Thoughts on Judaism

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why I am no longer Chabad

Many people have asked me why I ceased to identify with Chabad. Another great many simply grunt their disapproval or make annoying insinuations, which are presumptive defense mechanisms for themselves. Others motivations and opinions of me rarely motivate me to care enough to explain myself, but in this case, I find that other people around me take some of the flack. In deference to their feelings, I will give a few words on the subject. The following is a list of reasons which I have heard offered which are absolutely not among my reasons:

1) The misnagdim or skeptics got to me. There are those who seriously think that I am so devoid of the ability to discern and research rhetoric that I am under the influence of the easily refuted talking points of a group of baddies somewhere. Why else would I reject the undeniable truth of Chabadist Judaism? Only Chabad rhetoric would ever be considered by sane and intelligent person when developing a life direction.

2) I had a fight with … There are those who honestly put the cart before the horse. Clearly, my personality is so one dimensional and insecure that if you oppose me or anger me in something, I will throw away years of self identification and training and join the enemy just to spite you. This would even be stronger if had, in fact, joined the enemy, but let’s not confuse a good defense mechanism with the facts.

3) I am dealing with my personal pain. Perhaps this one more or less actually describes why I ever joined Chabad, or even more broadly, why anyone ever goes on any sort of spiritual quest. However, it would be a poor reason to uproot any roots that I had in Chabad and try to accommodate my Chabad family while still living outside its fold. That would increase pain, rather than decrease it.

4) I am too full of myself. Guilty as charged, but not a reason to leave Chabad. I will be with myself wherever I go.

5) I am too centered on ethical matters. When I heard this one, I really did not know where to go with it. OOOOOOOOOOOOOOKayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy, moving right along.

6) I expect too much, and I am seeking an impossible standard of perfection. Well, the truth is that I’d settle for a product as advertised, but as the charge presumes, I would not leave Chabad to seek the impossible. This would be stronger if I had gone from one thing to another, min hakatzeh el hakatzeh, as I became dissatisfied with each philosophy in turn.

So, the plainest rationale is that I grew up and outgrew the Chabad way. I began to realize that its philosophy was not healthy for me in many ways, and that following it frequently drove me to a place that was weaker physically, spiritually and philosophically. In other words, it was not making me stronger, even in the ways that it is supposed to. This does not mean that it is a bad philosophy or that it benefits no one. It clearly works for some people and I wish them well. In fact, many of my closest friends and those of my family are Chabad people, who understand that my feelings are personal and do not amount to an indictment against Chabad, in total. So, the following reasons are why chabad is not a good fit for me.

1) Rebbe iber alles. I could no longer be satisfied by striving to be more like the Rebbe or more what the Rebbe wanted me to be. Many Chasidic stories center on a simple person who rejects his own sense and instead blindly follows the advice of the Rebbe. Of course, in the story, it always works out for him. In real life, not so much. This has blossomed today into ideas like communicating with the Rebbe via random selections in a book of letters, divining at the Rebbe’s grave, or simply chanting slogans and expecting revelations. For a chasid, he must be nothing less than an infallible pope of a superhuman being. There is a line between heartfelt reverence and single minded veneration and enshrining. The Rebbe was a prescient, visionary leader in most respects, and he was wrong far fewer times than the vast majority would have been in his position, and sadly, he has passed on. Chabad needs to move on. I definitely needed to.

2) Being an individual is bad. In Chabad, you wear a uniform and you think uniformly. Anything less is “shvach”. Army terms and parables saturate Chabadism. Bitul and following are the highest virtues. Arguing and thinking differently are the signs of arrogance. The Judaism that I grew up with and respected valued critical thinking and rational argument. In Chabad, rationality is often referred to as a negative. I do not do well in that type of uniform environment.

3) Mythology is good. And believing Chabad myths is virtuous. Questioning them shows lack of faith and especially, faith in the saints, the highest virtue. For every situation, there is a story which is supposed to trump your better judgment or common sense. Every Rebbe story that features a miracle is supposed to convince me further that only the Chabad Rebbes can run the world. (And yes, they use that language frequently.) Being that I do not think that celebritocracy is the best way to govern, I never fully got into this.
A note on this one: I went to a Purim display recently, and I saw a representation of Mordechai, dressed in a shtreimel and capota. That rather says it all.

4) Crime pays. Any Chabad criminal is justified, from the top down. I have no respect for the Chabad criminals that have plaques in their honor in buildings named after them, or who collect millions from work a day people for their defense funds. As such, I cannot participate in this, and must speak out against it, as halacha demands. As Chabad establishment fully supports and aggrandizes these people, that makes me “the enemy”.

5) Yechi-ism Chabad politics interest me as much as Capulet – Montague politics interested Mercutio. It is mildly entertaining until one of them stabs you. Which leads to another point. Who cares? It is 15 years later. Why are the slogans or succession still an issue? I have no skin in this game. Each side is as bombastic and self serving as the other.

6) Nepotism and corruption. These are rampant in Chabad as anywhere. I have no family roots or support system in Chabad nor enough money to make a difference.

7) No shared interest. I do not care about Rebbe’s getting out of prison, nor their birthdays and yahrtzeits. Nor do I care for some of the irrelevant halachas and customs, like 7 o’clock kiddush, kaparos complete with 3 chickens for a pregnant woman, just in case, drawing mayim shelanu at dusk, RT Tefilin, chalav yisroel, pas and bishul yisroel, even on things that have nothing to do with the original law, gebrochts, other Pesach irrelevant stringencies, etc. I am more interested in the traditional Jewish observances.

8) Judaism salesman. Every non-chabad encounter is an opportunity to share chasidus. Every non-observant simcha is an opportunity spread the Gospel and put tefilin on people. How is mivtzas sheva mitzvos different than missionary work again? I would rather converse about ideas than convince someone of something.

9) Magic everywhere The practice of non-Jewish magic is sanctioned and prolific, though thankfully not universal. Obviously, not my bag.

10) Fighting the fight. Being in Chabad, you are expected to adopt the enemies of Chabad as your enemies. Similarly, there are people who will hate you for identifying with Chabad. I don’t care enough to endure strange abuse for an honor that I dream not of, nor do I wish to empathize with derision and scorn of others. I do not hold a group or individuals in contempt if they dislike Chabad or have theological problems with Chabad, unless they are contemptuous in their manner.

So there you have the top ten reasons, and there are more as well. Of course, this does not mean that I have anything against Chabad. I appreciate the special character of Chabad, the unique customs, the level of kindness in many members, the fervor they can generate toward good things and the positive thrust of their type of outreach, contrasted with the negative thrust so often used in the past. I like and respect the Rebbe and many of his goals and vision. I only want to explain why it was not good for me. While I cannot wear their uniform or carry their flag, I will never pasul Chabad wine or refuse a Chabad minyan or any of these types of theatrics. I wish them great success, and I hope to share part of their programs, and naturally, I hope that the practitioners of Chabad gain something that fulfills their heart’s desire and lasts a lifetime. Please enjoy with my compliments.