Monday, February 25, 2002

Thoughts on Chabad

The explosive growth of Chabad in the short period since the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s death is a remarkable development. While many expected the movement to atrophy, what has happened should not be surprising because it was put into motion during Rabbi Schneerson’s final years. Although there has been internal conflict aplenty, Chabad has remained intact, largely because of arrangements that are testimony to the Rebbe’s organizational genius.

Chabad grows mainly because its young people understand that their mission is to serve as shlichim or emissaries and that, except in limited instances, this requires that they find new opportunities for service, either by establishing new institutions or projects in places where Chabad is already present or by going to entirely new locations. Married couples in their twenties who have little experience – except perhaps travel during their years of study – settle in communities where there are few or no other observant Jews. They intuitively know that this may be their only opportunity for success, that their first assignment may also be their last.

This system rewards boldness, creativity and entrepreneurship. There have been missteps in some places and projects and there obviously are shlichim who cannot rise to the challenge. The overall record is spectacular, even if we do not include Chabad’s tremendous achievements throughout the Former Soviet Union where it is far and away the dominant Jewish force. Whether measured by institutions established, people reached, attention paid, children taught, publications or funds raised, there isn’t anyone close to what Chabad is doing in North America.

Chabad succeeds in what may be regarded as unpromising locations because as old-world as the shlichim appear to be, they are super-flexible about other Jews’ religiosity. They also are adept at employing technology for the cause, know how to market their message and know that empathy and being there are far surer paths to people’s hearts and pockets than theology. The movement inherently eschews the hit and run Judaism that is the stock and trade for too much of contemporary outreach. For all of the Rebbe’s insistence on halachic fidelity in Israel in deciding “who is a Jew,” nearly everywhere else Chabad welcomes the intermarried, as well as those who have undergone a non-Orthodox conversion and patrilineal children. At times it seems as if the shlichim are more comfortable with Jews of questionable status than they are with other Orthodox Jews.

In view of the powerful trend away from religious life among Jews in major places of Jewish settlement and the corollary trend of a steadily rising percentage of those who are counted as Jews being of questionable status, Chabad’s activity inevitably entails a huge gap in practice and even belief between the clergy and laity. This is a familiar phenomenon in other religions but strange, if not alien, in Orthodox life. It isn’t that there is one code of Jewish law for Chabadniks and another for other Jews. There is one code, with the expectation that there will be minimal compliance among the masses.

Chabad’s outreach is not measured by the standards applicable to other outreach, where the goal is to promote substantial religious advancement. While the movement includes an indeterminate number of returnees to Judaism, what emerges in the main from Chabad activity is tacit acceptance of a Judaism that is defined downward. Furthermore, solitary religious acts are invested with a redemptive capacity irrespective of any subsequent observance. It is sufficient for a man to put on tefilin once, a woman to light candles on Friday night or for secular Jews to participate in a Chanukah ceremony.

Whatever the theological correctness of this approach, overwhelmingly those who participate in Chabad will themselves or their offspring be ultimately lost to Judaism. Minimalistic expectations yield minimalistic results. Chabad’s approach emerges primarily from practical considerations, for there is no other way for emissaries to stake out new territory where there are no observant Jews. In the field especially, the movement has become quite pragmatic.

Apart from inevitably targeting Jews of dubious status, the movement seems to want to expand its message beyond the very limited demographic confines of the Jewish people, to become in a way a catholic or universal religion that non-Jews can identify with. This is evident in its fundraising activity such as the annual Los Angeles telethon, the universalistic message of various publications and in billboard and media advertising that promotes the Rebbe and Messianism.

Messianism has emerged as the most controversial aspect of Chabad, largely – but not only – because of David Berger’s fierce criticism. The Moshiach message was trumpeted relentlessly by the Rebbe in his last years. Whatever his intentions, not unexpectedly more than a few of his followers have concluded that he is the anointed. The Rebbe apparently did nothing to dispel this notion. With the passage of time, the likelihood is that identification of the Rebbe as the Messiah will become stronger, for fantasy is a powerful force with the capacity to unloose beliefs and images that can readily withstand reality. There are echoes of our historical experience that need not be elaborated on.

With very few exceptions, those within Chabad who do not accept the messianic outlook are silent, perhaps because they are intimidated by the powerful Moshichist camp centered primarily in Crown Heights and Israel or because they want to avoid an open rift within the movement. Most likely, there is a majority that accepts to one extent or another the messianic message because, after all, the Rebbe was closely identified with it.

If the recent pattern continues, as I believe it will, Chabad will expand further in adherents and places of activity and become an even more powerful presence in Jewish life. I also believe that the messianic impulse will become stronger, which is to be deeply regretted because the movement accomplishes much that is good and if not checked from within, Chabad’s messianism is destined to force a schism in our religious life.

Thursday, February 21, 2002

Israel in the Mind of American Jewry

For all of the era of good feeling in American-Israel relations, there is a disquieting factor that should give us pause. We need not be overly concerned about the White House singing Hava Nagila with less gusto than it now does or about Americans becoming less enamored of the Jewish state and people. The former is nearly a sure bet, while the attitude of Americans isn’t likely to change any time soon.

What is unsettling is far more proximate, as it springs from within our ranks. The disaffection of a substantial part of American Jewry from our traditions, beliefs and practices has been accompanied by the loss of feeling for Israel. As Jewish identity withers away, there is inevitably the corollary withering away of identity with the Jewish state.

This is a development that is scarcely discussed or appreciated, in large measure because our community is in denial about the consequences of advanced assimilation and Judaic abandonment. Too many of us believe – or want to believe – that we can abandon our religious heritage without abandoning Israel in the process. We have convinced ourselves that the transformation of Jews from a religious people into an ethnic or civic group can be accomplished without eroding that which has nurtured us, including the passionate commitment to Israel.

This act of self-deception is psychologically rewarding, which is usually the case with deceptions of this sort. It is also intellectually possible because, after all, in our communal life there are nearly everywhere secular Jews who are deeply committed to Israel. If Jewish leaders can be entirely unreligious – and many are also intermarried – and yet feel passionately about Israel, why can’t the same be true of the rank and file of several million secular American Jews?

The problem with this reasoning is that what we know for certain about American Jews strongly indicates otherwise. There is a wealth of survey data showing that half of American Jews who have disaffiliated are not emotionally attached to Israel. They haven’t been there, do not want or intend to go, and what happens in Israel is of no particular concern. As is evident on college campuses, there is strong hostility among many Jewish students to the notion of a Jewish state, which is also to say that there is greater sympathy for the Palestinian cause than for the Israeli.

The statistics are especially troubling when we consider that a significant proportion of American Jews are yordim or ex-Israelis and their offspring. They have roots in Israel and family there. If their numbers were removed from our population surveys, identity with and support for Israel would be significantly lower.

The extended current intifada and the severe economic and security crisis it has engendered shows how the changing character of American Jewry has profoundly affected the perception of Israel. In terms of what is immediately at stake, the intifada is not 1967 or 1973 and so it is understandable why we have not seen the fervor of fundraising that erupted at the time of the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars. But the danger to Israel today is clear and present. There is now the reality – and not just the prospect – of permanent war, of an intractable Islamic mindset that will not accept Israel’s existence, peace agreements and other diplomacy notwithstanding. The implications for Israel’s physical and economic security are enormous.

Where have American Jews – including those who still identify themselves as Jews – been during the past year and a half? They’ve been mostly stay-at-home, with their checkbooks pointed away from Israel. There was expensive hoopla for one great rally that was canceled by September 11th. There haven’t been any emergency campaigns and the UJA or what remains of it is nowhere to be seen.

This is telling because for decades “UJA” was part of the American Jewish vocabulary, a symbol and link to Israel that transcended the organization’s incessant fundraising activity. My guess is that few Jewish teenagers have a clue as to what the acronym stands for.

As some of us know, the UJA has been taken over by the Federations and submerged in that world’s bureaucratic quagmire, in much the manner that megacorporations take over competitors and then put them to sleep. The Federation world wanted to a) reduce allocations to Israel and b) provide targeted funding to favored projects – the promotion of pluralism is one major example - rather than to give the money more directly to Israel.

Fundraising and support for Israel, including at a time of national crisis such as the country is now going through, is a permanent casualty of the realignment that has taken place. This realignment could not have occurred if American Jews circa 1990 were as deeply committed to Israel as they once were.

While Birthright Israel and other activities are attempting to reverse the erosion of Jewish identity and the attendant erosion of commitment to Israel, they operate in an environment that at least tolerates and often encourages and welcomes the abandonment of our religious life. Experience and logic powerfully point to the conclusion that when Judaism is abandoned there is little prospect that our 2000 year intense commitment to the land of our people will survive.

As we have good reason to be frightened about the sad domestic state of American Jewry, there are parallel reasons why we should be frightened about the state of the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

Monday, February 04, 2002

The New Ecumenicism

Even as organized American Jewry reacted with dismay more than a decade ago when the 1990 NJPS intermarriage data was released and all kinds of activity to promote Jewish continuity were launched, most American Jews had already entered a post-intermarriage stage in which marrying out was not regarded as wrongful and not necessarily incompatible with Jewish identity. In the years since, we have had an abundance of surveys showing that Jews accept intermarriage, both conceptually and in their own families.

Around midyear we will have the results of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000. The data may show that the intermarriage rate has gone down, a result that can be obtained only by ignoring the cumulative impact of intermarriage and by disregarding altogether what remains of the traditional understanding of Jewishness. Whatever the numbers, it isn’t likely that intermarriage will get the attention given to it in the 1990’s. American Jewry has entered a new stage, beyond the post-intermarriage phase. The behavioral consequences of Judaic abandonment, including marrying out, are forging a conception of Jewish life that accepts Christianity in ways that would have been unthinkable, much less acceptable, not long ago.

This may come as a shock, but it should not be surprising. Intermarriage and Judaic abandonment are dynamic, not static, elements in contemporary Jewish life. Since intermarriage often, but of course not always, includes the union of a Jew and a Christian, in order to establish a comfort level in many homes it is inevitable that efforts will be made to accommodate, if not also to integrate, the two religions. The most common expressions of this are the menorah and Christmas tree, as well as the families where some attend church, others synagogue and perhaps still others go to both.

The behavior described here involves people who regard themselves as Jewish and not the 1.5 million or one-quarter of Americans who were born Jewish and who now say that they practice another religion or no religion. They are not in two-religion situations.

The new ecumenicism involves Jews (by whatever definition) who say that they are Jewish and want to remain that way, yet who accept a measure of Christianity in their lives and homes. They say that they care about Israel, belong to our organizations, contribute to our causes, pay attention to our messages. Because of their advanced assimilation and acceptance of intermarriage, they are open to two-religion arrangements.

The behavior and attitudes of American Jews anticipate the orientation and activities of our institutions and organizations, especially in those sectors where religious fidelity is most attenuated. Social necessity is the mother of communal invention. While evidence of the acceptance of two religions may not as yet be fully apparent, the phenomenon is spreading nearly everywhere in Jewish life, including in our schools and synagogues.

This has been true for quite a while in Reform congregations which have accepted, even welcomed, non-Jews, a circumstance that casts doubt on the movement’s membership claims. New Jersey’s major Conservative group recently adopted an open-door policy toward non-Jewish spouses and other persons who aren’t Jewish, irrespective of any intention to convert.

A growing number of congregations use church facilities for their services or permit churches to use theirs, a practice that is usually described as an expedient on financial grounds or because other facilities are not available. Interestingly, the practice was far rarer years ago, although presumably there were at least as pressing financial or facility needs.

A recent back page piece in The New Republic by Gregg Easterbrook described how in his suburban Washington community a Protestant church and Reform temple have joined to build a Christian-Jewish house of worship. There will be more of this.

Our theologians have gotten into the act, sanctioning, though not sanctifying, the integration of Judaism and Christianity. Several hundred scholars and rabbis joined in a statement called Dabru Emet which received wide circulation in the New York Times and elsewhere. The statement includes the dubious claim that “a new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice.” Of history, sociology and psychology, these scholars apparently know not.

The statement was not fashioned in an historic vacuum. In fact, it could not have been adopted in a previous period and not only because Christian attitudes were different then than they are now. The sea change in Jewish attitudes has made all of the difference.

Even Jewish day schools are being affected. I have said for years that because many day schools are weak Jewishly and bereft of a commitment to religious purposefulness, this form of education is being oversold in its capacity to provide for Jewish continuity. Instead of celebrating the growth in day school enrollment as if nothing else counts, we ought to consider what is happening in these schools. Dozens now admit non-Jewish students and more will follow. Predictably, financial and enrollment needs are offered as justification, though this can hardly account for the bylaw provision of a wealthy and successful Houston Community day school that mandates the admission of non-Jews. Day schools, especially in the Reform and Community sectors, are reacting to the realities of American Jewish life. If Jewish homes are open to non-Jews, why shouldn’t Jewish schools be open to non-Jews?

Where all of this may lead to is an interesting question, for it is hard to describe the next stage of the evolution of American Jewry into what is alien to our history and tradition. Ultimately, much of what is now accepted as Jewish will turn out to be bogus and ephemeral. But we live in the present and we must deal with today’s realities. And the primary reality is that American Jewry is moving rapidly toward the attempted integration of Christianity and Judaism.