge always comes with a personal price. Without paying tuition for the mistakes we have caused others and ourselves, we will never be able to grow and individuate into healthy human beings.
 Psychology and Religion, in CW 11: “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” (Boston: 1938), 131.