The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch
by Sue Fishkoff
Schocken. 352 pp. $26.00

Sue Fishkoff’s book shows us a religious movement in action—one of the most startlingly successful of modern times. The movement is the mission of Chabad (or “Lubavitcher”) Hasidism to the Jews. Fishkoff is no scholar, historian, or theologian, no kind of “expert.” But she is a fine reporter and a warm and winning writer, and her book has so much forward momentum, the reader finds himself asking and answering the big questions for himself.

Chabad is one part of Hasidism, which is one part of Orthodox Jewry. Orthodox communities are traditionally the Greta Garbos of Judaism: we’ll leave you alone, you leave us alone. Ask them to explain the 3,000-year spiritual history of the foundational religion of the Western world and their answer boils down to “Go away.” It is true that, in Israel, some Orthodox Jews have worked for decades to compel the government to enforce their worldview on the ignorant public; but they rarely waste any sympathy on the public.

Chabad’s late leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson—the seventh and (so far) last Lubavitcher Rebbe—had a different idea. Instead of keeping his Hasidim at home in their self-contained Brooklyn community, he sent them into the world to coax unconnected and barely connected Jews a step closer to normative, Orthodox, “Torah” Judaism. It was a startling idea, in several ways; but he was a startling man.



Virtually everyone who ever met Rabbi Schneerson agrees that he was a figure of electrifying presence; of uncanny penetration and spiritual depth. Nearly ten years after his death in 1994, his followers are still unwilling or unable to appoint a successor, and are still carrying out his instructions. Some go further and have created a scandal in the Orthodox community by calling the late Rebbe “messiah”—the anointed one who will arrive one day to save mankind.

Unlike virtually every other religious mission in history, the Rebbe’s mission to the Jews did not (and does not) seek converts from other religions. Nor did it aspire to make Orthodox Jews out of “unaffiliated” ones. It aimed to redecorate Jewish lives room by room instead of tearing them down and building new ones.

At the start, in the 1970’s, the mission was painfully unsophisticated. Chabad shlichim (emissaries) would stop Jews on the street, urging women to accept Sabbath candles and men to put on tefillin (small leather boxes with biblical verses inside, worn on the arm and forehead during morning prayers). Nowadays things are different. Roadwork is still part of Chabad’s program, but a small part. Today, an amazingly large proportion of Chabad newlyweds and young families depart native ground in Brooklyn for points all over the world. Sometimes they join other existing Chabad communities, but often they establish new ones, including in parts of the world where scarcely any Jews (much less Orthodox ones) exist. Between a third and a half of the community, according to Fishkoff, lives outside hasidic enclaves.

Chabad emissaries go to Florida and Israel—but also to Alaska and Shanghai. And they go to settle, for the rest of their lives. By creating synagogues and all sorts of Jewish schools and summer camps and adult-education programs, by offering free classes and free guidance (on bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, and everything in between), by rehabilitating drug addicts and helping the down-and-out of all religions and races, Chabad has changed Jewish and non-Jewish lives around the world.

A leading Lubavitch official explains the Chabad approach: “The Rebbe said, ‘Do what you can to bring moshiach,’ ” the messiah. “So you do more and more. A girl’s school in the morning. A drug facility. Poor people.” Fishkoff’s reporting makes clear that these are no idle boasts. Inspired by the transcendent spiritual power of their late leader, so revved-up on God and Torah that they practically glow in the dark, Chabad emissaries devote their lives to their fellow Jews and fellow human beings.



If it all sounds too good to be true, Chabad does have problems of its own. These Fishkoff explains candidly but sympathetically. A substantial part of the Jewish community is hostile to Chabad’s enterprise—often out of ignorance or prejudice, but sometimes for deeper reasons. Many Jews believe that Chabad’s goals are “to get their hooks into people” and then drag, brainwash, or pied-piper them into the hasidic world. (Fishkoff convincingly refutes this idea.) Others find Chabad embarrassing—too blatantly Jewish.

But there is also the fact that some Chabad Hasidim believe that the late Rebbe will return as the messiah. It is hard to overstate the horror that this quasi-Christian idea arouses in most Jewish minds. The idea that the Rebbe will return from death (or is not actually dead) is anathema to Judaism, and pure poison to Chabad’s mission.

Fishkoff undertakes to assess the penetration of the messianist heresy within Chabad. “Nut cases,” one Chabadnik calls the messianists in his movement. Among the emissaries, she concludes, an “overwhelming majority” want nothing to do with this belief, and she reports that by 1999, the “breakaway convention” of shlichim who called the late Rebbe messiah “was drawing only 70 participants, compared to 1,500 at the official convention.”

Others who have studied the phenomenon claim that the messianists, to the contrary, are a major (if largely subterranean) element in Chabad. They point to the large number of Chabad leaders who are known to hold messianic views about the Rebbe in private, and to the leadership’s reluctance to suppress (not merely denounce) the messianist heresy.



Who is right? No outsider can know the true state of Chabad’s mind. But in the meantime Chabad’s actions enlicit unequivocal gratitude from those they benefit. In the voices Fishkoff has marshaled, you can hear how badly the Jewish world needs Chabad. One self-described liberal Jew identifies Chabad as the force that “doesn’t get distracted, it doesn’t get lost”; it is the “real foundation of Judaism.”

Fishkoff’s book practically compels the conclusion that, in the not-too-distant future, nearly all American rabbis and synagogues will be some flavor of Orthodox. With all due respect to the many brilliant and devoted Jewish leaders in the non-Orthodox world, liberal Judaism is dying. It cannot sustain itself. Its children are leaving.

Fishkoff cites a question posed by a Reform leader: why can’t his movement, “whose spiritual message is more appropriate to contemporary American life, muster up the same enthusiasm” that Chabad arouses? It is a touching and sad question that answers itself. Evidently many Jews don’t want a message that is “appropriate,” they want one that is true. And they want a direct connection to their traditions. Human beings need food and water; also legitimacy. The ice-your-own-cupcake world of liberal Judaism has been weighed and found wanting.

Chabad is hardly the whole of Orthodoxy, although you might not learn this from reading Fishkoff. The mesmerizing brilliance of 20th-century rabbinic culture was mainly not hasidic. Modern Orthodoxy, “black-hat” Orthodoxy, and “neo-orthodoxy” are all parts of a developing picture. But Chabad has a crucial lesson for them all when it comes to approaching their fellow Jews: a lesson in nobility and kindness.

“You’re as Jewish as I am”—the words with which one Chabad emissary approaches the unaffiliated. “This,” he explains to Fishkoff, “is what the Jewish soul wants to hear.” Chabad’s role resembles the role Conservative Judaism (the “middle way” between Reform and Orthodoxy) once played in American Jewish life. People used to mock Conservatism: “Orthodox rabbis with Reform congregations.” Partly in response, Conservatism was transformed almost beyond recognition. But it turns out that the Orthodox rabbi with his Reform congregation made sense after all—just as it made sense in ancient Israel for a minority to be priests and tend the Temple and for the large majority to support them, to drop by occasionally, and to be as good and as holy as they had it in them to be.

There are minor errors in Fishkoff’s book. More important are the major truths. If someone had announced in the 1960’s that what Judaism needed was thousands of utterly devoted young Orthodox missionaries to go anywhere, live austerely, and welcome every Jew with open arms, the response would have been: “Forget it, you’re crazy; you’re asking for miracles.” Fishkoff’s book makes plain that a miracle is exactly what the Rebbe asked for, and a miracle is what he got.


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