Friday, May 27, 2016

Where is the Real Center?

Chabad Shluchim in front of 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn- 2012 (VIN)
I’m sorry they removed the post. Cross Currents had recently featured an article by Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer that was critical of Chabad in a highly respectful and constructive way. Apparently Chabad, or at least the Chabad Shaliach in California, Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie took umbrage at it. Rabbi Gordimer apologized, Rabbi Eleazrie accepted it gracefully - end of story. 

The problem is that there is no ‘story’. We now have no record of what Rabbi Gordimer said - and apologized for. Which is too bad. I read the article when it was originally published and if I recall correctly found it to be just as I said it was. Respectful and constructive.

The issue at hand is whether Chabad is the new ‘center’ (...or middle - as Rabbi Eliezrie puts it) of Judaism. As a card carrying Centrist, I would take issue with that. I am not a member of Chabad.  And I definitely do not believe that their Hashkafos are mainstream. At least not when it comes to their views of their Rebbe as Moshiach.  That issue is far from dead. This is one of those internal struggles mentioned by both Rabbi Eliezrie and Rabbi Gordimer. Rabbi Gordimer said in his letter of apology that we ought to let Chabad deal with their own internal issues and let us (outsiders) deal with our own internal issues. Which are in some cases considerable.

Normally I would agree with that. But when a a movement claiming to be the new center is still  ‘hung up’ about whether their long deceased Rebbe is Moshiach – it becomes a matter for all of us. It is a matter of whether a view that a man can be resurrected from the dead to become Moshiach is theologically acceptable. Whether such beliefs are acceptable is just as problematic as accepting the bible critic’s argument that events at Sinai were allegorical. Neither of these positions are internal. They both relate to the fundamental principles of our faith. 

Rabbi Eliezrie does not make any reference to  the ‘Moshichism’ issue – as though it doesn’t exist (other than to refer to it vaguely as an internal matter).  I don’t blame him for that. But sweeping it under the rug does not make the issue go away. It is a serious one that has yet to be resolved by Chabad. Ask anyone that has been to their headquarters at 770.

There are other issues that argue against a claim of  centrism. For example many of Chabad’s customs are their own and not practiced by other Orthodox Jews. And yet they promote them as though they were Mitzvos on par with keeping Shabbos or Kashrus. (Like teaching secular Jews that all women of any household and of any age - must light shabbos candles on Friday evening. A custom specific only to Chabad.)

This is not to impugn the good they do. Which is immense. I have pointed this out many times in the past. I in fact agree with Rabbi Gordimer who said: 
(I)t is clear as day that Chabad is a crucial ally – actually a foremost leader – in the battle to preserve tradition and keep Jews affiliated, without compromise, through genuine love and mesiras nefesh.  
There is no denying their massive accomplishment in these areas over the last 70 or so years. They are sincere in their outreach and uncompromising in their beliefs. As Rabbi Eliezrie says: 
By choosing Chabad the new generation is boarding a train headed towards observance instead of away. For some it may move at a slow pace, for others more rapid, but the direction is a new one for many Jews…
Every Jew is welcome, but the rules are not changing. As one prominent leader of a local Temple told me some years ago “You guys don’t move the goalposts.” They appreciate that Judaism is not imposed on them, but rather they are given the space to grow at their own pace in observance, slowly, Mitzvah by Mitzvah. 
I think it’s safe to say that they have virtually cornered the market in outreach. They are of course not the only ones doing it successfully. But they are by far the most successful at it - at least in terms of sheer numbers.  The rest of Orthodox Jewry would do well to study their successes and incorporate some of their methods. 

That said, I doubt that we can reproduce the “Shaliach’ system. I don’t think there are many people in outreach outside of Lubavitch that would be willing to live in a city where there are no other Orthodox Jews; no Jewish educational facilities for children; and no Jewish infrastructure. Chabad Shiluchim are about the only ones that do this. And they do so in huge numbers.

So at the end of the day, I agree with Rabbi Gordimer. We need Chabad. Nobody does what they do. Even as we have our issues with them, the good they do far outweighs the problems they have. And since the main problem of their messianic views are not promoted in their outreach work, I for one am willing to look the other way. For now.

But calling Chabad centrist is just plain wrong. Just because they have attracted a lot of unaffiliated Jews into their programs – filling a avoid left by failing heterodox movements - that does not make them centrist.

As an aside Open Orthodoxy (OO) is motivated in a similar vein. YCT Talmud Chair,  Rabbi Y’soscher Katz once indicated, that OO is all about reaching out to a certain type of Jew - so that he (or she) can find a place in Orthodoxy. However, to paraphrase what was said above about Chabad, you can’t move the goalposts in order to win the game. 

But centrists they are not. To be a centrist is not only about a growing demographic – as Rabbi Eliezrie seems to posit. It is about where one stands philosophically relative to other Orthodox Jews. Or at least how one fits into the spectrum of religiosity.  And whether that demographic center can be perpetuated.

Chabad has a very clear Hashaka that is unique to them. It is distinct. And their interaction with other Jews tends to focus mostly on the non religious. They have their own schools and social organizations that are separate and apart from the rest of mainstream Orthodoxy. Whether Chasidic or Yeshivish or Centrist or on the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy (…if that still exists outside of OO).

If one looks at sheer numbers, the growth of other types of Chasidim is exponential. Add to that the world of Yeshivos and the world of Modern Orthodoxy - both of which are growing - and Chabad will never catch up to the combined growth of all the other Orthodox groups. Even if they include their outreach successes.  .

Furthermore, sheer numbers now does not necessarily predict what those numbers will be in the future. It remains to be seen whether a system that avoids a secular studies curriculum for elementary and high school students can sustain itself. Chabad’s philosophy is to avoid a secular curriculum in their schools (for boys) if they can help it… same as Satmar. The only difference being that Chabad will compromise and have one if that is the only way a community will support their schools. Detroit Chabad has no secular studies in their elementary school and Chicago doesn’t have one in their high school.

I therefore still maintain that the new centrists will be the moderate Charedi world (consisting of both moderate Yeshiva types and moderate Chasidim) combined with the right wing of Modern Orthodoxy. In my view they have the best chance at real growth since they are best suited to deal successfully with the modern world.