No Holds Barred: The future of Chabad

Chabad has mastered how to inspire youth to selfless communal involvement.

By
January 25, 2010 23:24
4 minute read.
'Whether you've put on tefillin on the street or a

chabad tefillin AJ 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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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.



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By vertical I mean affecting the world media, governments, the broader culture and the non-Jewish world - areas where Chabad has had little to no influence.



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 Magazine 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 handbags.



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?





And 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 and beer.



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.

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