Chabad Lubavitch is famous for their willingness to open their homes to Jews and non-Jews, including the goyische celebrities, such as Jon Voigt, who appear on Chabad’s West Coast telethon to cheerlead for the group. Sometimes, though, the encounters produce a more nuanced response — as is evident in actress Clare Danes’ memory of a Chabad Lubavitch wedding she attended in Brooklyn.
Danes’ tale is jammed into the last paragraph of an item in New York magazine about how little Danes knows about Brooklyn. The little she says about the wedding is remarkably evocative. She tells of how the event began on the sidewalk in front of someone’s apartment, presumably in Crown Heights, where Chabad is based.
“It was in February, and it was really cold and very, um, stripped down, the ceremony,” the star of the 1990s TV drama “My So Called Life” remembered.
From there, she says, the group moved to one of the nearby catering halls. The people “celebrated,” she said, “but the women and the men celebrated in separate rooms, and the women were not allowed to drink, and it was quite sad.”
Television host, sex columnist and Orthodox rabbi Shmuley Boteach is no stranger to controversy, but this week he added his voice to a growing chorus of Orthodox Jews who believe that their religious community has to take a look in the mirror in the wake of the New Jersey money-laundering scandal. In an article in the Jerusalem Post, he writes:
We Orthodox have no one but ourselves to blame. We are often “religious” without being spiritual, prayerful without being humble and ritually precise without displaying the same punctiliousness in business.
Perhaps the most unexpected part of the piece comes when Boteach takes the opportunity to wantonly unload on the Chabad-Lubavich religious community in which he was trained. Boteach says he still raises his children in the Chabad spirit, but he explains how they pushed him out:
In 1993 I was ordered by the leadership of Chabad UK to dismiss all non-Jewish members of our Oxford University student society. I refused because the Rebbe (who had just died) loved non-Jews and regularly reached out to them. Chabad fired me.
Boteach implies that Chabad representatives “preach hate” by calling for a distance from the non-Jewish world, and goes on to criticize Chabad’s representative in Washington, D.C., Levi Shemtov, who, he says:
wrote on a super-secret global Chabad Web site that I “desecrate” any Chabad House I visit and should not be invited to speak. I shudder to think that a man of such extreme opinions is Chabad’s representative to the US government.
Shemtov, who sounded surprised by the attack, told the Forward: “I did not write what he implies; he misconstrued words into a sentence of his own making to imply inaccurately that I condemned him personally.”
It’s not entirely clear how Boteach’s criticism of Chabad relates to his larger discussion of Orthodoxy. He does seem to say that if more non-Jews read his book “Kosher Sex,” they might see the inherent goodness of Orthodox Judaism.
Maybe, but then again, maybe not.
I was pleased to see Manis Friedman representing the Chabad point of view in the “Ask the Rabbis” section of the current issue of Moment magazine – that is, until I read what he actually said to the question of how should Jews treat their Arab neighbors?
The rabbi, whose work I enjoyed since reading one of the earliest books about modesty and human dignity, “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore: Reclaiming Modesty, Intimacy and Sexuality” in 1990, was the long-time dean of Bais Chana, a center for women’s learning in Minneapolis.
He always seemed like a gentle soul, his eyes twinkling above his bushy white beard, full of wisdom about what makes a successful marriage. I was happy to see him less than a year ago at a wedding in Crown Heights, in fact. But his response to Moment’s question belies a very un-gentle soul. He wrote:
In Moment, Rabbi Friedman wrote:
I don’t believe in western morality, i.e. don’t kill civilians or children, don’t destroy holy sites, don’t fight during holiday seasons, don’t bomb cemeteries, don’t shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral. The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle). The first Israeli prime minister who declares that he will follow the Old Testament will finally bring peace to the Middle East. First, the Arabs will stop using children as shields. Second, they will stop taking hostages knowing that we will not be intimidated. Third, with their holy sites destroyed, they will stop believing that G-d is on their side. Result: no civilian casualties, no children in the line of fire, no false sense of righteousness, in fact, no war. Zero tolerance for stone throwing, for rockets, for kidnapping will mean that the state has achieved sovereignty. Living by Torah values will make us a light unto the nations who suffer defeat because of a disastrous morality of human invention.
Reached in Crown Heights this week, where he has come to make a son’s wedding (one of his 14 children), he said that he is being misunderstood: “I’m suggesting that if we changed our policies and didn’t follow the Western value system that there would be no war and nobody would get hurt. That’s what I said,” he told The Sisterhood.
If, as I have learned from Rabbi Friedman and others, a primary goal of the study and observance of Torah is refinement of one’s soul and behavior, then clearly in this case, being Torah observant has failed profoundly.
For a contemporary rabbi — particularly one who holds himself out as a teacher and mentor — to espouse the view that the policy of the Jewish state should be that we “kill men, women and children (and cattle),” is grotesque.
In response to Friedman’s comments in Moment, Josh Nathan-Kazis, the editor of the excellent Jewish national student publication New Voices, writes this.
When I come across this sort of thing, I wonder at Chabad’s popularity among secular Jewish students. These aren’t just bad politics, they’re insane politics. At what point does the Chabad rabbi tell the prospective Ba’al Teshuva that he thinks that Israel should “destroy their holy sites”? Probably not at the first Shabbat dinner, right? Maybe after two Shabbat dinners, a “lunch and learn,” and a Birthright trip through Mayanot?”
Many, including Friedman, claim to represent “the timeless truths of Torah,” but it is a mistake to present any of its teachings as Rabbi Friedman claims to in his Moment response.
We extract the values, but none of us live as our mothers and fathers in the Bible did — not even Rabbi Friedman, in his black suit and fedora.
On his Web site, you can buy one of Friedman’s many teaching series on CD. This one is called “You Are What You Believe.”
First Y-Love and Shneur Hasofer, a.k.a. DeScribe, collaborated on “Change” — a rockin’ track on the Modular Moods/Shemspeed label. Black, white, left, right, United States, Australia, all put aside to “uplift the mundane” in the name of Hashem.
Then Elad Nehorai from Chabad.org covered it for the news service ChabadOnLine Live, and suddenly the lashon hara flowed in. One commenter asked:“[W]hy do u have to print this. this is totaly not what lubavitch is about. where are the pictures of chassidishe lubavitchers that daven like a chosid etc.” The note was quickly followed by questions of the rappers’ eligibility: “[I]s shneur Devora’s son, and is he married? if yes to whom?”
A reader identified as “4 Questions” asked, “Why are all these seemingly talented young men going down this goyishe music path? Can’t they get a proper job? Is (G-d forbid) this the direction Chabad is really going?”
There were milder versions of that question, such as, “[A]s Chassidim do we have to take the Chitzoniyus?” (the external appearance of others) and more clichéd ones, such as, “Does this represent Chabad and do I want to give the children the impression that it does???”
In the end, the general opinion — helped by Y-Love and Erez of Shemspeed posting the lyrics and trying to explain their intention — was that “having Ahavas Yisroal is the main part of being JEWISH” and respecting Y-Love and DeScribe for their obvious talents and genuine dedication to Hashem was the way to go.
Finally, a crucial subsidiary part of the thread was concluded with a tease. It related that Shneur is Devorah’s son. There was no mention of his marital status.
Writing in The Jerusalem Post, former Chabad emissary turned media personality Rabbi Shmuley Boteach expresses concern for the current state of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement:
Chabad is by now the most effective Jewish educational organization in history, and no movement works harder for the Jewish people or caters to more unaffiliated Jews.
But success has brought the usual challenges. Chabad emissaries are becoming more ego-driven and territorial, too often bickering with one another. A seemingly incessant spate of court battles should serve as a wake-up call.
In Crown Heights, the official Chabad leadership seems engaged in permanent litigation with — mostly — Chabad messianic forces, for the soul of Lubavitch. Nearly all of it takes place in mainstream rather than Jewish courts, making them highly public affairs.
In London, an ugly public battle ousted one of the heads of Chabad UK of the past half-century. Sydney, Australia witnessed another ugly public battle for the control of Chabad institutions.
These are just a few examples. The press has reported on many more in places as far away as Russia, Ukraine and Israel.
The heroic educator who swoops in and rescues students at a troubled inner-city school is a favorite Hollywood trope: Think Jim Belushi in “The Principal,” Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds,” Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver,” Morgan Freeman in “Lean on Me,” etc.
This Friday’s New York Times featured a real-life story that is, as a colleague of mine pointed out, stranger than fiction.
Four years ago, Junior High School 22 in the South Bronx was an utter mess. There was anarchy in the hallways. In some classes, few students bothered to show up. The school was classified as one of New York City’s dozen most dangerous. It had gone through six principals in two years.
Then along came Shimon Waronker, a member of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect. Despite concerns that a Hasidic principal would be a mismatch for a largely black and Hispanic school, Waronker has quickly proven his doubters wrong.
Waronker, it turns out, brought an unusual background to the job — and not only because he is a Hasidic Jew. Waronker is also a native Spanish-speaker (which impressed Hispanic students) and had served as an officer in the U.S. Army. He drew heavily upon his military background in restoring order to the troubled school.
The Times reports:
That’s the question raised in a Jerusalem Post article about an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel under its Law of Return and was interested in converting to Judaism. While the rabbis were impressed with his religious observance, the problem came when they started asking him questions prompted by his affiliation with the Chabad Hasidic sect, which tends toward the belief that its late rebbe is the messiah.
The Post reports:
Are Chabad bar mitzvahs a joke? Are Reform bar mitzvahs “institutional extortion”? The JTA’s Ami Eden has the blow-by-blow on the debate over which movement does a better bar mitzvah.
The JTA reports:
Orthodox Jewish reggae sensation Matisyahu is leaving the Chabad movement.
“I am no longer identified with Chabad,” the American singer told Ha’aretz this week during a private visit to Israel. “Today it’s more important to me to connect to a universal message.”
Born Matthew Miller, Matisyahu embraced Orthodox Judaism while studying in a Chabad yeshiva in New York City His virtuosity in reggae and hip-hop, religious lyrics and uncanny garb and antics on stage launched him to international music stardom.
According to to the Israeli newspaper, Matisyahu experienced a “spiritual shift” while celebrating the High Holy Days in Israel. That drew to him to alternative forms of Chasidut such as Breslav.
“What we do is not at all about Judaism and not about Chabad. It’s much bigger than one religion or another,” he said. “It relies on something real that can speak to anybody. It’s about truth and memory.”
While still Orthodox, Matisyahu said he is “searching for freedom from a pronounced identification with one specific group.”
This is not exactly news, but it does add more context to less specific remarks the toasting Hasid had made previously.
It looks like the Lubavitchers did. The Hasidic reggae sensation recently told the Miami New Times:
My initial ties were through the Lubovitch sect… I went to a Hasidic school for two years in Brooklyn. At this point, I don´t necessarily identify with it any more. I´m really religious, but the more I´m learning about other types of Jews, I don´t want to exclude myself. I felt boxed in.
The New York Jewish Week took a look at the fallout in the Lubavitch world, and (non-Lubavitch) Hasidic rapper Y-Love chimes in on Jewschool. Y-Love’s post is particularly interesting, as are the reader comments.
Some Lubavitchers, it seems, fear their embrace of Matisyahu may have backfired. They touted him as a role model, and now he’s distancing himself from their movement. So they worry that young Lubavitchers may now follow their reggae idol’s lead.
Y-Love, however, (writing in the comments section of his original post) agues that Matisyahu will still be a good role model even if he chooses another flavor of Orthodox Judaism.
There have long been those within ultra-Orthodox Jewry who regarded the Holocaust as divine punishment for what they saw as the sins of the Jews: Zionism, liberalism, irreligiosity, religiosity they disliked, etc. Most recently, former Israeli chief Sephardic rabbi, Mordecai Eliyahu, placed the blame for the Nazi genocide on Reform Judaism.
According to a respected Holocaust scholar, the most famous (and also most controversial) figure produced by 20th-century ultra-Orthodoxy, the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, articulated similar views. In an article in the Israeli daily Haaretz, historian Yehuda Bauer writes:
On the subject of the Holocaust, the Rebbe wrote as follows: “It is clear that ‘no evil descends from Above,’ and buried within torment and suffering is a core of exalted spiritual good. Not all human beings are able to perceive it, but it is very much there. So it is not impossible for the physical destruction of the Holocaust to be spiritually beneficial. On the contrary, it is quite possible that physical affliction is good for the spirit” (“Mada Ve’emuna,” Machon Lubavitch, 1980, Kfar Chabad).
Schneerson goes on to compare God to a surgeon who amputates a patient’s limb in order to save his life. The limb “is incurably diseased … The Holy One Blessed Be He, like the professor-surgeon…seeks the good of Israel, and indeed, all He does is done for the good…. In the spiritual sense, no harm was done, because the everlasting spirit of the Jewish people was not destroyed.”
The Rebbe’s stance, therefore, is clear: The Holocaust was a good thing because it lopped off a disease-ravaged limb of the Jewish people — in other words, the millions who perished in the Holocaust — in order to cleanse the Jewish people of its sins.
Read Bauer’s full article here.
UPDATE: Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov of Uruguay’s Beit Chabad wrote this response to Bauer’s article.