Following Peter Beinart’s controversial article about Cory Booker’s association with a couple of Chabad Rabbis, I wrote this piece on Open Zion / The Daily Beast to address some of the common misunderstandings about the way Chabad works as an organisation. Space did not allow me to go into detail about the specific issues he raised, so I will do so here.
… the values of Chabad rest uneasily alongside the values publicly espoused in the Booker-Boteach-Hecht show. Theologically, Chabad emphasizes the fundamental difference between Jewish and non-Jewish souls. And while difference does not necessarily imply superiority and inferiority, the late Rabbi David Hartman, one of the most revered Jewish thinkers of recent times, in 2009 called Chabad’s theology “deeply primitively racist.”
Rabbi Hartman comes from the Modern Orthodox rationalist school, and the video Beinart uses to support his assertion is a very broad attack on religious extremism. Hartman bemoans the success of the baal teshuvah and chassidic movements which emphasise sincerity and mysticism over scholarship and independent thought. His branding of Chabad theology as “deeply primitively racist” appears to be a rejection of kabbalistic and mystical views of the world and therefore of the Jewish soul. Unfortunately, he leaves it at that without going into any further detail. While he bundles Chabad with other Chassidic groups and Rav Kook as all being “unintelligible”, the fact is that Chabad amongst others promotes deep scholarship of the mystical aspects of Torah (which Hartman rejects outright).
I’ve not found much more anti-Chabad rhetoric from Hartman on this issue (he is on record as being against Chabad Messianic fervour, but that’s not relevant here), but interestingly he is eulogized and quoted on some Chabad sites. Clearly Chabad does not label him as anti-Chabad, but Breinart does!
On the core issue of the Chabad thelology of Jewish souls, Beinart himself opens with the proposition that this difference does not imply superiority. Any argument against this would be better made by someone reasonably versed in the theology rather than a general rant against Chassidim in general, which he does not bring.
He then goes on to link the theology of souls to Chabad Middle-East policy:
The theology of souls may sound abstract, but it has real-world implications, especially in Israel, where Chabad is active. In 2010, for instance, the leading Chabad rabbis in the northern city of Safed endorsed a letter “prohibit[ing] the sale or renting of land in Israel to a non-Jew.” When I asked Hecht his view on the subject, he suggested that my question be “addressed to the leadership of Chabad.”
The link itself is unclear. Is he suggesting Chabad theology holds that because Jews possess a Godly soul, they are superior, and therefore have exclusive rights to biblical Israel?
The letter he refers to was signed by a group of 18 Orthodox Rabbis – both Sefardi and Ashkenazi – in the north of Israel, of which just 2 were Chabad Rabbis from the town of Safed. It presented a Jewish law view based on biblical verses regarding the potential negative influence of non-Jews in a Jewish towns in Israel. Indeed, this same issue has been in the news again recently, this time with anger directed against a candidate for the position of Chief Rabbi. Anything more than a cursory examination of the letter and the underlying issues would make it clear that this does not rely on any Chabad theology – it’s a specific Orthodox Jewish position on the issue. The leap from a supposedly racist theology to this is just lazy.
With regards to the actual Chabad position on Israel, he writes:
Hecht’s own thoughts on Israel and the Palestinians also don’t quite align with the claim that the “theme of Judaism” is to “never accept injustice.” Schneerson vociferously opposed handing over any part of the biblical land of Israel to Palestinian control. In that tradition, Hecht opposes creating a Palestinian state.
This is certainly a more interesting issue. The Chabad position regarding the State of Israel has reflected the pragmatism referred to in my original article. Before the establishment of the State, Chabad was consistent with the Haredi position that opposed its establishment rather than the religious Zionist view that saw the state as a precursor to Messianic times. However, once the state was established, Chabad took a very pragmatic approach that recognized the facts on the ground: there are millions of Jews living there, and we must reach out to them. This was in stark contrast to some other Haredi Chassidic groups who, even now, refuse to recognize or engage with the state. By and large, Chabadniks serve in the army, do outreach work with soldiers and are active citizens of the state.
While the Rebbe did indeed object to handing over any part of Israel, this came entirely from a security outlook rather than a Zionist vision of Greater Israel. Indeed, whenever land was ceded, it inevitably did result in a less secure Israel rather than more secure. The time-honoured formula of “land for peace” has largely been a failure, and the clause in UN resolution 242 that acknowledged the need for Israel to have secure borders seems regularly forgotten.
So that brings us to the underlying question in this: how can a self-proclaimed Chabad universalist like Hecht or Boteach reconcile their positions that the “theme of Judaism” is to “never accept injustice” with their views on how Israel should deal with the Palestinians? I cannot answer this question for either of them. The assumption here is that a “just and lasting peace” is an attainable goal, and that it is possible to deal with injustice to Palestinians without causing injustice to Israelis. People seem to cling hopefully to these assumptions when they remain unproven, and don’t always consider the approach if one can no longer make such assumptions.