Friday, September 16, 2011

Appearances aren't always reality

Stumbled upon this interview with Rabbi Rick Jacobs from three years ago, about CHABAD and how we as Reform Jews should respond to them. (for those who don't know, CHABAD, or the Lubuvitcher movement, is a Chasidic, what is often called "Ultra-Orthodox" movement devoted to what we could call today 'Outreach'; that is, creating programming to reach as many Jews as possible and get them to join their movement, for the purpose of bringing about the time of the Messiah).

I have always had a problem with CHABAD, which tends to take people by surprise. After all, I've studied Chasidut and use a lot of Chasidic material in my own teaching and spiritual practice. And yet I have this really visceral response to them as an organization. Because of that really energetic (okay, angry) response, I don't do a very good job of explaining my position. It's not because of their practices or beliefs--I've studied that Tanya (the spiritual writings of their founder, Shneur Zalman of Liadi), and have learned tremendously from their outreach approach. My problem with them isn't even philosophical; while I strongly believe in a Judaism that is egalitarian and recognizes the holiness of every individual (Jewish and non-), I recognize their right as a group to practice a different Judaism, and no matter how much I may disagree with them on those issues, there is a place in the market of ideas for them to sell their wares. I don't even care that they accuse Reform of being inauthentic; it wouldn't be the first time, after all. And, anyone who has read a lousy self-help book will tell you that someone else cannot make me feel anything: if, at the end of the day, I regard my practice as inauthentic or irrelevant, it is because I believe it to be so, because of my doubts and insecurities.

And, in truth, CHABAD offers (like any other movement) an opportunity for spiritual searching and exploration. Not better or worse than any other (though perhaps with better marketing): but a different approach that can be appealing for some (or just appealing in one moment).

My issue with them has always been this profound sense that they're not being honest, either within their movement or with those they encounter. I have seen Chabad community centers (really, synagogues, but call them what you will) use other congregations' directories to recruit members and donors, advertise themselves as egalitarian (!), refuse to participate in community institutions (with two exceptions: a) there's money involved and b) they think they can show up others in the community in some way). Others smarter than me have written and commented that this emerges from their sense of mission--only they have the truth (look to their name: CHABAD is an acronym for Chochma, Bina v'Da'at--Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge) and the means to bring about mashiachtzeit (the Messianic Age), so why should they partner with others unless it's to their advantage? Better to get everyone to come to their side of the table. And if they have to break a few congregations and JCCs and Hillels along the way, so be it. Nothing personal: just business.

And really, my problem isn't even their 'business model' (pardon the expression), though I really don't like that 'winner take all' approach. It's that we buy into it. How many of us (myself included) shry gavult over slick marketing materials, over super-attentive rabbis saying slick things? How many of us complain about tactics? How much energy have I spent as a rabbi agonizing over 'how to get CHABAD'?

 Years ago I remember being in a meeting with my colleagues and laypeople and saying that the best response was to create a superior product. I don't believe that anymore; Judaism can't be a zero-sum game (thanks to Donniel Hartman for teaching me that one--at the CCAR conference in Atlanta in 2007). And it can't be about mere survival: of the People, of the State, of individual institutions. At the end of the day, it's about survival of an idea, and about believing in that idea, being passionate over that idea, so much so that we want to share it with others. We spend too much time looking at the wrong data: we look at membership numbers, at attendance at programs, because those are easy metrics. But at the end of the day, Reform needs to be more about what we believe than how many of us there are in North America.

Rick ends the interview with the following exchange:

As a Reform rabbi, I think that their role ought to be as one of the spiritual paths within Jewish life. A passionate, committed, very authentic path, but one of the paths and not the path, not a hierarchically overarching path making others seem less authentic or less serious.I was in midtown Manhattan, and I'm walking down the street and this wonderful friendly warm Chabadnik stops me and says, 'Are you Jewish?' I'm walking along, I'm wearing a grey suit. I don't know, maybe I have curly Jewish hair. I said, 'Yes, are you?' And he looked at me and started to laugh and he pointed to his tzit tzit and to his beard. I said, 'You know, appearances are not always reality.'

 I truly believe we are most successful when what we appear to be is what we truly are: that there is no difference between the outside and the inside, that we believe in our own authenticity as Jews providing meaningful, spiritual Jewish encounters: in Torah, in social justice, in worship, in life cycle and community, experiences that are welcoming, that are open, non-judgmental, and egalitarian. As Rick says, we didn't become the largest movement in America by provided a watered-down product, and CHABAD doesn't have the market share of wisdom, understanding and knowledge. We offer something that resonates deeply with people, and I'm always going to celebrate that.

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