June 28, 2012

Chabad Franchises

The Chabad (Lubavitch) Chasidic movement is one of the phenomena of our time. It originated in Eastern Europe. Its transplantation to the USA in 1940 was transformational--but only because of its charismatic leader, the late and beloved Rebbe (with apologies to those who think he still lives) who took the helm after his father-in-law died. He was an amazing man and a visionary. His genius was not just to turn a small Chasidic sect, disorientated and confused by Communism in its home territory and then dislocated by Nazism, into a dynamic world force in Jewry. It was to introduce Madison Avenue methodology into his movement in the 1950s, which stimulated its fascination with and effective use of publicity, fundraising, and outreach.

For the uninitiated, Chabad is a Chasidic movement that is overtly evangelical amongst Jews. It was the first sect to welcome Jews regardless of the level of their religion or affiliation. It sent out young neophytes to stand on street corners asking passers-by if they were Jewish and wished to perform a Mitzvah. They gave the impression that they were totally open minded when in fact they were a very traditional movement and would brook no internal deviation. Its ideology was driven by a long-established Messianic fervor that encouraged every member to believe that he or she could help make the world a better place and bring the Messiah.

I should declare here that I have great difficulty, no, I actively disagree with much of Chabad ideology, both religious and political, but I confess my awe at the service and dedication its apostles offer the Jewish world. I loved that the Rebbe required his followers to be committed to Israel, to the state and the army. But he also chose to identify with the extreme right-wing “land or nothing” political position in Israel. I dislike Chabad’s understanding of the human soul and have little patience for much of its unique customs and calendar, but that is its business. For the average member, it is probably a necessary way of keeping them together and on track, and I remain amazed at the way the movement seems able to replicate the unfailing good humor of almost all its devotees, and their commitment and loyalty.

Generations of young “Shluchim” were sent out into the world to spread the Jewish word to Jews. The official ones were given seed money and then expected to become self-sufficient setting up Chabad communities and centers (and no one seemed to bother to ask too much about the financial conditions). They were soldiers in the Rebbe’s army, ready to do his bidding. They would graduate, then go to see him, to receive his commission and blessing. They had a spiritual support structure that enabled them to go far from the security of the movement's headquarters in Brooklyn and still feel intimately bound with every word and idea of the Rebbe. They referred to his texts for direction during his lifetime, and even after his death these are treated as oracular. Wherever the representatives went they sent their sons back to headquarters for their further education and the replication of the typical Chabad representative with a unique black hat, frockcoat, untrimmed beard, and appearance tailored as closely to that of the Rebbe himself as nature and artifice allowed.

The model the Rebbe established worked well throughout his reign. There were of course hiccups; the turf wars and power struggles, financial indiscretions and misappropriations. There were occasionally rivalries and splits but they were kept under control by the Rebbe’s authority and only tended to explode after his death. It worked as Chabad spread around the world and gained the foremost reputation for providing religious services no matter where in the globe you might be. In effect, Chabad is a hugely successful franchise with all the support structure franchises offer. However, over time, official Chabad houses all but saturated the Jewish world. What was a new graduate to do if he had no franchise to inherit?

Already in the Rebbe’s day, the problem arose as to how to deal with the next generation. A small Chabad house could support one or two families, but then what if you had ten children and they had all been conditioned to follow the tradition? As the supply of trained personnel exceeded the positions available and as Chabad spread, so the availability of unconquered territory began to diminish. They began to look for positions in other organizations and communities. But the really innovative coup was its own extension of the franchise. The new model thsat really only gained recognition after the Rebbe, was unofficially called "mushrooming". Neophytes started to move into new areas, to infiltrate established communities. If you had an idea for a mission, you went with it. No matter whose territory it was. You either survived and built up your counter-franchise or you failed. Rather like the Christian preachers who followed the wagons West way out of reach of the Established churches.

I am not sure that an organization with a strong central organization under a powerful single head could or would have made this leap. But I would argue the Rebbe’s greatest success was in the one area that others see his failure: his failure to appoint a successor. That was his greatest stroke of genius of all.

The Rebbe was faced with the issue of continuity. I do not think there was anyone who could have stepped into his shoes. So better have no one than someone who would disappoint, who perhaps in his insecurity might try to impose too much control, to stifle individuality. Many second generation Rebbes became stricter and more obscurantist to bolster their credentials. By dying intestate, the Rebbe left his image as the role model. But he also bequeathed the first religious franchise system in Judaism. It was a master stroke. The ideology was there and fixed. But the way of continuing and allowing for individuality, creativity, and enthusiasm was to throw everything open to anyone in the movement to sink or swim. I cannot think of a more obvious example of religion borrowing from successful commerce.

Chabad is a practical movement that is out in the world facing practical challenges. In the practical world there must inevitably be different ways of doing things. The theological world always yearns for obedience and conformity. Chabad has within it the seeds of continuous creativity--not religiously, I hasten to add, they is little innovation there, but organizationally. A central powerful figurehead tends to impose rigidity and conformity. A looser system encourages individuality even within its ideological structure. That was the Rebbe’s genius, and it is now Chabad’s great strength.

Institutions and religions create hierarchies and centralized control. This leads to fossilization and the dead hand of conformity. That is what ends up infecting and destroying most religious institutions and systems. But at least organizationally, dynamism and creativity was the Rebbe’s secret weapon.

June 21, 2012

Orthodox Soldiers

There is a serious battle going on in Israel, not against its external enemies or internal deficiencies, but over the issue of whether ultra-Orthodox young men should be able to escape military service by claiming that they are scholars.

It was the first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, who bowed to pressure from the greatest rabbis of the generation to allow deferment to yeshivah students. The argument was that they should be allowed to concentrate on study and rebuild religious life and spirit after the Holocaust, which had all but obliterated the Eastern European centers of Jewish learning. After all, university students could get deferment, why not yeshivah students?

The centrist, religious Zionists always enlisted on principal, and they also supported various programs that enabled religious students to combine full military service with study. Today they are a very powerful and successful element in both the rank and file and the leadership of the modern Israeli army.

Another alternative that originated at that time was the permission granted to religious girls to do social service without having to leave a more secluded environment and be forced into the secular and more sexually challenging mixed world of the regular army.

In its initial stages, the arrangement was admirable and fair. The great Hassidic leader of Viznitz in the fifties, the "Imrei Chaim", actually agreed to send those of his students who were not academically inclined or totally committed to study, into the army in dedicated “religious units". It is a myth that none of the ultra-Orthodox has done military service. In the 1967 war, army trucks came down into Meah Shearim on Shabbat to pick Chasidim in full regalia to join their units. But over time, not hundreds but thousands sought permanent deferment, including many totally unsuited to a life of study. And now the overwhelming majority of the ultra-Orthodox, or Charedi, Jews refuse to serve.

But the problem was not just the restriction of the pool of potential defenders of the land. Deferment meant that one could not work if one didn’t serve. So a culture of indolent unemployment has now permeated swathes of the very religious world in Israel.

As with Israeli politics in general, no one wants to make any concessions and they fight the issue as though it were a matter of life and death. New arguments surface, such as the survival of the Jewish people being dependent on its religious qualities not just the physical ones. Of course that is true; but never in Jewish history have Jews shirked the responsibility of self-defense and fighting to preserve their identity and safety.

The legitimate fear that a secular, mixed army conflicted with religious values was initially met by providing special units. But by the time I encountered Viznitz in the nineties and asked Rebbe Moishele (who sadly died this year) why he had stopped the religious units, he replied that his followers would no longer tolerate them. If ever there was a case of the tail wagging the dog.

Secular and indeed moderate religious parties have tried to modify the situation by requiring some sort of military service for all but the really serious scholars. After all, university deferment requires some measure of assessment, why not yeshivah students?

A public committee was appointed in 1999 by the then prime minister and current defense minister, Ehud Barak, and headed by former Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal. It recommended a continuation of the exemptions to yeshivah students subject to conditions. At the age of 22, yeshivah students could choose between one year of civil service alongside a paying job or a shortened 16-month military service plus future service in the reserves. But, of course, the ultra-Orthodox leadership did not want to be seen weakening their stand. They rejected the proposal and only a few individuals took advantage.

Last February the High Court of Justice ruled that the law was unconstitutional. But now pressure is building in the country, as well as the Knesset, to face the issue once again. And because of the new coalition deal Netanyahu engineered between Likud and Kadima, the votes of the religious parties are no longer as crucial. Changes now have a greater chance of success than ever before. Although I suspect the current vogue for secular politicians to buy blessings from wonder rabbis indicates that superstition might still trump common sense.

I accept the argument that young men brought up sheltered from an outside world of values totally antithetic to theirs would find it had to adjust to the rigors of an overwhelmingly secular army. But there are plenty of possibilities for less physical and more cerebral analytical jobs in more restricted or protected environments. There are all kinds of ways of ensuring that they contribute to the physical safety of the country as well as the spiritual. There really is absolutely no excuse. Where there is a will there is a way.

I blame the secular parties for much of the electoral and political corruption and stalemate because they failed to change the electoral system when they could have. If they now have an opportunity to address the unfairness of the current situation in which almost a third of the male population refuses to enlist into any form of public service, then they will be as responsible as the extreme religious for the internal divisions and the external dangers that can only get worse as time goes by. Israel is as much threatened from within as it is from without.

June 15, 2012

Civil Marriage


Who opposes civil marriage? It seems that religions are the main campaigners against it. Despite my love affair with Judaism I am a strong advocate of separating State from Religion.

There is a disconnect between a system based on Divine Revelation, conservatism, and giving authority to men and women who put faith above all else, and on the other hand one based on giving everyone an equal vote and allowing individuals to do whatever they want to so long as they do not affect or endanger others. Neither system is perfect. They both suffer from human nature degrading an ideal. But they are two very distinct models of governance. Although both systems can end up exercising horrific violence on their own citizens and others, on balance I prefer to live in a country where there is as little religious interference as possible and people can choose how much they want to take on.

The Jewish experience of living under Shariah law, specifically in Iran, was so degrading and humiliating (it was only pressure from the imperial powers that forced the Qajar dynasty to allow a modicum of equal rights to Jews at the start of the twentieth century). Neither am I too keen about ultra-Orthodox rabbis controlling my behavior. I may respect them, but I’d rather make my own decisions.

Since the great Babylonian rabbi, Shmuel, declared two thousand years ago, that “the law of the land is the law”, Judaism has accepted civil law with the sole proviso that it is applied fairly and to everyone. So whether we choose to live in a society influenced by Christianity, Islam, or any other religion, we have always abided civilly by their definitions of who is married. We do not say, “Since we don’t accept other religious marriages, we can make off with another man’s wife.”

As modern democratic societies have changed, so too have the ways we look at human relationships. The area of civil unions has evolved. We have had to accept the financial and legal implications of such unions, regardless of our own religious systems. For the first time many Muslims, who now increasingly live in non-Muslim societies, are having to slowly come to terms with such a situation.

In Western democracies, recognized partnerships bestow certain privileges as well as obligations. Partners benefit from tax, inheritance, pension, and insurance law, to mention only the most obvious. In the nineteenth century, when (largely thanks to the French Enlightenment and Napoleon) the first moves were taken to restrict the role of churches, civil partnerships were introduced, so that couples could "get married" without the “benefit of clergy". At that stage, for whatever reason, it was agreed to call such civil unions "civil marriages", even though neither the Church nor the Synagogue considered them to be marriages as they defined them. Perhaps it would have been better to have given then some other name such as “union” or “commitment” or “bond". Marriage was hitherto only applied to a religious ceremony.

When I first heard about gays and lesbians getting married, my initial reaction was that I could not think of any objection, but why call it marriage--call it something else. But on reflection, it is no different to a man and woman getting "married" civilly. Only a religious argument could possibly be leveled against it, so why do religions keep quiet about civil marriages between heterosexuals? The only objection could be a religious one, and I think religions should keep out of other people’s business. No one is forcing anyone to recognize a religious ceremony that is offensive to him. All the State is saying is that the couple have entered into a binding civil commitment. Many of us do this all the time in commerce and trade.

What’s the problem? The word? The language? Usages change all the time. In Shakespeare’s day "nice" meant stupid. In my youth, being "gay" meant being happy. The word "anthem" once meant a religious choral piece. Now it’s a nationalist song about being better and prouder than the other guys!

I have heard it argued that by agreeing to civil marriages one is undermining the religious position. But why is this undermining personal faith any more than stores being open on Sabbath or restaurants offering non-kosher food? No one is forcing anyone to go there. Indeed, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar's". The role of religion, in my humble opinion (OK--not so humble) is to persuade, to infuse spirituality, to try to improve human beings. Let them put their energy into buttressing their own institutions and rooting out the corruptions and abuses that we still see. If religions insist on campaigning politically, I would argue, for example, that all religions should come together to support educational vouchers. This way religions benefit as well as others. Vouchers support and go to individuals instead of institutions.

There are enough negatives and constraints in religions without adding more. Lay off I say and let people commit themselves and call it what they will. No one is forcing anyone to anything they don’t want to. Just because politicians play games with this issue, on both sides to win votes, we do not need to descend to their level.

June 07, 2012

Doctor David Granet of Glasgow

It is very hard for one generation to fully understand the zeitgeist and the unique circumstances of another. This is certainly true of Jewish life which has become increasingly polarized. Whether one approves or not, life in most Jewish communities today is very different than it was fifty years ago. I am reminded of the famous Greek Heraclitus, who argued that one could not step into the same river twice. The name of the river might be the same but the waters are constantly changing.

Dr. David Granet, who died recently, was a past president of Giffnock and Newlands Hebrew Congregation, in a suburb of Glasgow in Scotland. It was my first appointment in the rabbinate. He was typical of a particular generation of Jews who rose from hardworking immigrant families and retained a profound loyalty to Judaism, even if they did not have the benefit of a rigorous, Talmudic education. Their Judaism was very different than the one we see around us today, but they helped build Jewish communities and lead them.

Glasgow was essentially a community of immigrants from Lithuania who arrived during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They settled around the Gorbals, the warren of dark-stoned, forbidding tenement buildings on the poor south bank of the River Clyde. There the younger generation flourished, shining in the schools, winning the prizes, and pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. As they grew richer, they moved to the more elegant suburbs.

For the early generations life was tough. It was almost impossible to adhere to one’s old religion and survive in the cutthroat world before Welfare State Britain. Only the brightest had any chance of getting a good education. Parents compromised to feed their families. Most of them managed to stay loyal to their roots while adapting to a new world. Those who succeeded there became some of the wealthiest and most successful Jews in the land.

David Granet’s father was a tailor, a very good one, who soon built up an impressive clientele. In his old age he made me the finest suit I ever wore! David was bright, handsome, and charming. He excelled in school and at sports. He became a doctor and opened a practice in the Gorbals, where he was known for helping the poor. He became a Grand Master of a Jewish Lodge and a Justice of the Peace. He married the beautiful and highly cultured Adele, the daughter of the formidable Fanny Black, the Grande Dame of Glasgow Jewry, a combination of queen and tycoon who was a powerful force in the city. In those days being Jewish meant combining one's religious affiliation with public service.

When I arrived in 1968, fresh from yeshivah, David, who at that stage was the vice president, took me in hand and became my mentor. Giffnock was then the center of Jewish life in Glasgow. It had over 1,000 members and was in the throes of moving from cramped premises in May Terrace to a huge, spanking modern complex at The Glen. But the community was saddled with debts and it was David who stepped up to deal with the restructuring and reorganizing.

The community was divided, as is usually the case. There was a small hard core of very Orthodox Jews led by the larger-than-life, lovable President Baruch Mendelson and his irascible, aggressive brother-in-law Phil Glickman. The Jesner family, four brothers, was the powerhouse of the religious community. A handful of other Orthodox families and professionals ensured that the synagogue had a fully Orthodox character and provided all the necessary services. Being the largest Jewish community nearest to Gateshead, Glasgow was constantly receiving rabbinic emissaries, and it supported yeshivahs and institutions regardless of whether their ideals or versions of Judaism matched.

The vast majority of the community was not Orthodox. They contributed to charities, turned up for weddings and bar mitzvahs, as well as the High Holy Days. But otherwise they worshipped at the Jewish Golf Club, Bonnyton, every Saturday, rather than in the synagogue.

It was my job as a young rabbi to meet the needs of both sides of the community, though I did believe that the less religious needed me far more than the pious ones. So I got a lot of flak for being too modern for the God Squad and too Orthodox for the rest. It was David who mediated, smoothed the way, and covered my back all the time. He encouraged me to go to places that other rabbis shied away from. He warned me against getting involved in communal or rabbinical politics and rivalries. At the same time, he supported my bringing Lubavitch to Glasgow to temper the Lithuanian coolness with some Chasidic warmth, and my recruiting other talented young professionals to bolster the educational institutions.

I admired his suave, gentle, elegant manner, as well as his strength and his wisdom. I fell in love with his family. He was the sort of Jew that is fast disappearing. He would turn up religiously at the synagogue on Saturday mornings but then go off to Murrayfield to watch his beloved rugby. He was a committed Jew who devoted himself to seeing that Jewish Glasgow thrived. He was a proud Scotsman who loved the distinctive culture that differentiated Scotland from England. He was a man who enjoyed life, who respected tradition, and above all was a good, caring human being. So what if there inconsistencies? We are all inconsistent in our different ways.

There were other warm, hospitable, and good people like him in Glasgow. That’s why I loved the community and spent some of the most rewarding and enjoyable years of my life there. Its Jewish population has shrunk over the years from 15,000 in my day to some 4,000 today, mainly through emigration. Its decline and the changing face of Jewry in general have made the Glasgow Jewry that I recall a mythical Shangri-La that looks like passing into oblivion, together with the giants that I recall with love and gratitude--mythical heroes of a prehistoric age. It was men like David Granet who kept Judaism alive, far more than many transient rabbis I have known. May his memory be a blessing.