Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Shmuley Boteach on Charisma and Chabad

Shmuley Boteach contributes a gracious and insightful essay of appreciation on Chabad in the Forward. Gracious because despite emerging from Chabad himself and subsequently meeting with disapproval from the movement and parting ways, he is far from having turned against them:

Chabad has been the love of my life since I was 10 years old. I gravitate toward its passion for Judaism, its emphasis on love for every Jew and its members’ preparedness to spread their movement’s message throughout the world, often at great personal sacrifice.

The piece is wise, too. He points out something I’ve often thought:


What the Rebbe understood more than anyone else is that ideologies are perpetuated through charismatic leadership.

To most people today, Judaism is simply not compelling. So we keep searching for ways to make synagogues and Jewish classes more interesting, forgetting all the while that it’s not the subject which is boring but rather that many of the teachers seem lifeless.

Unfortunately, this is painfully true. When I wrote the other day on the enchantment of Judaism, I was referring to a “do it yourself” version of Orthodoxy constructed from books perhaps more than from teachers, which is not the real Jewish way. Jewish teaching is intended to be personal, not simply learned from printed pages. The lack of charismatic active leadership in the Jewish world is a peculiar deficiency that afflicts us at the moment, but it’s quite recent and there’s no reason to assume it is a permanent condition. Rather, we are going through a dry spell. It happens.
Unlike modern Orthodoxy or Reform and certainly very much unlike fragile, decaying Conservative Judaism, Chabad actively cultivates charisma and has a strategy for it, which is one reason the Hassidic sect stands out as the most successful movement currently on the Jewish scene, despite its eccentricity on at least one subject.
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posted December 11, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Chabad is certainly the most successful in terms of training and employing full-time outreach rabbis — a seemingly miraculous effort that is really unprecedented historically. And I’m certain all of the thousands of shluchim, the outreach rabbis, are doing wonderful and important work. Because of their gentle approach, though, I’m not sure how many people have adopted Orthodox Judaism and become full-fledged balei teshuvah through them, compared to the Yeshivish outreach organizations like Aish (who tend put a little more pressure on people, I gather, as well as trying to logically convince people in various ways that Torah Judaism is true). For example, on the website BeyondBT, nearly all the baleei teshuvah seem to be Yeshivish. It would be interesting to see statistics about where balei teshuvah have been coming from over the last few decades, though I doubt such data exists.
In Israel, I understand that there are many outreach rabbis who are quite successful and charismatic, besides my favorites from Breslev Israel/Chut Shel Chessed. For example there is the Yeminite rabbi Amnon Yitzchak, who has apparently inspired thousands to make teshuvah singlehandedly. (Some of his videos, captioned in English, are available online).
Funny, like Chabad, Breslov is a fast-growing group that has its own quirk, its own minority faction that some find embarrassing — the Na Nach’s, known for dancing and singing on the the top of big white vans and stopping to get out of their cars at intersections to dance with joy and hand out pamphlets about Rebbe Nachman. While unlike the Chabad Messianists they’ve never been accused of having heretical beliefs as far as I know, some do see them as kind of cultish.

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David N. Friedman

posted December 13, 2009 at 3:34 pm

OK–so now I see under this heading where David K is going and I think there is a problem with taking one quote in isolation. I believe it is simply fundamental that our leaders must have the kind of energy necessary to help compel Jews towards our tradition but an ability to be glib or emote by singing and dancing is not really the problem as I see it.
The problems in the Conservative movement have far less to do with the fact that their Rabbis are bores and much more to do with the fact the movement has abandoned halacha and has a problem coming off as authentic.
The matter of kiruv is also separate from the problem of leadership failing to convert thousands from a single shir–as Yirmi has said of Rabbi Yitzchak.
Let me explain: The guy with charisma is there to sell you something. It is said Obama has charisma so he therefore has the ability to sell himself to stupid people. Judaism may benefit from glib, articulate people who can sell Judaism but this is not the Jewish way. The Jewish way is to have a teacher who compels his students. This is why Judaism is my path and Judaism will grow to the extent it can continue to teach people vital things about how to live and how to see reality.
If Judaism is not compelling–people are not being taught Judaism and they are taught a kind of watered down or Jewish style message. A qualified Talmud instructor will compel interest in the subject because the subject is compelling. His ability to use the language, dance and sing or have a pretty face is really very secondary. If we have faith in the quality of the message, we must have faith in the quality of the Jewish future. On the other hand, if we really *need* it to be sold by people who can jazz it up, we are truly doomed.

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