The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch. By Sue Fishkoff. New York: Schocken Books, 2003. viii + 344 pp. $26.00.

 

In 1993, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the spiritual leader of the Lubavitch hasidim, suffered a stroke that did not allow him to speak. As the effects of the stroke lingered, the idea that he was the long-awaited messiah grew among his followers. They began congregating and singing a song to him as he appeared on his balcony that included the words, “Long live our Master, our Teacher and our Rabbi, the Messiah-King, forever” – and the Rebbe, as he was known to everyone, could not (or did not) protest. The rational Jewish world rejected this messianist enthusiasm but the question did remain open: he could be the messiah, that is, the person who did more than anyone else to spread the word and practice of Torah among the Jewish people. In 1994, the Rebbe died. For the rational Jewish world, that ended the matter; this had been one more false messianic claim. But, for many Chabad followers, though not for all, the matter was not closed: the Rebbe would come back and then redeem the world. The analogy with the position of the Jews during the life of Jesus and immediately after his death was astounding.

Almost two decades later, Chabad is flourishing. The movement sends out waves of single men and women as well as young couples who go everywhere, touching Jewish souls and building Jewish communities, “kindling the spark of Jewishness.” The young singles, as part of their standard high school education, are sent out to stop Jewish men and urge them to put on tefillin (phylacteries) and to stop Jewish women and urge them to light Shabbat candles. The young people are also sent to help couples in need, or the help run Passover seders all over the world. The young marrieds are sent to communities in places as diverse as Washington DC, Alaska, Thailand, university campuses, prisons, drug rehabilitation centers, and more. They are sent there for life. Given at most a year’s stipend, they have to begin teaching, feeding, and fundraising. A very well organized educational and PR machine backs them up with advice, seminars, and materials. But the work is theirs.

Sue Fishkoff, a journalist, not hasidic, was asked to study the movement; The Rebbe’s Army is the fine result of her work. It has been eight years since its publication and it is worth taking a second look at this study. Fishkoff covers Chabad in Florida, on campuses, in small towns, in Alaska, in Los Angeles, and in Washington DC, Salt Lake City, Portland, and even Bangkok. She covers such diverse topics as tefillin and Shabbat candles campaigns, Passover seders, mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths), fundraising, education within the Chabad movement, the use of very large, public Hanuka menorahs, the messianic motif in Chabad, and the vast outreach work of the movement. And she covers food – the continuous feeding of Jews by Chabad, everywhere.

The whole Chabad effort, however, is not comprehensible without understanding the importance of the Rebbe, during his lifetime and after his death. It was, and remains, the charismatic presence of the Rebbe that motivates the whole. One story: A Chabad child is invited to go ice skating with a group of children. The parents hesitate: it is, after all, not a Chabad activity but the child is young and these are his friends. The older brother takes the phone and says, ‘You are a shliach, a representative of the Rebbe. What would the Rebbe say if he saw you in such a non-Torah activity! Come home, and you and I will do something special.’ The whole movement is moved by the Rebbe’s presence. Fishkoff’s Chapter Four on the Rebbe is a masterpiece, the core of the book. So is her Chapter 13 on education in the movement.

There is an ongoing tension between Chabad and the rest of the organized Jewish community, and Fishkoff does a good job of documenting this. But Chabad thrives on its mission: a Jew is 100% a Jew, a member of the family, even if he or she is not observant, or not politically active, or not organizationally involved. Non-Chabad people call this “tolerance for non-observance” but it is more than that: it is fulfilling the mitsva of “loving Jews” which has always been central in the teachings of Chabad (chapter 32 – which in Jewish alphanumeric calculation equals “lev” or “heart” -- of the Tanya, the basic work of Lubavitch hasidism, teaches this basic lesson). “Loving Jews” takes the form of offering observance of mitsvot free (free Shabbat candles, free holiday parties, free food, free koshering of your house, free classes anywhere on any subject, etc.). “Loving Jews” also takes the form of instilling pride in being Jewish: not keeping religion “private” but being openly Jewish – wearing a kippa (head covering), keeping kosher, not working on Shabbat and holidays, public lighting of Hanuka menorahs, carrying Jewish flags, being sure, as Jews, to help non-Jews in all prosocial activities, and refusing politely to participate in Christian or other ceremonies and customs (not observing Halloween or New Years’ Eve, for instance).

The Rebbe’s Army has three faults as I see it. First, there should have been a chapter on doubts and failures. Some references are scattered in the book but surely a movement as important and as broad as this has its doubts and failures.

Second, Fishkoff mentions, but does not highlight, the double-standard which rules the Chabad world. There is the realm of outreach, at which Chabad really excels, but there is also the inner realm: the rabbi who celebrates Passover seder with his non-observant flock and then re-celebrates it for himself and his family; the educational system for the non-observant which is open and spiritual but the parallel system for the inner world that deletes evolution and other “offensive” subjects from the curriculum; and the tolerant, love Jews, attitude toward all but also the inner world which carefully keeps track of, and takes pride in, the baalei teshuva, the Jews who turn orthodox and even Lubavitch. Which is the true Chabad? Fishkoff should have pushed this a little more.

Finally, an appendix, or at least a note at the end, referring the readers to similar “charismatic” movements would have been helpful, at least for those of us in academic circles. Fishkoff’s presentation of Chabad’s reception by the Mormons is as close as we get to any analogy with other “messianic,” “evangelical,” charismatic movements.

A fascinating, well-written book about a major current in modern Judaism and especially in modern American Judaism.

David R. Blumenthal, Emory University