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.