Sunday, November 14, 2010

Judaism, Achdus, and Lubavitch

I am of late very reluctant to post anything about Chabad/Lubavitch. This is not only because of my respect for their accomplishments; it is also because on a personal level, they are among the finest people I know and I am loathe to hurt them. Their accomplishments are legendary. Although they are not alone in doing outreach - they have certainly been responsible more than any other group for bringing Jews closer to Judaism.

When I have in the past posted about them it has been about their Messianism. I am obviously very upset by that and still believe the problem exists even though it has quieted down. Except for a few very loud extremists who still shout it from the mountain tops, most Lubavitchers no longer talk about it. They have internalized whatever level of belief they have about the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s coming resurrection to become the Messiah. Talk like that has all but disappeared in mainstream Lubavitch. At least here in Chicago – in public.

Just to be clear on this point – I stand with what my Rebbe Rav Ahron Soloveichik said. Lubavitch’s Messianic beliefs about the Rebbe are Shtus - foolish nonsense. But those beliefs are not heresy. Although there is a small group who have crossed that line – I believe they are a small handful that Lubavitch has clearly repudiated and rejected.

But not all my criticisms of Lubavitch has been about their troubling Messianic beliefs. Shumley Boteach’s latest article in the Jerusalem Post prompts me to write about a different problem. It is about the sense of self importance they have vis-à-vis the rest of Orthodoxy. I think Shumley’s article gives us a glimpse into this mindset. They believe that Lubavitch is not just a movement within Judaism - but Judaism itself.

Those who read Rabbi Boteach’s columns know that many years ago he was expelled by Lubavitch for – among other things - departing from their norms by reaching out to non Jews. But he has never rejected Lubavitch. He has been as loyal to them as ever and often lavished praise about Lubavitch and the Rebbe.

He has also in the past expressed profound regret about his expulsion.

But he has been given a second life. He was invited to their recent annual international Chabad emissary conference – the Kinus Hashluchim Ha’olami. I guess that means he is back in their good graces. That has resulted in perhaps the most fawning article he has ever written about them.

In truth I have no issues about what he said that they do. It is to Lubavitch’s credit that they continue to do their good works in greater number than ever.

He writes about how as a child of modern Orthodoxy, Lubavitch – and more precisely the Rebbe - came to win him over to Chabad Chasidus. He talks about the level of commitment to Judaism Chabad instills into its members.

And he writes about their reach. They have established outposts in the furthest reaches of the world. Where ever there are Jews, one will find a Chabad House run by a Lubavitch emissary. This should be obvious to anyone who travels to places where Jews are not prominent. If you’re going to Timbuktu, you will very likely find a Chabad House run by a Shaliach who bends over backwards to help you out.

But then Shmuley takes a leap that undermines all of his legitimate praise. He makes the astonishing claim that Lubavitch is not just a strong and powerful movement with Judaism – but Judaism itself. Here is the pertinent excerpt from the his Jeruslam Post article:

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.

With this statement he loses all credibility – and even undermines the very movement he is so justifiably proud of. Does he really think that the Yeshiva world is not Judaism? Does he not think that Yeshiva world is not increasing geometrically too? Does he also discount the massive and geometrically increasing numbers of other Chasidic movements like Satmar and Ger? Or perhaps he thinks all of this will somehow fold into Lubavitch. I don’t know but this is obviously the most misguided belief anyone can have about their own movement.

It completely ignores the reality of Orthodox Judaism. Lubavitch is only a small percentage of an ever growing Orthodoxy. Chabad's exponential growth is matched by many other Orthodox segments. And they are no longer the only ones doing outreach. They are certainly the most prolific, but to lay claim that they are Judaism itself is self deluding, counterproductive, and even destructive.

I don’t think this view is Shmuley’s alone. I believe this is true of most Lubavitchers. This is how they think of themselves.

I also believe this is one of the reasons they have no interest in joining with other Orthodox groups in any joint projects - and rarely do. They don’t even like to refer to themselves as Orthodox and often list themselves a separate denomination in communal publications that list denominations. This - despite the fact that they are as scrupulous in observances as are the most Orthodox among us.

I think this ‘stand-offishness’ demonstrates their sense of self importance vis-a-vis the rest of Orthodoxy viewing it as insignificant relative to themselves. This promotes and perpetuates the idea that they are not only a movement but Judaism itself. That attitude is why there is so much antagonism against them by some of the other Orthodox segments of Judaism dating back to long before their Messianism became manifest.

I say all this not to bash Lubavitch but to offer constructive criticism. I believe that Lubavitch is a tremendous and key asset to Klal Yisroel. But they are only one such asset. Not the sum and substance of it.

I’ve said this before. Instead of standing off wearing blinders to the rest of the Orthodox world they ought to become a part of it. They should stop listing themselves as a separate denomination and realize that they are only a part of the greater whole rather than the entirety of it. This is what Achdus is all about.