Sunday, January 15, 2006

Where is Chabad Heading - II

For all that makes it distinctive or makes it think that it is distinctive, Chabad cannot escape the realities facing American and world Jewry. These include massive and continuing Judaic abandonment and the consequences of intermarriage which multiply with each passing generation. Yet, an avowedly religious movement seems to think that it can operate as if these realities do not compromise what it is doing, do not limit what it can do. Chabad fought fiercely on the "Who Is a Jew?" issue in Israel, while in the Former Soviet Union - where it does much great work - which now has an intermarriage rate of 80%, it spreads its wings wider, acting as if this statistic has few implications. It is important to ask what Chabad is seeking to accomplish if four out of five Jews are marrying out, this after decades of high intermarriage under the Soviets. It is also important to ask what Chabad has accomplished if four out of five Jews continue to marry out.

In challenging Chabad to reflect on these questions, I am not unmindful of the enormous good that it does in providing an array of services, both religious and social. I cannot see how Chabad is exempt from the obligation of self-examination, particularly in light of what is happening in the places where it is most heavily concentrated. A continuation of current demographic trends, which I think is inevitable, means that Chabad will either have to abandon much of what it is now doing or undergo a significant character change.

The movement's decentralization contributes to the avoidance of reflection. During the Rebbe's life and even now, when we look at photos of Chabad emissaries or shlichim, the picture is one of a centralized movement led by its elders. In the field, the reality of decentralization sets in, along with the profile of a great number of younger men and women in key positions. These shlichim have undergone from their teens an education that is more experiential than intellectual or imbued in religious texts. There is much travel, attendance for relatively brief periods at Chabad seminaries across the globe and networking with present and future shlichim.

What emerges are confident young people eager to take responsibility at a remarkably young age. These men and women have acquired street smarts and skills that will avail them in the field when they come into contact with people of little or no religiosity. What few of them get is a strong grounding in Jewish texts or the capacity to reflect.

This is a brew for ad hoc Judaism or perhaps it should be called ahalachic Judaism. The result is a pattern not seen for a long while in Jewish life, although it appears in other religions. There is a wide and growing behavioral disparity between the clergy and laity. This suits the emissaries and their families who can live as Orthodox Jews and engage in the work that they are deeply committed to and it suits a large majority of lay people who somehow are involved in Chabad because they can comfortably continue their minimalistic Jewish lifestyle, including intermarriage and driving to shul on Shabbos. I doubt that this arrangement accords with the way Chabad operated elsewhere in previous periods.

Under the Rebbe's tutelage there is a sincere emphasis on certain observances such as women lighting Shabbos candles and men putting on tefilin, the message being that the occasional performance of these mitzvos or even just once is religiously meaningful. These observances make minimal demands and do not require lifestyle changes. They appeal to the comfort level of Jews who have moved away from a religious life. This is evident in California and Florida where Chabad is especially strong and appeals to ex-Israelis and their families.

I do not know whether in a transcendental sense the one-time or occasional performance of a mitzvah is redemptive. I recognize that it may be. Yet, the contribution to Jewish continuity is negligible. In an unintended way, Jews are being told that our religion requires very little. What is being transmitted in the process is not our heritage or code of laws but the familiar embracing of instant gratification.

Perhaps this is the way to go. But perhaps in view of Chabad's enormous and expanding reach, a greater effort to impose standards would result in a higher incidence of religious commitment. It is necessary to point out, as I did last week, that in their day schools and certain synagogues there is a greater commitment to religious purposefulness. Overall, there is the impression that Chabad is today less of an outreach movement whose goal is religious transformation than it is a missionary movement whose goal is to attract participants on their terms and not on the terms of traditional Judaism.

The implications of this operating theology are immense and they raise daunting questions that need to be addressed. These include how much longer the approach can be maintained in view of the ever-more attenuated connection to any definition of Jewish identity on the part of those whom Chabad comes into contact with. Even if intermarriage can be winked at in the first generation, the practice begets children who themselves intermarry and then there is further intermarriage in the third generation. Is there any cut-off point for Chabad? If there isn't, the consequences will be enormous.

There is already in parts of Chabad more than a small scent of reaching out to non-Jews, that is to individuals who are not Jewish by any definition. Put otherwise, there are indications of Chabad regarding itself and marketing itself as a catholic or universal religion. This is evident in the public displays of the Rebbe's picture, in telethons and other fundraising activities, in drug programs and other projects.

Aren't these issues worthy of consideration and self-reflection? Or is it sufficient to ignore them or to treat them as evidence of hostility to Chabad?