Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Modernization of Chabad

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe as a young man
One of my pet peeves is how the right wing uses the word ‘modern’ when applied to religious Jews. What they mean by that is ‘less observant’. Which is a completely erroneous understanding of what ‘modern’ means to Modern Orthodoxy. Obviously. For a Modern Orthodox Jew, being modern means engaging with modernity and benefiting from it – without sacrificing Halacha at all. It most certainly does not mean less observant. And yet that is still how it is used in more right wing circles: To be modern is to be less Halachic.

It is true that many Modern Orthodox Jews do sacrifice Halacha in favor of modernity. I have called these people MO-Lite. But less observance is not the defining characteristic of Modern Orthodox Jewry any more than it is of Charedi Jewry because of the laxity in Halacha by Charedi-lite Jews.

But this definition of modern seems to stick among right wing Jews. If you are modern – you are just not as Frum.

I bring this up in light of an article by Shalom Kesselman to which I was directed. Therein, Shalom describes a problem taking place among younger Lubavitchers: 
It is a fact that Chabad is becoming increasingly modern. I’m not suggesting that the movement or the ideology is becoming modern; rather that vast numbers of our young are settling for a “lighter” version of what it means to be Lubavitch.
While there have always been such people in Lubavitch and in every other Frum sect, we are now seeing more than ever before unprecedented numbers of youngsters embracing this modern Chabad lifestyle. 
If by lighter they mean less observant, then this is truly a problem for them. I don’t know how accurate his observations are. But if the comments following this article are any indication, this is more than a personal anecdotal observation. The reasons he proposes for this phenomenon are intriguing. 

One of those reasons is the easy access to the internet. This has made their lives less insular. One might argue that Lubavitch if anything is the antithesis of insular. That is true. No one is out in the world more than Lubavitch – engaging with Jews that in many cases are far removed from their Judaism.  

But that misses the point Shalom is making. While it is true that their outreach work makes them familiar with the outside world - those that are not doing outreach live in an environment that is pretty insular. In fact they hardly interact with other Orthodox Jews. Even Charedi ones. Their entire social circle is Chabad. Especially among the young. (Yes there are exceptions. There are always exceptions.) With the internet so easily at hand they come to know a world that their parents (those not in outreach) never knew when they were growing up. A world that asks uncomfortable questions… and sometimes provides answers that are not compatible with Judaism, let alone Chabad.

Another problem is that their Rebbe centered lives were somewhat shattered when the Rebbe died. When a movement’s entire focus is on one individual and that individual is gone, that can easily cause a crisis of faith. Their response to it, however, is the rather well known. Instead of questioning their faith, they went the opposite way. At one level or anther they believed that their Rebbe would be resurrected as Moshiach… or at least that it was a distinct possibility. That is in part because the Rebbe himself kept talking about Moshiach’s imminent arrival just before he died.

When the Rebbe died, it generated a division among Lubavitchers. There were those who openly proclaimed the Rebbe to be Moshaich even while he was still alive - and awaited his 2nd coming after his death. And there were those who believed the Meshichists were damaging to their cause and have been fighting them ever since. 

Although the more public nature of that ‘war’ has subsided, it still exists. The Chabad Meshichists still believe he’s coming. And the Chabad anti-Meshichists think they ought to keep their opinions to themselves – as they are harming the Chabad ‘brand’ with such talk. Ultimately hurting the  mission of outreach given to them by the Rebbe himself. 

While both sides believe that it is at least possible that the Rebbe will ‘arise and lead them out of this bitter Galus’, the Chabad anti Meshichists do not dwell on this and see harm being done by those that do. This is still a fierce battle  among the 2 factions, although they have managed to be doing it quietly these days. The fallout is twofold. A vacuum was created by the Rebbe’s death… and the state of ‘war’ among Luubavitch leaders was extremely ‘off-putting’ to young people.

It is now almost an entire generation since the Rebbe died. The imminent arrival of Moshiach predicted by the Rebbe over 20 years ago has not happened. He has not been resurrected.

Finally, there is their over-aggrandizement of their outreach people – called Shiluchim. If you are not a Shaliach in Lubavitch, you are apparently looked down upon. Shalom says they are often considered 2nd class citizens and even ‘losers’! The fact is that there are a lot more Lubavitchers that are not in outreach than those that are.  When the majority of young people are considered 2nd class citizens, it should not surprise anyone that it makes you a bit jaded about your movement.

Shalom adds that Chabad’s approach to educating their young has not changed - remaining the same as it was 40 years ago. It thus fails to recognize the new challenges that young people face.

My criticism of Chabad’s Meshichism remains. It has not changed. The fact that I have not been talking about it for a while is because I saw that  doing more harm than good. There is no overt talk among Lubavicthers here in Chicago about the Rebbe being Moshiach. I spend a great deal of time in the mainstream Chabad Shul here and I would detect it if there was.

But the issue has not gone away. And it appears to have had a negative effect on Chabad’s young. Now it is true there are other things that can be blamed for the ‘modernization’ of Chabad – as noted. But those things are problematic for all Orthodox Jews. If Chabad wants to change the tide, I think they have to re-think their approach to the Meshichists. 

Which in my view should include reassessing their over-emphasis on the Rebbe.  Yes, he was a great man and great leader with few peers. But he’s gone now. His soul is in the Olam Ha’Emes along with the souls of other great Jewish leaders that have passed away. Chabad needs flesh and blood leaders to guide them. Not images from the past.

I am told by many Chabad members that the ‘anti Meshichists’ are in the vast majority of Lubavitch. If that is the case - they need to clean house and eradicate this phenomenon from their midst. It is not enough for them to ‘look the other way’while Meshichists hold sway in their very headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. 

That policy seems to have now shown to be counterproductive to their future… and for Klal Yisroel. I cannot overemphasize the value of their outreach programs. It is massive compared to any other Orthodox outreach programs out there. If there was ever a time where outreach was vital to the Jewish people – that time is now.