Chabad: To Change But Not Be Changed

The Chabad telethon is an appropriate occasion to consider one of the anomalies of contemporary American Jewish religious life.
September 9, 2004

The Chabad telethon is an appropriate occasion to consider one of the anomalies of contemporary American Jewish religious life. Chabad will be appealing for funds by skillfully using television, a medium that fewer and fewer of their Chasidim officially have in their homes — they might be hidden away in the closet or behind the sefarim, the holy books that are in the public spaces of a Chasidic home. It is stunning that Chabad is the most acculturated of contemporary American Jewish movements religious — acculturated and yes, even assimilated.

They sure don’t look it.

But don’t let the beards, the black suits and the black hats, the white shirts with the tzitzit flying outward fool you. When you encounter Chabad, you encounter a deeply American religious movement. Ironically, many secular Jews support Chabad because it evokes nostalgia for the Eastern European past, seldom considering how deeply American the movement is, even in Israel.

The difference between assimilation and acculturation is not whether one absorbs something from the larger society that shapes one’s own identity, but what one does with those elements once they are absorbed. If one lives in the world, the dominant culture is absorbed. In assimilation there is a loss of identity; in acculturation the identity is transformed, sometimes unknowingly, most often without acknowledgement.

Throughout Jewish history, acculturation has been helpful to Jewish life and the argument can even be made that assimilation was an essential tool of survival, but it cannot be heard in the contemporary climate in which assimilation has become the bane of American Jewish existence. Thus, for example, Maimonides brought Aristotelian philosophy into Jewish thought, much as Philo had welcomed Plato. Jewish life was enriched by the absorption of these Greek systems, much as Saul Lieberman, Shaul Maggid and Daniel Boyarin have shown, talmudic thinking was enriched by Greek thought and even by Christian thought, brought inward and Judaized, embraced and made sacred; a positive development that contrasted significantly with those Jews who became Hellenized and left Judaism.

One of the remarkable successes of Chabad is that its shlichim (emissaries) can go everywhere, dwell in strange cultures, in bizarre places and not lose their sense of identity. They are the classic examples of what sociologists define as inner-directed. Wherever they are, they remain true to their identity of origin. With the exception of a handful of shlichim, Rabbis Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schacter-Shalomi among them, those sent out to change the world have changed it without being changed by it — or so the story goes.

Yet, something far deeper has gone on. Chabad has indeed been transformed by the world it has encountered without quite acknowledging how radical the change.

Example abound, permit me but three:

From its inception, Chasidism was based on charismatic leadership. The Rebbe was a leader, a sacred figure, a tzadik, a holy man to his disciples. And few men in Jewish life have been quite as charismatic as the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who led Chabad for a generation and whose personal impact is attested to by Jews religious and secular, believers and heretics.

In the United States, the successor to charismatic leadership is corporate management. Chabad has not replaced the Rebbe; the role he played — and plays — cannot be replaced, but he has been succeeded by the managementof 770 and their regional managers, which has relied upon the tried-and-true methods of American business: franchising, naming and branding to retain organizational structure and coherence.

The Rebbe’s picture hangs on each Chabad institution, much in the way that pictures of the president of the United States and the secretary of state adorn every American Embassy, and — with due apologies for the analogy (lehavdil, as one says in Hebrew) — pictures of Colonel Sanders are still an essential part of marketing KFC. They certify authenticity; they reassure a sense of quality, they secure the mission. Even 770 is a symbol of succession — witness the erection of such a building in Los Angeles and Kfar Habad in Israel.

Students of contemporary religious life have commented on the two messianic movements in contemporary Jewry: Chabad and Gush Emunim. The latter, spiritual followers of the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, and his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, saw the Six-Day War and the Jewish return to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria — the West Bank in secular terms — as announcing the imminent arrival of the Messiah; the return to the land as the unfolding of a Divine drama. There are elements of Chabad that believed before his death that the Rebbe was the Messiah and a significant element — just how significant outsiders do not know and many insiders do not want to know — that believe even after his leaving this world the Rebbe is still the Messiah and will soon return.

Clearly, both of these movements are a response to the Holocaust and take the leitmotif of "from Holocaust to Redemption," "from Auschwitz to Jerusalem" that was prevalent in the narrative of contemporary Jews a decade of two ago. They move beyond metaphor to metaphysical reality.

The fact that such a messianic movement could endure within Chabad despite the Rebbe death’s means one of two things.

Either the idea of a dead Messiah who shall soon return has deep roots in Jewish messianic thinking, and Chabad has been influenced from within Jewish tradition alone — "They [the Christians] got it from us" is the way of Chabad friend explains it — or perhaps, unknowingly, and most certainly without acknowledgement, Chabad has absorbed Christian apocalyptic thinking and cloaked it in a Jewish garment.

To scholars such as David Berger, this is the crisis, dare one say the scandal, of contemporary Orthodoxy. To others, all others, it is a phenomenon well worth noting. Certainly, the timing of such thinking, which seems to be set by Jewish historical events, coincides with developments within Christian religious movements as to the return of Jesus as Messiah. Influence or coincidence, the juxtaposition is undeniable.

So, too, is the range of Chabad’s appeal. Going through the Pico-Robertson neighborhood in which I live, I see the services that Chabad offers from homeless shelters to drug rehabilitation centers, from housing for the poor to residential centers. This mirrors the identical services offered by evangelical Christian churches who reach out to those receptive to conversion. The ba’al teshuvah movement mirrors the born-again movement within Christianity, and is influenced by the same social forces and religious imperatives.

Last year while saying Kaddish for my mother, I visited synagogues throughout the world, at least twice a day every day for 11 moving and exhausting months. Among them were Chabad-led synagogues in at least five countries. It struck me that Chabad rabbis are more like the Conservative rabbis of yesteryear: Orthodox rabbis sent to Conservative congregations whose membership is Reform. Those who attend come from all backgrounds and all places — socio-economic, religious, spiritual and psychological — and are to be found in all places. They are warmly welcomed and the service, however traditional, is tailored to their needs, without compromising Orthodox standards or principles. How the Jews get to synagogue or what they do after Shabbat services is less important than their presence at services. That is the key to their success. The young Chabad rabbis go out in the world fully confident that they can change it without being changed by it. Or so it seems.

Dialogue presumes a give and take that both parties are open to change. Dialectic from Newtown to Hegel presumes that actions also cause reactions; how we act transforms not only the one acted upon but the actor as well. Will Chabad in the post-Rebbe era be the lone exception?

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust, and adjunct professor of theology at the University of Judaism.

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