Open Zion

07.01.13

What Peter Beinart Gets Wrong About Chabad

Peter Beinart’s controversial article about Cory Booker’s Chabad rabbi friends has raised the ire of many and elicited several responses, including from one of the rabbis mentioned. While I don’t know Booker, it is refreshing to see a politician who has genuinely extended himself as a person through a deeper understanding of other cultures. Indeed, this behavior is mirrored in both Rabbis Boteach and Hecht, so it’s no surprise that they are all close friends. In a diverse society such as ours, only by building meaningful bridges between cultures can we move beyond platitudes and generalizations and truly unite. Further, it’s an insult to Booker to suggest that he cannot maintain such friendships without being unduly influenced.

Along the way, Beinart makes some comments about Chabad and its theology, and about two of its well-known rabbis (disclaimer: I’m related to Hecht). But his comments reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of how Chabad works as an organization.

To understand Chabad, and Chassidic groups in general, one first has to understand the relationship between a Chassid and the Rebbe. It is a central doctrine that as leader of the group, the Rebbe has a connection to God and to spiritual dimensions that is not attainable by the majority of people. As such, he has the ability to understand the needs of his followers, and to offer advice, insights, blessings, and direction for their lives. This leads to a very strong bond between Chassid and Rebbe. My late grandfather, Reb Zalman Serebryanski, would repeat the time-worn adage “a Chassid is a soldat (soldier).” This military metaphor provides an insight into the way a Chassidic group functions and the interactions between Rebbe and Chassid.

There are elements of autocracy, monarchy and military in the organizational structure and culture of Chassidic movements. The bottom line is simple: if the Rebbe issues a directive, the Chassidim carry it out.

While other Chassidic groups had a more insular and isolationist approach—in some cases trying to recreate the small towns of pre-war Europe—Chabad was radical and revolutionary. They discarded the shtreimel (fur hats) and long coats of the other groups and took the conservative fedora and dark suit of mainstream Orthodoxy. They went out into the world and engaged with it in a way that no Jewish group had ever done before.

The thousands of foot soldiers, each dedicated to the Rebbe and his mission of outreach and bringing about the coming of the Messiah, spread rapidly across the world. The movement took some but not all elements from the military (interestingly, the Chabad children’s organization is called Tzivos Hashem, literally “army of God”). In an army, the chain of command is everything. A soldier is trained to follow the orders of the superior officer, and in order for an army to operate smoothly, it needs a deep hierarchy of management: Lieutenants, Corporals, Majors, Generals, and a Commander in Chief. Orders flow down from the Commander in Chief through to the Privates, and activity and reporting flows up. Chabad was different: it had the military culture of soldiers working together toward a common cause, but not the structure and management levels of an army (or indeed of any organization of similar size).

I believe this was for two reasons: First, this sort of hierarchy is not how delegation traditionally works in Chassidic groups—everyone can and does have a direct connection to the Rebbe. And with the Rebbe’s tremendous work rate and the assistance of a small secretariat group, he was indeed able to respond to a huge volume of correspondence from many thousands of Chassidim and maintain a direct connection with them. Second, having minimal management and controls meant global expansion could be far more rapid. How long would it take and what would it cost for a regular business to establish a global network of thousands of offices all pushing the message of the CEO/Chairman?

So what is Chabad? Chabad is a global, distributed, mission-driven organization. ‘Global’ is quite obvious; ‘distributed’ because of the lack of hierarchy and central controls; and ‘mission-driven’ because the mission was and is everything, and is bigger than and survives any one leader or individual.

People who speak of “the Chabad PR machine” or who refer to “the power and influence of Chabad” have the mistaken impression that Chabad rabbis work far more closely together than they do. Each has their individual mission, and each one seeks to fulfil it on a micro level. This is most aptly described by the Rebbe himself. He noted that despite so many external threats over its history, Judaism has survived for 3000 years, and will continue to stick around: “God looks after Judaism; it is our job to look after Jews.” This reflects the balance between the macro mission of outreach and its implementation at a micro level.

The Chabad theological views on the nature of the Jewish soul and of the difference between Jews and non-Jews have been discussed in classical texts for hundreds of years. Beinart’s choice of an off-the-cuff quote from an obscure Rabbi David Hartman lecture is just sloppy. If he really wanted to understand this aspect of Chabad theology, he’d be better off spending some time with his local Chabad rabbi (like Booker did), and he would learn that it’s neither “primitive” nor “racist.”

On the matter of Chabad policy with regard to the Palestinians, again he searches for sensationalist quotes—this time attributed to Chabad rabbis in Safed, who were just part of a group of rabbis holding this view—as a reflection of the official party line of the entire Chabad movement. While this is not the place to go into a deep discussion about the attitudes of Chabad to both the state of Israel and to the conflict, suffice it to say that they are more driven by the micro issue of protecting Jews living in Israel, which as leaders is their priority.

More generally, the distributed and unstructured nature of Chabad gives rise to diversity of views and approaches within the movement. There is no “party line” that is communicated to the thousands of Chabad rabbis all over the world so they can be informed as to what the official stance is on specific issues. Equally, when rabbis choose to make pronouncements of their own that may diverge from certain aspects of Chabad or Orthodox theology, they are not “called in to head office” and reprimanded. There is a vast body of writings from the Rebbe and his predecessors, which serve as guidance to his followers—and are often open to individual interpretation and inspiration.

Chabad rabbis such as Hecht and Boteach on the one hand, and Wilshansky and Bistritzky from Safed on the other, associate and identify with Chabad yet still hold diverse views and retain the autonomy to choose their personal expression as part of a global movement. None of them purport to speak for Chabad globally. It just doesn’t work that way.

It behooves Beinart to follow Booker’s lead in reaching out to his Chabad friends and learning more about the movement before making uninformed pronouncements as he has done. I’m sure the door of his nearest Chabad House is always open.