This change, we suggest, is the background to the flourishing of the Chabad outreach program. We want to look at Chabad not only because of its intrinsic ethnographic interest, but also because we would like to explore whether Chabad can provide a model for promoting and strengthening Jewish identity in the individualist 21st century culture available to Jewish educators and community leaders who do not share the Chabad worldview and theology (and may in fact not be religious at all). But in order to accomplish that, we must try and understand Chabad outreach in its own terms – what are its assumptions and what are its aims?
The Chabad outreach program is derived from Chabad theology as initially formulated at the end of the 18th century and developed in the last generations under the leadership of the last two rebbes: R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson and his son-in-law R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson. According to this theology, the goal of the creation is to make “a dwelling place for Him [God] in this material nether-world.”42[שתכלית בריאת העולם הזה שנתאווה הקב”ה להיות לו דירה בתחתונים” – לקוטי אמרים [תניא חלק א, ל”ו”
Chabad theology teaches that the world – that is the material world in which we live – is in fact hidden Godliness. That is, that the world comes from God, or more precisely, is Godliness, however, we as created beings cannot perceive this.* The concrete meaning of to “make for Him [God] a dwelling place” means to expose the essential Godly nature of the world. One of the central paths of accomplishing this is by doing mitzvot with worldy material objects (leather boxes and straps for tfillin, woolen strings for tziztit, wheat flour and water for matzot etc.) By using material worldly objects in order to perform divine commandments, one highlights their true divine nature and purpose. That is, one “loads them” with spiritual and divine meaning. This attribution of divine meaning and purpose does only apply to the concrete material objects of the mitzvah itself (i.e. the tefilin straps and boxes) but to the entire chain of their production and existence. Thus, to take again the example of the tefilin straps. Laying tefilin does not only endow the straps and boxes with divine purpose and meaning it also endows the cows whose skin provided the leather, the water they drank and the grass that they ate. Thus by doing material mitzvoth Jews endow the entire material and natural world with inner divine and meaning and purpose. However, this divine meaning and purpose is not perceptible in the current unredeemed state of the world. The meaning of the Messianic era is that the true divine purpose of and meaning of the material, nether world becomes perceptible and apparent to all.43 Chabad chasidim are fond, in connection with the Messianic era of quoting the verse from Isaiah 11:9 כי מלאה הארץ דעה את ה’ כמים לים מכסים … “for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”
Chabad’s activity is based upon very different principles from that of the conventional organized Jewish community. They are much less concerned with “membership,” and group and denominational boundaries. They are much more concerned that individual Jews (and the Jewish collectivity, especially in Israel) do mitzvot and endow the world with divine purpose and meaning through individual acts of tzedakah, the laying of tfilin, shaking a lulav and etrog, chesed and lovingkindness, and Sabbath observance. They invite the individual Jew to do something truly meaningful – to endow the world with divine purpose – without demanding membership and membership fees and long-term commitments. Chabad metaphysics and activity is truly suited to an individualist, fluid age and to an age of “symbolic ethnicity.” They offer, as it were, capsules of ultimate meaning that can be consumed with other kinds of capsules of meaning (Zen, movies, literature, sculpture, shopping) on various levels.
Despite its individualist cast, Chabad centers, do offer an important experience of community. Here too, the interpersonal experience Chabad offers is different from the conventional one offered by the Jewish community. Chabad religious philosophy and practice basically strips people and situations down to their metaphysical essentials. Viewed in Chabad eyes, individual Jews are not “members of the Jewish community” with social roles, status, and resources. They are basically divine Jewish souls placed in the lower material world to provide God with a dwelling place. Thus, ideally speaking, Chabad social practice and convention tends to ignore the external “garments” of money, status and sexual attraction. Rather, it tends to relate to people on the basis of their common human/Jewish essence, creating an egalitarian, open, and accepting space (for Jews) that ignores social distinctions. It resembles the concepts of “communitas” that the anthropologist, Victor Turner made famous.44 In practice, of course, individual Chabad shlichim are human beings and as such may be drawn to the charms of money, status and sex as much as anyone, but their institutionalized religious and social practice has enough “communitas” in it to make the communal experience of Chabad “special” for most people. Chabad, uniquely, does not require global personal commitments in order to participate in their capsules of meaning making Jewish activity, but it also provides an open, accepting experience of community.
Chabad’s “individualistic approach” is rooted in “metaphysical collectivism.” The individual Jewish souls are in fact organically rooted in Knesset Yisrael (Ecclesia Israel, or the Community of Israel) – a unitary spiritual entity ultimately rooted in God Himself.45 Thus, Chabad rejects the current denominational principles by which the Jewish community is organized. In fact it regards “denominations” such as Orthodox and Reform as harmful fictions that needlessly divide Jews from each other.
In ideal terms Chabad seems suited to provide a path to Jewish identification in individualist, fluid 21st Century American culture. How does it work in practice? Here there are probably more questions than answers. No doubt a broad range of folks participate in Chabad experiences episodically, but there’s not much data assessing the impact of those experiences on Jewish decisions, values, and behaviors. It seems that it is able to provide a framework in which Jewish activity and identity can reside comfortably with other multiple identities and identifications. This is a framework Jews of no religion and those who are partially Jewish (provided they have a Jewish mother) might find especially congenial. Can this serve as hook for further Jewish commitment and affiliation? Chabad chasidim and shluchim are of course very committed to the Jewish people and what they understand is its welfare. Can they impart this commitment, beyond providing capsules of Jewish meaning, to “borderland Jews” with thin affiliations and identification? A further problem is that the data we do have relates to geographical areas where many Jews with Jewish religious or ethnic background have lived for decades – Miami-Dade, Flatbush, etc. So while many Chabad centers are in areas that were hitherto devoid of Jewishness, we don’t know what their effect has been. It should be noted though, that a study now being conducted seems to preliminarily indicate that higher rates of involvement with Chabad on campus are associated with higher net levels of Jewish engagement among alumni in their 20s.
Beyond the issue of determining and measuring its effectiveness, there are questions concerning Chabad’s cost to the community. For example, when Chabad moves into an area does it siphon off money and people from existing Jewish organizations and programs, in effect bringing no net gain to the community?
Finally, there is the issue of whether non-Chabad frameworks and organizations can adopt Chabad techniques and approaches. Can these techniques and approaches be abstracted out of Chabad’s religious philosophy and practice? Can one construct equally effective capsules of meaning if one does not accept Chabad’s specific, mystical worldview?
We briefly introduced Chabad outreach in this essay because it seems to be a vibrant Jewish phenomenon, which appears to operate by different rules and assumptions than mainstream Jewish religious, educational, and communal institutions. Sustained and systematic research on Chabad may answer the questions raised above and accurately include Chabad and its potential impact on American Jewish identity in the overall picture of the changing American Jewish community.