Why can't Chabad be more like “Mainstream Orthodoxy”?

There are people who, when they encounter Chabad, are troubled by the distinctiveness and differences between how Chabad operates and how other “mainstream orthodox” groups operate. Why do Chabadniks have to be so different from everyone else? Do they think they are better than everyone else? Are they just “perverse” and choosing to be different merely for the sake of appearing distinctive?

I have tried to answer this question on various occasions, and what I have learned from the experience is that sometimes it is better not to try to answer the question directly. No matter how good your material is, if you try to answer a confrontational question, you always looks like an apologist. Each answer proposed only arouses the natural skepticism of the listener. They think that you are trying to excuse and cover up what truly is a problem. In effect, one has already given their question some validity by acknowledging it and trying to answer it.

So let me try something different. I am just going to tell some stories and observations, and I will trust that you, gentle reader, are intelligent, mature, and enough of a truth seeker that you will discover, absorb, and draw conclusions that you yourself will feel have the correct balance of truth.

Recently, I had to travel to Monsey, New York. I hadn't been there before and it was a new experience, with both its interesting and troubling components. For those of you unfamiliar with Monsey, it is sort of a 18th century shtibl 30 miles north of Manhattan, full of people with the dress and mannerisms of an 18th Eastern European Jewish town - with one major distinction: all the housing, cars, etc. are typical 20th century American suburban. Initially, one could think one was in any typical American suburban town, until one sees the people living there.

There are many different groups living in Monsey: Satmar, Belz, Ger, Modern Orthodox, Litvish, Yekke, the list could go on and on. The entire spectrum of Orthodox Jewry (and a goodly number of Conservative and Reform Jews as well). These people are raising their families with full-strength Judaism. They have created an environment where one can live a completely halachically observant life, and where the environment of the community itself re-enforces this lifestyle by making halachic Judaism the norm. Whereas orthodox Jews might stick out in other American communities, and have to struggle to nurture a Jewish environment - in Monsey it is part of the natural existence. One has to be impressed by the sincerity and dedication of the people who created that town.

There is also a growing Baal Teshuva community in Monsey. Either by attending one of the Baal Teshuva Yeshivas, going to a kiruv (outreach) event, or by being m'kareved (brought close) by a Monsey family, there are people who are impressed with what they see in the Jewish lifestyle that pervades Monsey and want to be part of it.

Parenthetically, it is interesting to note “Mainstream” Orthodoxy's growth in interest in kiruv work. Initially, Chabad was almost entirely alone in trying to contact non-religious Jews. And until recently, Chabadniks were frequently castigated for taking time away from learning Torah to work with non-religious Jews. Today, the complaint has taken a different tone: not “why do kiruv” (since also all Orthodox do some form) but today's complaint is the manner and form in which Chabad does things.

After numerous conversations with people running these kiruv organizations in Monsey, I noticed that there is a different emphasis in what the goal of this kiruv is. The issues in these kiruv organizations is how best to integrate and absorb new members:  how to transform people who are far from Yiddishkeit and make them into Orthodox Jews. These rabbis and teachers are sincere, dedicated people, attempting to help people whom they see as lost and confused. Indeed, they are helping people who were once very alienated from their Jewishness see it in a new and more meaningful light - but their approach is not the Chabad approach. Why? Because Chabad does not do “kiruv” or outreach.

The term outreach is a translation of the term “kiruv”, which in turn is a contraction of the phrase: “kiruv ha'richokim” - bringing close those who are far away. The Rebbe never approved of this phrase. When someone would use this term, he would correct them saying: “ how do you know who is close and who is far?”

For more than 40 years the Rebbe - through countless talks filled with examples and illustrations - taught us a unique and distinctive approach  to how one should talk to and approach another Jew. Any Jew. And even non-Jews. At this point in time, for those who are truly attached to the Rebbe, this approach is ingrained in our nature.

What was this approach? That every Jew (and even non-Jew) is a part of G-dliness (Man is created in the image of G-d, B'tzelem Elokim). He taught us that G-dliness is already there, and all one has to do is reveal it.

Without the Rebbe's teaching one might look at things quite differently. One might think, “hey I am a pretty good person. I know a lot about Judaism. I know more than most other Jews. And when I look at the world I see that many people have confused value systems and ethics and need direction and guidance to become a better person. So, out of the goodness of my heart, I am going to go out and help them. I am going to be altruistic and do an act of kindness and teach those unfortunate heathens who are not as enlightened as me.”

And of course, this is exactly what irritates us the most about about “Orthodox” people. “Who do they think they are? Why do they think they are so much better than the rest of us? Let me tell you, they really aren't so good. I can tell you lots of stories about how they did this and that.” Some people can spout these stories quite easily, because it helps assuage the feeling of inferiority and diverts attention from the insecurity that these “Orthodox” people can provoke, even if they say or do nothing other than exist.

The Rebbe changed the entire approach to “outreach.”. A person is not reaching out to someone on the “outside”. A Jew is already perfect. A Jew, just by being a a Jew, without doing any mitzvoth has more G-dliness than can ever be instilled by any practice. Practices, observances, are limited acts confined to this world - G-dliness is something that is utterly beyond this world, and cannot be affected by physical acts. A Jew's Jewishness is a basic thing, which cannot be corrupted or diminished by any thing that the Jew might have done in this world. This derives from the fact that a Jew already possesses a degree of G-dliness which is utterly beyond this world. A Jew is a “chelek Eloka mimal” literally a part of G-d. And just as G-d is not affected by the occurrences and the world (we cannot harm Him, etc.) so to a Jew's G-dliness is something infinite and untouchable.

This situation is the same when a Jew who knows more comes in contact with a Jew who knows less. One should realize that on a certain essential level, there really is no difference. The essence of both of them is the same - they are both Jews. And that commonality basically makes any distinctions insignificant. The mere fact of one's Jewishness is something beyond any training or observance.

In fact, the whole reason why some Jews happen to know more about Judaism is so that they can share it with other Jews. Knowledge of Judaism comes from G-d. It is a gift. And the only purpose of this gift is to share it with those who need it. It belongs to to them already. The giver is only being given the opportunity to return this knowledge of Judaism to them. This is what the Rebbe taught: that it is not the giver who is doing the recipient a favor , but the recipient who is doing the giver a favor by allowing him to be able to give.

When one truly internalizes this outlook, when one has absorbed this perspective fully and clearly and integrated it into one's being, then one will no longer be troubled by questions about the structure and format of  “outreach” that Chabad does.

It doesn't matter where the person is located (in the street, movie theater or even the bar), nor does it matter whether the person is intermarried or homosexual or anything else. What matters is that it is a Jewish soul. And every Jewish soul is complete and whole no matter what place or situation it is in. Place and situation cannot touch the pure essence of the Jewish soul - because a Jewish soul is something that is completely beyond the confines of this world. We really don't know what a soul is, because we grasp everything with our limited physical and intellectual senses. And these can only grasp the limited projection of the soul that exists in this world. But the part of the soul that exists beyond the confines of this world - this we are unable to fathom.

A true emissary of the Rebbe appreciates that each person who walks into his or her Chabad House or whom they meet on the street is a Jewish soul beyond measure. The external appearance and situation is only that - externality.

The truth is that the person is already, in their true being, 100% complete. That is why a properly functioning Chabad institution feels so homey. Because from the first moment one steps into the door - one feels completely accepted. Not that one has to change, not that one has to grow, but already from the first moment one is already 100% accepted and complete.

And even if that person does not change or grow - it is not essential. Their Jewishness is already there. Unlike other outreach organizations, where one feels that one has to change to fit in, where the point of the kiruv is to bring in and transform the person from someone outside to an insider - Chabad says a Jew is already more Jewish than any amount of training can accomplish.

Of course, Chabad Centers do teach an enormous amount. Yes, there are classes, and all sorts of educational programs. But the point is different. These are not things designed to “integrate” one into the “Orthodox” community. There is no agenda to make one into a Jew who would feel comfortable in Monsey, Borough Park, or Bnei Brak, to make a person fit in so that his uncomfortable “foreignness” does not stick out.

Rather, the uniqueness and “foreignness” of each Jew is to be treasured. G-d caused a person to be situated distant from “mainstream” Jewish groups, so there must be something precious that G-d wanted the person to acquire when he was there.

Whatever education that Chabad does is not aimed at “re-engineering” the person but rather giving him or her better insight so that THEY THEMSELVES can decide where they want to go next. That is how one treats an adult. One trusts their sense of truth and correctness. If one tells an adult something, then one can trust the adult to understand themselves and the world well enough that they will act on whatever needs to be done. If they don't act, then trust them that they either need more time, a better understanding, or have some other personal issue that needs to be addressed - and that they will take care of this - because they are adults.

Treating a person as an adult (Jewishly) means appreciating that the person already has a Jewish soul, and that the Jewish soul is attached to and seeks G-dliness. It is perfectly capable of finding and appreciating what is truly G-dly. Similarly, it can distinguish G-dliness from shtick. [What is shtick? One example might be a person who grew up in America in the 60's, yet when he becomes religious he takes on the speech mannerisms of Polish Chassidim so that he can fit into their Brooklyn community. That's shtick. Because what does that have to do with truly deepening one's Yiddishkeit? And the same thing applies to being able to recite Gemmora with a certain style of sing-song speech patterns].

Chabad “outreach” is the antithesis of shtick. Don't try to take on the mannerisms of those who were brought up in those religious enclaves. You are fine as you are. Your Jewishness is fine as it is. There is no expectation that you have to transform yourself. In fact, we cherish an environment that is made up of a heterogeneous mix of very different people. But if you would like to learn more about Yiddishkeit, here are some things I think you will find interesting. I trust you completely, because you are a Jewish soul (and an adult). I trust that you will find the meaning that is personally relevant to you, and do a much better at it than if I tried to guess what you should find meaningful.

This, in essence, is what Chabad “kiruv” is about, and why it differs from what others do. This does not mean that others are not sincere, well-meaning, and selflessly dedicated to helping other Jews. No, not at all. It is just that the Rebbe taught a different way. He taught us a different way to unite Jewry. By uncovering the essential spark that is in every Jew, one accomplishes more than any amount of re-education and training.

Those of us who call ourselves Chabadniks appreciate and value this distinction. Others may not, and they are certainly no less admirable. The Chabad approach is not one that desires to transform the world into Chabadniks.

If others see value in the Chabad approach. that's also fine, and they don't have to change themselves and start acting or dressing like Chabadniks. They only need to act according to what they already sense is true. That is, if you come across someone who has less knowledge of Judaism, and you sense you have an insight or understanding that you can share with them - then by all means do it. Don't try and transform him, just share something precious with them, and help uncover the spark of Judaism that is already there and only needs a little fuel (which you can provide) to help it burn more brightly.

This is what Chabad “outreach” is about - in a very practical and grounded way. And hopefully this short essay has helped illuminate and answer some questions about what we do and why and how we do it.

Author: Yechezkal-Shimon Gutfreund