Jack Wertheimer: “Chabad Calls A Spade A Spade”

Source: Chabad Lubavitch News, 5-5-11

Harvard University

The following is an excerpt from a dialogue with Ruth Wisse, the Professor of Yiddish Literature and Comparative Literature at Harvard University,  and Jack Wertheimer, Professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, on the theme of American Jews and the Defense of Western Civilization. The dialogue appeared today in STANDPOINT, a cultural and political magazine published in the UK.

RW: I’ll give you one example from this week. I find myself on a campus, and the Jewish organisation on campus, which is the dominant Jewish organisation on every campus, is Hillel. Hillel is a catch-all. The difficulty with Hillel is that it feels it has to go along the lines that you mentioned, Jack: Hillel has to be all things to all incoming students. Therefore, it cannot say, “This is what Judaism is, it cannot say, “This is our position on Israel,” it cannot say, “This is how we behave.” It doesn’t have one Jewish service: Hillel at Harvard  has four or five concurrent services in order to suit everybody.

About ten years ago a Chabad rabbi came and set up a Chabad house at Harvard. Chabad is a movement which when I was growing up was more or less non-existent. One didn’t know what its role was. It felt ultra-Orthodox. Well, Chabad is the product of a very long process and I won’t go into what constitutes Chabad except to say how different the Chabad house is from the Hillel house. It is different in this respect: it is what it is. It celebrates Sabbath the way it celebrates Sabbath, it takes students to Israel the way it takes students to Israel. It does not change. It tells its students to be whatever they want, they can come on Friday night or not come, they can come on Saturday or not come, they can join them for one holiday or two holidays, the students don’t have to change. But it is what it is. It is such a bracing experience to be in that building. This week we had a dinner with 20-odd students and it was fantastic. They were all able to grapple with their doubts and convictions. This is something that doesn’t happen in that looseness of Hillel.  Students coming to the university have an option that they didn’t have before.

JW: I would relate this to my previous discussion about the whole question of cultural liberalism because of the pervasiveness of relativism, the terror of being directive, of being coercive. I’ll give you one example. To speak in rabbinical seminaries about the commandment to be fruitful and multipy — what most rabbis consider the first commandment of the Bible — has becomeverboten. It is not to be spoken about because it will hurt the feelings of some. I’m not making a case for tactlessness but what is accomplished when rabbinical students are never told how much their own tradition values raising children? Some rabbinical students are not married, or have married late, and for whatever reason are childless. Should that make it impermissible to teach that Judaism values procreation?

By contrast, one of the strengths of Chabad is that their people talk about how Judaism can enrich your life, particularly your family life. You’re absolutely right, Ruth, that Chabad accepts people as they are, but at the same time they call a spade a spade in the sense of explaining what Jewish tradition does teach — and how following those teachings leads to a better life.

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