Is Lubavitch losing its heart?

Some Chabadniks' increasingly sharp elbows show they have forgotten they are merely messengers.

chabad 88 (photo credit: )
chabad 88
(photo credit: )
This is a column which I am certainly not the most qualified to write, but ringing in my ears are the words of the Mishna: "In a place where there are no men, stand up and become one." In the absence of anyone else speaking about an area in which Chabad would do well to improve, and because it needs to be said, here goes. I came to Chabad before my 10th birthday, and it rapidly became the love of my life. By the age of 14, I had, much to the consternation of both my parents, left home to move into a full-time Chabad yeshiva. I married an outstanding young Lubavitcher woman, almost immediately moving to Oxford to become there the emissary of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn (the Rebbe), and named my kids after the great Chabad personalities who were my inspiration. What was it that drew me? There was, of course, the Rebbe. There was also Chabad's commitment to educating Jews about their heritage, which drew me to the organization's sense of mission and purpose. But I would be lying if I did not identify a completely different reason as the principal magnet that made me want to join the movement. Quite simply, Chabad were the nicest people in the world. I said to myself, any movement that could produce people this hospitable and selfless must be in possession of a great truth. Back then Chabad was, for the most part, poor. You would see beat-up old jalopies roaming the broken streets of Crown Heights. Chabadniks' pockets might have been small, but their hearts were huge. You could be a hippie with long hair and tattoos. But as soon as you arrived at any Chabad center, you would not only be invited to spend the Sabbath but to join the family and move in. I had grown up surrounded by the materialism of modern America; meeting people who cared little for their own egos and gave everything they had to strangers was magnetic. Sign me up! BUT WITH Chabad about to commemorate the 14th anniversary of the Rebbe's passing, the time has come to reinforce this most central of Chabad values. Chabad is by now the most effective Jewish educational organization in history, and no movement works harder for the Jewish people or caters to more unaffiliated Jews. But success has brought the usual challenges. Chabad emissaries are becoming more ego-driven and territorial, too often bickering with one another. A seemingly incessant spate of court battles should serve as a wake-up call. In Crown Heights, the official Chabad leadership seems engaged in permanent litigation with - mostly - Chabad messianic forces, for the soul of Lubavitch. Nearly all of it takes place in mainstream rather than Jewish courts, making them highly public affairs. In London, an ugly public battle ousted one of the heads of Chabad UK of the past half-century. Sydney, Australia witnessed another ugly public battle for the control of Chabad institutions. These are just a few examples. The press has reported on many more in places as far away as Russia, Ukraine and Israel. WHY IS this all happening? Whereas some mystical sects emphasize the abrogation of the ego and the abnegation of self, the genius of the Rebbe was to tap into the human desire for recognition, what philosophers call "the thymotic urge," and channel it into rescuing the Jewish people from oblivion. The Rebbe told his hassidim that they would go out into communities and distinguish themselves by becoming leaders. He took men and women with only yeshiva educations and made them believe in their capacity to transform great universities and whole countries. This courageous vision led to an explosion of unused potential and transformed Chabad from a modest hassidic group into a global powerhouse of awe-inspiring proportions. But harnessing the ego has its risks. The model worked perfectly so long as the Rebbe was alive. Chabad had before its eyes an unequalled example of selfless devotion to a higher cause. There was not an ounce of materialism in the Rebbe's life, and his devotion to people in need transcended the saintly and bordered on the angelic. The night the Rebbe died I penned an essay called "The Colossus and Me," where I related how the first thing I ever noticed about him were the holes on the bottoms of his shoes. The most powerful Jewish leader of the 20th century had next to no assets. Now no one expected any of us in Chabad to be as selfless as the Rebbe. But there was an expectation that one be inspired by his example. Without the Rebbe as a living presence, some in Chabad are forgetting that ego is only redemptive when it is consecrated to a goal higher than oneself. Anything else runs contrary to the fundamental Chabad teaching of bitul hayesh, nullifying the self to become a tool of God's plan. The sharp elbows and growing nepotism Chabad is exhibiting means that some are forgetting they are merely messengers and not the message itself. SHORTLY AFTER the Rebbe's death in 1994, when I had my own battle with Chabad over the thousands of non-Jewish members of my Oxford organization and my appointment of my friend Cory Booker, an African-American Rhodes scholar, as our president, I thought perhaps I had indeed erred. So I placed myself in a self-imposed exile and lived through the disquiet of being isolated from my community. But now, with Cory becoming one of America's most influential politicians and Chabad honoring him at dinners and appointing him to their prestigious boards, it is clear that a vision of inspiring all people with Jewish values - non-Jews included - has been embraced by Chabad. I say this not to vindicate myself. The Chabad activists whom I am discussing are my superiors in sacrifice for the Jewish people and devotion to the communal good. They are the heroes of the Jewish people. I say it rather to point out that Chabad should create a fair and impartial mechanism by which young emissaries can come to discuss how they are treated by those above them and whether or not it is just. This would be true in any organization, and it should certainly be true in an organization as righteous as Chabad. As any organization becomes more powerful, it must also become more self-critical. CHABAD IS facing unique challenges. A growing number of Chabad youth are leaving the fold. The Chabad dating scene is beginning to exhibit some of the shallow mores of the secular culture, with money and looks playing a not-insignificant role. And gratuitous bickering among some in its leadership are undermining the morale of the young future emissaries they are meant to inspire. When a Chabad rabbi sends away a family who has worked under him after an ugly dispute, he mistakenly conveys the belief that the ends of spreading Judaism justifies the means of doing so at any cost. All of this can be reversed. But not if it isn't discussed. Chabad is the last great hope for the Jewish people, and we are all in its debt. But an organization whose very name means "city of love," risks diminishing its light unless it remembers that it succeeded not only because of its rich mystical philosophy or the considerable charisma of its representatives, but because of the seeming ego-lessness of its adherents and the infinite love they bestow on all who knock on their door. The writer, who hosts a daily national radio show in the US, is the author of many books including Judaism for Everyone and The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him.