Sunday, April 21, 2013
Chabad's dangerous message of love without commitment
A lot of people in the Jewish world talk about their desire to do outreach—if only they could get a grant. But Chabad does not wait for grants, and no other Jewish movement has been able to produce a corps of similarly devoted young men and women prepared to serve the Jewish people with such personal sacrifice.
But the real tensions with Chabad are more practical. Reform rabbis tell me of Chabad rabbis who come into their communities and spend most of their time cultivating a handful of very wealthy people. Cultivating the wealthy is hardly news.
But these Reform leaders point out how ironic it is that activists supposedly committed to outreach to all, with emphasis on the unaffiliated, devote so much more attention to Jews who are rich and already affiliated than to everyone else; they also note that the pampered philanthropists often forsake other causes to support Chabad. No one is suggesting that all Chabad rabbis do this, but these reports are distressingly frequent.
And there is a broader set of concerns that Wertheimer mentions but minimizes. Chabad offers an approach to Judaism that is rabbi-oriented, deeply personal, and has little use for bureaucracy and hierarchy. There is some wisdom in this. Many American synagogues have come to share this view; they too are emphasizing relationships and personal connections while cutting back on committee work and complex volunteer structures.
On the other hand, the personal approach of Chabad to Jewish outreach—often combined with glitzy, high-profile, one-time events—has a major negative: It is built on absolutely minimal expectations. Its message seems to be: We will love you, but we won’t require anything of you. On this point, somewhat bizarrely, the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox critics seem to agree. The Orthodox critics ask Chabad rabbis: Why don’t you expect Jews to become Orthodox? The non-Orthodox ask: Why don’t you expect anything at all?
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.