Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Debate Within Chabad

None of my columns has evoked anything close to the reaction to the two articles questioning the direction Chabad is taking in too many places and situations. Overwhelmingly, those who commented were critical, some very strongly, but there were more than a few expressions of support. Several days after the second article appeared, a Chabad emissary in the Former Soviet Union and his wife came to see me. They knew nothing about the articles. They heard that I had helped Chabad institutions in the FSU and they needed help. Three days later, I was at a Chabad school in Brooklyn. It is seeking a one-million dollar interest-free building loan from a fund for which I have responsibility.

Similar stories could occupy an entire column and more. I will just add the following about the request two or three years ago from perhaps the leading Chabad Rabbi today that I provide guidance regarding difficult administrative issues. This led to a brief paper that was shown to a senior shiliach or emissary who circulated it to the entire worldwide Chabad network. At his suggestion, my name was deleted from the document.

Chabad is world Jewry's largest movement. When I raise questions about the direction it is taking, they arise from concern and not hostility. I questioned why Alan Dershowitz was featured at the recent conference of emissaries. Of course, the issue isn't Dershowitz - he is, in any case, a powerful advocate for Israel - but the implications of the invitation.

It turns out that there was strong opposition to the Dershowitz invitation within Chabad. As one emissary put it, there were "email fisticuffs." Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, Chabad's man in Cambridge who arranged the invitation and who sharply criticized me in a letter published last week in this newspaper, wrote on the Shluchim website that "there is hail and brimstone regarding the invitation" within the movement. In his letter, Zarchi claims that "no Jew at Harvard has done more to support halachic Judaism than Professor Alan Dershowitz in his capacity as faculty advisor to Chabad at Harvard."

We should wonder what advice he is giving regarding intermarriage in view of an article under his byline in the Harvard Crimson called "Why Judaism Must Embrace Intermarriage." Not Jews, but Judaism which is our religion; not just accept, but embrace. The article, published at his instigation, was doubtlessly read by thousands of Jewish students and many faculty, people who were exploring what Jewish path to take. It included such interesting sentiments as "Judaism must become less tribal, less ethnocentric, less exclusive, less closed off, less defensive, less xenophobic, less clannish."

This was written in 1997 and there is no indication that he has changed his mind. We have more recent indications of his views in Abigail Pogrebin's just-published book ("Stars of David") of interviews with Jewish notables, including Dershowitz. His interview concludes: "When I'm in the synagogue, I don't believe a word of it and I'm totally irreligious. When I'm sitting on the beach under the stars in Martha's Vineyard, I get a leap of faith."

I would rest my case, except, again, the issue isn't Dershowitz or Zarchi who has accomplished much good in Cambridge or what I think. The issue is what is happening in Chabad as world Jewry is being radically transformed by Judaic abandonment, by the wholesale rejection of our principles and practices. In the name of tolerance, too much that is alien is being tolerated. An example is the extraordinary recent Chanukah Menorah ceremony in Tiblisi, Georgia. Chabad's Chief Rabbi and the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church performed the ceremony, with the Christian leader lighting the Menorah and the two clergymen singing the blessings, one in Hebrew and the other in his native language. I am looking at a photo of the event as I write.

Too much of this is going on and that's the bad news. The better news is that there is heightened concern and discussion within Chabad regarding the issues that I have raised. What I did not know is that much of this predates my columns, but the focus is now stronger. As a shliach put it in an email, "all issues that you raised have been and are actively discussed by shluchim on an on-going basis." I am also encouraged by what a noted FSU Rabbi wrote: "I am sure that there is one person who will be eternally grateful to you and that is the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Zecher Tzaddik Levracha."

A similar sentiment came from an eminent Chabad lay leader who pointed to a discourse many years ago by the Rebbe (published in Likutei Sichos, Vol. I, Parshas Vayigash). The Rebbe said "One is constantly obligated to be concerned with every one, regardless who it may be, and to bring him closer to Yiddishkeit. Nevertheless, one must always keep in mind never to budge from principle. Befriending others and bringing them closer to Yiddishkeit must never compromise Torah and mitzvoth. For there is a well-known saying: When someone is drowning one must save him; but one must also take great care not to be drowned oneself." Also, while we must befriend everyone, we "must do so by way of bringing them closer to Torah, that is, one must bring these people to Torah without compromise, as opposed to adapting the Torah to the minds of the people."

This is why the issues that I raise are about Chabad, not about Alan Dershowitz. As a man of honor, he now owes one-thousand dollars to a charity of my designation, a pledge that he made if I could refute his denial of my claims. The contribution should be to Bobbie's Place, the wonderful voluntary project that provides new clothing each year to thousands of needy Jewish children. This charity is named, in his words, in memory of the "wonderful woman who baked great hallas" - my mother.