By Talya Portnoy
You know, I have never been in an environment before where I’ve questioned what people think about my being a follower of and a part of the Chabad movement. I’ve never questioned that, either because I’ve been in an environment in which Chabad wasn’t known, or in an environment in which everyone was Chabad too. Being here at Stern, I have begun asking myself these questions: How do people around me view Chabad? What do people think about the fact that I am Chabad? Are the people around me educated as to what Chabad is?
Because I’ve heard comments about what people think Chabad is, as well as personally been questioned by others about certain aspects of Chabad, I’d like to, to the best of my ability, clarify the truth of what Chabad is and of who I am. But before I do, I must ask you to read this article with an open heart and an empty mind – a mind free from any previous thoughts, notions, or misconceptions you may have. And if you do so, you can be sure that you’ll walk out with a truer understanding of the Chabad movement.
Chabad is all too often seen as an extreme, ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism that has their own, separate way of practicing and enforcing Judaism. Chabad is all too often seen as an extreme, ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism that goes above and beyond the letter of Jewish law. Chabad is all too often seen as an extreme, ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism that worships their leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I’ve heard all this before, and between you and me, I’ve had these thoughts too. Am I part of a religious group that is fanatic? Am I part of a religious group that creates their own dos and don’ts of Jewish law? Am I part of a religious group that is worshipping another human being, directly going against the core of our religion? Am I?
So yes, like you, these questions have bothered me. They have risen to the forefront of my attention. But unlike many of you, I didn’t allow these questions to shape my perspective of what Chabad is. I used these questions to compel me towards finding clarity, a clarity which would help me decide whether I wanted to continue being a part of the Chabad movement.
The foremost important step to understanding Chabad is knowing the fundamental principle of Chabad: Every Jew has a piece of G-d within him, crying out to its owner, to you, to let it breathe, to let it express itself. The way to allow it to breathe is through doing an act of its will: one that will connect it, that will connect you, to its source- G-d.
With this core principle and understanding, Chabad followers understand that one Jew is not better than another if he is Torah observant. With this core principle and understanding, Chabad followers understand that the only difference between a Torah observant Jew and a non-Torah observant Jew is that the Torah observant Jew is connecting to and allowing the deepest part of him to shine through.
Because of this fundamental principle, Chabad followers strive to get other Jews to do mitzvot, even if it is only for one time. Because in that one moment that a Jew is doing a mitzvah, he is giving expression to the truest part of himself. He is connecting to the essence of who he is, and ultimately, to the source of his essence- G-d. With this understanding, Chabad followers are inspired and motivated to express their true selves.
When we comprehend this principle, we can understand why many Chabad people seem fanatic in their Torah observance. We understand that they are not acting blindly or foolishly, rather, they are doing their utmost to reveal their essence.
Hand-in-hand with this concept of recognizing and living with the truth of who we are, is the understanding of who the Lubavitcher Rebbe was and why Chabad followers are obsessed with him. The Rebbe, the Chabad leader of this generation, epitomized this very phenomenon of allowing his essence to soar. He exemplified what it meant to be expressing his piece of G-d through everything he did. And more than that, he strived to help every single Jew express and give freedom to his essence.
A woman who was increasing her Torah observance once approached the Rebbe and told him how it was difficult for her to change. The Rebbe responded and said, “You are not changing. You are only becoming closer to who you are.” The interaction between the Rebbe and this woman signifies and is an example of the fundamental belief of Chabad philosophy. The Rebbe empowered every person to dig deeper and connect to the innermost part of himself.
This is why Chabad followers are obsessed with the Rebbe: not because they are idolizing him, G-d forbid, and not because the Rebbe is controlling them; rather, people are drawn towards his honest approach of Jewish life and fully-fledged expression of his G-dly piece within himself. People are drawn to him because of the way he completely devoted himself to bettering the world and to the bettering of each person’s individual life. Not only that, but the Rebbe did so with the utmost humility, never once giving himself credit for his accomplishments, rather, acknowledging that it is all from G-d.
Many, including myself, have heard the complaint that we haven’t met the Rebbe; therefore, how can we have the same admiration and enamor towards the Rebbe as those who have? I’ve thought about this time and time again and I have come to one conclusion:
There are countless videos about and documentations from people, from every walk of life – Chabad, Modern Orthodox, Traditional, Reform, non-Jewish– who have met the Rebbe. These videos and documentations teach us about who the Rebbe was and what he stood for. When you invest yourself in these tools, I can assure you, because I myself have learned, that you will have a different understanding and a more educated view of who the Lubavitcher Rebbe was and who every Chabad follower is.
We’re in college to be educated, right? So before making any rash assumptions about Chabad, educate yourself with it. Educate yourself with the philosophy of it. Educate yourself with the customs of it. Educate yourself with the laws of it. Educate yourself with the leaders of it – past, present, and future.
Don’t allow something you saw or heard to trip you up without having a deeper understanding of it. Dig deeper. Search more.
But most importantly, when you do, do so with open eyes and an open heart. Let this not be the last of your searching of what Chabad is; rather, allow this to be the beginning of something new.