Warning: Lubavitchers are coming

lubavitch 1Conflicts 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

v.tr.
1. To preach the gospel to.
2. To convert to Christianity.

v.intr.
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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Evangelize was the wrong word to use. I talked to a Lubuvitcher once. He said their goal is not to get non-Jews to become Jew but to get every Jew to do one more mitzvah today than he or she did yesterday.

  • http://igneousquill.blogspot.com Adam G.

    Wouldn’t “proselytize” be correct if conversion from one faith to the other were involved? “Evangelize” would only be appropriate for Christian contexts, and otherwise better descriptive language would be needed if the intent is to get Jewish people to be more active in their faith.

  • http://religion.beloblog.com/ Jeffrey Weiss

    I’m with MattK. I think it was the wrong word to describe what Chabad is about, even if one accepts a broad, secularized understanding of what it means to evangelize.

  • Merliner

    Thanks for this post. Very true. It is indeed reckless to throw these words around. I have always had positive encounters with Chabadneks and I think it is unfair to label or mis-charachterise.

  • ira rifkin

    Chabad’s goal is to get Jews to be ritually more observant – observant in accordance with Chabad’s particular standards, to be sure. (There are non-Orthodox standards of observance, just as there are varying standards of observance from one Orthodox Jewish community to another).

    The problematic sentence not only uses “evangelizing” incorrectly because of its Christian context but also because some so-called “mainstream” Jews (another term begging an explanation here)- including liberal Reform Jews – make great effort to get non-Jews married to Jews to convert to Judaism to insure that the kids will be raised as Jews.

    Why not employ a few extra words for accuracy and clarity’s sake and say flatout that Chabad seeks to get Jews to adopt Orthodox ritual practice? Not everything can be reduced to one word.

    Also, the reporter uses “controversy” and “controversial” in the same sentence. The editor in me wants to say that’s lazy writing.

    But speaking as a former Los Angeles-based religion writer who has prayed with Chabdniks and even worked for the organization in L.A. on editorial projects, I know that Chabad IS controversial – though of course the reasons (which are many) for that should have been better explained. (For the record; I’m not a Chabadnik, nor am I anti-Chabad by any means.)

    Moreover, Rabbi Zushe Cunin, whose house and school are at question here, is a member of L.A. Chabad’s ruling dynasty (dynasty is the proper word when talking about Hasidic movements), which has often run afoul of zoning and other property-based disputes. The article fails to make clear his standing in the L.A. Jewish hierarchy or that this is the latest in a long string of public spats involving members of his large family.

    In short, there’s a history here that everyone involved is aware of – but is not conveyed to the casual reader.

  • D. Burns

    Unill I read Rikdin’s comment I had no idea why the story was even written. Reading the piece itself, the only thing I got out of it was that a local group wanted to open/move a private pre-school and was in a spat with it’s neighbors over access to the new site.

    Little to no reason was given as to why this paticular faith comunity is contraversial. A paragraph or two regarding this comunity’s beliefs and history I believe is necessary for the reader unfamilure with Chabad’s brand of judism.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    “Prosleytize” is one of those funny words which can only BY DEFINITION be applied to THEM, and is therefore in a class with “cult” and “fundamentalist”. We share, you preach, they proseleytize.

  • bostonterrier

    I have a Chabad Rabbi. From a Halachk standpoint I am NOT Jewish even though I have a lot of Jewish blood in my veins and I feel a very powerful attraction to Judaism.

    My experience with Chabad is that:
    (a.) They are good people who are following the Torah
    (b.) They are trying to reach out to other members (Jews and lost Jewish Souls). They do NOT proselytize. Instead they are their for Jews and Jewish Souls to help them begin a journey on the path that God commanded us: through the Torah.
    (c.) While Moses Mendolsohn and others were free thinkers and challenged traditional Judaism. I think they caused more harm than good. In that many Jews were sidetracked. Granted society changes, and granted that somethings must change. God’s laws are like Physical Laws..in that they are NOT subject to change. I would refer readers to Maimonides 13 articles of Faith: specifically articles 8 and 9. Granted these are as a Mathematician would point out: Axioms. They are nevertheless 13 core beliefs to be held by Jews. And to disregard them is a sin.

    As society changes there will always be a tension between mainstream cultural differences immutable laws or articles of faith of Judaism.

    Because of this many Orthodox turn their backs up Non-Orthodox Jews..but the Chabad is in existence to bring us into alignment with Judaism and OBEYING the Torah (God’s Law)

  • Dan

    What is the “ecstatic piety” that is said to characterize the Chabad? Is that to be understood figuratively or are they known for actual religious ecstacies?


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