What Can We Really Learn From Chabad: A Conservative Perspective

by Paul Steinberg

Excuse me, are you Jewish? Have you put on tefillin today?” Many of us recognize this signature introduction to our Chabad Lubavitch brothers. I certainly do. Actually, I should disclose that I have personal history with Chabad, having attended a Chabad day school and Camp Gan Israel, and, for several years, my family went to a Chabad house every week for Shabbat and holidays.

I am no chabadnik now and, in fact, I feel very much at home in the pluralistic, historical, and multi-faceted ideology of Conservative Judaism. Still, as a Conservative rabbi, Chabad has an impact on me, especially in the form of friends and congregants who eagerly tell of the warmth, personal appeal, and authenticity they feel at Chabad houses. I understand the attraction, for I knew my Chabad rabbis well. I also appreciate identifying the striking contrasts between what happens at Chabad houses and relatively large Conservative congregations like my own. I also absolutely agree with Professor Steven Windmueller’s recent article identifying what he considers to be Chabad’s success, when he suggests that we should learn from what Chabad does that works. Yet, when I hear the accounts and read the articles that compare our congregations with Chabad, I am not always convinced of an honest and fair accounting of our differences whereby we both define what we mean by Jewish organizational success and candidly acknowledge the reality of American Jewish sociology.

In order to make any comparison with Chabad and identify their success, we must first understand Chabad. Chabad is a movement that started in the territories of modern day Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Eastern Poland. It is a Chasidic movement that is most famous for its emissaries, known as shluchim. These shluchim, numbering over 4000, go all over the world (and there don’t need to be too many Jews for them to go there) from Congo to Columbus, Ohio. With these dedicated shluchim, Chabad has managed to place itself not only on the national Jewish agenda, but also the international Jewish agenda.

One of the extraordinary things about Chabad is that, although it is a Chasidic movement, most of its followers are not Chasidic, nor are they even Orthodox, nor are they likely to become so. Indeed, Chabad houses offer a warm and accepting environment where there are no strings attached at all. In this regard, Chabad’s model of communal engagement is actually the opposite model found in most of the Jewish world. For most congregations, the basic model goes something like this: you become a member, and then you receive services and become a friend. The Chabad model reverses it: they provide services and become your friend, and later you’ll want to pay them something because of everything they do for you. They never expect anyone to become a member; there is no explicit expectation or demand for financial, communal, or even Jewish commitment.

So then, what is Chabad’s goal? What do they want? They nobly want us to do mitzvot or mitzvos (fulfill Jewish commandments). And why do they want us to do mitzvos? Because of messianism. That is to say, doing mitzvos – “changing the world one mitzvah at a time” – helps to bring about the messiah. Messianism is the belief that there is a messiah (the mashiach) and that he is coming (they are sure it’s a “he”), and, for some in Chabad, he has already been here (we’ll discuss below). Messianism has been at the heart of the mission of Chabad for at least the past hundred years, and they believe that it is their job is to hasten the coming of the messiah by encouraging mitzvos, specific ritual acts. Chabad has their own version of a top ten list of mitzvos, and the performance of those mitzvos has cosmic significance, potentially tipping the spiritual balance toward the messiah’s arrival. In other words, putting on tefillin in the street, eating a kosher meal, or spending a Shabbat at a Chabad house just one time and never doing it again is an act that has the power to tip the celestial scales. Therefore, the role of the shluchim is to encourage mitzvos in order to accelerate the coming of the messiah.

Over the past 50 years, Chabad has taken this message and skillfully packaged it into media and slogans – slogans that are particularly catchy in America, such as, “We want mashiach now!” Wanting something and wanting it now, after all, is about as American as apple pie. However, what is fascinating about this religious ideology is that it doesn’t take much to motivate the mashiach and get him here now. It doesn’t require keeping 613 commandments, it doesn’t require a lifetime of service, and it doesn’t even require a sustained commitment to the Jewish community. They claim that for mashiach to be here, it requires us to “just add goodness and kindness,” something of which no one could possibly be opposed.

What most people notice about Chabad though, is how it has proudly promoted traditional Jewish culture in the public square. Many are familiar with their telethon dancing rabbis and street-tefillin shluchim. And don’t forget the gigantic Hanukkah menorah that Chabad introduced to the world, as shluchim are raised on forklifts in public malls and plazas to light the lights. Chabad’s presence is prominent at the Kotel in Jerusalem, in the cyber world of the Internet and even at the White House in Washington. Furthermore, their marketing products such as publications and magazines, as well as collective distribution are the envy of many in the Jewish organizational world.

Finally, what we also associate with Chabad is the image of the Rebbe himself as the centralizing source of inspiration. No other Jewish leader in modernity has achieved his status of popularity. One only needs to see his face to know what he represents – and what he represents is not without controversy. To this day, banners donning his photo, mounted at storefronts and at the entrance of the Chabad Lubavitch Yeshivah on Eastern Parkway read, Yechi Melekh Ha-Mashiach (“Long Live the King Messiah”) and “MESSIAH IS HERE: Add just goodness and kindness.” These markers leave little doubt as to who they believe is the messiah. However, since the Rebbe’s passing in 1994, Chabad has worked very hard to shift its messaging regarding the Rebbe as the messiah, but still has not changed the banners.

So, now that we have a context for Chabad, we can better assess the question of its success. Professor Windmueller and others pronounce Chabad’s great organizational success, corroborating the claim that Chabad is possibly the most successful Jewish outreach organization in the world. Maybe they are. But that would only be success according to their own goals of bringing the sum number of mitzvot performed into the world for the hastening of the messiah. These, however, are not our goals at all.

Frankly, it is unwise and misleading to contrast the totality of Chabad’s successes with our own because we are working toward two totally different sets of goals. Such comparisons often result in more confusion and doubt about who we are than inspiration and solidarity in our own vision of Jewish life. And there are good reasons why we are who we are and not who we are not. For example, the fact that Chabad is able to get someone to put on tefillin in the street once so as to tip the balance in favor of a messiah is irrelevant for Conservative Judaism. Our goal is to help Jews live an integrated, whole life of mitzvot, so that each of us contributes to an ongoing and evolving world of goodness. We measure ourselves by different goals and ask ourselves different questions:

  • Are we helping Jews to live an embodied and rich life of mitzvot?
  • Are we heightening and expanding Jewish life both locally and nationally throughout America?
  • Are we building a stronger feeling toward the State of Israel and an expansion of a robust Jewish life there?
  • Are we helping to bring Jews of different streams and ideologies together to work in a pluralistic and respectful manner toward common aims?
  • Are we providing ample opportunities for more Jews in America live a life of Jewish learning?
  • Are we contributing to the advancement of scholarship and research in Jewish studies?
  • Are we working to improve relations between Jews and non-Jews?
  • Are we engaging Jews in honest and mature conversations about God?
  • Are we helping Jews enroll their children in a Jewish educational programs, Jewish summer camps, and Jewish youth groups?
  • Are we guiding Jews toward a rich inner spiritual life, including prayer?
  • Are we advancing Jewish civics and actively applying Jewish values toward worldly ethical problems?

These are the kinds of questions that we ask of Conservative Judaism. I don’t think we ask these questions of Chabad and I’m not certain it would do any good because they are not the questions they ask of themselves. Plus, if we did, I’m not too sure they would fare very well on the affirmative side.

There is no denying that our Conservative institutions need fixing in many ways, especially now, as we find ourselves in what seems to be a very unstable time. That being said, we are supremely aware of our own deficiencies and peccadilloes because we are experts at stacking up the self-criticism, jumping at every complaint, and overreacting to any demographic downturn. It’s good to remember that inspiring Jews toward authentic, serious Jewish living has been a challenge since the time of the Torah. Why should it be different today? Of course, complacency and hubris would be foolish and we should continuously seek out best practices. Yet as we look to those virtues of success (as identified in the questions above), let us neither overstate others’ nor deny our own.

Lastly, if there is anything we can learn it is to be resolute in our ideology and our message of relationships and connectedness. For us, it’s about connecting the wisdom of the past with the advances and insights of the present – connecting Jewish thought with Jewish practice; Jewish law (Halakhah) with ethics; Jews with other Jews of all varying denominations and perspectives; Jews with non-Jews, Jews with the State of Israel, and Jews with God. We believe in a world that moves toward more connectivity in all its glorious Jewish diversity, and bound by the unifying force of the oneness of God. It is from this place of authentic, religious vision that we are compelled to set our benchmarks and measure successes.

Rabbi Paul Steinberg is the Senior Educator at Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles, CA and is the author of the award-winning series, Celebrating the Jewish Year (JPS, 2009). He also teaches at the Graduate School of Education at American Jewish University and is working on his doctoral dissertation on the Bar Mitzvah at the Jewish Theological Seminary.