Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Beyond The End Of One's Nose

There is no doubt that Chabad takes whatever it does to extremes.  There is no Jewish group more active in more far-flung places of the world than them.  Despite a lack of local resources that would drive out less-committed Yidden, Chabad emissaries live full Jewish lives in scattered places around the globe, providing a taste of Yiddishkeit to any of our brethren who happen to wander by.  Their dedication to kiruv is also unmatched and they work with great fervour to bring back lost Jews to Torah.
Unfortunately it is human nature to let extremism cut both ways.  While a moderate often refuses to take a defined stand on anything, an extremist will have a firm opinion about everything and a refusal to budge from it.  The problem with Chabad's extremism is that its desire to bring Jews back to Judaism is matched by a belief that their Judaism is the only real kind. 
As Rav Shmuely Boteach, former black sheep of the movement, notes in a recent piece in The Jerusalem Post:
I knew then in theory what I just witnessed in practice: Chabad emissaries would one day take over the Jewish world. Why? Because of the grandness of their vision and the passion with which they pursued their mission. Other Jewish organizations sought to educate people about their tradition, but Chabad sought to raise all Earth’s inhabitants to a higher God-consciousness, and to make Judaism the driving force in every decision of daily life.
The passionate dedication of the Chabad emissaries was infectious. They did not preach the Torah. Rather, it coursed through their veins, seeping out of every pore. Hassidic teachings about the approachability of God and the accessibility of a higher spiritual reality were grafted onto the average Chabad activist’s very DNA, becoming an inseparable part of his or her character and personality.
WITNESSING THE fulfillment of that promise at the conference was an awakening. Chabad is no longer merely a Jewish movement. It is Judaism. I find it astonishing that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flew in to attend the Jewish federations’ annual General Assembly but bypassed the Chabad conference. If an Israeli prime minister wants to be part of the unfolding of modern Jewish history, he has to address Chabad. No other organization even comes close to its global reach or grassroots impact. And it is growing exponentially.
They don't read newspapers and are unlikely to care about what Rav Boteach says but one can imagine going to the Rebbes of Ger, Belz and Satmar (both of them), all of them significantly larger in size than Lubavitch despite a total lack of outreach, and telling them: "Did you know that Chabad is Judaism?"
Indeed, Rav Boteach should know this.  All the shluchim should know that theirs is not the largest sect within Orthodox Judaism and that within the Chareidi community they are relegated to the fringe with the Bratzlovers, a kooky sect that might be scrupulous in the performance of some mitzvos but which endorse beliefs and worldviews unacceptable to the main group.
Then there's the Modern Orthodox and Dati Leumi who would also be shocked to know that they are not Judaism.  Never mind the pantheon of thinkers and towering figures they lay claim to.  Never mind all the learning and practice.  They aren't Judaism because they're not Chabad?
Yet there is the other side that Rav Boteach mentions and must be emphasized. As Rav David Berger notes in his book on the subject, Chabad is expanding within significant parts of the Jewish community through a clever strategy.  Just as leftists realized long ago that if one infiltrates the school system to ensure that children are raised with a socialist/politically correct philosophy so as to create a large group of support later on, Chabad realized long ago that going where no frum Jews could be found was like mining for gold.  There is a reason Chabad is found in isolated small Jewish communities that no one else pays attention to, why they show up on campuses even in cities with a large Torah-observant population and why they pay so much attention to Jewish communities and travellers in such places as Russia and India. 
Generally one does not find Chareidim in these places since they prefer large centres where they have resources, yeshivos and other such supports.  One doese not find Dati Leumi there either since the movement's focus is on Eretz Yisrael, not golus.  Asd a result, if you're a non-religious Jew living in a small town in the American mid-west, or a student venturing onto a university campus, or a villager someone in Siberia, chances are the only frum Jew you'll ever meet is a Chabad shaliach
The consequence of this is obvious - if all you ever want from the Chabadnik is chicken soup on Friday night and the occasional raucous Purim party, that's fine but if you want to learn more about Judaism you will be introduced to Torah observance but through the Chabad lens which is, in many ways exhaustively documented elsewhere, different from conventional Torah observance.  What's more, you will be taught that theirs is, like Rav Boteach say, the Judaism of our ancestors, the only real type, the kind that Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, brought down from Har Sinai.
One might raise an objection by pointing out that Aish HaTorah and Ohr Sameach are hardly different in that approach to kiruv.  This is definitely true.  Ask an Aish or Ohr rav about the age of the Earth and you will be told the only legitimate answer is 5771 years.  They won't teach you about the Rav or Rav Kook either in those places. 
But the significant difference is that Aish and Ohr generally restrict themselves to large communties, as I noted above regarding Chareidim in general.  You won't find Aish in Woebegone, Minnesota.  You just might find Chabad.
Through their kiruv, Chabad is indeed working very hard to present a specific type of Torah Judaism to the non-religious masses who don't know about the depth and variety of Torah observance.  They are working hard to convince the multitudes that Nusach Ari is the only siddur God hears you pray and that a certain deceased rabbinical figure really is the Moshiach, that it is a fundamental principle of Judaism and an actual halacha to believe this, and that he is just waiting for the opportunity to reveal himself and bring the final salvation.
That Chabadniks don't realize that Judaism is far bigger than them and that their beliefs are not standard in the rest of the Torah community is regrettable.  That the rest of the Torah Jewish community is sitting back while they divert our non-religious brethren into their narrow camp isn't.


Jennifer in MamaLand said...

Well, okay. But are you suggesting we ALL move to Woebegone?
I lived in a small Jewish town; it was challenging - and tiring. While I was there, I WAS Chabad, organizing public menorah lightings, trucking in kosher meat, sending letters to politicians, rounding up the city's straggling few Jewish kids for a month of super-fun camp (run by flown-in bochrim).
I don't quite understand - if Lubavitch's unique brand of mishegas compels them to live in Nowheresville, gei gezundheit. And more importantly, what would you offer the Jews of Nowheresville in return for giving up their Chabad connections??? Or are you simply demanding that every Chabadnik give equal time to the teachings of the Rav along with the Frierdiker Rebbe?
Answers - we want answers, not just more questions!!! :-)

Garnel Ironheart said...

If one has no problem with a Jewish group going around and telling people about a dead Messiah who will be resurrected to bring the Kingdon of God to Earth, only his name is Menachem Mendel, not Yoshke, then there's no problem.
The difficulty is that the Jews in Yenemsville are going to be taught this belief which is heresy to the rest of us.
Should more of us be moving to those small towns? As someone who currently lives in one, I say yes. There is benefit to groups from YU and similar places going on and competing for Jews with Chabad.

Jennifer in MamaLand said...

Is the GROUP going around proclaiming melech hamoshiach, or just individual shlichim? Do they do it in a kiruv setting, or only at shaliach gatherings? I personally found Chabad to be VERY 2-tiered, and most have a clear idea of what is to be shared for kiruv purposes and what isn't.
Anyway, even while the Rebbe was alive, they were pushing Tanya study instead of gemara, and some people consider chassidus itself to be heresy, even with a living rebbe... so what is really new here?
p.s. I consider us to be small-town Jews these days, with all the kiruv responsibilities that entails... :-)
(see pg. 3)

Anonymous said...

I take issue with some of your statements because they are not reflected in reality. All Chabad Shluchim do not preach nor teach "Chabad Judaism" as you call it (do you have proof btw before making such sweeping generalizations?). I am one of them, I know. We live outside the US, in Shul we daven in the local nusach, not Chabad, we teach the bar mitzvah boys how to lein according to the nusach of their families and so on and so forth and encourage them to maintain the traditions of their families, as the Rebbe did by the way.

Do the shiurim we give have a Chabad slant, of course, just like an MO rav or of any other stream will have the slant reflecting the hashkafa he follows, but that does not mean we imply nor teach that Chabad is the only way.

It is not our goal to make all Jews into Chabadniks, what is our goal is to bring each Yid closer to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

And Jennifer, it's not Tanya INSTEAD of Gemara, it's in addition.

Izgad said...

"Asd a result, if you're a non-religious Jew"


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

There is a general problem in the frum world in that, it would seem, large segments of every division considers itself to be the only authentic form of Torah -- and Chabad is no different. I will agree, though, that while respect for eilu v'eilu is woefully lacking throughout Orthodoxy, it is especially lacking in Chabad -- and possibly precisely because of what Garnel is describing. If one lives in a world with very little sources for Torah knowledge and the one source, the friendly Chabad rabbi, is only expressing the views of Chabad without mentioning other viewpoints, it is easy to see how narrow views of Torah can be formulated. The statement that Beit Hillel always quoted Beit Shammai first may be something that needs more consideration.

Yet all this is not the main problem that Rabbi Boteach's article would seem to indicate. He questions how PM Netanyahu could choose attending the Federation's General Assembly over the shiluchim conferance. Must be that the PM is not in touch with what is really happening in the Jewish world. Maybe, though, it is the other way around. Maybe the PM is responding to what is really happening in the general Jewish -- the strengthening of Reform Judaism, a movement away from even respecting Orthodoxy -- and his choice of attendance is something that that we should recognize, consider and respond to. I am not saying this in order to be critical for I also do recognize much of the fine work done by Chabad and other kiruv organizations. But do you know how many people I have met who will have nothing to do with Torah because of their experiences with Chabad? The same can be said with other kiruv organizations. One size does not fit all or we can say Chanoch l'na'ar al pi darcho, educate someone in a manner consistent with their personality. Teaching any derech in Torah as the only form of Torah ultimately leads to problems and negative consequences. That Chabad does so, and I am not saying every Chabadnik does so, ultimately leads to many people turning away from Torah. Even with all the successes there is a need to see the problems and examine oneself. The problem with Rabbi Boteach's article is that is shows the problem of not only Chabad but many within Orthodoxy that they don't critique themselves.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Michael Sedley said...


Your comment that Chabad do not preach "Chabad Judaism" is not true, in many cases.

I grew up in an Ashkenaz community that employed a Chabad Rav for a few years, at the time of my Bar Mitzva.

He was a wonderful man and I learnt a lot from him, I spent many wonderful Shabbatot at his home and owe him a temendous hakarot Hatov.

However, he taught me and othert bar mitva boys to lay Tfilin according to Minhag Chabad, in spite of the fact that he knew that this was not my family Minhag or the minhag of the community.

I have heard similar stories from many other people in other similar communities.

I can't speak for "All" Shluchim, but I do know that many of them promote Chabad Minhagim instead of established local minhagim.

Bartley Kulp said...

The truth is that Chabad has more than doubled its size since the Rebbe passed away. This has way to do beyond birthrates which they share with other chassidim. They do a tremendous amount of kiruv. Most Chabadnick's today are balei tshuva who have never met the Rebbe.

In 20 years from now they are going to be a demographic force to be reckoned with.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

Good post. Rav Hecht's addition is on target.

Jennifer, I'll offer you an answer. Chabad could see itself as a genuine umbrella. Not one that merely welcomes all sorts of Jews; but one that welcomes all sorts of halachic Judaism. We tried that out here. When we suggested it, the Chabadnik basically threw us out on our ears. Too bad, because Hashem's Torah and the many Jewish souls are NOT 'one path fits all'.

Dr. Garnel, you failed to note another Chabad (partial) success. The Hareidi world is imploding for lack of jobs and employable men. Chabad opens franchises, and provides jobs for family members of shluchim. Seems to work to a point. ;-)