Thursday, February 09, 2012

Why Chabad Matters

Those who have been reading this blog for a while know my very strong criticism of Lubavitch. Primarily it is about their belief in at least the potential - and in some cases actual - messiahship of their late Rebbe, R’ Menachem Mendel Schneersohn.

Because of that very serious issue I have been urged by people I respect to just write them off. But I can’t do that. They are simply too valuable to Judaism. In some ways they surpass the entirety of the rest of us in their contributions to God and His people. And I speak not only of their tremendous, widespread and far reaching outreach efforts – the successes of which in terms of sheer numbers over the years remain unchallenged.

That alone would be enough. I speak also of their unique ability to communicate to the world the beauty of Judaism. Here too they are unmatched. The rest of us could all learn a lot by watching them in action - and then emulating them.

I was made aware of a video by a reader that saw it on Rafi’s blog. It is an interview of Oprah Winfrey who is about to do a program on Chasidim. She is interviewed by a media savvy member of Chabad about her experiences doing that show. It is just short of 12 minutes long. If you watch it you will see why Chabad is so indispensable to observant Jewry. To say a Kiddush HaShem was made here is an understatement.

This is how we can be a ‘light unto the nations’. This is how we can inspire other Jews to examine their own true heritage.

The documentary focuses on Chasidim. The Chasidim she observes are Chabad Chasidim. Why Chabad? Because they are the only ones who open their doors to the media.

But the values she saw and extols are not limited to Chabad or even to Chasidim. What she saw is in essence what Jewish family life is all about. It is about how to live a life of values and raise your children to appreciate those values. And to pass them on to the next generation. I am not easily inspired. But watching Oprah’s description of her experience was truly an inspiration.

It is troubling to me that no other segment of Judaism does anything like this. Modern Orthodoxy is not really a segment of Orthodoxy that has been explored by the media. Perhaps because Modern Orthodox Jews do not look that different from the way the rest of society looks. I’m pretty sure that if the media would be interested they would be as welcoming as Chabad. But the colorful world of Chasidim is of major interest. Partly because of the negative attention they have been getting of late. And partly because they do seem so different from everyone else.

When Chasidic communities are approached by the media about doing a documentary or the like -they generally rebuff them. They are not interested in inviting Oprah Winfrey into their homes. They consider it at intrusion. They probably also fear that no matter how hard they try - a secular media personality will distort it into something negative. I think that’s even true in non Chasidic right wing communities. I’m not exactly sure why.

Perhaps it is because of a paranoia they have about the secular world. Reading some op-eds recently in some of the more right wing websites, blogs, and magazines - that does seem to be the case. Instead of asking themselves why the secular media has been so critical of them lately – they see ‘outsiders’ as out to get them.

Instead of realizing that when someone who looks identifiably religious (by having a long beard, peyos, and wearing Chasidic garb) spits on women and children; and says all kinds of nasty things to them or about them - right or wrong - it is a natural reaction to generalize.

Instead of having paranoia about it and constantly calling them anti-religious Charedi bashers - they would do far better to understand that it is not an anti Charedi media looking to bash them that is the problem. It is an entire segment of Charedim living in isolation in places like Meah Shearim that either approves, justifies, or excuses the terrible things that are done by their beloved extremists. Things that make all Charedim – indeed all religious Jews - look bad. But I digress.

The point I was trying to make is that the dislike and distrust of the secular media may very well be preventing them from many opportunities to make a Kiddush HaShem like the one Chabad made here. Chabad’s goal in being so open to Oprah Winfrey is that they want to show the world the beauty of Judaism. And they are 100 percent right about that.

This is not the first time Chabad has opened up to the media making a Kiddush HaShem while the rest of us are asleep at the switch.

The way the world then learns about other Chasidim or Charedim in general is by miscreants who end up making headlines that are a Chilul HaShem. Anything positive however comes largely through the efforts of Chabad.

I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a documentary or read a book that ‘looked into the world of Chasidim’ that ended up only dealing with Chabad. Other Chasidic groups rebuffed them. Lubavitchers are the only ones who open up and let the media in. And when they do it, the result is almost always positive.

If the rest of us are going to continue to close our doors to the world, then we owe Chabad a big thank you for their efforts in projecting a positive view of Judaism to the world. They know what they are doing.