chabad tefillin AJ 311.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
This week marks the 60th anniversary of the
ascension of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, to the
global leadership of Chabad. In that time, the organization has grown
from a small hassidic group into a global powerhouse of Jewish
outreach. But 15 years after our great rebbe's passing, and with Chabad
firing on all cylinders, it faces a major decision as to its future. It
will either continue to focus on horizontal expansion - opening more
Chabad Houses and sending out more rabbi-emissaries - or it will begin
focusing on vertical expansion.
vertical I mean affecting the world media, governments, the broader
culture and the non-Jewish world - areas where Chabad has had little to
Very few Jews have been untouched by Chabad. Whether you've put
on tefillin on the street or attended a Chabad House Friday-night
dinner, you have had some interaction with the warm and dedicated
people of Chabad who have, over the past half century, breathed new
life into a once-dying people. But for all that, Chabad remains utterly
unknown to the vast majority of Earth's inhabitants. With the exception
of the tragedy in Mumbai, Chabad appears in the news mainly through its
own press releases.
In a world crying out for spiritual direction, this is a great
shame. What Chabad offers is not merely a supermarket of Jewish
observance. It also encompasses a system of deep spiritual thought with
outstanding applications to modern challenges. The organization has
mastered one of modern parents' greatest dilemmas - how to inspire
youth to selfless communal involvement. From their early teens, Chabad
youth are volunteering huge amounts of personal time to strangers.
Rather than spending Jewish holidays in the comfort of family, young
men and women travel the world to assist Chabad emissaries in staging
Passover Seders and High Holy Day services. Why is the secret of such
successful youth motivation not being exported?
Low birthrates are decimating Western countries. The New York Times
devoted a cover story last summer to "Disappearing Europe," exposing
how the deplorably low birthrate in France, Russia, Britain and
Scandinavia means that the people of Europe are quite literally
disappearing, the principal reason being the high cost of modern
living. But Chabad continues proudly with large families, insisting
that scarce resources be put into raising kids rather than buying Prada
LAST YEAR, greed nearly destroyed the American economy, and an
overindulgence in materialism continues to suffocate the American
spirit. Our society seems to love things more than it loves people,
with men and women spending more time at shopping malls than at the
family dinner table. So why isn't Chabad publishing treatises on how
parents can learn to love having children more than prospering careers?
how often do we see Chabad men stringing women along for years without
marrying them? Chabad men and women look forward eagerly to the
commitment of marriage. So where is the advice for a world in which the
culture of womanizing and increasing female commitment-phobia leads to
so many lonely singles?
Chabad uniquely raises women who are strong-willed but uniquely
feminine and nurturing. That's saying a lot in a culture where the
original feminist dream of women being taken seriously for their minds
has sadly ended in the exploitation of female sexuality to sell cars
Chabad has answers to so many of these modern
dilemmas. Yet it continues to be known only for the most practical
outreach rather than its formidable wisdom. Want to buy a mezuza? Go to
Chabad. But want a more spiritual life? Deepak Choprah is your man.
While Christian evangelicals have taken over the airwaves,
attempting to convince us that the solution to the disintegration of
marriage is opposition to gays, Chabad continues to operate shofar
factories and erect Hanukka menoras. These things are profoundly
important, but not to the exclusion of promoting Chabad as a profound
collection of ideas that can rehabilitate one's family and rejuvenate
one's spiritual life.
Even Chabad's greatest admirers praise it for its outstanding
work rather than its outstanding wisdom. But possessed of the gem of
hassidic thought, should Chabad be known as the most incredible place
to have Shabbat dinner in Venice rather than for the practical
philosophy people turn to when they seek a more elevated life?
THE SAME is true with politics. True, Chabad is not a political
movement, nor should it be. But should Chabad really have no say when
it comes to school choice, the tuition crisis and how not one dollar of
religious parents' hard-earned tax money can go to even the secular
departments of parochial schools? And does Chabad really have nothing
to say about the genocide in Sudan?
Part of the problem has been the failure on the part of modern
Chabad to create, with some exceptions, notable writers and thinkers,
which is curious given the rebbe's towering reputation as an
intellectual. The movement has become focused on creating fund-raisers
rather than orators, builders rather than writers, outreach
professionals as opposed to philosophers, and rabbis who know how to
put together a minyan
as opposed to keeping a marriage together.
Both are, of course, extremely important. But a movement that
focuses only on horizontal expansion risks becoming ossified in
more-of-the same predictability. Innovative thinkers and charismatic
teachers will not arise in Chabad so long as there is
thought-conformity in the movement. Yes, Chabad is an halachic
movement, and it is to be expected that its intellectuals always
conform to the norms of Jewish law. But a thinker must also be allowed
broad leeway in challenging conventional norms rather than fearing
ostracization for doing so. After all, the rebbe himself was arguably
the most broad-minded hassidic rabbi of all time.
Sixty years later, let's embrace his example.
The writer, founder of This World: The Values Network, is the international best-selling author of 22 books, most recently
The Kosher Sutra and
The Blessing of Enough. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley and www.shmuley.com.