No Holds Barred: The future of Chabad

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

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

This week marks the 60th anniversary of theascension of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, to theglobal leadership of Chabad. In that time, the organization has grownfrom a small hassidic group into a global powerhouse of Jewishoutreach. But 15 years after our great rebbe's passing, and with Chabadfiring on all cylinders, it faces a major decision as to its future. Itwill either continue to focus on horizontal expansion - opening moreChabad Houses and sending out more rabbi-emissaries - or it will beginfocusing on vertical expansion.

Byvertical I mean affecting the world media, governments, the broaderculture and the non-Jewish world - areas where Chabad has had little tono influence.

Very few Jews have been untouched by Chabad. Whether you've puton tefillin on the street or attended a Chabad House Friday-nightdinner, you have had some interaction with the warm and dedicatedpeople of Chabad who have, over the past half century, breathed newlife into a once-dying people. But for all that, Chabad remains utterlyunknown to the vast majority of Earth's inhabitants. With the exceptionof the tragedy in Mumbai, Chabad appears in the news mainly through itsown press releases.

In a world crying out for spiritual direction, this is a greatshame. What Chabad offers is not merely a supermarket of Jewishobservance. It also encompasses a system of deep spiritual thought withoutstanding applications to modern challenges. The organization hasmastered one of modern parents' greatest dilemmas - how to inspireyouth to selfless communal involvement. From their early teens, Chabadyouth are volunteering huge amounts of personal time to strangers.Rather than spending Jewish holidays in the comfort of family, youngmen and women travel the world to assist Chabad emissaries in stagingPassover Seders and High Holy Day services. Why is the secret of suchsuccessful youth motivation not being exported?

Low birthrates are decimating Western countries. The New York Times Magazinedevoted a cover story last summer to "Disappearing Europe," exposinghow the deplorably low birthrate in France, Russia, Britain andScandinavia means that the people of Europe are quite literallydisappearing, the principal reason being the high cost of modernliving. But Chabad continues proudly with large families, insistingthat scarce resources be put into raising kids rather than buying Pradahandbags.

LAST YEAR, greed nearly destroyed the American economy, and anoverindulgence in materialism continues to suffocate the Americanspirit. Our society seems to love things more than it loves people,with men and women spending more time at shopping malls than at thefamily dinner table. So why isn't Chabad publishing treatises on howparents can learn to love having children more than prospering careers?

Andhow often do we see Chabad men stringing women along for years withoutmarrying them? Chabad men and women look forward eagerly to thecommitment of marriage. So where is the advice for a world in which theculture of womanizing and increasing female commitment-phobia leads toso many lonely singles?

Chabad uniquely raises women who are strong-willed but uniquelyfeminine and nurturing. That's saying a lot in a culture where theoriginal feminist dream of women being taken seriously for their mindshas sadly ended in the exploitation of female sexuality to sell carsand beer.

Chabad has answers to so many of these moderndilemmas. Yet it continues to be known only for the most practicaloutreach rather than its formidable wisdom. Want to buy a mezuza? Go toChabad. 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 ofmarriage is opposition to gays, Chabad continues to operate shofarfactories and erect Hanukka menoras. These things are profoundlyimportant, but not to the exclusion of promoting Chabad as a profoundcollection of ideas that can rehabilitate one's family and rejuvenateone's spiritual life.

Even Chabad's greatest admirers praise it for its outstandingwork rather than its outstanding wisdom. But possessed of the gem ofhassidic thought, should Chabad be known as the most incredible placeto have Shabbat dinner in Venice rather than for the practicalphilosophy people turn to when they seek a more elevated life?

THE SAME is true with politics. True, Chabad is not a politicalmovement, nor should it be. But should Chabad really have no say whenit comes to school choice, the tuition crisis and how not one dollar ofreligious parents' hard-earned tax money can go to even the seculardepartments of parochial schools? And does Chabad really have nothingto say about the genocide in Sudan?

Part of the problem has been the failure on the part of modernChabad to create, with some exceptions, notable writers and thinkers,which is curious given the rebbe's towering reputation as anintellectual. The movement has become focused on creating fund-raisersrather than orators, builders rather than writers, outreachprofessionals as opposed to philosophers, and rabbis who know how toput together a minyan as opposed to keeping a marriage together.

Both are, of course, extremely important. But a movement thatfocuses only on horizontal expansion risks becoming ossified inmore-of-the same predictability. Innovative thinkers and charismaticteachers will not arise in Chabad so long as there isthought-conformity in the movement. Yes, Chabad is an halachicmovement, and it is to be expected that its intellectuals alwaysconform to the norms of Jewish law. But a thinker must also be allowedbroad leeway in challenging conventional norms rather than fearingostracization for doing so. After all, the rebbe himself was arguablythe 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