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Judaism: Extremism is not Religious Fervor

The Lubavitcher Rebbe and NCSY have much in common.
Published: Thursday, July 17, 2014 10:28 AM


We live in a world of kaanaus, extremism.  Zealotry and extremism fuels politics, relationships, worship.  Kanaaim (extremists) fail to understand how demeaning their perspective and behavior is to their fellow Jews; how degrading. In their eyes, Jews who are not like them are hardly worthy to be considered Jews at all.

Has their kaanaus (extremism) enriched our community or our people?  Has it added to our understanding of the world God has created, or the blessings bestowed upon us?

Rather than a zealotry defined by Pinchas, how much wiser to consider a religious fervor more like Eliyahu.  As we commemorated the twentieth yahrzeit (observance of passing) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the 3rd of Tamuz and considered who he was and what Chabad is in the world, it befits us to consider the Rebbe’s example and how we can be uplifted and united by love of God rather than divided by it. 

Eliyahu, calming the pained baby at the bris, cheerfully bidding the Sabbath farewell and wishing good cheer and fortune for the coming week, encouraging with soulful music, the real Pinchas is Eliyahu joining and uplifting every family at the Pesach Seder.  While Eliyahu is just as zealous as Pinchas, his way is neither loud nor insistent; it is gentle and caring.  The Rebbe inspired his followers to be like Eliyahu, to go everywhere in the world and to carry the message of dracheia darchei noam, of a pleasant, loving, embracing, non-judgmental Judaism, to each and every Jew wherever he or she may have ended up and for whatever reason and circumstance. 

So completely did the Rebbe personalize this embracing, accepting, loving zealotry that his thousands of shluchim (emissaries) go out into the world with the absolute belief and feeling that they have a relationship with him and not just his encyclopedic teachings!  Such absolute devotion is astonishing.  Nearly unprecedented. 

Our tradition holds many great scholars and heroes in great esteem.  As a people, we have incredible love, respect, even awe for these people.  But it is their example or their teaching that continues with us on a daily basis.  Not so with the Rebbe and Chabadniks.   When a young Chabad couple journeys to Idaho or Bombay or Korea or Peru, they are going as emissaries of the Rebbe!

Many years ago, I worked as hard as I’d ever worked to convince, cajole and recruit ten scholars to come to Pittsburgh to create a Kollel.  More often than not, I would be asked, “Pittsburgh?  Where is that?  What is there to do there?  How I struggled to get scholars to come… and yet, the Rebbe, gone for twenty years, continues to inspire young couples (almost always couples!) to travel to the furthest ends of the earth, to a place where they have no friends, no chevra (social life) no network, no minyan, (prayer quorum) no kosher provisions and to establish a Chabad House. 

Astonishing!  There is no word to describe what they do, for their behavior is beyond sacrifice, beyond dedication, beyond commitment.  Why do they do it?  For the Rebbe.  And why does the Rebbe want them to do it?  So that they reach out and touch every Jewish soul they can reach.

The Rebbe’s deepest message is clear. It is to embrace and accept.  It is awesome to sit in a Chabad shul and see how many entering are greeted with hugs and kisses rather than apathetic silence and neglect.  To be sure, not every Chabad shita (approach) or hashkafa (ideology)  is embraced by other Orthodox Jews.  That said, when we consider our Jewish community and the role of zealotry in our world, as a non-Chabad Orthodox Jew, I cannot help but think that the Chabad approach wins hands down and that there is much of that approach that we would do well to imitate.

How could it not?  Is there any person who, when given the choice, would choose being berated over being embraced?  Is there anyone who would prefer to be pushed away and belittled rather than brought in and respected?

From the moment he arrived to America in the 1940’s, the Rebbe clearly saw that the way forward could only be the way of Eliyahu, to teach, inspire, uplift, encourage – always with kindness and love. 

Like the Rebbe’s approach, NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth), the youth organization of the Orthodox Union, likewise engages and embraces.  Celebrating its 60th birthday, NCSY was born at a time when many predicted that Orthodoxy was on its death bed.  But Orthodox rabbinic leaders led by Rabbi Pinchas Stolper and a cadre of visionary lay leaders recognized that the Jewish future rested with our youth.  They created exciting, motivational, inspiring, loving and embracing Shabbatonim (24 hour Sabbath programs) in Orthodox synagogues throughout the country in large, medium and small Jewish communities. 

NCSY was successful in attracting Jewish kids who had been raised in America’s secular city to come to these non-threatening, joyous Shabbatonim.  Eventually, it became the “in” thing to do for Jewish youth who had little or no contact with anything Jewish.  And now, some sixty years later, with tens upon tens of thousands of NCSY graduates later, we can see that the “proof is in the pudding”.  The Eliyahu approach can and will continue to turn the tide of Jewish assimilation and ignorance in this country.

Yes, of course, there were – and are – those kanaim who were unhappy with the coed events and other leniencies invoked in the spirit of Eliyahu but again, the record speaks for itself.  Far from the “death of Orthodoxy” we see the grandchildren of those NCSY pioneers establishing Jewish homes, learning Torah and continuing our traditions because they were engaged, inspired, challenged and respected by the NCSY derech. (approach) They were determined, like the Rebbe, to reach out to touch every Jewish soul wherever he or she may be.

At sixty, with this incredible success established, it is easy to think that it was inevitable.  It wasn’t.  As Martin Nachimson reports in the March 18, 2014 edition of Jewish Action, “In the 1950s, Orthodoxy in America was fragile. In many cases, children came from homes where the parents were Holocaust survivors, traumatized immigrants struggling to find their way in a strange land. They were eager to Americanize, and had difficulty conveying the significance of religious life to their American-as-apple-pie children. Across the country, the decline of Orthodox Judaism was apparent, especially among the youth…

“…the new movement faced many challenges. It had to remain firm and uphold halachic standards in the face of opposition. NCSY leaders refused to host events that would feature social dancing or include services without a mechitzah (separation between men and women). Shul members were skeptical: would the young people come if there was no social dancing? If there was a mechitzah?

They came. By the hundreds. Eventually, by the thousands.” And they continue to come, feeling welcomed and enriched by God’s great gift, the Sabbath. 

NCSY, like the Rebbe, did not shirk the need for zealotry.  Like him, it is zealous for the health and betterment of the Jewish people in all that means.  But the success of both in realizing these goals has depended on being more Eliyahu and less Pinchas.

As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks summarized it in the recent issue of Jewish Action, “From the Rebbe, I learned how faith in God helps you have faith in people, challenging them to become greater than they might otherwise have become….Believing in them, he helped them believe in themselves.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik too (Jewish Action – Summer 2014) understood and lauded what Chabad was able to accomplish.  “Chabad has placed Judaism in the public thoroughfare, disseminating the Torah to the Jewish people on every street corner.  I do not always agree with their methods but there is no question that Chabad has rejuvenated religious Jewry in America.”  And confronted by the power and grace of Judaism, it is possible for even the most “secular” Jew to become the most committed.    

From the mid-1970’s through the mid-1980’s, I was fortunate to observe firsthand the miracle of NCSY in Pittsburgh, PA.  I saw hundreds upon hundreds of youngsters, boys and girls – inspired and supported in their search for authentic Judaism by volunteer advisors, young men and women, many from Yeshiva University and Stern College.  These advisers traveled to Jewish communities large and small with energy and determination to awaken Jewish youth from their spiritual slumber.  Thankfully with the backing and structure of existing Orthodox synagogues and local rabbis who were eager to find a vehicle through which not only to preserve their aging congregations but to reach out sensitively with the Eliyahu approach.  NCSY was the newly-paved derech to return not only youngsters but their elders as well!  Not just the new way, the only way.  Nobody else came close to what NCSY was doing.

When “invaded” by hundreds of youngsters celebrating and experiencing NCSY shabbatonim, congregations were given a vision of what the future could be.  Local baalebatim (laymen) looked on in wonder.  “Imagine if it was like this every Sabbath,” they whispered to one another. 

Imagine!

I have a thick file of letters and notes sent to me by hundreds of young people who experienced those Pittsburgh NCSY shabbatonim at Congregation Poale Zedeck.  Recently, I was looking through the file and came upon a note from the late 1970’s,  “Rabbi, as you were leaving tonight, right after the unbelievably  emotionally-uplifting Havdalah (prayer at the close of the Sabbath) led by Danny Butler, culminating the most meaningful Sabbath of my life, you put your arm around me and asked, ‘Why are you crying’? I can answer with a long Megilah.... but let me just say, I was crying tears of joy as we sang about Eliyahu (I think that’s the name, right?) the Prophet during the amazing Havdalah. I remember reading that Eliyahu HaNavi is the anchor man for good news and happy times. I am sure he wanted me to be Jewishly fulfilled so he dragged me here to NCSY. These tears of joy will never dry up. My life now has meaning.”   

Throw rocks?  Burn flags?

Or enrich a soul?

Eliyahu or Pinchas.  Eliyahu/Pinchas.  Which is the way forward for the Jewish people?

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer.