Conflicts between the various streams of American Judaism have always fascinated me, all the way back to my graduate school days at the University of Illinois in Urbana. There are so many parallels with similar conflicts between traditional and liberal Christians, between pre-modern doctrines and the believers who are rooted in the modern and, I guess, the postmodern.
The Los Angeles Times ran a story the other day, focusing on a zoning issue raised by Chabad-Lubavitch activities, that was a perfect example of the “Culture Wars” in Judaism. I’ve been thinking about this story for several days now, trying to figure out what bothered me about it.
The actual zoning conflict — involving a preschool, among other things — is quite complex and it helps to read the details. Here is a short sample:
“The new facility will be open for community visits on or about May 5. Enrollment is now underway,” the item read.
“What preschool?” residents of the quietly exclusive coastal enclave wondered.
Thus began a saga with more twists and turns than “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” as one resident wryly calls it. How else to refer to a controversy, now coming to a head, that involves a branch of Judaism often characterized by ecstatic piety, the Mormon church, the Getty Villa, the state Department of Parks and Recreation, the California Coastal Commission, a city councilman, and a bunch of his affluent and highly agitated constituents for whom money is no object?
In other words, the loud, Orthodox Jews are coming. There goes the neighborhood.
But here is the background passage that jabbed at me, as someone who has done some reading about the life and times of Orthodox Jews and their critics.
The controversy is shining a light on the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a controversial branch of Orthodox, Hasidic Judaism. Chabad is an acronym from the Hebrew for wisdom, understanding and knowledge.
Many mainstream Jews regard the movement’s outreach as evangelizing, a practice they frown upon. In California, Chabad is perhaps best identified with its annual star-studded telethon, which raises money for charities. Chabad is also known for zoning conflicts with neighbors as rabbis seek to establish gathering spots — known as Chabad houses — in residential areas. Over the years, zoning battles have raged in Florida, New York and New Jersey.
As usual, we have the generic “controversial” label. But what hit me was the reference to “evangelizing.” This is a word that, normally, is explicitly Christian. For example:
e.van.gel.ize (-vnj-lz) v. e.van.gel.ized, e.van.gel.iz.ing, e.van.gel.iz.es
1. To preach the gospel to.
2. To convert to Christianity.
To preach the gospel.
In the context of a Jewish debate, what does this word mean? Is this, in effect, a slur — given the strong emotions that Jews feel toward Christian evangelism efforts in general?
There are several possibilities for the word, as used in this Times report:
(1) That Chabad-Lubavitch is trying to win converts from other faiths to Judaism. This would be a rather strict interpretation of the word “evangelize,”
(2) That the movement is conducting outreach to woo Jews from modern and progressive movements into its fervent, conservative approach to Jewish life and faith. This is where liberal Jews might fight back, with this kind of hot-button word.
(3) The Lubavitchers are attempting to reach out to Jews who have lost their faith or are not practicing Judaism in any sense of the word (as opposed to actively being part of liberal Jewish communities).
(4) That Lubavitchers are building programs that, for the most part, are intended to defend their own community and families. In effect, they are seeking to evangelize their own children (since, as the old saying goes, God has no grandchildren). The high birthrate among Orthodox Jews often causes tensions with secular Jews and those in the religious left.
It’s impossible to tell what the word means, which is my point. It’s dangerous for journalists to use such hot word — like I said, this one verges on being a slur — without making the meaning and relevance of the word clear.
The principle again: Don’t label unless the label is clear and accurate. Tell us what people believe. Give us the facts, not your opinion.