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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Where is Chabad heading?

Where is Chabad heading?



Chabad, the Lubavitch movement, is the Walmart of Jewish life, a mega-phenomenon that keeps growing at a remarkable rate by entering new and underserved areas, and by exploiting the vulnerability of existing service providers.

Growth provides the impetus and resources for additional growth. Walmart uses loss leaders to attract customers, the aim being to get them to buy profitable items and to further weaken and dishearten the competition. In Chabad there is the perhaps unintended defining of Judaism downward, the aim being to attract participants and to maintain for them at least a tenuous connection with Jewish life. In the process, there is often the further weakening of existing religious institutions as well as the acceptance - it is more than tolerance - of what should not be accepted in Orthodox Jewish life.

This aspect of Chabad was displayed recently at the annual gathering in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn of several thousand shlichim (the movement's field workers), an event for which the description "impressive" is greatly inadequate.

The keynote speaker was Alan Dershowitz, a choice that accords with the familiar societal instinct to idolize celebrityship. This choice was also antithetical to what Chabad should stand for. My point is not about Dershowitz, who can say and believe whatever he wants. It's for history to decide whether his extended 15 minutes of fleeting fame will leave even faint fingerprints on law, society or Jewish life.

IT IS WRONG and hypocritical for Chabad to highlight a person who has written nastily about Orthodox Jews, who has welcomed intermarriage in his family, and who has exalted marrying out. Any attempt to justify what was shameless is no more than sophistry, although it will further the process of self-deception that has already gone too far.

If this were an isolated incident it could be excused, though not defended, as a lapse in judgment. But Chabad is on a roll and, like with others on a roll, there is scant incentive for self-reflection, for a pause to consider where the movement is heading.

Chabad telethons and fundraising, and the acceptance of severe anti-halachic behavior in too many situations, add to the concern. Too much of what now has the Chabad imprimatur bears little resemblance to how the movement once operated.

Chabad is today world Jewry's largest organization, probably by a wide margin. In its ranks are people of intellectual weight, yet it is hard to find an internal discussion of the implications of the direction being taken, or the implications of the changed and highly-assimilated American Jewish landscape. There is no discussion of whether there are limits to permitting Chabad synagogue regulars to drive to shul on Shabbat, or of how to deal with the intermarried and their spouses and family members.

Why are these issues less relevant to Chabad than they are to the rest of American Jewry? Why is the issue of standards alive everywhere else in Jewish religious life, but not within Chabad?

MY HOPE is to encourage Lubavitchers to think about these questions. They must be asked and discussed, especially because so much about Chabad is meritorious. There are countless acts of kindness, as well as vital services provided to Jews across the religious spectrum who have nowhere else to turn. Chabad is rightly praised for its multitude of good deeds.

But if Judaism was merely a good-deeds religion there would be nothing to differentiate us from many secularists and people of other faiths. For all of Chabad's kindnesses, this is not what Judaism is primarily about. Our religion is about Torah and mitzvot, about obedience and limitations, and about maintaining our laws and traditions today so that they will be transmitted to the next generations.

As it grows, Chabad's options are in a sense limited by certain realities, primarily the wholesale Judaic abandonment that we are witness to, and which is accelerating. Increasingly, the movement operates in a framework of postdenominational Judaism. For the Orthodox, who - except when they travel or in special situations - are not the primary Chabad participants, denomination matters.

For Conservative and Reform Jews, affiliation now refers overwhelmingly more to a social rather than religious connection. Huge numbers of Jews identified by demographers as Reform or Conservative rarely show up in synagogue and their affiliation provides few clues to their religious practices and beliefs. In a word, denomination has lost much of its relevance.

CHABAD FLOURISHES in this environment by providing a low-cost brand of Judaism. It is low-cost in financial terms, which is another meritorious aspect. It is also, however, low-cost in Jewish expectations.

Participants in Chabad can observe very little and have no interest in adding to their performance of mitzvot. This may seem unfair, yet the attitude being conveyed by Chabad to a great number of its participants bears a resemblance to Reconstructionism. There are, of course, conventional Chabad synagogues and day schools, and they must not be discounted because they often fill gaps in our community's ability to adequately provide religious services.

Yet there is a vast network of institutions and programs that require little of participants and where deviance from Halacha is evident.

A Conservative leader once remarked to me that his movement made a mistake in the 1950s when it sanctioned driving to the synagogue on Shabbat. He said it should have emulated Chabad and allowed people to drive without giving formal approval.

Population shifts and the continued weakening of Jewish institutional life will give Chabad an abundant supply of new areas to penetrate. There is also an abundant supply of shlichim-in-waiting. I was recently told that there are more than 300 young men waiting for their opportunity to go into the field.

When that opportunity comes they will be faced with the collateral opportunity to define Judaism downward, to embrace the prevalent attitude of "anything goes" Judaism. They will also have the opportunity to reverse a disturbing trend.

The writer, based in New York and president of The Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva, has commented on topics of concern to the Jewish community for some four decades.

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