It's the deity, stupid

Chabad and the Kabbalah Center may have their flaws, but their methods are worth studying.

Ask anyone in the Jewish institutional community, and they will reply that demographics is not their primary concern; it’s their only concern. With study after study portending the imminent demise of the Jewish people, philanthropists and the institutions they support are scrambling to somehow avert extinction. Ironically, though, many efforts have been undermined precisely by the desperation which inspires them. Increasingly, their “target audiences” marginally-affiliated Jews 18 to 45, the ones most apt to leave the fold know the game. They smell the con, and sense that the slogans and high-concept Web designs are mere ploys to get them to marry another Jew and reproduce. Where to look for different models of Jewish outreach, which might address the demographers’ panic while remaining authentic enough to actually work? Statistically, the two most successful Jewish outreach organizations today are Chabad-Lubavitch and the Kabbalah Center. Many “professional Jews” don’t want to face this fact, since it flies in the face of their assumptions not least the assumption that unaffiliated Jews want to be “just like us.” It’s frustrating, too, that these weird guys in beards are doing a better job reaching the unaffiliated than smart Ivy grads with master’s degrees in public relations. So, in the face of these two organizations’ remarkable success, we hear jokes. Kabbalah isn’t that about Madonna, and magic strings? And, you know, of all the world’s religions, the closest one to Judaism is Chabad. But if Jewish organizations are serious about creating engaging and sustainable communities, maybe it’s worth looking at the success of these two mystical institutions to see why they seem to be working so well. So what do we find? Immediately, one sees that Chabad and the Kabbalah Center are focused not on “community” or “continuity” or any of the other synonyms for tribe, but on spirit. And they both talk about God, a word which many professional Jews hesitate to utter. We may disparage the messianism of Lubavitch and the commercialism of the Kabbalah Center, but their rhetoric is straightforward: This is about God, spirituality, even enlightenment. If you’re interested, come to a class. Really, this is what most people on the street expect if they go looking for religion. It’s nice that it’s cool to be Jewish, but why not just be cool without being Jewish? The Holocaust and Israel, meanwhile, are accoutrements of tribalism: The Holocaust happened to us, Israel is ours. For a generation raised in multiculturalism, this is insufficient. Yes, it’s important to honor one’s own heritage, but all this Jewish cheerleading (or browbeating) smacks of ethnocentrism. Go to a Chabad House or the Kabbalah Center, and the message is much deeper: This is about ultimate reality, about asking deep questions and searching for answers. Again, one may disagree entirely with a Chabad shaliah’s view of the universe, but look into his eyes, and anyone can sense the earnestness. Not only does the hassid believe in God; he believes there is nothing but God: that this moment is charged, filled and energized by the Divine Presence. And that mystical belief translates into enthusiasm, open-heartedness and devotion. It shows, and it works. LIKEWISE, AMID all the commercialism of the Kabbalah Center, there is a clear, unambiguous message: The light is real, and can be experienced here and now. That which we normally experience is but the surface of reality. Would you like to look deeper? Thousands of Jews the sort of Jews you can’t wrestle into a JCC have said yes. Of course, one ought not ignore the zealous fundamentalism, politics and ethnocentrism of Chabad on the one hand, and the dubious motives of the Kabbalah Center on the other. These are deeply flawed ideologies and organizations, and we cannot simply import their mystical beliefs. But can existing Jewish organizations translate the spirituality of Chabad/Kabbalah into a more mainstream, moderate and inclusive Judaism? This remains to be seen, since it has not yet been tried, except around the fringes of the Jewish community. However, to adapt the Chabad/Kabbalah Center model to the Jewish mainstream would require significant changes in how that mainstream regards itself. First, we “professional Jews” need to come out of the closet as religious or secular or spiritual or agnostic or godwrestling Jews and human beings. Inculcated with Western values of separation of church and state, most of us hide our religiosity from public view, just as we hide parts of our body and call them “privates.” But the power of spiritual engagement, like the power of Eros, drives our culture, as the contemporary American combination of exploitative sexuality and reactionary religion makes clear. What would such a “coming out” look like? It would mean allowing the God-intoxicated a place at the podium. And admitting that notions of ultimate value are important, even if we have radically different versions of them. And an end to pretending that the Jewish community is merely a culture club. Without simplifying our theologies or our doubts, it’s worth remembering that those people who come to Judaism do so looking for religion. Not seminars, not felafel nights, but God: spiritual experiences, theological conversations, and, in general, taking godwrestling seriously. Most Jews end their theological education at 13 would any of us stay with art, music, or professional life if our education in these areas were similarly arrested? Second, and relatedly, a spiritually open institutional Jewish community would have to quit being so embarrassed about the non-rational, the Dionysian, the mythic. Religion isn’t reserved for those who rattle their jewelry on Rosh Hashana; it is also for, in Jack Kerouac’s words, “the ones who are mad to live... who burn like fabulous Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Of course, sustainable communities require a balance between this wild spirit (hod) and a quieter determination (netzah). But is there any doubt about which way our apathetic, disinterested fellow Jews are out of balance today? Finally, Jewish practice should be shared for its own sake, not for the sake of reproducing more Jews. Trying to convince disinterested Jews to perpetuate the tribe by means of Israel, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism or demography is not working, since it’s not clear to them why the tribe is worth preserving in the first place. Instead, successful Jewish leaders promise, and deliver, vital religious experiences. They act authentically, not as salesmen. They talk about what matters. And they are not ashamed to dance, study, shout and engage with the deep questions that the overwhelming majority of Americans are interested in asking. To paraphrase James Carville’s famous slogan, it really is God, stupid. Except, it isn’t stupid. The writer lives in New York and is an author, teacher of Kabbalah and spirituality and chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. He is a member of KolDor, a global Jewish organization debating ideas of Jewish peoplehood.