Just when you thought the terrorists had run out of novel ways to explore the depths of evil and stupidity, the Mumbai murderers decided to seize the Chabad House in that city and slaughter the rabbi and his wife. To understand what executing Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg means in moral and spiritual terms, you need to appreciate what Chabad – the Jewish movement of which the Holtzbergs were envoys – represents in the world.
I know a little about that. My wife and I don’t identify with Chabad, but you could call us devoted fellow travelers. When the news came that the Holtzbergs had been found dead in Mumbai’s ruined Chabad House, my two oldest children were starting their school day at the Chabad House of Seattle.
A Chabad House is not just a synagogue. It’s more like a hospice in the old-fashioned sense, where spiritual pilgrims, lost souls, traveling businessmen, and ordinary local worshippers alike find a place to enjoy community – with meals, prayer, learning, even a place to sleep. Often there’s a school attached to the institution.
Virtually wherever you go in the world, no matter how exotic – the movement’s headquarters in Brooklyn has selected about 4,000 married couples in 72 countries for service – you’ll find a Chabad rabbi and his wife and family cheerfully attending to the physical and spiritual needs of a diverse clientele. The cheerfulness and warmth of Chabad is the quality that strikes me more than any other. My own regrettably saturnine personality may explain why I can’t fully identify with Chabad but am content to remain a well-wisher and admirer.
Every religion and every denomination has its besetting sins – vulnerable points in its spiritual DNA that, if unchecked, lead to negative behavior or attitudes of a particular kind. With Jews, the weakness is for a pallid rationalism, a way of being overly impressed by secular values. What I so admire about Chabad and its representatives is the way they succeed, more than any other movement in Judaism I know, in transcending these not-uncommon failings, triumphantly yet with a characteristic modesty.
I didn’t know Rabbi and Mrs. Holtzberg, but I know people who knew them and can guess with some confidence what they were like. Most Chabad emissaries, including the rabbi who runs the synagogue my family and I attend, seem cut from the same cloth. Indeed, many are related by marriage or blood. In photos, you see the humor and friendliness in the Holtzbergs’ faces. There’s a certain Santa Claus quality to many of the men, which has nothing to do with weight (in my experience most are thin, though one doesn’t picture a Chabad envoy working out at the gym) but with a sparkle in the eyes. The Chabad rebbetzins (the rabbi’s wives) are equally merry, often quite good-looking and smartly dressed (as I’m not the only guy to have noticed), and impressively competent domestic managers. Families are large – seven or more kids is not unusual – and a rebbetzin typically serves also as something like chief operations officer of the Chabad House with its various enterprises.
A writer for a New York Jewish paper, the Jewish Weekly, smartly compared the magnetism of Sarah Palin to that of many a Chabad wife: “She reminds me of about a thousand different Chabad shluchot (women representatives). She seems friendly, sexy (forgive me) in an Orthodox way, with that magnetism, optimism, and accessibility that has made Chabad shluchot successful in [numerous] locales, even though they are almost always considerably more right-wing – religiously and politically – than their congregants and financial supporters.” Speaking of Chabad’s conservative credentials, the group even won the endorsement of Rod Dreher in Crunchy Cons, who profiled the Chabad rabbi in Amherst, Mass., a fellow who “helped found a kosher organic farm . . . How crunchy con is that!”
Chabad is a branch of Chassidic Judaism, sometimes described as ultra-Orthodox, a word that puts people off – but shouldn’t. Though their work entails outreach to Jews who haven’t yet been fully acquainted with their spiritual heritage, being judgmental is foreign to Chabad. That’s on principle. In the Tanya (1796), the fundamental work of Chabad philosophy, Chabad founder Schneur Zalman of Liadi urges that alienated and unlettered Jews be drawn in with “strong cords of love.” The Tanya is not worried about whether, in the process, the non-observant Jew actually turns fully to observance.
The point of Hassidism, inspired by the life and teaching of an 18th-century Eastern European mystic and popular preacher, the Baal Shem Tov, was to make Jewish mysticism and a certain style of ecstatic devotion accessible to the masses of Jews who felt distant from the dominant rationalist tradition of the time. Its worldview centers on the presumed power of Jewish observance to draw down divine light to the world, of benefit to Jews and non-Jews alike.
What a grotesque irony that this particular couple of Chabad emissaries should have met their heartbreaking end at the hands of a religious movement that seems to represent the precise opposite of everything that marks Chabad as exceptional, seeking – rather than to cheer and enlighten – to terrorize and darken.
But Chabad will not allow Mumbai to remain dark. The emissaries to Mumbai had not been buried, nor fully mourned, when the Brooklyn HQ announced that a new rabbi and rebbetizin would be dispatched promptly to take their place. So the light will be rekindled.