By Rabbi Yitzchok Schochet
A few weeks ago Rabbi James Kennard wrote an article for the Australian Jewish News in which he raised subtle issues with Chabad and the concern about modern Orthodox synagogues in Australia employing them. At the behest of the Chabad leadership in Australia I wrote a response.
Both these articles are published on COLlive.
Last week Rabbi Kennard responded with a far more aggressive article citing several falsehoods about Chabad. I, in turn, wrote another rejoinder but in an act of questionable integrity the editor of the Australian Jewish News chose to send my article, prior to its publication, to Rabbi Kennard, for his previewing and apparently offered him, if he should so wish to write a response and then no longer give me the right to reply.
Owing to this partiality Chabad of Australia did not want my rejoinder to be published, which is understandable. Nevertheless, Rabbi Kennard’s article, in which he launches into an all out attack against Chabad, was published on his own Facebook page enabling others, some out of ignorance, others with malicious intent, to circulate the article.
I believe it is therefore paramount, the Australian Jewish News and its editors’ apparent bias notwithstanding, to publish my response, not as a defense of Chabad, but simply to put paid to the lies being peddled.
Rabbi James Kennard’s initial, “some of my best friends are Chabad, but…” article is exposed for what it is in his riposte last weekend. While insisting that his initial article was more about the dearth of home-grown rabbis and less about a critique on Chabad, his follow up is a full onslaught against Chabad.
Rabbi Kennard cites several misguided accusations. Owing to space constraints I will take issue with his main points. To suggest as he does, that the purpose of Chabad is to “bring Moshiach rather than to perform mitzvot,” is a categorical falsehood, typically peddled by arch opponents of Chabad. Is he unaware of Maimonides’ famous ruling (Hilchos Melachim 11:1) that a Jew must not only believe in the coming of Moshiach, but also eagerly await and anticipate it, and “whoever doesn’t do so denies not only the prophets but also the Torah and Moses our teacher.”
Rabbi Yitzchak of Corbiel (Amudei Golah Smak par. 1) views this as an integral commandment. Someone no less than the Chofetz Chaim, spoke, admonished and issued letters and proclamations urging Israel to ready itself for the imminent redemption. He introduced the renewal of studying the laws relating to the service in the Beit Hamikdash in anticipation of imminent redemption. (See especially his Tzipita l’Yeshua & his Chizuk Emunah).
To suggest however, that this is to the exclusion of the fulfillment of mitzvot is sheer heresy and a claim often made by those with a malicious agenda, trying to portray Chabad on the fringes of normative Judaism.
Rabbi Kennard suggests that girls lighting Shabbat candles is unique to Chabad. Is he not aware that the custom is also brought in Aruch HaShulchan; that it is quite commonplace in Brisk (see Mi-Peninei Ha-Rav, p. 75) and that in pre-war Europe it was the norm amongst many communities for young girls to light Shabbat candles. It was only due to war, candle shortages, blackouts, etc. that this custom was discontinued. Thus young girls lighting candles is actually a return to an age-old beautiful custom.
Rabbi Kennard lauds Chabad for bringing thousands of Jews back to the fold. In a day and age where many youngsters go adrift, engaging them from a young age, with time hallowed customs, is just one of the ways to keep them in the fold.
Rabbi Kennard further suggests that Chabad is ambivalent toward Zionism. I know many Chabad Chassidim who are in the IDF, not to mention the many Chabad Rabbis that go out to the frontlines, even in times of crisis, to bring encouragement and joy to the soldiers. I’m not aware of any other Rabbis doing the same. There are numerous Chabad villages, networks and infrastructures all over Israel. There are sadly several hundred war orphans that turn Bar Mitzvah each year, and it is Chabad who hosts them in a large annual event in the presence of all government hierarchy. Indeed during the Gulf War many Rabbis were calling for Jews to leave Israel. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was the lone voice at the time insisting everyone stay put. We don’t abandon our homeland. Thus, this again is a mere smokescreen to gain sympathy against Chabad.
Rabbi Kennard’s accusation that Chabad highlights the study of mystical texts over classical ones is yet another myth. The importance of studying the mystical dimension is a point made by the Vilna Gaon himself, arguing that our many struggles is because people don’t study the mystical dimension (see Even Shlaimah 3,21 and Midrash Mishlei 10;11:7). To assume that this takes precedence over classical texts is wholly absurd as it goes against the very statements of the mystics themselves. In the words of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (16c): “It is like looking at the stars while ignoring the holes beneath your feet.”
Rabbi Kennard accuses me of suggesting Chabad Rabbis are more loyal than others. At no point in my article did I suggest so. I merely followed up on his own initial “admiration” for the uniqueness of Chabad, as he puts it, “to boldly go where no Rabbi has gone before.” It is precisely this dedication and loyalty, I suggest, which would explain why a disproportionate number of synagogues in Australia hire Chabad; because they are willing to commit where many other Rabbis are not, as Rabbi Kennard readily acknowledges in his own article.
Rabbi Shaul Robinson, senior Rabbi at the modern Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue and who is not Chabad, spoke recently at a conference for more than ninety UK Rabbis all representing modern Orthodox Synagogues. In his presentation he highlighted the uniqueness of the Chabad approach and as the model that works, which, as he put it, other organizations would do well to emulate because of their unique approach in engaging Jews from all walks of life. Perhaps this is an uncomfortable truth for Rabbi Kennard, but it could help explain his question as to why so many Australian Synagogues look to hire Chabad.
Finally, in an unfortunate example of psychological projection, Rabbi Kennard suggests that I would not welcome a non-Chabad Rabbi at the Great Synagogue. While I was arguing for the synagogue to make its own choice, without his interference, it was he who firmly stated that the synagogue should not take Chabad.
I appreciate Rabbi Kennard’s ongoing support for Chabad, and trust that he can separate fact from fiction thus working together toward the common good of Australian Jewry and Klal Yisroel.