Thursday, September 28, 2006

Lubavitch and Heresy

There is a serious issue I want to raise about Lubavitch other than heresy and mass psychosis. (They are heimisher guys, so what’s a psychosis here or a heresy there.) In traveling around the world I have found, more than once, there are perfectly fine congregations in a town, many of which are struggling to find members. Along comes this Lubavitcher kid, somewhere in his twenties with his bashert at his side, and sets up shop right next door.

Lubavitch functions somewhat like a McDonald’s franchise. All the good locations are already taken. When a Lubavitcher emissary retires, he tries to recruit his son or some other family member, and with some justification. The retiree built up the Chabad house from scratch. When a young person shows an interest in going out into the field, (becoming a meshulach), the Upper East Side of New York is already taken. He can go to Papua, New Guinea or Nowheresville, Arkansas. The young man grabs onto Arkansas even if it already has a minyan. The upshot is that many a minyan with 15 people morphs into two minyanim of 7.5 each. The Lubavitchers undoubtedly will argue that it is not a zero sum game. When they come into a town, they expand the market. They feel they will create a much more dynamic place than the weak synagogue that is already there. They may be right in this contention, but such has not been my experience.

One final problem…what are we to make of the failure to excommunicate the Lubavitchers? I know there are a lot of reasons why there has been no serious attempt at excommunication. For one thing, people traveling around the world eat in Lubavitcher kitchens and if they were excommunicated, their food would not be considered kosher. Another story that one hears is that Orthodoxy has turned into Orthopraxis. If your behavior is Orthoprax (you behaviorally perform all the mitzvoth), you can believe in the tooth fairy; no one is going to give you a hard time. There is something to this idea, though not at the level of the individual. No one is hesitant to denounce an individual as a heretic (apikorus). The reluctance is to take on seventy thousand people.

Whatever the exact explanation, and there may be many, it is part of a growing trend in American Jewish life in all denominations. Heresy and breaking of denominational ties is breaking out all over. Some good examples are:

The University of Judaism in Los Angeles is much more “progressive” than the Jewish Theological Seminary and appears to be going its own independent way.

There are all these uppity women who are challenging Modern Orthodox practices with tefila groups and greater participation of women in the services. They dream of equality with men.

The phenomenon called Jewish Renewal, which is growing very quickly and is independent of all denominations and, I would add, of all rabbinical discipline, presents a challenge to the very idea of a rabbi.

The emergence of a non-denominational rabbinical school in Newton, Massachusetts headed by the distinguished theologian and kabbalah scholar Rabbi Arthur Green, raises the very interesting question of whether a rabbi is inextricably tied to a denomination. Why can’t there be an Allgemeiner Rabbi? Why can’t there be a rabbi who is not Orthodox or Conservative or Reform…she is just a rabbi? Woooo…heresy.

Radical Carlebach minyanim, Berkley style chavurot, gay and lesbian congregations, and many more local weird groupings.

(In Boulder, Colorado I encountered a minyan that went mountain climbing every Shabus morning. When they got to the top they had a short service, some meditation and climbed down. I forgot to ask if the kidush was on top or bottom of the mountain. In Rome I came across a congregation of Libyan Jews that made hakafoth twice, one after the other; once for members who closed their stores before sundown and the second for those who felt the need to keep their shops open until after dark. No one went home until the very end. )

What some see as heresy, others see as the creativity and vitality of American Jewish life. I, myself, don’t have the stomach for Jewish Renewal or for some of the more progressive chavurahs springing up around the country. Neverthess I believe it is important to overcome one’s natural conservative instincts for the sake of religious creativity and free competition. I see Lubavitch as the most distinguished and serious of such groups. They are the best example of a dynamic group of Jews who cannot be contained or easily classified under the traditional denominational structure of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Heretical or not I say more power to them.


At 8:58 AM, Blogger Harry Maryles said...

Heretical or not I say more power to them.

I don't hink most of them are heretical. But I do think there views are dangerousy close to it Their current views wrt Moshiah emulate those of early Christianity - pre-deification of their Messiah.

If they were Heretical then I would not wish them more power but would urge avoidance at all costs

BTW, I just found your blog. There is some pretty good writing here. Keep up the good work. Do I know you?

At 12:40 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Thanks for the compliment. I don't believe you know me.

At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Editor said...

Maybe Chicago is bigger than you thought...

At 5:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was in Florence two years ago and the local Lubavitsher is tearing the community apart. The Rav is a quite learned and serious fellow and he suffers from their attacks on kashrut, mikvaot (do not live up to Tanya's psak) etc... and grabs everyone at Shacahrit on shabbat for Seudah Shelishit so that the main shul cannot gather a quorum for Mincha.

I for one try to avoid eating at Lubavitsch places around the world although I admit I am not consistent.

At 1:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found you (years after you wrote...). In my community, when Chabad moved in, some orthodox Jews in the community took the rabbi aside and told him he would have their support, but only if he did not try to start a separate Shabbat morning service. They felt that there were not enough men to populate two minyans. He went along (he attends the orthodox services and he and his wife do programs/services for Fri night, yontif, etc)


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