Six years ago, Jonathan Mark, The Jewish Week's associate editor, wrote was supposed to be a straight news report on the 10th yartzeit (anniversary of the death) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.Mark went to Crown Heights and then wrote his report.
Yet, even though Crown Heights was covered with signs, flags, posters and stickers declaring the late Rebbe the messiah, and even though those and similar signs filled the walls of Chabad's main synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, and even though the congregation of thousands in that synagogue shouted "Yechi adonaynu moraynu v'rabbaynu melech hamoshiach l'olam vo'ed," "Long live our master, our teacher, our rabbi, king messiah forever and ever," Mark reported there was little messianism in Crown Heights. He even dismissively referred to Chabad's main synagogue as the basement synagogue and labeled the outpost of Chabad's so-called anti-messianists, the small upstairs synagogue that holds at most 50 people, as if it were the main synagogue.
So more than 5000 Chabad messianists became a lunatic fringe, and 50 or so so-called anti-messianists crowed in the small upstairs synagogue became the 'majority.'
I called Mark on this and he responded by saying that someone unknown had changed his article without his permission.
Neither Mark or the Jewish Week bothered to write a correction, and the Jewish Week did not launch an investigation to find the supposed culprit who 'altered' Mark's piece.
Mark followed this with other similar pieces. One I recall vividly was another news piece. It was supposed to report on the New York opening of the documentary film Killing Kasztner, but instead Mark wrote it as if it were an opinion piece.
As an opinion piece it was dishonest and low. As a news report it was completely unethical.
I called Gary Rosenblatt and told him. Gary had been out of the office for a week because, sadly, his mother had passed away. It was his first day back.
I told Gary I was afraid that good Jewish Week reporting – like Hella Winston's coverage of child sexual abuse – would be tainted by Mark's unethical behavior.
Gary thanked me for the heads up and promised he would deal with it.
But nothing was dealt with. Mark's piece remained on the Jewish Week website as a straight news piece, and no corrections or apologies were forthcoming.
I bring this up now because Mark has written a hit piece thinly masquerading as a review of the new Samuel Heilman-Menachem Friedman biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe published by Princeton University Press.
I must make it clear that I have no problem with people who disagree with Heilman and Friedman, as long as that disagreement is honestly presented and sticks to the facts of the case.
For example, that the Rebbe and his wife while in Paris lived far away from the Orthodox and hasidic community there is a fact. Heilman and Friedman interpret that fact in a certain way, and bring other facts and analysis to bolster it. They cite source material. And they allow for differing opinions, even if they reject them.
Challenging Heilman and Friedman's interpretation is perfectly kosher, but doing so by saying "the Rebbe was a great scholar" and we have to believe the best about him, so therefore Heilman and Friedman are disgusting liars, doesn't pass muster. It's circular reasoning and hagiography rather than honest intellectual debate.
But if that hagiographical criticism is polite, it doesn't cross any ethical lines. It may be foolish and poorly argued. It may even be cult-like. But it isn't unethical. It's just foolish, on the level of a review arguing chocolate ice cream is bad because "I don't like chocolate ice cream." It's your personal preference, not a logical argument.
Mark uses the chocolate ice cream fallacy. But he goes further, challenging Heilman and Friedman by attacking them personally and by trying to smear them. And this is unethical.
"Are there some chasidim. somewhere, who believe the rebbe is somehow alive, or the messiah? Sure. A few," Mark writes, going on to say that Heilman and Friedman take those "few" out of context and use them to attack Chabad and the Rebbe.
There has been an ongoing well publicized fight for control of Chabad's main synagogue – the big one in the basement of 770 Mark so skillfully downplayed six years ago – between the messianists who control it and the so-called anti-messianists. The dispute even made its way into the New York State courts. Sixteen years after the Rebbe's passing, that synagogue is still festooned with messianic signs, and the "Yechi…" is still chanted at every prayer service. And thousands of Chabad hasidim still pray there, affirming the Rebbe is messiah at every prayer service.
Crown Heights is still chock full of messianist signs – as is Kfar Chabad, Chabad's main base in Israel. Messianists still control the Chabad street in both places, and they control many institutions of the Chabad movement, as well. Chabad even has messianist rallies in Israel that draw tens of thousands.
This is well known and easy to document. But Jonathan Mark doesn't report that truth. Instead, Jonathan Mark lies, and he uses that lie to attack Heilman and Friedman, counting on most Jewish Week readers to be ignorant of the truth.
"No one who speaks for Chabad, online or offline," Mark claims, following his lie with another, "says the rebbe is still alive or that the rebbe was or is the messiah. But that won't stop people from trying to play 'gotcha.'" And who are these people out to play gotcha with Chabad? Heilman and Friedman, of course.
What Mark doesn't tell his readers is that his statement is true only if the definition of "speaking for Chabad" he uses is extremely narrow.
Do the tens of thousands of Chabadniks at those messianist rallies speak for Chabad? Do the thousand of messianists in Crown Heights? Do the roshei yeshiva and community rabbis who chant "Yechi…"? Do the elected messianist gabbaim of the main Chabad synagogue in Crown Heights, the center of the Chabad world? Do the messianists members of the Crown Heights community council? What about the messianist rabbis of the Crown Heights beit din?
Mark ignores all these Chabad leaders. In Mark's reporting, they simply do not exist. All that exists is the much smaller group of so-called anti-messianists, who themselves may believe exactly what the messianists believe with one key difference: the so-called anti-messianists believe the Rebbe did not want his hasidim to announce his messianic kingship to the world. They do not doubt that the Rebbe will be the messiah, they just object to making the Rebbe's 'messianship' an issue because it scares away people and hurts fundraising. This is the position of many Chabad shluchim, although there are some who are openly messianist.
Mark uses this deception to make Heilman and Friedman appear biased. Once he has done this, he can safely ignore all the other facts Heilman and Friedman report, and instead concentrate on the 'bias' and 'poor charter' of the authors.
Mark objects to a Heilamn quip made when standing at the Rebbe's grave and quoted by the New York Times last week.
"What kind of professor tries to prove anything by what's written on a tombstone?" Mark sarcastically asks in reply.
What kind of professor?
Historians, anthropologists, linguists, archeologists and, yes, sociologists all use tombstone and other grave markers and decorations in their work. It isn't unusual. In fact it is very common. There are even academics who study burial practices.
Is Mark unaware of this? Or is he simply lying?
Mark then enters the realm of the absurd, and complains about the way Heilman and Friedman transliterate חב"ד:
"ChaBaD?," Mark crows, "Heilman-Friedman's excuse is that this is 'to indicate it is an acronym of the three Hebrew words, Chochma, Binah, and Da'as.' Thanks, professors, except that Chabad has long since been transformed from a Hebrew acronym into a proper English name for the movement, spelled by the movement itself as 'Chabad' -- capital C, small 'H,' small 'a,' small 'b,' small 'a,' small 'd.' No one, but no one, from secular journalists to academics to chasidim, have found the need to spell it 'ChaBaD,' and I'll bet no one will ever spell it Heilman-Friedman's way again.The Heilman-Friedman book is published by an academic publisher, Princeton University Press. Despite what Mark claims, academics sometimes do exactly what Heilman and Friedman did, and spell Chabad "ChaBaD" to indicate the word's meaning. In this case, that choice may well have been made by the publisher, not the authors. But no matter who made the choice, it isn't a mistake and it isn't wrong and it has nothing to do with pomposity.
"It is not the worst mistake in the book but it is by far the most annoying and indicative less of the acronym than of the ivory tower pomposity that runs through the project."
Mark then does more of the circular reasoning I mentioned above, claiming that because the Rebbe was smart and talented, his eventual move into Chabad leadership after his arrival in America had nothing to do with any lack professional prospects in America:
"There is no question that we're talking about a man with an outstanding intellect. And we know that tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors who went into the concentration camps without even finishing high school went on, after the war, to find successful careers in the United States in every field imaginable. That someone who was brilliant, who later proved that his organizational and intellectual prowess was in the highest percentile, who was academically acquainted with the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne, even without a degree, that this Schneerson would be among those most pitiful survivors unable to land on their feet, and was therefore forced into the Chabad rabbinate by default, is just unfair, even absurd."In his later years, the Rebbe spoke a highly accented English that was far from fluent. In 1941 his English was far worse. He was an average engineering graduate of a small technical school, a student who almost flunked out and had to work very had to graduate. (His brother-in-law Mendel Horenstein, like the Rebbe a son-in-law of the 6th Lubavitcher rebbe, didn't graduate because he couldn't make the grade.)
It is far from extreme to posit that the Rebbe had limited professional prospects in America, or that those limited prospects – along with a deep shock cause by the Holocaust and the destruction of religious Jewish life in the Soviet Union – propelled the Rebbe into Jewish communal life and, eventually, his position as rebbe. That doesn't make the Rebbe "pitiful" and it doesn't make Heilman and Friedman bigots.
(To describe Holocaust survivors who came to America after the war and who were not financially successful as "those most pitiful survivors" as Mark does is itself a disgrace. It is profoundly unfair. And it deserves professional censure.)
Mark then closes where he opened, denying Chabad messianism and attacking Heilman and Friedman for writing that the Rebbe "brought his chasidim to such a peak of expectations.... that in his absence, should the Messiah continue to tarry, the future can only promise disappointment or the emergence of a new sort of Judaism."
Mark calls this sentence "indecent" and insists Chabad has done nothing in the 16 years since the Rebbe passed away to warrant it.
"Would any honest sociologist look at Judaism and say Chabad was the denomination or sub-denomination most likely to become the new not-quite Judaism?," Mark asks, going on to point fingers at non-Orthodox Jewish movements as better candidates for this change.
But Heilman and Friedman do not say Chabad is the "most likely" denomination or sub-denomination to become "not-quite Judaism." What they do is say that unless the messiah comes, Chabad faces the prospect of morphing into a "new sort of Judaism." No reasonable person sociologist or otherwise who has seen thousands of Chabdniks chant "Yechi…" or who has read the copious messianic publications produced by Chabad would doubt that possibility exists, and Heilman and Friedman would have been negligent not to mention it.
In simple terms, Mark is a liar, dishonest and unethical.
His continued presence at the Jewish Week calls all of its reporting into question.
And that is something Gary Rosenblatt should immediately correct.
Will he?Jonathan Mark's review.
And as a PDF: