I had other things on my mind on the day this article came out, but I promised myself I would get around to writing about it eventually. Today, midway (almost) between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, seems like a good time.
The article is titled “A Booming Sect Sends Jewish Emissaries Abroad.” The subtitle reads, “The Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Hasidism consists of rabbi-and-wife teams that proselytize. Some call the movement extreme.”
Extreme Hasidim? What, do they daven while bungee jumping out of airplanes?
Chabad critics say the statistics are evidence that the movement is clannish, with an unhealthy devotion to its late leader, viewed by some as the Messiah, and with overly aggressive tactics.
“They have this sense of manifest destiny to promulgate, to proselytize, to spread the word everywhere, every day, throughout the world,” said Stephen G. Bloom, a University of Iowa journalism professor. His best-selling book, “Postville,” chronicled the clash of cultures between residents of a small Iowa town and Lubavitchers who moved to the Midwest to operate a kosher slaughterhouse.
“For them, this is a deadly serious holy war,” he added.
After that terrifying warning, don’t you expect graphic tales of these “overly aggressive tactics?” But the article has nothing. In fact, only one other “critic” is cited at all, and her words seem less dire:
Stephanie Wellen Levine, author of “Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls,” spent a year living in Crown Heights and witnessed the pressure placed on the children of rabbis to become emissaries.
“They are passionate about their beliefs, their lifestyle, and it’s a beautiful thing for many of them,” Levine said. “On the other hand, I would not say this is proof that they have the truth or the way. It works for them.”
This apparent contradiction led me to look more closely at Mr. Bloom. According to Salon, his book, “Postville,” chronicles his own experiences perhaps more than those of the town and community. He uses his Jewish background to gain access to the Lubavitcher community.
Eventually Bloom and his son, Mikey, do eat a lavish Sabbath dinner (Hasidic women can do little besides cook and clean house), but it comes at a price — they become the targets of the Hasidic community’s evangelical zeal. (One of the sect’s primary goals is to bring nonobservant Jews to the true path.)
Says the New York Times,
Mr. Bloom is better at describing the fascinating situation in Postville than at analyzing it or placing it in moral or historic context. He does draw conclusions. He makes clear that his sympathies lie with the local people against the Lubavitchers, whose especially obtuse insularity leads them to bad behavior.
“What the Postville Hasidim ultimately offered me was a glimpse at the dark side of my own faith,” he writes, “a look at Jewish extremists whose behavior not only made the Postville locals wince, but made me wince, too.”
I’m not claiming that the Hasidim are faultless (I’ve seen how they drive), but I am bothered both by the LA Times’ dual failure to contextualize Bloom’s statements and to support its claims that Chabad-Lubavitch is “aggressive” with concrete evidence. Hasidic emissaries ask passers-by, “are you Jewish?” rather than trying to “make disciples of all nations,” or knocking on doors, like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. Sure, they have the Mitzvah Mobile, but how intimidating is that?
On Sunday, Husband and I had a direct encounter with the “overly aggressive” group. As we were walking through the busy Farmers Market, three young Hasidic men passed us. One of them turned and asked, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
“Yes . . .” Shoot me. I was curious.
“Would you like to hear the Shofar for Rosh Hashanah?” He whipped the ram’s horn out of his coat and held it up.
“Sure,” I smiled.
“Okay, repeat after me,” and he led me through the Rosh Hashanah prayer. I remembered most of it, but stumbled at the shehechiyanu. When we finished, he lifted the horn to his lips and began to blow.
Toooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooot. I smiled and began to thank him, but was cut off. Toooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooot. Toooooooooooot-toooooot-tooot-tooot-tooot-tooot-toooooooooooooooooooot. It just kept going. I elbowed Husband, who was trying (and failing) to stifle his giggles. Toooooooooooot-toooooot-tooot-tooot-tooot-toooooooot-toot. People were staring. Eventually, the now red-faced young man lowered the horn. I thanked him; he nodded and walked away.
He didn’t press literature on me. He didn’t harangue me. He didn’t threaten me with supernatural punishment. He just tooted for an awkwardly long time in a public place. And who among us hasn’t done that at least once?
Seemed like a “deadly serious holy war” to me, all right.