The COVID pandemic has cost a tragic, disproportionate numbers of lives among the ultra-Orthodox community, in the United States and Israel. But it has also made visible a remarkable dynamic of social, cultural and theological change that has been brewing for decades among one of the most visible subsets of the community: the Lubavitchers of Chabad.
In my years of writing about Chabad, I have always described them as a hybrid group. Those who live in the Chabad heartland of Brooklyn's Crown Heights (or in Israel's Kfar Chabad) tend to be more Haredi than those who are located in the periphery - the shluchim or outreach emissaries posted around the world.
In their heartland, they behave more like other Hasidim, holding fast to their piety and stressing their difference from other less orthodox Jews in the same way as almost every other Hasidic group. They are scrupulous about their separation from others, share many of the Haredi values about gender separation and the need to remain resistant to the cultural influences of what they view as corrosive modern Western civilization.
I called this Chabad's "quiescent fundamentalism": keeping their distance from, and refusing to endorse, any secular culture - but not actively engaged in fighting back against mainstream culture.
For Lubavitchers, being fully Jewish means being a Chabadnik. They believe that those Jews who do not accept the Lubavitcher version of Judaism, most recently as articulated by their last Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, are considered unredeemed and even socially dangerous. Chabad is the ultimate expression of normative Judaism.
In contrast to the 'heartland Chabadniks,' those who 'go on the road' on outreach missions toJews in the periphery, out in the modern world, often in places where they are the only Hasidim and where few if any share their Haredi worldviews, are far less quiescent.
Their aim is to "redeem" Jews steeped in mainstream culture and secularity by actively challenging their behavioral and ideological premises. However, this activity can come with a price. Over time, the Chabad missionaries tend to be influenced themselves by that experience and their locations.
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While they are tasked with persuading others to look at the world as they do, to prepare for the Messiah and hasten his redemption by getting Jews to do more as Jews in accordance with their late rebbe's exhortations, they are subtly changing to make their message more palatable to their audience, to get them into their Chabad Houses and engage with their Mitzvah Tanks.
Despite the promise that their good outreach deeds would "bring Moshiah (Messiah) now," they are still waiting. Meanwhile, the missionaries have started to adopt aspects of the wider world in which they live in messianic expectation.
There is no doubt that those emissaries have become more open and welcoming to those they want to change. They have become far more like modern Orthodox Jews, in their growing tolerance for pluralism in Jewish life, if not in society in general, and for taking in people as they are.
In their shift from quiescent fundamentalism to activity, they have become far less fundamentalist, no longer convinced by the unforgiving binary of "You’re either with us or against us." Those Chabad Hasidim who have come to make change end up being changed themselves, as much if not more than they change those around them. (Which is why they often ship their children off to school in Chabad heartlands, like Crown Heights, as soon as possible, and why only couples, not singles, are allowed to be emissaries.)
70 percent of Trencher’s Hasidic respondents (not only Lubavitchers) had already fallen sick with COVID. As for getting vaccinated, while 74 percent of the modern Orthodox did so, only 21 percent of the Hasidic ones did. Among all Orthodox American Jews, the Hasidim had the lowest pro-vaccine attitudes of all: 56 percent for and 46 percent against. In contrast the modern Orthodox stood at 84 percent for and 16 percent against.
Indeed, only 18 percent of the Hasidim considered COVID as a major threat to their community in spite of so many getting sick, while 59 percent of modern Orthodox Jews did. You get the picture.
But if we dive down into the data about Chabad, we discover a significant difference in behavior and attitudes between the Crown Heights heartland and the emissaries. Only 17 percent of the Crown Heights respondents considered COVID a major threat to their community, in line with other Hasidim. But among those living elsewhere, the number was a whopping 49 percent.
Infection rates traveled the same path: a full 78 percent of the Crown Heights group had contracted it versus only a third in other locations. 28 percent of Chabadniks had received the vaccine in Crown Heights, while 46 percent had done so elsewhere.
There are other measures, but they all confirm the 'liberalizing' influence that being a missionary has on the missionaries. Indeed, other Hasidim have always looked askance at Lubavitchers for their outreach work.
Chabad has attracted much criticism from within the Orthodox world, perhaps no more vehemently than from the militantly insular Satmar Hasidim who have long predicted that Hasidic emissaries would be corrupted by the outside world. "Corrupted" is a value judgment, but if they had said "changed," I would respond yes, Satmar was correct.
The process is ongoing. While Chabadniks keep trying to bring the Messiah, that possibility seems further away than ever 27 years after the death of their rebbe, whom they were certain was that Messiah incarnate, and whose presence in Crown Heights was a magnet for keeping them there. But the pandemic period clearly signals how, as more and more Lubavitchers leave Crown Heights and join the ranks of the shluchim, Chabad will be transformed.
We'll have to wait to see if that process of change is consensual or whether it will eventually lead to a more institutionalized schism between Chabad's fundamentalist heartland and a 'Chabad in the world' whose relative tolerance challenges a core paradigm of religious fundamentalism.
Samuel Heilman is Emeritus holder of the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York