The Zionist Conspiracy

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006
Thoughts On Chabad

A few weeks ago, my father wrote two pieces that were critical of Chabad. The criticism was not really much different than what my father has written previously, though the recent articles did express the criticism in significantly greater length than in the past, and did not detail the areas in which my father's sentiments toward Chabad are positive.

For whatever reason, many Chabad rabbis saw the articles - particularly the first one, which was published in The Jerusalem Post - as some sort of threat. Almost immediately, a massive number of comments were posted to the Jerusalem Post's site, mostly from those with an affiliation with Chabad. I know that many people with a Chabad affiliation received mass e-mails asking them to respond to the article.

Despite the fact that my father does not have any record of bashing Chabad - and indeed has done much to assist Chabad institutions in North America and in the Former Soviet Union - many Chabad people reacted with personal vitriol. Others, including a friend of mine who goes to Chabad shuls and became observant in large measure due to Chabad, expressed personal disappointment that Chabad had been criticized.

To the extent it matters, my views about Chabad differ in some ways from my father's. I have friends who benefited from Chabad - some of whom remain affiliated with a Chabad shul and others who now go to "mainstream" Orthodox shuls, so my perspective is in large measure based upon these people's - and my own - experiences with Chabad. At the same time, I am convinced that belief that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe is moshiach is more prevalent within Chabad than does my father, whose view is that outside Crown Heights, the majority of Chabad rabbis reject the notion that the Rebbe can be moshiach.

Nevertheless, the issues raised in my father's pieces are ones that apply not only to Chabad but to all individuals and groups involved in kiruv (Jewish outreach toward non-observant Jews). What was most surprising was how few of the responses to the articles actually had anything to do with the criticisms that were expressed. Most, instead, were anecdotal, arguing (with varying degrees of politeness) that in some way Chabad had done good, and therefore it should not be criticized.

One Chabad leader who has now responded directly is Rabbi Manis Friedman. The reference to those who disagree with him as "dinosaurs" aside, Rabbi Friedman's New Age explanation for Chabad's purpose appears to be quite similar to much of what my father challenged. In that sense, it may simply be a debate about whose approach is the preferable one, with my father questioning Chabad and Rabbi Friedman defending it.

Yet in two important ways I believe Rabbi Friedman misses the point. First, he wrote: "You think reform and conservative congregations are your enemy because all the denominations are 'religious' to varying degrees and you must insist that your degree is the correct one. You are not ashamed to say that to your Judaism 'denomination matters'."

Yet, it was Chabad - under the leadership of the Lubavitcher Rebbe - that spearheaded the unsuccessful campaign to change the "Who Is a Jew" law. It's hard to argue that the campaign was not a claim that the non-halachic denominations are - at the very least - incorrect.

On the issue of non-observant Jews driving to Chabad shuls on shabbos, Rabbi Friedman writes that "this Jew is moving closer to G-d. By learning about the Mitzvos, he is closer to observing them."

Yet isn't that the Conservative movement's rationale for allowing congregants to drive to shul? If Rabbi Friedman's response is that Chabad is legitimate but Conservative Judaism is not, isn't he too agreeing that "denomination matters?"

Furthermore, it's one thing to welcome all who attend, regardless of how they got to shul. That's something I agree with. But what about encouraging someone who lives, say, ten miles away, to come to shul? What about keeping the shul parking lot open on shabbos, which some Chabad shuls do? What about a Chabad shul in California that I've been to several times, where nobody has ever told a very wealthy congregant (and very generous Chabad donor) that contrary to his perception that one can carry on shabbos, there is no eruv where this Chabad stands?

Ultimately, these are serious issues involving both halacha and hashkafah that everyone in kiruv should be grappling with. The dearth of substantive discussion about them in the reactions to my father's articles is unfortunate. Perhaps Rabbi Friedman's piece will - even if unintentionally - commence serious contemplation, discussion and debate about the religious attitude and approach of observant Jews toward the non-observant.