Fixing Broken Judaism


The Truth about Judaism
By Douglas Rushkoff.
259 pages. Crown. $24.95.

Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch
By Sue Fishkoff.
330 pages. Schocken. $26.

To write The Rebbe's Army, Sue Fishkoff spent a year traveling to Chabad Houses in Anchorage, Bangkok, New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Fresno, and a score of other places where young Lubavitcher rabbis and their wives have set up shop. These young couples arrive with no more than a first year's salary in hand, hoping to bring Torah to Jews who are barely curious and often hostile. They commit to these towns for life, even when, as with Siberia, the locale is cruelly remote from their families in Israel or Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Fishkoff is willing to like her subjects, a trait that carries her book about the Lubavitchers to great heights of journalism. Getting past crude stereotypes of Chabad as cultish, pushy, or nefariously right-wing, she offers a warm portrait of Lubavitcher schlichim–emissaries, outreach ministers–and their families, and their selfless commitment to all Jewish people, no matter their income or level of observance.

They open nursery schools, run summer camps, throw Hanukah and Purim parties, teach people how to light Shabbos candles and lay tefillin, and build new mikvahs in areas that have none–all because the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, made returning lapsed Jews to the fold the central tenet of his teachings. Hasidic sects all emphasize mystical experience and ecstatic worship, as well as a curious attachment to the garb and alleged folkways of 18th century Eastern Europe. But only Chabad turns its messianic fervor toward outreach. (The sect's name is an acronym for the Hebrew words for wisdom, understanding, and knowledge; Chabadniks are "Lubavitchers" because their movement began in the Russian town of Lubavitch.) Sometimes their proselytism takes the form of adolescents going door-to-door in New York office buildings, encouraging Jewish stock brokers to pray with them. For the schlichim, it means becoming part of a community, winning acceptance and (they hope) more observant souls.

Fishkoff is honest about Lubavitchers' occasional insensitivities. New in town, they sometimes condescend to Reform or Conservative rabbis with long-standing congregations. Because most of Chabad's donations come from non-Hasidic Jews, Chabad draws from the same donor base that other synagogues rely on, and that can cause problems. Chabad rabbis don't worry too much about the separation of church and state (the late Rebbe supported prayer in public schools), and so they annoy liberal Jews with their eagerness to light menorahs in public squares. And, of course, the Lubavitchers' brand of Judaism, in which women may not read publicly from Torah and wives are often overwhelmed by ten children and very little money, is not a feminist Eden.

But Fishkoff is equally honest about the beauty of Chabad. What other organization in the Jewish world is so concerned about making us more Jewish? They don't want money and they don't want glory. Lubavitchers live simply, foregoing possessions in favor or large families and meaningful work. (As Arthur Hertzberg has said, "Chabad has the biggest army of people in the Jewish world ready to live on the edge of poverty.") They are generous beyond belief. They are gregarious. Alone among all Jewish groups, they reach out to Jews in prison. They run drug-addiction treatment programs; their social work with the handicapped is a model of selfless devotion. And, above all, they invite Jews whom they have just met to Shabbos dinners, Passover seders, and Torah classes–for which they charge nothing.

In rejecting American acquisitiveness and careerism, and instead focusing on promoting genuine religious experience and spreading Yiddishkayt, the Lubavitchers model the kind of Judaism that Douglas Rushkoff should admire. His book Nothing Sacred is a J'accuse against the rabbis, fundraisers, and community leaders who are so obsessed with keeping Israel strong and impeding intermarriage that they are strangling our religion. Rushkoff would agree with the Lubavitchers on just about everything; like them, he looks at most contemporary Jewish institutions and sees empty shells, desperate for an infusion of life.

But Rushkoff lacks the Lubavitchers' capaciousness (and Fishkoff's in chronicling them). His book turns on one over-simplification after another, rarely reaching to discern actual people in the Jewish monolith that he dislikes so much. "Judaism has contracted and retreated," Rushkoff writes, "rendering itself one of the last places Jews, or anyone, would turn for guidance or support." One of the last places? Seems a bit harsh. But try this quotation on for size: "Although it finds its roots in some of the most progressive ideas conceived in history"–iconoclasm, social justice, and so forth–"Judaism today is nonetheless associated with superstition, racism, sexism, and a haughty refusal to clean up its own act. Look around, and you'll soon understand why Jews and non-Jews alike get this impression of us."

Rushkoff is a little embarrassed by his fellow Jews. He thinks they're militaristic and materialistic, and he believes that feckless rabbis are afraid to teach the truth of Torah to comfortable burghers who don't want to hear it. I'm glad that Rushkoff has the courage to say what so many Jews feel. A lot of us look at lavish Bar Mitzvah parties with disdain, and sometimes it seems that we only hear from the local Jewish Community Center when it wants money. Many rabbis are too concerned with "growing" their congregations, not concerned enough with teaching or prophetic leadership.

Unfortunately, Rushkoff does not put these complaints in proper perspective. For one thing, they are as old as the hills. The Essenes withdrew from temple Judaism in the years before Jesus because they wanted a truer, more righteous faith; Mordecai Kaplan was attempting to address some of these concerns with his Reconstructionism; and young havurah Jews of the 1960s expressed similar feelings about their elders, dropping out of synagogues and even holding sit-ins at conferences of Jewish philanthropists to get money for progressive campus programs (Hillel Levine led one notable protest in Boston in 1969). In all religions, including Judaism, there is a persistent tension between the worldly and the sacred, and the sacred often loses out.

Because he finds contemporary Jews uniquely gauche, Rushkoff can't help but build a straw man that corresponds less to reality the more the book progresses. To read his book, you would never guess that hundreds of thoughtful rabbis grapple daily with the questions he poses. He is rudely dismissive of the ba'al teshuvah, or newly religious Jew. "From what I have observed," he writes, "their practices tend to fill them with self-righteousness and superiority, enabling them to avoid making substantive changes to the factors in their lives that led them to seek spiritual solace in the first place."

Would the orthodox he writes about recognize themselves in his description of them? Hardly. This failure of Rushkoff's may not be his fault. Perhaps owing to his new-media, computer avocation and his dot-com view of the world (he writes a monthly column on "cyberculture"), Rushkoff is tone-deaf to mystery or wonder. He simply cannot grasp that sane, thoughtful, humble people might derive comfort from symbols or charms, or that they might pray outdated sentiments in dead languages for good reasons.

Quite simply, Rushkoff has no idea why I, a non-observant Jew who has never kept kosher or owned a mezuzah, said Kaddish two weeks ago for my late grandmother Rebekah and started sobbing before I could get through the prayer. He has no idea why some staunchly feminist friends of mine refuse to add the names of the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah to those of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Amidah prayer. He evinces no respect for the power of tradition, and he seems not to have done the reading that might help him in this matter (Wittgenstein, Heschel, Rudolf Otto, Jaroslav Pelikan). More important, he doesn't seem to have talked to traditionally religious people and asked, "Why do you worship as you do?"

Rather, Rushkoff gamely offers his remedies to our contemporary Jewish problems. Some are a bit silly, like this epigram about indifferent Jews: "This so-called lapsed constituency might actually comprise Judaism's most devoutly practicing members. It is not these people, but what is considered 'Jewish' that needs to change." Others are inscrutable: "Hineni, like the force in any developing narrative, is pure potential. Readiness. Here I am. [It] is a path through which Jews may seek to achieve union by transcending the limits of ego."

His other prescriptions are good ideas that are utterly unoriginal, but which he seems to claim for his own. He wants, for example, to see new forms of beit midrash, or houses of study, in which students have access not "simply to the text itself, but also to the many myths, historical events, and literary conventions that went into its creation." In other words, Rushkoff proposes a pedagogy that does not shy away from the insights of archaeology, literary criticism, linguistics, and so forth. This is a great idea, and I am pleased to note that students in Reform and Conservative seminaries are already benefiting from these tools of a liberal education. In fact, it's not hard to find an Orthodox scholar who doubts that the Torah was literally dictated by Moses, or the world built in six days. The Talmud itself is filled with drashes on the metaphorical nature of Torah. Judaism is not so anti-intellectual or dead as Rushkoff seems to think.

Nothing Sacred is a deeply flawed book. And yet, you should read it. For Rushkoff is expressing, articulately and in an engaging way, the raw anger of many disaffected Jews who have had bad experiences, who loathed Sunday school, who are sick of the party line on Israel. The book is valuable not for its recommendations but as a view inside the mind of a particular kind of disaffected rationalist whose needs are not being met by Jewish institutions. Rushkoff's problem is a real one, and we should all listen. But before writing his book, Rushkoff should have done more reporting. Before deciding that he could improve on three thousand years of tradition, he might have talked to some people who revere that tradition–Lubavitchers, to take one example, or even tradition-minded Reform Jews. He need not agree with religious people, but if he wants his criticisms of them to be taken seriously, he must give them their due.



Copyright 2003 Jewish Family & Life! All Rights Reserved.