Saturday, August 10, 2013

Change The Channel

The annual televised Chabad Telethon will air  in thr U.S. this month. Chabad is a branch of  the Jewish ultra-orthodox Hasidic movement. Chabad in turn is divided  into various sects that have  a history of intense and violent rivalry with each other.  However, they all have some common traditions such as perpetrating  obscurantism by allowing only a  minimal secular education for their followers and by fostering a belief within each sect that its founder is the Messiah. The men wear black suits and the women wear headscarves and long dresses. Followers also have large families which is the result of official opposition and enforced ignorance for its members about birth control, along with a patriarchal social structure resulting in limitation of women's roles and rights. The latter not only includes their  expected function as serial child bearers but also the prohibition of their participation in Torah study and ordination as rabbis (Note the striking doctrinal similarities in this regard with Catholicism and Mormonism).

Of course this is not the image that Chabad and its ilk present to the public, especially when seeking contributions.   The logo of the program is a symbol or silhouette of a Chabad "rebbe" (rabbi)  dancing in spiritual joy.(Of course this avatar doesn't include his perpetually pregnant wife.)

But one would have to be practically living in a cave not to know that there's more to the story behind that facade. So why do many non-Orthodox and even non-observant Jews give undue deference and in the case of the telethon, donations  to the Ultra-Orthodox and its leaders?  Could it be due to feelings of inferiority and / or guilt about not being "observant enough", e.g. not keeping kosher, such that members of  devout sects are looked up to as "real Jews"?   And considering that this respect for these "holy" men is not reciprocal , it's stranger still.

One rationale for elevated status of Chabad is the supposed "good works" that it does not just for Jews but for the community at large. So the telethon includes non-Jewish celebrities as well in order to appeal to a wider audience and so to appear ecumenical.

Yet there are many other charitable sectarian and  nonsectarian organizations who likewise perform diverse and extensive services to the public without imposing the baggage of unenlightenment and oppressively strict  behavior codes on their congregants on one hand while displaying a deceitfully benign mask to the outside world with the other.  In short, the  mere visibility of its representatives on TV does not compensate for Chabad's lack of  transparency about the medieval culture and stifling lifestyle to which its members are expected to devote their lives.

Articles for further reading:

A Life Apart: Hasidism in America

Jewish Outreach: What You're Rabbi Isn't Telling You

Reform Reflections: The Good and Bad of Chabad 

Out of Enclaves, a Pressure to Accommodate Traditions