Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Growth of Chabad and Messianism

Sign posted in several Chicago locations
There is a fascinting article by Joel Hoffman in the Times of Israel that contrasts the fall of the Conservative movement with the meteoric rise of Chabad.

Hoffman was raised – and was active in the Conservative movement. He is was apparently observant by Conservative standards. He identifies as a Rabbi – which I assume means he was ordained by their movement. However, he has switched allegiances to Orthodoxy, explaining his reasons  as follows: 

I left the movement, in part, because I was growing in my Jewish knowledge and observance and I felt it was better for my spiritual growth to be, relatively speaking, a Rasha (wicked person) in the Orthodox world than a Tzadick (righteous person) in the Conservative movement.                                                    

I need not dwell on the Conservative movement’s imminent demise. Which I have already done a number of times. I will, however, cite some of the sorry statistics mentioned by Hoffman: 

 …the Conservative movement… across all the age groups combined slipped (as a percentage of American Jewry) from 43% in 1990, to 26% in 2000, to 18% in 2013, and to 17% in 2020… 

…splicing the data to look at just the 18-29 age group, whereas in 2013 11% of 18-29 year olds considered themselves a Conservative Jew, this number dropped to single digits in 2020 to just 8%. In contrast, 17% of American Jews who are 18-29 years old identify as Orthodox.   

That the future looks a lot brighter for Orthodoxy than Conservative has been obvious for some time now. What surprised me is that in this age group - Orthodoxy has already overtaken Conservative movement - more than doubling their percentage of the Jewish population. 

By contrast - even with Orthodoxy’s growth - Chabad’s growth is astounding! The late Lubavitcher Rebbe was a brilliant and charismatic leader inspiring his Chasidim to create an outreach movement that has spread to the far reaches of the world. Wherever a Jew is to be found, one will find a Shaliach (one of the Rebbe’s emissaries)  reaching out to them. Often successfully inspiring them to become more observant. In many cases becoming full fledged Lubavitchers.  Here are some more statistics: 

…in 1972, and soon Chabad Houses became Chabad’s raison d’etre. Today there are over 1,000 Chabad Houses across all 50 states… 

…many pundits thought Chabad would flounder after his passing in 1994. However, since the Rebbe’s passing the number of Chabad emissaries and institutions has more than tripled. Growing from 1,100 emissary couples in 40 countries in 1994, to today with over 4,900 emissary couples working at Chabad’s 3,500 institutions in 100 countries... 

Chabad’s publishing house, Kehot Publication Society, has disseminated over 100 million volumes in twelve languages, making it the largest Jewish publisher in the world… 

…in the area of social services, Chabad’s Aleph Institute provides chaplain services for 4,000 Jewish prisoners and their families; Chabad’s Friendship Circle for children with special needs is operating in 81 locations with thousands of teenage volunteers; plus Chabad runs 19 soup kitchens throughout Israel which feed 3,000 poor and elderly Jews every day; and Chabad runs a rehab center in Los Angeles… 

( There is  a lot more in Hoffman’s artilce. Which should be read in its entirety to appreciate the gravity of both the demise of the Conservative movement and the growth of Chabad.) 

It seems to me that Chabad is the single most influential group in all of American Jewry – if not the entire Jewish world. They are the fastest growing demographic. Their numbers continue to grow at was seems to be an exponential rate, far surpassing any other segment of even Orthodoxy. Their high birth rate and their extremely successful outreach efforts surely accounts for that.

It is with this in mind that I am concerned about the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Their success means that we should all care about the distorted direction in which they are going in one very important theological area: Messianism.  

At  the end of his life. the Rebbe focused more on that than on just about anything else. He would constantly preach the imminent arrival of Moshiach (the Messiah).  Many – perhaps even most of his Chasidim at the time believed that the Rebbe himself was Moshiach and was just waiting for the right moment to reveal it to the world.  That belief was at a fever pitch.  A lot of his Chasdidm were walking around with ‘Moshiach beepers’ in order tobe informed the moment he made that announcement. But then after at first suffering a  debilitating stroke, he died. 

That should have ended that kind of speculation. But instead it continues to this day in one form or another. Perhaps most telling of this attitude takes place in their flagship institution at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. 770 is a bastion of Messianism.  They seem to still believe in his imminent arrival That he will either arise from the dead in a second coming or that he is still alive somewhere still laying in wait for the right moment. This seems to be the prevailing attitude today of most Israeli Lubavitchers as well.

Although talk of their Rebbe as Moshiach has died down considerably among most of the mainstream, at some level they still think it as least possible that he will arise from the dead and ‘lead us out of the bitter Galus’ (as I sometimes hear them end a lecture).  Most telling is this attitude is their lack of extricating the overt Moshichists at 770. It’s been about 28 years since the death off their Rebbe and the ‘anti Moshichists’ among them have not been able to remove them from the building and restore normalcy to it. I keep hearing claims by some of them that they are trying via legal means and don’t want to use violence. But after 28 years of ‘trying’ those claims are beginning to sound a bit hollow.

The attitude among most of the rest of Orthodoxy is to ignore them. They consider it relatively harmless in the greater scheme of things. But ignoring a foolishness like this by the fastest growing segment of Jewry is not a good idea. They are too big to ignore and are growing by leaps and bounds. 

Furthermore their successful outreach is a good thing – something we should continue to encourage and applaud. And not do anything that would hinder them. They are by far the most dedicated and successful group of Jews in the world doing it. It is something we can all learn from. 

But with that kind of success comes a price that I don’t think the rest of the world should ignore. Which is why I posted the image of a sign that was plastered in a variety of places in my own neighborhood. There are probably a lot more of them I haven’t seen in other neighborhoods. It was quite aggravating to see a sign with a picture of the late Rebbe and a caption underneath saying ‘Messiah is here’. I have not heard a word of protest from any Chabad rabbi in town.

The problem is I don’t know what anyone can do about it – other than Chabad itself. That signs like this happen at all indicates a degree of tolerance by the mainstream.  Which I suggest comes from their own ambivalence on the subject – although they will deny it if you ask them.

To be clear, I live in their neighborhood and have nothing but admiration and love for the many Lubavitchers I know personally. They are all good people – and kind to a fault. A great part of my day is spent in their main Shul, where I Daven Shachhris daily - and have done so for several decades. It is also where my Daf Yomi has been taking place for about 35 years, now. 

Furthermore, I truly support all of their good works. But I think it’s important to know the truth about the nonsense in which they so strongly believe. And to let them know that they do not succeed in hiding it or denying it. The truth is something I care deeply about. And this is the truth as I see it.