Two weeks ago, I wrote an article where I described myself as “not Chabad.” It was the first time I had explicitly said anything like that publicly. And I was fascinated by the response.
There were a number of responses I got from people, but by far the one that stood out the most to me was, “Yes you are!”
It was beautiful to hear, really. People were making the case that Chabad is a big tent, and that to say that you aren’t Chabad when you write letters to the Rebbe and you consider the Rebbe your rebbe and you study and believe in Chassidus… well, how can you possibly consider yourself to not be Chabad?!
(Something else that kind of amused me was how it could just as easily have been a negative comment as a positive one. Someone commented that I write to a “dead Rebbe” and so I was still Chabad. I was glad I could bring consensus among the pro and anti Chabadniks for once in my life.)
I thought what these folks, positive or negative, said had a lot of validity. To hear people so strongly try and wrap their minds around what being “Chabad” really was inspiring.
So, I found myself confronting that question myself: why don’t I call myself Chabad? Why do I insist I’m not anymore? Why do I hardly ever identify as a Hasid anymore?
And what does it mean to be Chabad? Who should call themselves a Chabadnik and who shouldn’t? And does it even matter?
For me, this was a personal exploration, one that I can only apply to myself and not to others. But I want to share it here, I want to share it with you. Because these are questions I believe more and more Jews will be struggling with over the next few decades, in varying forms.
So. Why don’t I call myself Chabad? And how did this whole thing start? And where did it end up?
Step 1: Belief
I’ve found that when a person changes their identity, whether it’s religious or political or anything else, the people they’ve “left” often try to attribute their change to social or communal issues. Someone must have caused us to feel left out, to feel like we needed to escape.
I heard that sort of stuff a lot when I became baal teshuva.
“Well, I guess religion gives you structure, right?”
“Religion is attractive to people who need friends.”
“You’re nuts, and thus… religion.”
In my case, I lost friends when I became religious! Structure? Who the hell wants structure? Although I will concede that I’m nuts.
But no, religion for me has been nothing but trouble if we’re evaluating things on a purely external basis. It came into my life and ripped it up, causing me to move to Israel, get married early, have kids, delay dreams, pray all the freaking time, study, take a day off from my addiction to electronics… it’s no good, I tell you!
Of course, the reason for that is because there is an aspect to religion that supersedes all that: meaning. A connection to truth. A mission in this world.
Religion is a sacrifice, it takes work, it takes dedication and constant introspection. But it is worth it because we believe in its truth.
And so that’s why, when doubts started creeping into my mind, religion suddenly became unbearable. I tried to push them down, tried to ignore them. But they kept popping up, like an existential version of whack-a-mole.
It took my body literally rebelling against me, getting sick from the doubts that kept scaring me, to finally start to explore this question: how do I reconcile my intuition that there is something that doesn’t fit in Chabad’s belief system with the fact that I identify so strongly with all that I’ve learned from it?
It took a while, but I finally arrived at a place where, in my mind, Modern Orthodoxy and Chassidus were both beautiful systems, both flawed but gorgeous and possessing of timeless truths. I wanted them both, and like a greedy religious gorger, I digested them both into my system.
Step 2: Dress
But none of that, still, was enough to get me to stop calling myself Chabad. At most, I would tell people I was “half Chabad.” But I deeply, deeply connected with the teachings of Chabad Hasidus. And I could not let go of that part of my identity.
But something interesting happened as I went through my changes in belief.
I would sit at farbrengens, and someone would say something that was essential to the belief system of Chabad, but that I disagreed with strongly. I wanted to talk about it! I wanted to challenge, to discuss, in the way that I did back in yeshiva. But I felt cowed, afraid, something held me back.
I would talk to people who weren’t religious, and they’d ask me what I believe as a “Hasidic Jew.” And I wanted to tell them, but I felt weird, I felt wrong, suddenly becoming this representative when I knew that my beliefs in no way represented the other people who looked like me.
I wanted to write about my beliefs, especially as they evolved into believing things like that gays should not just be accepted as people, but as gay people. But I felt uncomfortable, scared. Not scared of my beliefs, but scared of misrepresenting both my beliefs and the beliefs of others.
I couldn’t imagine sitting around at a farbrengen with a hat or a kapota and talking about evolution and gay rights. It felt wrong.
All of this brought me back to the moment I first wore a kapota and hat on Shabbat. I walked into shul on Friday night and everyone gave out a, “Woah!” and some people shook my hand and congratulated me, others smiled. I had been known as someone who had resisted changing too much when it came to dress, who was nervous about dramatic steps into Chabad identity, so people were genuinely surprised.
Then I walked up to our “mashpia” (mentor) and wished him a good Shabbos. He looked at me differently than everyone else. Not with a smile or a handshake. Instead, he looked at me and said delicately, “Are you doing it because of what’s inside of you, or because you’re trying to make yourself into something?”
I looked down sheepishly, and I admitted that I was doing it because I felt like I needed to start “pushing myself” more. That I felt I was too focused on the internal and not enough on working on the outside-in as well.
He looked at me for a moment, his eyes soft and concerned. He didn’t need to say anything else, and he didn’t. Instead he shook my hand and wished me a good Shabbos.
About a year later I took off my kapota and my hat. I walked into the same shul, and I left behind that forced attempt on my identity, and promised myself that from now on, my internality would determine my externality.
Step 3: The Eruv
It was in fact for this reason, this focus on internality, that I still resisted taking on a label like Modern Orthodox despite the fact that I was increasingly entering that world, and was still openly and proudly calling myself Hasidic. If anyone wanted to talk to me about my beliefs, I would still say things like, “I’m half-Chabad” or “I’m part of this movement called ‘Neo-Chassidic’”.
The reason was simply that Chabad was (is) coursing through my veins. The Rebbe was still my rebbe and the Torah Chabad taught was still real and true to me. I saw no reason to let the label go, even if it had become more complicated. Israel was full of people like me, why did life here have to be any different?
But things did change. I started going to a different shul, a Modern Orthodox one. My embrace of Modern Orthodox beliefs, teachings, and more started to push past the limited amount I had started with by reading “Torah Umadda” and Jonathan Sacks.
More importantly, on a halachic level, I had never fully committed to a Chabad way of life, even when I was wearing the kapota, and had started to observe halacha in a way that conformed with this new life I had taken on.
That’s why, when I discovered that my new shul was working on building an eruv, I got excited. What hasgacha pratis (divine intervention)! Only a few months after joining this shul, the very same shul was building an eruv that would allow me to finally come with my wife, that would allow me to bring my baby in a stroller. I could not believe my luck.
Which is probably why I didn’t see the storm that was coming as clearly as I should have.
I live in Crown Heights, the home base of Chabad. There is no bigger community of Chabad Hasidim, and there is no community more completely ensconced in the post-mortem life of the Rebbe. Here, he still walks the streets, he still prays in 770, the home base of the home base, and his declarations stand stronger than anywhere else.
And one of his declarations was that there should not be an eruv built in his neighborhood. From the perspective of Chabad, there was no halachic argument that could justify it, and the Rebbe was insistent that the community not bend on this issue.
And so they didn’t. Any talk of an eruv, and there always was some after his passing, was swiftly shot down by social pressure and the threat of leadership (such as there was) intervening.
But my new shul was Modern Orthodox, and they didn’t see themselves as beholden to the Rebbe’s wishes. They saw a neighborhood that was quickly gentrifying, growing, and diversifying. And they knew that the one thing that would stop their community from growing was an eruv, practically a prerequisite for most Modern Orthodox Jews moving to new communities, especially in places like New York City that offer so much choice.
They announced the eruv was built on a Friday, shortly before Shabbat. I think the idea was that they wanted to minimize the outrage they knew would come by giving the community 24 hours to cool off. It backfired. Instead of cooling off, it seemed that the Crown Heights Chabad community got fired up over Shabbat and came out of it swinging.
I took to Facebook, what had become my mouthpiece on issues that mattered to me, to defend the eruv, to argue that Crown Heights was diversifying, that Chabad could not lay claim to Crown Heights, that we didn’t live in a world where even a place as near and dear to Hassidim was so uniform that they could actually rule against a minority that held differently.
That Friday, the response was more muted, more thoughtful. People didn’t have the time to form opinions, and leaders hadn’t had a chance to speak up yet.
After Shabbat, I posted a less combative post, just thanking my shul for utterly transforming my Shabbat into something my wife and I could finally look forward to, as parents with two toddlers and one more coming. But almost immediately, I could tell that a change had happened. I was shocked when a fellow Chabad writer, someone who I had even worked with briefly at Chabad.org, wrote a scathing comment about how I was breaking Shabbat.
I was shocked, and didn’t see this coming. I thought discussions would center around whether the eruv was justified in being built, not whether folks like me were publicly breaking Shabbat. The implication of such an accusation can’t be understated: orthodox Jews cannot eat at the home of a person who breaks Shabbat publicly, for example. So, such an accusation, while emotionally painful in and of itself, can severely impact a person’s life. And since I was still close with so many Chabad folks in Crown Heights, and I was hosting Shabbat at my home, “Creative Farbrengens” for the artsy people, and more, it became clear to me that night that I was not just fighting for the eruv, but simply to not be ostracized from a community I still loved deeply.
My posts afterwards became more defensive, more angry. As the ravs of Crown Heights made strong statements (things like that an eruv didn’t even exist, that even Modern Orthodox Jews cannot justify their using the eruv), the problem got worse. I tried sharing what my rav in Israel had said (that, essentially, as long as the orthodox rabbi at our shul could vouch for the person who had made sure the eruv was kosher, I could use it), sharing his name as I knew many people I was close to respected him.
Instead, the result was that people either felt the ravs of Crown Heights overruled him (or that he was ignorant of the community)… ultimately I received an email from him asking me not to use his name publicly as he had “become aware” that the discussion had become quite heated in our community. I can think of no reason for him sending me such an email except that he was being harassed.
I started to hear stories. One told by a friend of mine, who described how a Chabadnik had yelled at him and then spit at him when he saw him carrying his tallit through Crown Heights. Another of a drunken Hasid who had chased a father who was walking with his daughter, also carrying a talit, into a shul and yelled at him in front of her. I heard from the people who had built the eruv that people were harassing them with calls telling them they had cut down the eruv (when they hadn’t). Then some people actually did cut it down, even cutting down the one in Park Slope, a community that had nothing to do with our eruv. The police soon began investigating this as a hate crime (one religious community against another).
The ravs, so outspoken about the eruv, didn’t say a word. They still have not.
Back on Facebook, I started to say something, something I felt was the only defense I had left, as I started to realize I had become a sort of lightning rod for many in this very heated debate: “I am not Chabad.”
It was an argument that began when the discussion transformed from the eruv to the people using the eruv. It was one I tried not to use, because it made me sick to say it, but as time wore on, I said it more and more, and soon it was essentially I had to say.
My wife and I were shocked, we had no idea that all this would result. Any difficulties we had faced in moving to Crown Heights paled in comparison to this, and we finally understood what it meant to act out against a community so tightly-knit in so many ways. In many people’s eyes, we were openly attacking not just Chabad, but the Rebbe himself. And, for many, it also meant that we had become “Reform” (a word used by one of the ravs of Crown Heights), open desecrators of halacha and Torah.
And so, the more I repeated the mantra “I am not Chabad” the more I started to embrace it. As time passed, I began to believe that my Facebook posts had upset so many people because these same people had seen me, even through all my transformations, as Chabad. Because I had given that impression. “Half-Chabad” or whatever I called myself, I was still a Hasid living in Crown Heights, I was still someone who proudly declared the Rebbe was my rebbe.
I realized, with sad, angry, resignation that preserving my (external) identity as an orthodox Jew meant I had to eschew my connection to Chabad. Because if I associated myself with Chabad, people would leverage their community and their views of what it means to be Chabad against me. They would use it to control me, even if they didn’t see it that way. They would have control over my Judaism, because the more openly I was a proud Chassid, the more they would see things that were truly and fundamentally different between myself and other Chassidim as open betrayals, and thus the more I would be beholden to the social pressures in a community like Crown Heights.
The experience with the eruv had taught me, forcefully and emotionally, that I wanted nothing to do with that. I had no interest, I realized, in transforming the way the Hasidic world saw itself. I had no interest in transforming Chabad. Internally, my heart and mind were devoted to Hasidus and the Rebbe, but they were utterly removed from the issues that the eruv had brought out in the community of Crown Heights. I saw no reason to fight for my identity when I already felt comfortable in it.
So I let it go.
I let go of an identity that only meant something to others and not to me. I let go of a label (something the Rebbe had famously called “only for t-shirts”) because I had lost my attachment to it.
I think ultimately, I realized that the label of “Chabad” was an external marker, a livush, that did not match its internality. Although there are expansive visionaries within the Chabad world who understand one can deeply identify as Chabad without following by all their rules, the amount of people who do not far outweighs them. And since it is people, and not deep truths, that rule the realm of words and their meaning, “being Chabad” is not (perhaps never will be) as expansive as people like me wish it was.
I still deeply believe in the power of understanding our identity (not just saying “I’m a Jew” and leaving it at that), but I’ve also come to understand that how we speak about that identity must be weighed against the way people will understand that speech.
I’ve come to the point where I tell people I wish I could call myself Chabad. But I can’t. And they may argue with me, they may try and show another way of looking at things. But they do not know what it means to live a life where the Jewish world is in discord with your internal religious compass. Otherwise they would understand.
But I hope they do not have to. I hope for a world that transforms for their way of looking at things, where labels are looked at with levels of nuance, with the idea that they can mean different things to different people. I don’t think that day will come until Moshiach arrives.
On that day, I’ll call myself Chabad.
Photo credit: Tzipora Lifchitz