What Chabad-Lubavitch and Modern Orthodox Communities Can Teach Each Other

I think it’s high time there was some new cultural diffusion. I don’t mean cultural diffusion on a grand scale, where one nation spreads its lifestyles and outlooks to another nation or anything of the sort. Rather, I am proposing a small-scale exchange of ideas, lifestyles, and philosophies within two sectors of the Jewish world: Modern Orthodoxy and Chabad Lubavitch.

I must first make it quite clear that I am Modern Orthodox through and through and do not think of myself Lubavitch, nor do I know any hardcore Lubavitchers who would ever consider themselves to simultaneously be Modern Orthodox. However, having grown to enjoy a close relationship with the local Chabad family in my town, along with various other Chabad experiences along the way, my respect, appreciation, and admiration for the Lubavitch community has grown tremendously. I would like to share my thoughts regarding what Modern Orthodoxy can learn from Chabad Lubavitch, as well as what Chabad can learn from Modern Orthodoxy.

There are two primary things in the Lubavitch sphere that the Modern Orthodox community lacks. The first of these is the controversial support and implementation of kiruv efforts, of attempting to bring non-religious, or rather, non-Lubavitch Jews back to religious observance. Chabad does this by intentionally seeking out places in which small (if not non-existent) non-observant communities are living, and establishing a Chabad shul. In this rather radical and certainly daring fashion, Chabadniks devote their lives to teaching other Jews what it means to be Jewish and to keep mitzvot, and they also make the world a more accessible place to those Jews who are already frum but need a place to go when travelling. I myself have been fortunate enough to have Chabad at my disposal when I otherwise would have been completely bereft of Judaism for a number of days. For example, my grandmother lives in an area where there is no Jewish population. However, there is a Chabad in walking distance which, although constantly struggling to get a minyan, has allowed my family to daven many a Shabbat when we would otherwise have just felt sorry to be in the outermost realms of galut.

The second thing Lubavitchers do extremely well is live in such a way as to make their very lives become vehicles of Torah. They see every opportunity, whether planned or spontaneous, as a Divinely-ordained opportunity to educate a fellow Jew and to help him do one more mitzvah. For example, many Chabad children will go to local public schools on Sukkot in order to make benching lulav available to less-observant students who might be going to school on yom tov.

But one should not think that Chabadniks simply plan specific events for the purpose of bringing their fellow Jews closer to Judaism. Rather, every aspect of their own personal lives is dedicated to bringing a heavenly Torah to an earthly Jew. For example, I recently attended the wedding of a dear Lubavitch friend of mine at which, beneath the chuppah, every step of the wedding was announced and explained by way of loudspeaker to the diverse crowd. Most people would object to using their own wedding as an educational tool, yet for the Lubavitch community, a wedding is all the more meaningful if it can be a teaching opportunity for fellow Jews.

Why is it that the Modern Orthodox community does not make kiruv efforts as Chabad does? I think the primary two reasons are that many members of the Modern Orthodox community are ba’alei teshuvah and therefore do not want to create any feelings of resentment or impressions of missionizing amongst family members, and that Modern Orthodox Jews do not feel the same sense of urgency toward having all Jews become shomrei mitzvot in the way Chabadniks do; we do not have a messianic drive or motivation (as will be discussed soon), and therefore there is little concern to “save the souls,” if you will, of our fellow Jews. Instead, we generally respect the decisions, however disagreeable they might be, of other Jews.

And why do we not always use our lives as vehicles of Torah? I think the answer is closely related to that given above: who would we be teaching Torah experientially to? Outside of the classroom and the home, it seems we generally do not associate with crowds of less religious people, simply by circumstance. Since we have not sought out the opportunity to teach others the ways of a religious lifestyle, we generally leave educational efforts to the professionals, our rabbis.

The preceding critique of the Modern Orthodox world and its deficiencies should not go without a reverse critique, an examination of that which Modern Orthodoxy can teach Chabad Lubavitch. In other words, what things can Modern Orthodoxy offer the Chabad outlook and way of life? Here again, there seem to be two main things to be gained.

The first is Modern Orthodoxy’s value and emphasis on intellectual pursuits and secular learning. Having the Rav zt”l as our role model of a Torah u’Madda life par excellence, I don’t hesitate to say that a world of Divine origin cannot be fully appreciated by even the most devout Jew without intellectual contemplation – without an appreciation for the vastness of God’s creations, be it scientifically, metaphysically, mathematically, historically, literarily, musically, or artistically. I think there is also an underlying belief among the Modern Orthodox that if Judaism is a legitimate path, it must be capable of “holding up” to modern science and the like. We should be able to thrive in the modern world, not despite our Judaism, but rather because the modern world can enhance our Judaism through new discoveries in medicine, literature, mathematics, and so forth. I personally had the privilege to spend this past summer learning in a summer kollel whose theme was “Halacha and Art,”and I can vouch for the fact that had I not fully grappled with art in both halachic as well as secular frameworks (no pun intended), I could not have gained as much Torah learning as I did from this program.

The second thing that Modern Orthodoxy has to offer the Lubavitch world is a de-emphasis on Messianism, a more subtle approach to what “moshiach” might mean or who he or she might be. While it might only be a small fraction of the Lubavitch community that believes the past Rebbe zt”l to be moshiach, the centrality of Yimot Hamoshiach in the Lubavitch community seems to me to be a preoccupation. In my opinion, moshiach should be regarded as generally irrelevant. Rather, we should live in the here and now, not because we do or do not think there might eventually be something grander, a “great equalizer” as they say, but because we believe we are living here and now for a reason. We should believe our present lives are meaningful and purposeful, however mysterious, sometimes tragic they are. Although Lubavitchers’ emphasis on moshiach has no doubt contributed to their adamant desire to educate and inspire less-observant Jews throughout the world and has helped them create a better Jewish world all around, I think Chabad would gain a great deal more credibility by moving away from their emphasis on Messianism.

There are many misconceptions on the parts of both Chabad and Modern Orthodox communities, including underestimations of the others’ commitments, either to Jewish theology, halachic observance, or intellectual commitment. I think some Lubavitchers see the non-Lubavitch, or at least the non-Haredi/Chasidish, as less religious Jews who must be brought back into Yiddishkeit, and that, conversely, many Modern Orthodox people view Chabad as a group of rather patronizing and intellectually-stunted fanatics, and this conception of the other is equally unfair and inaccurate. Let us all make a collected effort to be open-minded to various approaches to Torah, and let us adopt “kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” as a call to intellectual and spiritual reconsideration.