Shmarya Rosenberg, is without doubt one of the Jewish blogosphere's most respected and erudite commentators. Born and raised in Saint Paul, Minnesota, his family was culturally Jewish, Conservative Jews - though not observant. He became religiously inclined through contacts with Chabad while attending the University of Minnesota and remained Orthodox until a few years ago. He served several years on the North American Executive of the World Union of Jewish Students. He now describes himself as secular, though his interests remain with orthodoxy. He avoids non-kosher food and observes the Sabbath to some extent
His blog, Failed Messiah, collates extensive information on Jewish controversies. Rosenberg, now in his forties, played an considerable role in activities to assist Ethiopian Jewry and it was this that drove a wedge between the Chabad movement and himself. Now a fierce critic of ultra-Orthodoxy in general and Chabad in particular he has returned to live in St Paul.
In 2004 he began blogging at Failed Messiah, after he published a personal account personal account of how he tried and failed to get the late leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement to support his efforts to rescue Ethiopian Jewry. The blog was widely read and resulted in his summary excommunication from his small orthodox community. He credits the events surrounding his excommunication with a degree of clarity. "Convicted" without a trial, fair-weather friends were exposed by his rabbi's actions.
Rosenberg has a family history of run-ins with Chabad. His grandfather's grandfather was the chief aide to the third leader of Chabad, another Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, and an ancestor of the more recent one. He had to flee the town of Lyubavichi after he corrected an citation error in one of his mentor's responsa. "You couldn't wait until I was dead to do this?"; the Rebbe's public response to the infraction was enough to drive Rosenberg's forefather from the Hasidic court and from the town altogether. In the less deferential atmosphere of the 20th century that man's descendant would exact some revenge.
While the ultra-Orthodox critics who he so antagonises may despise him, describing him as a muckraker, Rosenberg would retort that the muck is there to be raked he is only picking up slack.
What makes you blog?I didn't intend FailedMessiah to be a blog. I didn't even know what a blog was four years ago. I simply wanted to put the Rebbe's letter and my letters on the web. A friend ? a Chabadnik who knew about the letters and wanted them posted on the Internet ? told me to get a blog and do it that way because it was easy to do. If I'd known how to use a FTP program, the blog would not have happened.I thought you had to keep blogging or Blogger (the original blog service I used) would take down the account, so I posted stories to keep the website open. Most of these stories were on Chabad messianism. It was really the "excommunication," which took place about one month after I first started FailedMessiah, and the treatment given me by former friends that spurred me to turn FailedMessiah into a large, frequently-updated blog. What does the name of your blog refer to?Originally, the idea the Rebbe ? dead almost 10 years ? is the messiah. Now I view it as a referring to Orthodoxy as a whole.
What drew you to orthodoxy initially?I think the history. The idea that I could connect to the earliest recesses of our history as Jews through Orthodoxy. It can be done, it turns out, but it can be done as a secular Jew, as well. I just did not know it then.
What achievement as a blogger makes you most proud?That I've been able to join with other Jewish bloggers to help forcechange.
If your enemies ruled the world, and they were able to banish you to Devil's Island, what would miss most about the United States?My family. Democracy. Freedom. being in a place where everybody belongs no matter who or what you are.
As reports reach us that the temperature in Minnesota fell to negative 40 would you not rather be in Israel?I like Israel. I lived in Israel for a couple of years. But I've never done Israel as a secular Jew. I was always haredi. I don't know how I'll react to being surrounded by so much overt religion.
What is on your iPod?Avishai Cohen. He's really amazing. Sophie Milman. The Jayhawks. Counting Crows. My old fried Chaim David Sarachick. Springsteen. And lots of college classes on ancient history and the like.
What was the last book you read?Side Effects by Patty Friedmann and Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliot Friedman. I'd heartily recommend both.
You are often accused by your critics of unfairly focusing on Haredi scandal. Is a crime worse or more notable simply because the criminal is ultra-Orthodox?It isn't the crimes ? it's the cover-ups of the crimes. Haredi leaders, "gedolim," great rabbis who allegedly know about these crimes do not call the police or law enforcement. They often protect the criminals ? as allegedly happened with Avrohom Mondrowitzfor example, and in the various financial frauds we've seen of late.
What got you involved in the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry?I first head about the issue from my parents in the late 1970s. They were appalled at how the issue of rescue was ignored by the mainstream Jewish community. I got involved, first by doing some promotion for a talk given by an Ethiopian Jew, then through the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, and after that on a national level with the North American Jewish Students Network, which was the North American section of the World Union of Jewish Students.
Who are your heroes, now that the traditional orthodox leaders are behind you?The little people that get through each day, often with great hardship. But they do it. I know someone who has no use of her arms and legs, who can no longer talk or feed herself. She communicates through facial gestures and with her eyes. She's my hero.
What is the greatest danger that Judaism faces?Extremism.
Now that you are single and secular would you marry out?Yes, if I met the right woman. But it's not like I'm out hunting for blondes.
What is your day job?I do some consulting, some copywriting, and some charity work. And the blog takes a huge amount of time. It's a full time job all by itself.
Who would you most like to vote for come November - Clinton Obama or McCain?I'm not sure. Right now I'd probably vote for Hillary. But I also like McCain. Obama is the best orator of the three and has the most presence. But I don't think he's ready yet. Maybe in 2012 or 2016.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now