NEW YORK -- Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg would never be mistaken for a member of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement or a follower of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the movement's hugely admired -- and greatly controversial -- leader, who died in 1994.
"I never met the rebbe," said Rabbi Hertzberg, using the term for "teacher" that Hasidic groups give to their spiritual leaders and that was universally applied to Schneerson. Hertzberg, a former president of the American Jewish Congress, for many years the leader of a Conservative Jewish congregation and the author of books on Judaism and Jewish history, said, "I always thought, what have I, a notorious liberal -- on the matter of Israel a dove -- to say to the rebbe, who was a notorious hawk?"
But here was Hertzberg declaring that the Lubavitch movement "has made an enormous change in the Jewish world," one that left him, he said, "absolutely staggered with admiration."
For many people, Lubavitch is known for its curbside urging of Jews to increase their level of religious observance, whether by ritual actions or kind deeds. Today Chabad, as the movement is also known, operates centers or mounts programs in large cities and remote towns in 100 countries. Nearly a million Jewish children -- almost all of them not Lubavitchers -- attend its schools, camps and educational programs. At a time when a group of prominent Israeli rabbis have banned the Internet as morally perilous for their followers, Chabad has created 700 Web sites in more than 50 countries, again intended to serve not its own members but Jews in general. Hertzberg said Lubavitch had given Orthodox Judaism an altered, open face to the world. If almost all the branches of Judaism and even some of the Orthodox groups in Israel "have got into outreach," he said, Lubavitch is the reason -- "they are the ones who in a sense have shamed all the rest of us."
The conversation was provoked by an anniversary. Last Monday the Lubavitch group marked the 50th anniversary (according to the Jewish calendar) of the death of the sixth rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, and the succession of his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the seventh and last rebbe in a line going back to the group's founding in the 18th century. The testimony of people like Hertzberg is significant because anyone trying to understand the achievement of Chabad confronts a serious obstacle: the enormous reverence surrounding the rebbe. Such attachment inevitably puts the outsider on guard against the claims made on behalf of himself or his movement.
That reverence, of course, was not limited to the rebbe's Hasidic followers. Jews from all around the world -- both rich and poor, pious and doubting, powerful statesmen and humble housewives -- streamed to encounter him at his headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Critics saw all this as pure adulation and accused the rebbe of fostering, or at least tolerating, a cult of personality that, in turn, was leveraged into political power in Israel. The sixth rebbe had interpreted Bolshevik persecution in Russia, where the Lubavitchers were originally, followed by the Holocaust as signs that redemption by the Messiah was at hand. His son-in-law, the seventh rebbe, had read the unforeseen security and opportunity of exile in America as another mysterious sign of the same.
In the 1980s many Lubavitchers, seeing that the rebbe had no son or designated successor, took those messianic expectations a step further and concluded that the rebbe himself was the Messiah. The fervor quickly spun into what mainstream Judaism and Lubavitch leaders judged dangerous or heretical excesses, dividing the movement and threatening to overwhelm it. Today the storm has calmed, and the question is no longer can Lubavitch survive, but why Lubavitch has been so influential. Its numbers are smaller than those of other Hasidic groups. There are no official figures; estimates run from well below 100,000 to up to 200,000. It has remained uncompromising in adherence to views that would be generally termed fundamentalist. Nonetheless, its activities, costing hundreds of millions of dollars a year, are largely supported by non-Lubavitch Jews, some of them not even observant.
The key to this success, organizationally, has been the concept of "schlicum," or emissaries, who are sent by the movement to a community in need and make a lifetimes commitment to serve and raise their families there. From their earliest years, Lubavitch young people see such a daunting commitment as the highest form of messianic undertaking. They are carefully selected for their assignments, but they are also expected to be self-supporting in their activities, recruiting assistance and raising funds locally. In this sense, Chabad is a movement that is both highly centralized and strongly decentralized.
There are nearly 3,700 emissary families around the world. They combine a kind of religious entrepreneurship, whose programs employ almost 50,000 other professionals, with a very personal ministry. "They have had a prominent impact on a great many Jews, especially in places without a large Jewish infrastructure as well as places remote from centers of Jewish life," said another scholar, not at all associated with Lubavitch, Jack Wertheimer, a professor of Jewish history and the provost at Jewish Theological Seminary. "They have often provided basic services, from education to kosher food, where they were lacking."
Wertheimer said there was both "a very loving, caring face to Lubavitch" and a more aggressive, militant one, "a kind of conquering mentality." Congregational rabbis, he noted, have sometimes felt that Lubavitch presented an unfair competition, targeting particular age groups for programs or mounting colorful, publicity-gathering events for certain holy days, while the rabbis had to provide a wide array of year-round services. Yet, "competition can be healthy and serve as a spur," he added, and other Jewish movements have been trying to meet the standard of "personal and caring presence" that Lubavitch has set.
Behind all this there is of course a theology, a spiritual vision -- of the rebbe himself and of the Chabad Hasidic tradition from its beginning. It is a vision that stresses how all creation is suffused with a divine essence; consequently, modern communications technology is to be embraced and put to good purposes.
From its beginning, Lubavitch teaching also had a strong anti-elitist, outward impulse expressed in the writings of its founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who wanted to make even the mystical dimension of Jewish observance accessible to the average Jews.
These are the things that Lubavitchers like to point to rather than the mundane organizational details, and probably they are right. Nonetheless, the teaching remains most powerfully expressed in the way it is lived out -- in this case by thousands of people willing to make lifetime commitments to serve Jews not of their movement, and often in obscure and isolated places.
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