Saturday, June 20, 2015

What BuzzFeed Forgot to Tell You About The Lubavitcher Rebbe and Chabad

     On June 19, 2015, BuzzFeed posted an article entitled "11 Ways the Lubavitcher Rebbe Forever Changed the World" in honor of the twenty-first anniversary of the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. It was a very lovely tribute to the man who headed Chabad and still inspires people all over the world to explore orthodox Judaism. I figured I'd quickly add a bit of information that's missing.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Judaism in the public thoroughfare." They cite the ubiquitous Chabad menorahs as further proof that Judaism is now very public. 
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: The truth is, Chabad is everywhere, and the same way people don't necessarily want missionaries approaching them, is the same way they may not want Chabad shluchim (emissaries) approaching them. Add a dose of Jewish guilt to the mix and the next thing you know, you're eating cholent and singing Shabbos zmiros. (That's a joke, I think.) A New York Times article about the Rebbe states:
[The Rebbe] tried to reach [non-orthodox Jews] through broad public campaigns that included, in addition to the mitzvah tanks, full-page newspaper advertisements announcing the time that candles should be kindled to welcome the Sabbath.
While some passers-by accepted the invitation to put on tefillin -- black leather straps and boxes containing verses from the Scripture and worn by the faithful during prayer -- the "Are you Jewish" question rubbed others the wrong way; many thought religion too private to discuss with strangers on street corners.1 

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Speak to the youth." The article goes on to say "instead of viewing children as merely unfinished adults, the Rebbe viewed the vigor, openness, and pursuit of truth among youth as a unique advantage they could teach and inspire world-weary adults. In the same vein, the Rebbe would dedicate special talks to children, engaging with their minds and hearts with the deepest secrets of the Torah."2
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: The Rebbe was a firm believer in "reaching the parent through the child, beginning Torah education early."3 Chabad's handbook for shluchim discusses education for children and the importance of beginning early. It states:
Chabad's Mommy and Me programs are places where mothers and children are invited to meetings where innocuous topics as childcare and health are discussed. The children are busy with arts and crafts. Mitzvos and Judaism are introduced after a few sessions. . . . Mommy and Me . . . serves as an exceptional tool to . . . involve them with other Chabad activities.4
Chabad tells people working with non-orthodox parents who were convinced to put their children in a Chabad-directed school:
     In order to be successful in involving and bringing families closer to Yiddishkeit, we, the administrators and teachers, need to establish warm and positive personal relationships with individual families. They then feel comfortable with us, trust us and want to work with us.
     Once parents feel that we do, indeed, care about them on a personal level, they will then be more inclined to become involved with the school's programs. With friendly encouragement they will begin to make personal commitments to mitzvos as well. The more exposure and contact we have with the families the closer they will become. 5

     Without going into a tirade about campus kiruv, a New York Times article about the Rebbe mentions that "one Reform group attacked him for luring non-Orthodox children to Hasidic lives in which they rejected the values of their parents."6

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Rebellion is Revelation" and states:
The Rebbe’s approach declared, “Finally the iceberg of America is beginning to melt! Finally, its young people are demonstrating that conformity is not the sum of life’s goals! They have smashed the idols of false progress — they need now only be led back to the living waters of their heritage.7
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: While refusing to conform to the norms of the secular world may be seen and celebrated in a positive light, try telling a person living in the Chabad world that they don't need to conform to the standards of their ultra-orthodox community and see what they say. Both women and men who wish to leave Chabad and orthodoxy struggle to retain custody of their children. Women often struggle to obtain a proper get (Jewish divorce) from their husbands. Families often completely shun their grown children who refuse to conform and opt out of orthodoxy. A double standard exists in this world: if you refuse to conform to the secular and/or non-orthodox worlds, you are celebrated. If you refuse to conform to Chabad's strict orthodoxy--which is not the same happy-go-lucky orthodoxy sold to you at the Shabbos table--you are rejected.

      What BuzzFeed lists: "The Power of the Feminine Soul" stating that:
When the world struggled with including women within the rubric of Jewish tradition, the Rebbe had already long empowered women to be leaders and thinkers, masters of Jewish future and bringers of light in the world.8
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: While this sounds nice on paper, this is specifically about Judaism, and not the world at large. This also neglects to mention that women must follow certain gender-based laws within Judaism, as interpreted by the Lubavitch movement. Women are still bound by the same laws of orthodoxy as all orthodox women. For example, women must follow the Rebbe's orders that they cover their hair specifically (and are often chastised by other women if they don't,) women are told how to dress, and young girls are groomed from the time they are in school on how to be a proper daughter of Israel--according to Chabad's teachings. Women's issues are sugar-coated by apologists who still bow to the religious patriarchy which still enforces many antiquated beliefs.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "No person is far gone." Chabad is famous for the outreach work they do to Jews in prison. The article states "even someone imprisoned for crimes committed, could not be overlooked or ignored and can and should be rehabilitated and activated for good."9
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: While the Rebbe may have been a great guy for bringing Judaism to the tinok shenishba (Jews who aren't religious due to ignorance) in prison, believing that he/she can be spiritually reformed, the same belief isn't always held for those believed to be heretics and apostates. Heretics and apostates are often excommunicated, cast out from both family and community, sometimes out of fear that they will have a negative influence on others in the community. In a nutshell: criminals--not far gone, people leaving Chabad and orthodoxy--far gone.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Joy." The article states "Judaism deserved not to be mourned and eulogized, but to be celebrated."10
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: Even in living Judaism with joy, it is still orthodox-centric. Mixed dancing is prohibited, men are not allowed to listen to women sing, and all joyous activities must still follow orthodox guidelines. As for Judaism being celebrated, I do wonder about the balance of joy. While there are some families where fathers are taking a more active role in childcare and home-related chores, I know that there are many that aren't, or that traditionally haven't, and while men are out farbrenging (a farbrengen is a joyous Chasidic celebration,) the women are often at home, caring for children.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Always Practical." The Rebbe wanted people to do mitzvot (commandments,) often translated as "good deeds." He felt that it was more important to do something--no matter how simple, rather than nothing.
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: The motivation is that every mitzvah/deed that a person does brings Moshiach (the messiah) and redemption closer. Getting non-orthodox Jews to help Chabadniks score points by agreeing to put on tefillin (phylacteries) or make a blessing on an apple and honey for Rosh Hashanah may seem innocuous, but understand why these things are being pushed.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "We are All One Community." The article states "as the Rebbe told then New York Mayor David Dinkins, “We are one side. We are one people, living in one city, under one administration and under one G-d.”11
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: The Rebbe may have felt that "we are one people" but I have to wonder when there is infighting between sects, the infighting within sects, hateful and condescending comments often made about the Conservative, Reform, and other liberal denominations, racism, and the shameful elitism often found in online Chabad forums.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Harness Technology."
The Rebbe . . . considered [technology] a valuable component to achieving greater good.
Using the latest means of communication, the Rebbe encouraged that radio in the 1950s, satellite in the 1980s and Internet in the early 1990s all be used to promulgate knowledge and education. When technology was harnessed properly, he taught, it not only was not a negative, but itself a portent G-dliness[sic] and goodness in the world.12
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: Technology is a very important tool in Chabad's method of kiruv. They have a huge, active website, and each Chabad House around the world appears to have a website that is linked to the main site. Their program calendars are listed, as are the services that they offer. Chabad also uses technology to keep in touch with their shluchim (emissaries) who often live far from their families, friends, and communities. Children of shluchim often use the internet as an educational tool. It's not that the Rebbe is telling you to spend your days and nights on Facebook, but rather that technology can be used to their benefit in furthering their own outreach goals.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Think Global." This brief section is simply about the thousands of kiruv workers sent to live and work all over the world, in order to missionize non-orthodox Jews.
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: This isn't quite the same global thinking that environmentalists have in mind.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Act local." The article mentions that "emissaries are largely funded locally, forming a holistic part of the local community."13
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: Actions cannot take place without funding. While Chabad programs are often highly subsidized with a suggested donation and a pay what you can/we won't turn you away attitude, the truth is, shluchim often live on community donations and receive very little funding from the main Chabad offices, and usually only during the first year. This is one of the reasons why Chabad trains future kiruv workers in the fine art of fundraising. And yes, they're pretty good at it.

Works Cited
1. Goldman, Ari L. Rabbi Schneerson Led A Small Hasidic Sect To World Prominence. The New York Times. June 13, 1994.
2. BuzzFeed Community Member "Mordechail." 11 Ways the Lubavitcher Rebbe Forever Changed the World. June, 19, 2015.
3. Plotkin, Goldie, qtd. in Shlichus: Meeting the Outreach Challenge. Nshei Ubnos Chabad, 1991. p76.
4. Lerner, Nettie, qtd. in Shlichus: Meeting the Outreach Challenge. Nshei Ubnos Chabad, 1991. pp. 75-6.
5. Fajnland, Ronya, qtd. in Shlichus Outreach Insights. Nshei Chabad Publications. 1996. p.69.
6. Goldman, Ari L. Rabbi Schneerson Led A Small Hasidic Sect To World Prominence. The New York Times. June 13, 1994.
7. BuzzFeed Community Member "Mordechail." 11 Ways the Lubavitcher Rebbe Forever Changed the World. June, 19, 2015.
8. ibid.
9. ibid.
10. ibid.
11. ibid.

12. ibid.
13. ibid.

1 comment:

  1. Re: technology. Not only is technology used for kiruv purposes, but when preaching to the internal crowd, use of technology and communication with the outside world for purposes other than kiruv and torah study is actively discouraged. There's a whole Sicha of the Rebbe which speaks about how having a TV in your house is equivalent to idolatry, yet this did not prevent the "revolutionary harnessing of technology for torah". Many schools will not accept children who have TVs in their homes (I don't know if this is still the case, though).


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