If you want to start an argument in the American Jewish community, talk about Chabad. Every Jew has an opinion. Many admire and even revere it, while others—often non-Orthodox Jews—deeply resent it.
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Professor Jack Wertheimer, writing in the April issue of Commentary, suggests that Reform and Conservative critics of Chabad have it wrong. Most Chabad emissaries, he says, don’t expect the Jews they work with to become Orthodox, and, off-the-record, the emissaries admit that they see it as a success when these Jews become more active in Reform and Conservative congregations—which, according to Wertheimer, they often do. In short, Reform and Conservative Judaism benefit most from Chabad activity.
This is a provocative thesis. Wertheimer’s article, it should be noted, deals not only with Chabad but with all Orthodox outreach (kiruv)—by which he means outreach by Orthodox Jews to other Jews; still, the focus is inevitably on Chabad, the largest outreach sponsor.
We should beware of generalizations, of course. In the Reform movement, some rabbis have warm relations with local Chabad colleagues; others have relations that are correct but cool; and still others have relations that are tense and hostile. This means that not only are Reform rabbis a diverse group but Chabad rabbis are as well. Some Chabad emissaries work hard to build relationships with non-Orthodox rabbis while others do not. Chabad, in other words, is more decentralized than we sometimes think.
The strengths of Chabad are many, as Wertheimer points out. Approximately 5,000 Chabad outreach workers are active in America today. About 3,200 of them are shluchim/shluchot; the rest are support staff of various kinds. (Another 1,500 shluchim/shluchot are to be found in Israel and throughout the Disapora.) They conduct religious services, visit hospitals, teach children, and offer Shabbat meals to lonely Jewish students and travelers. They are known for the personal attention they lavish on seekers and for their warm and inviting culture. Many Jews will tell you that a Chabad rabbi was the first one to really care about their spiritual lives.
A lot of people in the Jewish world talk about their desire to do outreach—if only they could get a grant. But Chabad does not wait for grants, and no other Jewish movement has been able to produce a corps of similarly devoted young men and women prepared to serve the Jewish people with such personal sacrifice.
But that is not the whole story. There are legitimate concerns about Chabad, and Wertheimer addresses most of them.
Some of these concerns are political and theological. Some elements of Chabad—a small minority, I hope—have long engaged in a loony messianism. Also, Chabad has not only challenged a broad American-Jewish consensus on church-state separation, but has done so in a brazen, in-your-face way; its public Menorah lightings, often seen as representing the larger Jewish community, grate on liberal Jewish sensibilities. And then there is Chabad’s take on Israel. Most Chabad rabbis are rightward-leaning on Israel, sometimes radically so. At the same time, since a few disastrous interventions in Israeli politics in the 1980s and 1990s, Chabad has tried to stay out of the political fray.
But the real tensions with Chabad are more practical. Reform rabbis tell me of Chabad rabbis who come into their communities and spend most of their time cultivating a handful of very wealthy people. Cultivating the wealthy is hardly news.
But these Reform leaders point out how ironic it is that activists supposedly committed to outreach to all, with emphasis on the unaffiliated, devote so much more attention to Jews who are rich and already affiliated than to everyone else; they also note that the pampered philanthropists often forsake other causes to support Chabad. No one is suggesting that all Chabad rabbis do this, but these reports are distressingly frequent.
And there is a broader set of concerns that Wertheimer mentions but minimizes. Chabad offers an approach to Judaism that is rabbi-oriented, deeply personal, and has little use for bureaucracy and hierarchy. There is some wisdom in this. Many American synagogues have come to share this view; they too are emphasizing relationships and personal connections while cutting back on committee work and complex volunteer structures.
On the other hand, the personal approach of Chabad to Jewish outreach—often combined with glitzy, high-profile, one-time events—has a major negative: It is built on absolutely minimal expectations. Its message seems to be: We will love you, but we won’t require anything of you. On this point, somewhat bizarrely, the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox critics seem to agree. The Orthodox critics ask Chabad rabbis: Why don’t you expect Jews to become Orthodox? The non-Orthodox ask: Why don’t you expect anything at all?
When Reform and Conservative leaders protest that celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitvah in a synagogue should require preparation and serious training, including membership and involvement for more than a few months, they are not simply protecting their membership model. They are pointing out that there are limits to feel-good Judaism; even as an outreach method, sweeping away requirements for study and family engagement becomes counterproductive at a certain point. Friendly is good, a little glitz is fine, and being non-judgmental has its virtues; but who wants to be part of a tradition that doesn’t ask anything of you?
Personally, I am an admirer of Chabad, and their sense of mission inspires me. Still, as warm and wonderful as it can be and as “traditional” as it may feel, in my view there is danger in its message.
After all, wherever you are on the denominational spectrum, the basic principle of Jewish tradition is this: Judaism is about obligation. It expects a great deal of you, and in return it changes your life. A nothing-is-expected-of-you, drop-in-whenever-you-want Judaism fails to meet this test.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.