R’ Shmuel Yaakov Weinberg is quoted on the cover, and on p. 105, of R’ Dr. David Berger’s book about Chabad messianism, based on the testimony of the party of the second part, as follows:
"Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, a rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, told an
enquiring student (even before the Rebbe's death) that he should pray
alone rather than in a Chabad synagogue because 'they pray to a
different deity [eloah]'."
This seems a remarkably dismissive remark, as well as astoundingly off-putting to any Chabadnik who might pick up Berger’s book. Berger himself didn’t want to believe it, until he saw some of the excesses of certain elements after the Rebbe’s passing.
It behooves us, knowing that R’ Weinberg was a major Talmid Chacham, to try to understand where he was coming from, and thus blunt the teeth of his assertion, if only to prevent Chabadniks from returning the dismissive favor.
In short – RSYW had a reasonable response to phenomena that he saw, but not being a devoted student of Chabad texts, did not fully understand.
I reviewed Berger's book. The quote was in context of a discussion of many activities and writings from Lubavitchers that look very much like avodah zarah (AZ).
Berger has an extended discussion of R' Avraham B. Pevzner's "Al Hatzaddikim", published in 1991 while the Rebbe was still alive and presumably compos, which attempts to explain the Rebbe's statement from 1951 that a rebbe is Divine Essence and Existence placed into a body. The line between that and avodah zarah is a very thin one, the distinction Pevzner tries to make is a very subtle one, and from a mainstream Torah perspective, is wrong and possibly heretical. I've tried to buy this book at the big seforim shop on
It is fundamental to the Ari’s Kabbalah, that to allow Creation to take place, something happened called Tzimtzum, or Restriction. For some, the Tzimtzum is physical – that God’s Essence is Infinite, and for a finite universe to be created, a vacuole, a finite space free of God-stuff, was created within the Infinite Essence. Within that finite space, a finite universe could exist.
For the Chabad and most readers, the Tzimtzum is metaphorical – that rather than removing His Essence from some space, He concealed his essence by a series of veils, screens, conceptual barriers, so that those beings that are part of the created universe don’t see that they are actually entirely made of God-stuff. Everything in the physical universe is part of the unitary God, it’s only an illusion that we are separate intelligences, that the desk is a desk, the computer is a computer, etc. God remains One, Unchanged.
This concept arises out of the later strata of the Zohar, primarily the Tikkunei Zohar. The Ari himself is ambivalent, in two sentences on the same page saying that the Tzimtzum was in God’s Essence (the physical explanation), in another saying that the Tzimtzum was in God’s Light (the metaphorical explanation – the Essence remains unchanged). I don’t pretend to understand these in any kind of depth, but they are the two main positions on the Tzimtzum.
Pevzner discusses the idea of the Rebbe as a "joining intermediary", a tzaddik who has so nullified his individuality that the Divinity which makes up everything and everyone, whose essence is normally hidden by the veils of the Tzimtzum, is revealed, so that if one prays to the Rebbe, one IS praying to God. He adduces evidence from a Kedushas Levi (R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev), which an objective examination reveals to be a distortion of the Kedushas Levi, and from a 16th-century work called Nishmas Chaim.
Now, that idea is problematic on its face, but let's set that aside and assume that a Lubavitcher thinks that it's OK. After all, it was advanced originally by the late Rebbe, in an address during the interregnum year of mourning for his late father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe. Behaviorally, though, four things are prohibited as avodah-zarah when not directed to the Eibishter: prostration, incense, libation, and sacrifice. Bowing towards a person out of honor is OK, but bowing because of regarding that person as Divinity is a problem. Pevzner, however, spends a considerable effort justifying bowing towards the Rebbe.
Suppose an outsider sees this Lubavitcher bowing to the Rebbe, or to his picture. This outsider doesn't know the idea of atzmus umahus areingeshtelt in a guf, (the Yiddish form of the italicized description of a Rebbe above), it was not even that well known in Lubavitch until recently. And it's the Rebbe's own feeling, unprecedented in Torah, as the Rebbe says in his footnote on LS 2 p. 511. The outsider sees the Lubavitcher bowing to a person as Divinity. [This sicha is translated in the book Proceeding Together vol. I] How is the person not supposed to take that as "they're praying to a different deity"?
The Catholic, lehavdil elef havdolos, believes his cracker and wine are the body & blood of his god. The Catholic bows to them, because of that belief. Are we to take their word for it, or are we as outsiders bound to regard them as ovdei AZ, because behaviorally, they are, and we do not, as a matter of principle, accept their beliefs?
So too here, lehavdil, most of Torah Jewry does not accept these beliefs of a section of Chabad. And is it really just a section? Or is it the whole, given that it's based on a cryptic statement of the Rebbe himself from early in his tenure? The whole do at least tolerate this behavior, presumably because they know that it's not being done as AZ.
But this idea was clearly implicit in the Chassidic system from Day One, as it is the basis of the Gra's letter that worries that if they go on the way they are, they will be worshipping the trees & stones. Perhaps not the trees & stones, but some of them do effectively worship a person.
It's clear that there is some philosophical difference between this behavior towards the Rebbe and actually saying Boreinu, or else the central organizations would never have condemned the Boreinu-niks, from R' Marlow on down. There is a difference between a memutza hamechabeir, which seems to be analogous to a [closed?] glass window, and saying that the Rebbe actually is God.
Given that RSYW was a Rosh Yeshiva, a major Talmid Chacham, but to Chabad an outsider, and a) could not accept the Chabad belief system, and b) of necessity regarded the issue behaviorally, was there any other position he could have reached?