Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Ten Years After the Rebbe's Passing

The tenth Yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is in two weeks. His Chabad movement has grown enormously since his death, contrary to the predictions of scholars and journalists who believed that without a successor there would be serious trouble in chabadland. There has been conflict regarding authority and financial matters and, of course, regarding Messianism. Yet, Chabad is considerably larger than it was a decade ago, in some measure due to opportunities in the Former Soviet Union that it has fully exploited, but more importantly because the Rebbe instilled operational arrangements, a culture of shlichut or service and a belief system that have impelled young Chabad representatives to go into new communities, including in the United States.

For all of the messianic fervor, it’s evident that in the field and away from Crown Heights and at Tzfat and perhaps Kfar Chabad in Israel, the emissaries overwhelmingly acknowledge that the Rebbe is not alive, although his persona and teachings are powerfully alive in their lives. The Moshiach matter is far more muted than it was several years ago. Few Chabad people openly disavow messianic sentiments, if only because the theme was central to the Rebbe’s message and actions in his final years and also because it is understood that conflict over messianism could rupture the movement.

On a practical level, the Rebbe’s great contribution is a decentralized system that resembles franchising, a concept that I employed while the Rebbe was alive. Chabad emissaries are given substantial leeway in the communities they serve. As in all franchise systems, there are common features, including large pictures of the Rebbe, a standard look and dress for Chabad men, Menorah ceremonies and other rituals. There is also the Chabad message of tolerance and feel good Judaism.

While Chabad is, of course, a religious movement, overwhelmingly those who participate in its activities are not particularly observant. Chabad’s approach is to make these Jews comfortable, an attitude that raises sticky questions regarding issues that are fundamental in Orthodox life, such as driving on Shabbos and intermarriage. The emissaries do not actually accept such deviant practices, but they also do not directly condemn them. In daily dealings with rank and file Jews, Chabad is in an important sense atheological. The important goal is to attract the unaffiliated and there is much success in this regard. Hopefully, there will be movement along a continuum of increased observance. It is not possible to know how many Jews have become observant throughChabad. The number cannot be high because of what we know about American Jewish demography.

This issue matters less to Chabad people than to others in Orthodox life. The Rebbe preached that solitary observances – women lighting Shabbos candles and men putting on Tefilin – performed occasionally or even just once have a redemptive capacity. It is small wonder that the Rebbe’s and Chabad’s message is warmly received by many tens of thousands of Jews who want to be considered good Jews but who also do not want to become observant. It helps, as well, that Chabad families in the field invariably show kindness towards those with whom they have contact. In a world where many are lonely or unhappy, this counts for much. It is not surprising that within the world of Chabad there are in a sense two tiers of Judaism, one with a distinctive religious character for Chabad families and another for those who are served by Chabad. There is separation in education and social contacts and two sets of rules for religious behavior.

Whatever its components, the formula is working. As Jews move into new areas in the U.S., likely as not the primary local religious presence is Chabad. There is a parallel expansion into other areas where Chabad has exploited the inability of shuls and schools to attract personnel and to raise the necessary funds to keep going. For much of the Rebbe’s long tenure, there was at least a de facto downplaying of day schools, as the movement focused on supplementary education, camps and Chabad Houses. This has changed and there now is a growing network of Chabad day schools.

Expansion inevitably results in the need for additional personnel. Whether because there is no other option or this is the preferred way, there is today an almost total reliance on young families – husband and wife teams – that are given the opportunity for leadership and creativity and, in a sense, entrepreneurship. There is a culture of lifetime service in the field that permeates the inner world of Chabad. This bears some resemblance to missionary arrangements in other religions, although it is almost certain that through his assessment of what the situation required, the Rebbe reached the conclusion that this was the way for Chabad to achieve its goals.

This development is abetted by an educational/training approach that prepares young chabadniks for communal service. Unlike the emphasis in American Jewish life on training programs that yield scant fruit, Chabad teenagers are encouraged to go into the field and to spend time at various seminaries around the world where they develop useful contacts and feelings of self-reliance. It is extraordinary to see the extent to which young Chabad people are confident in their ability to accept challenging assignments and to succeed. The degree of responsibility given to young people is remarkable and while there are instances of failure, the larger picture by far is of success in locations that seemed to have had little Judaic promise.

By success I mean the ability to reach out to uncommitted Jews and to get them to participate. It is another question how this approach will work out in the long run. If the performance of solitary mitzvahs is redemptive, the long run is already here. If the issue is maintaining Jewish life and commitment into future generations, time will tell whether the Rebbe – one of the epic figures in 20th century Jewish life – created a movement that ensures that the children and grandchildren of those who now participate in Chabad activities will themselves participate in Jewish life.