The Seven Challenges of Chabad’s Future / By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
On this fifteenth anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing, Chabad confronts an important choice. It can either courageously confront the challenge of renewal and shore up some of its more troubled areas, or it can be content with all the good it does in Jewish outreach the world over and ignore some of its most pressing issues.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Chabad is the most successful and devoted Jewish educational movement in history and its growth after the Rebbe’s passing is positively staggering. But for all that, its astronomical growth has presented unique challenges that, if not addressed, can erode some of its fundamental institutions.
Here are the foremost issues that Chabad should commit to improving on this milestone occasion.
1. Shore up its educational institutions.
As its name implies, Chabad is an intellectual organization emphasizing wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. From that deep understanding of G-d, Judaism, and the Torah flows the passionate action that is Chabad’s hallmark. Weaken the educational institutions and you weaken Chabad. Speak to Lubavitch parents and you will hear constant complaints about eroding educational standards and bochurim in Yeshivas who spend nearly as much time flying around the world to do mivtzoim as they do studying.
The inadequacy of the Chabad educational institutions is perhaps best evidenced by the growth in ready-made sermons and lectures being sold to Shluchim the world over, which presupposes that the average Shliach has not learned enough in his Yeshiva years to be capable of offering original thoughts on his own. And if you’re a Chabad parent who wants a solid secular education for your son in High School you are given, at best, two to three choices, in New York, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, all bursting at the seams and almost incapable of taking in new students.
2. Make moral educational and personal introspection an integral part of a Lubavitch upbringing.
Chabad fights way too much among its own and this is often due to out of control egos. Yes, I get it. You can’t drop a Shliach in, say, Vietnam and expect him to build an institution without a strong personality and an indestructible will. If Shluchim had no desire to distinguish themselves they could not possibly overcome the unbelievable demands being made of them. But ego and will are different things completely. Ego is the need to take credit and have one’s actions accrue to one’s personal glory. Ego feels threatened when someone else begins to shine more brightly than oneself.
I feel that we in Chabad are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of ego. A Shliach will go out and build an institution, bring help, and when one of his younger associates begins to gain popularity the newcomer often gets the boot. This is absurd as it punishes, rather than rewards, hard work and talent. Harry Truman once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Shlichus is often a thankless job and we all wish and need to get some credit. But we must also be educated to confront and overcome the obsessive demands of ego. We need to start teaching young Chabad men and women from the earliest age about issues like conflict resolution and healthy as opposed to obsessive ego gratification. And yes, I know, Chabad emphasizes bitul more than any other movement. Clearly it hasn’t worked and we need to teach not just what bitul demands but how to achieve it.
3. Establish tribunals that allow Shluchim to air grievances in a fair and impartial setting.
I have written about this on numerous occasions. A young Shliach who goes to the far corners of the globe, works his heart out, and gets sent home because he clashes with his superior deserves an objective and fair hearing. He or she should never be made to feel that those in power will always look out for colleagues of equal station at the expense of those just starting out.
4. Fix the Shidduch system.
I just spent Shabbos in Crown Heights and heard yet again from scores of Chabad singles, this time in particular women over 25 years of age, how difficult it is to meet someone. You end up relying on a shadchan who is a part-time volunteer, is overburdened with requests, and is often slightly insulting in speaking to you. After that, you’re left relying on your friends or parents to work to set you up. Well, they have lives of their own and many baalei teshuva especially don’t have their parents to rely on. Clearly a movement which separates men and women completely until marital age must create some effective mechanism by which they can meet. What used to be effective is no longer so because of how much Chabad has grown. There are a lot of lonely people in Crown Heights and beyond. Its tragic to watch and it must be remedied.
5. Teach Chabad Rabbis and Shluchim that public oratory is not just a regurgitation of a Sicha.
With only a few exceptions, Chabad has famously failed to produce any world-class personalities noted for their ideas and capable of delivering them passionately through the spoken or written word. This failure is not due to a lack of talent, as Chabad possesses some of the most gifted people in the world. Rather, the culture is such that the average Chabad speaker feels that he or she is betraying a higher calling if they don’t get up and simply parrot the Rebbe’s Sicha.
Clearly the Rebbe wished for us to internalize his and the wider ideas of Chassidus and offer them through the medium of our own lives and experience. Because we refrain from doing so, the result is speeches that are painfully dull and predictably monotonous. Invariably a Chabad speaker will get up, immediately announce he or she is reciting a Sicha the Rebbe gave in a particular year, and then sound like a droning tape recorder. Its a great shame and waste. Chabad has so much to offer but the means are as important as the ends. In particular it is necessary for Chabad personalities to not be afraid to quote sources other than the Rebbe, even as we look to the Rebbe as our principal spiritual guide.
6. Make Chabad a meritocracy and not an aristocracy.
Yes, Chabad is based on the leadership of a tzadik. But when it comes to administration there needs to be greater accountability and democracy. Shluchim around the world, and the Chabad rank and file who support their work, should be given votes to fill seats on a board that runs Chabad worldwide so that they feel their voices are heard. This need not mean, of course, that those whom the Rebbe saw fit to administrate Chabad need revolve, only that they should be balanced with those who also represent the Shluchim and their Chabad funders.
Without this process of democracy, as with any organization, corruption can set in and, as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Nepotism, which is becoming endemic in some Chabad quarters wherein family units protect their own and elevate members to positions that they have earned through blood relations and not necessarily through merit, should be resisted by Chabad at large since this trend will only serve in the long run to rob Chabad of talent. Every shliach deserves to feel that he will be judged on dedication, vision, and hard work, on what he knows and does rather than who he knows and strives to please.
7. Address the growing number of Chabad youth who are abandoning the community.
Aside from the dedicated work of virtuous activists like Gershon Mendel Avtzon and a few others, Chabad seems to be ignoring the increasingly large number of young men and women from Chabad homes who have not found their place in the community. They are our children and they are our responsibility.
We must reach out to them with love and light, hear their grievances, respond to their individual needs, and carve out a space for them without bending time-honored principles. By inspiring them with acceptance and understanding while also requiring that they be spiritually productive in their lives, we can bring them back to their families where they belong.
Chabad has already proven that it can conquer the world. Now it must prove that it can conquer itself.
Seven Queries to a Critic / by Rabbi Yoseph Korf
Once again “America’s Rabbi” –pastor to the famous and infamous– rears his head to hang Chabad’s laundry by denigrating its hard-working soldiers in public. Reading him you’re reminded of just how close Mashiach really is and for that I’m grateful. One of the signs of the coming Redemption (Sanhedrin 97a) is that the “face of the generation will be like the face of a dog.”
Talmudic commentaries interpret this to mean brazenness, insolence and hypocrisy. I now realize how easy it is to cram all three qualities within one person and just how imminent the Redemption really is.
Here you have a rabbi who is all about self-promotion and aggrandizement lecturing Chabad rabbis to keep out of the fray; a rabbi who counsels the famous and infamous instructing Chabad rabbis about Torah-learning and scholarship; a rabbi regularly and openly flaunting Halacha admonishing the Rebbe’s obedient and disciplined soldiers.
As such, I challenge “America’s Rabbi” to address the following 7 points before ascending “America’s Bully Pulpit” to spew forth worn out fallacies and conspiracies.
1. Which educational system should Chabad “shore” up?
Would a system that fosters political correctness be better? Should Chabad offer the same physical-ed perhaps using our essayist’s own books as primers? Maybe Chabad should stress an egalitarian philosophy, stressing empathy and acceptance of same-gender marriages as our erstwhile critic believes? And of course as a Chabad rabbi is it my responsibility to advance secular education even if it was never on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s agenda?
2. What kind of morals and ethics does he propose?
No doubt Chassidut is all about ethics, morality, piety and self-abnegation. But, is it morally sound for “America’s Rabbi” to publicly flog an organization and all its hard-working emissaries? Rabbis who sacrifice far more and with far less recognition then our self-appointed critic? Not to mention the gross exaggerations he utilizes to make his points!
Does “America’s Rabbi” speak in third-term but really mean himself when he accuses Chabad with being “ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of ego?!” I ask him, from his personal experience of course, what would he propose?
3. Who should be the fair and impartial rabbis to establish the fair and impartial tribunals? Should they be politically correct and savvy?
As someone all too willing and capable to criticize the Chabad movement would “America’s Rabbi” be willing to lead such a tribunal and be an arbiter for all that ails Chabad and its Shluchim? Does he think he’s scholastically fit to do so? Is he really that humble and impartial after all? Should the other members of the tribunal be as shrewd and savvy as him? Does he think that the experience gained as a rabbi to pop stars would make him worthy to lead such an effort?
4. What kind of shidduchim?
Is it the kind for which he’s become famous for on his [now defunct] cable show? Do we shower the prospective bride and groom with the empathetic love and care that “America’s Rabbi” has become so known for? Should it be the template for the shidduch process in Chabad? If it is, I would agree that this is perhaps the one thing “America’s Rabbi” would be eminently qualified to initiate and organize.
5. Is regurgitation of The Kosher Sutra or Kosher Adultery considered fine public oratory?
Undoubtedly these two bestselling books were hits with all the salacious magazines and talk-shows. And no doubt “America’s Rabbi” was saluted and hailed for all his passion and novel ideas. He has proudly flaunted his independence.
He definitely has a valid point here (perhaps the only one) but I don’t see it necessarily as a negative, on the contrary, I see a positive. I don’t see my mission, as a Shliach, being one that forward’s my personal agendas or my own ideals. Nor do I have a problem with regurgitating the Rebbe’s Sichot, I just wish I knew enough to regurgitate and I would never need to add anything of my own. Is it a lack of “world-class personality” to be too self-reliant on one who represented utter truth or it is better to be independent even if one’s oratory lacks any real credibility? Well, who knows? In this “olam sheker” I suppose anything passes for “world-class.”
6. Can meritocracy really be achieved without an aristocracy?
Should merit lead one to arrogantly denigrate and demean others due to a false sense of aristocracy bestowed upon him by the pop-culture and its sycophants? Is that what we’re talking about? In my humble opinion, you need an aristocracy –Kohanim and Rabbonim– refined enough to instruct others on the meaning of “merit” and “rights”.
It’s sort of like a circle: You need merit to become an aristocrat but you need aristocrats to define its meaning. This obviates the skewing of ethics and morality and assures the divinity within. Not for nothing do you see the same principle in force in some of the largest and most enduring religious organizations. Setting aside some who have experienced pitfalls there’s still something to be said for order and hierarchy.
For the lessons taught by those who have reached the pinnacle keep us moored to the past rather then throwing the baby out with the bathwater and erasing thousands of years of precedence! It’s one thing to improve and refine the old and frayed it’s quite another to reinvent the wheel! Sorry, but I’ll take the good ole time religion anytime over the newfangled one I’m reading from “America’s Rabbi.”
Ironically, we just read in Torah about the ultimate example of nepotism and the ugly fate of those who attempted to thwart it.
7. How do we address youth? Should we abandon the same tried and true principles abandoned by the youth?
What kind of love does “America’s Rabbi” propose? The kind that sweeps Torah and its principles under the rug? The kind where everything goes? Is it the kind that condones all kinds of behavior thus displaying Chabad’s limitless patience and acceptance? When and where does discipline come in? When do we say no? Do we ever say no?
None of these questions are actually meant to be confrontational. They’re meant to edify my own curiosity and perhaps educate Chabad in the process as well. None of what I write here is meant to engage in a polemic with one of the pre-eminent polemicists –“America’s Rabbi”– of our age.
Ultimately, one who has taken it upon himself to publicly excoriate a whole movement founded on the holiest and most sublime ideals not to mention the thousands of self-sacrificing grunts slogging untiringly all over the world must have the bona-fides and reputable character to back it up. Chabad Lubavitch is not beyond criticism and our leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was the first one to dish it out, publicly, when he felt the need and obligation to do so.
The difference, however, quite frankly, is that he could back it up with his own sterling character. Can Rabbi Boteach honestly claim the same?