Why Reform, Chabad Are Necessary

Contemporary Judaism cannot spare any of its competing components. Each one, from Charedi to Reform, has a unique contribution to make.

I recently spent some time with the Helsinki Jewish community and learned something about Judaism I didn’t know. First, I learned that the community of Judaism needs the Reform movement and cannot survive without it.

Second, I learned that the community of Judaism needs the Chabad movement and cannot build a future without its unique contribution.

The Reform movement’s unique contribution is a common-sense approach to halachic disciplines — a willingness to deal with how things really are, and not only to make the best of them but to make them better. In Helsinki, the community is nominally Orthodox but genuinely secular. Here, nearly every Jewish marriage is an intermarriage. The Jewish school has upward of 100 children, most of them children of intermarriages. But nominal Orthodoxy defines matters.

Formalities without heart! I learned this because I met the head of the Jewish community — a serious Jew, himself intermarried — who told me about a current crisis.

The 2004 tsunami killed most of a Jewish family from Helsinki — the Christian wife and three Jewish children died in the catastrophe. The Jewish husband survived and wanted to bury his wife and three sons in the Jewish community’s cemetery. The lay president and Orthodox rabbi said no to the wife; it would offend those already buried there if a Christian body were to be interred.

The Christian woman’s Christian family was horrified by the notion that their daughter’s remains would offend the remains of Jews, since, after all, she had borne and raised three Jewish children.

What halachic solutions to such a problem exist I could not propose; I have no experience in making halakhic decisions. But I could not help thinking that what Finnish Jewry needs is a Reform movement, able and willing to cope with problems that Orthodox readings of halacha treat as cut and dried, and which they botch completely. There is a human dimension to take into account. Reform takes it into account, and the Orthodoxy, represented by the lay leadership of the nominally Orthodox Jewish communities of continental Europe, does not. How much stronger all of the communities of Judaism are because among them is a Judaic religious system that opts for humanity and common sense as principal criteria for halachic decision-making.

The other community of Judaism I met is Chabad Judaism, represented by a fine young rabbi, Benyamin Wulff, and his wife, both young Americans born into Chabad families. They are devoting their lives to building a Chabad community in Helsinki, studying the notoriously difficult Finnish language and planning to make their lives there.

He had come to my lecture for the Jewish community and invited my wife and me for Shabbat lunch at his home. There he had assembled a mixed crew of Israeli, British, American and Finnish Jews. He struck me as the most welcoming, unpretentious, good-natured rabbi I know, drawing out each person in turn, asking questions more than giving answers.

The Helsinki synagogue has a rabbi who comes from Israel from month to month. But the Jews in Helsinki also have a Chabad rabbi, always on the scene, whose outreach knows no outer limits.

He teaches one at a time or several; he has the capacity to add to the Judaic resources of the community by making Jews Jewish. He organizes Judaic events that involve people in Judaic activities and he does everything he can to convert Jews to Judaism — not by words, but by deeds.

The power of Chabad to cherish the sparks of holiness in every Jew sustains him and through that remarkable couple brings light to the assimilated, fast-fading Judaism of Finland.

Reform Judaism and Chabad Judaism prove essential, the one to mediate between the law of Judaism and the real life of the Jewish people, and the other to build and nurture, to make Jews Judaic.

I know it is conventional to dismiss Reform as inauthentic or assimilationist, and to condemn Chabad as divisive and dubious by reason of the messianic claims made in behalf of the late Rebbe. (From Helsinki’s Chabad rabbi I heard that those claims represent only a small minority of the Chabad constituency.)

They say Chabad is nothing more than halachic Christianity, and Christians apprised of the Rebbe’s coming resurrection comment, “Right idea, wrong man.”

But in Helsinki, I missed Reform Judaism and I got a sense of hope from Chabad Judaism. We all benefit from the quarrels that produce Judaisms.

Jacob Neusner teaches Judaic studies at Bard College.