The Heart of Chabad

David Klinghoffer
Jewish Forward
March 31, 2006
Original Article

Any group or movement with a strongly held viewpoint inevitably has to decide how to relate to outsiders who disagree or simply don't care. It can judge and dismiss them, or it can condescend and seek to instruct them about the dangerous error of their ways. The really radical approach, however, is to serve and to love them.

This last approach has come to be associated with Chabad, the Hasidic sect that is currently scoring a public relations triumph in the person of Matisyahu, the born-again reggae star with legions of fans among non-Jewish Americans. The majority of mainstream America never heard of Chabad until the former Matthew Miller began crooning to them about faith in Hashem and paraphrasing the Zohar about how to fight the evil one's impulse. He's currently No. 7 on the Billboard 200 music chart, a flabbergasting achievement.

For centuries, the role of the Jewish people as a "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6) calling humanity to the worship of the one God was suspended. In our day, thanks to the growing interest of non-Jews in Judaism, that has started to change. Matisyahu may be the best example of a Jew ministering in this priestly role on a mass scale. His efforts, however, have won him Jewish detractors, who prefer that Jews remain anonymous or irrelevant.

Take, for example, the sniping from the peanut gallery coming out of the consistently sour but readable blog FailedMessiah.com: "What Matisyahu does is unseemly. Few, if any, significant poskim (rabbinic legal scholars who rule on Halacha) would approve. But what bothers me more is blatant trading on Kaballah and Hasidut to make money. That this does not bother mainstream Chabad may be because this is what mainstream Chabad has itself done for years."

Indeed, Chabad's efforts have earned the movement its share of enemies. The rabbi at the Reform temple where I grew up used to speak out against the local Chabad emissary; the competition made him nervous. And in the Orthodox world, a few can't forget the imbroglio in the 1990s in which some followers of Chabad's late spiritual leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, let it be known that they expected he would return and reveal himself as the Messiah. Thankfully, that fever dream has subsided.

More recently, Chabad has been criticized for not insisting on Orthodox practice from those who attend its synagogues. In a series of controversial essays, columnist Marvin Schick bemoaned the fact that a convention of Chabad emissaries had chosen Alan Dershowitz as a speaker, despite previous negative comments he had made about traditional Judaism.

In short, when Chabad is at the center of a controversy, the issue is likely to be the one raised at the outset of this column: How does an ideological community with strong opinions relate to those who don't share its views?

Among orthodoxies — be they Jewish, Christian, secularist or otherwise — Chabad's answer is unique. And it is that uniqueness which makes it the country's most valuable Jewish group: full of missionary zeal and true to authentic Judaism, but remarkably tolerant and loving.

Chabad is thought of as an "outreach" group, which is the Jewish way of describing the evangelization of other Jews. It would be more accurate, though, to call Chabad a service organization.

To be sure, its emissaries aim to bring Jews back to Judaism. But mainly they go out into the world to serve, to provide a positive Jewish experience to all comers including worship, fellowship and counseling.

Many a Jewish traveler would feel lost without the knowledge that wherever he or she goes, there will be a Chabad family waiting with a warm welcome in the form of community, kosher food and good cheer. In my experience of different religious communities, the good cheer of the Chabad emissaries is without equal.

The lack of censoriousness is no marketing ploy. It's written into Chabad's principal religious text, the "Tanya," which was completed in 1796 by the first Chabad rebbe, the Alter Rebbe Schneur Zalman.

In Chapter 32 of the "Tanya," the Alter Rebbe articulates the Chabad philosophy regarding those outside Judaism's spiritual precincts. He argues that it is only materialism that keeps one from seeing that no indication about a soul's greatness can be discerned from its observable "garments" — namely, its speech and deeds.

Far from contemplating non-observant Jews with a judgmental eye, "One must attract [them] with strong cords of love." The "Tanya" is relaxed about whether, in the process, the non-observant Jew turns to observance.

But very likely it is the dynamism of Chabad, rather than its religious ideas, that offends the critics. In human psychology, there is a comfort with stasis coupled with a resistance to high-energy attempts to shake things up. Indeed, in a nutshell this is the history of mystical Hasidism's confrontation with conventional Judaism.

David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is author of "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History" (Doubleday).