Chabad Replies: Reform Judaism's Shallow Message of Payment Without Commitment

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In his response to a recent article in Commentary  in which Jack Wertheimer examines the role of Chabad and its significant contribution to Jewish life today, Rabbi Eric Yoffie acknowledges many of Chabad’s strengths, but the purpose of his article in Haaretz, headlined “Chabad’s dangerous message of love without commitment” is, strangely, to raise alarm bells about Chabad.

Perhaps he means to humor his readers? It is hard to take seriously such a point from the past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose movement is now considering whether to officially accept rabbinical students who are intermarried. But he complains that Chabad teaches “love without commitment!"

Chabad - which has to its credit countless once-alienated Jews now committed to Jewish life and Jewish continuity - offers “feel good Judaism,” says Yoffie. He condescends to those who have been inspired to make profound, often difficult life changes as a result of Chabad’s outreach, which he pooh-poohs as shallow and fluffy: “Friendly is good, a little glitz is fine, and being non-judgmental has its virtues; but who wants to be part of a Jewish tradition that doesn't ask anything of you?”

Would the Reform rabbi like to see Chabad be more aggressive in convincing Jews to commit to keeping kosher? Is he impatient with Chabad’s approach that encourages but does not coerce Jews to observe Shabbat?

This of course cannot be, because Reform Judaism has abrogated the commitment to halakhic Judaism and is, according to one of its own rabbis, “on the verge of not believing in anything". What commitment is his own movement promoting?

What does Rabbi Yoffie mean when he says, as he did in another article back in 2007,  that Chabad represents “minimalist” Judaism because it does not make “requirements” of the parents of those celebrating their bar mitzvah? What requirements does the Reform movement make of these parents?

Membership fees. Though he denies it, protecting Reform’s membership model is Rabbi Yoffie’s only real concern. Chabad’s model, as he says, has “no use for hierarchy and bureaucracy,” and as a result many Jews are less inclined to pay heavy membership dues as a prerequisite to spiritual engagement. They want real Torah learning opportunities, a substantive Jewish experience, and meaningful connections as offered by Chabad. Is Reform Judaism willing to meet these demands?

This discussion is actually an important one, because outreach models are a reflection of the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of the organizations that adopt them. In looking at how an organization reaches out, communicates, and shares, we can learn a lot about its deeply held beliefs and attitudes, especially about how it perceives itself in relation to others. Anyone who is in the process of choosing a Jewish community will want to consider this.

In its contemporary manifestation, Chabad outreach was inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and almost 20 years after his passing it continues to draw from his teachings. In the early 1970s, the Rebbe launched popular mitzvah campaigns with young rabbinical students approaching strangers on the street, offering Jews the chance to don tefillin or light candles in honor of Shabbat.

This one-time invitation to do a mitzvah would lead to others, and then to a transformation in the lives of many who were headed in another direction. Many subsequently embarked on a journey that led them to marry Jewish, and raise children and grandchildren with strong Jewish identities, living lives deeply committed to God, Judaism and community.

But back then this method of outreach garnered mixed reactions. The most severe criticism came from other religious Jewish organizations (which ironically would later emulate the Chabad model) arguing that it is wrong to offer ignorant Jews mitzvahs unless they first satisfy certain conditions.

The Rebbe rejected this attitude. He found offensive the idea that “conditions” or “requirements” be met before helping Jewish people exercise their birthright. In his view, enabling someone to perform a mitzvah was no more and no less the fulfillment of the ethical obligation of hashovat avedah, returning a lost item to its owner. And you do not negotiate or make demands of the owner before returning his belongings to him.

So, it is true, as Rabbi Yoffie says, that Chabad makes no requirements or demands of those who come knocking. But there is deep humility in this approach, and this may be one explanation for the remarkable receptivity that Chabad enjoys. It is a shame that instead of applauding this as an example of unconditional acceptance while remaining faithful to the spirit and the laws of Torah, and teaching others to do the same, Rabbi Yoffie dismisses it, incredulously, as “a tradition that doesn’t ask anything of you.”

To be sure, supporting synagogues and Jewish institutions is a mitzvah, and Chabad needs and depends upon this support to continue its work sustaining and growing Jewish life around the world as it does. But tzedaka (giving) is an obligation established in the Torah, not in synagogue boardrooms. And no rabbi should be so presumptuous as to believe that Judaism - if that is what we are talking about - belongs to some Jews and not to others, that it may be gifted selectively by those who “have” it to those who pay for it.

In the Chabad worldview, such attitudes have no place in Jewish outreach. Finances are important, membership has its virtues, but Jews will continue to be drawn to Chabad because of the vibrant experience of living yiddishkeit that it offers: Torah study and Jewish education, the joy and warmth of belonging, of owning traditions and practices that keep us connected to family and community, to our history and to our future.

Baila Olidort is Director of Communications at Chabad-Lubavitch http://lubavitch.com /World Headquarters

Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries gathering in front of their world headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, Nov. 27, 2011.Credit: Tina Fineberg / Chabad.org

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