Rabbi Rick Jacobs on the Authenticity of Reform Judaism
In the popular imagination, Jewish denominations exist on a two dimensional plane. At one extreme sits Chabad-Lubavitch, broadly identified with authenticity in Jewish practice by dint of its black-hatted presence wherever Jews may be found. At the other extreme sits Reform, the Judaism of the suburbs and the extravagant Bar Mitzvah.
It was over the question of B’nai Mitzvot, in fact, that the two poles most recently collided. In an article published in 2007, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, criticized Chabad’s practice of holding B’nai Mitzvot without requiring preparation from the boys or commitment from their families. An emissary at Cornell’s Chabad House responded with an article that accused Reform of using Bar Mitzvah students as “pawns in a game of institutional extortion.” The scuffle highlighted a deep tension between the movements, which increasingly find themselves in competition on campuses and in communities around the world.
Chabad constitutes a challenge to the Reform movement. When Chabad’s rabbis come to town, the local Reform synagogue faces the risk of appearing less authentic than the competition. But some Reform rabbis aren’t about to roll over.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs leads the Westchester Reform Temple, a large Reform congregation of 1,200 households in Scarsdale, New York. Jacobs is a prominent figure within the Reform movement, active in the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Reform’s rabbinical association, and Synagogue 3000, an effort to revitalize synagogue life.
We spoke with Jacobs about his thoughts on Chabad, the authenticity of Reform Judaism, and outreach to college students.
What do you tell college students from your congregation when they come to you with questions about Chabad activities on their campuses?
I believe that all meaningful Jewish experiences are important, and I would put Chabad in that mix. What I’m nervous about is the less versed Jewish college student who walks in and immediately feels like they have [previously] been part of something not authentic. Sometimes that comes from the Chabad rabbi or the rabbi’s wife or the rabbi’s staff, and sometimes it’s just, ‘My God, this is so different from what I know.’ I had a student who would have Shabbat dinner with [his school’s Chabad rabbi] regularly. It’s an opportunity for easy conversation about Torah, with a little kugel and a little gefilte fish and a loving acceptance. I think that’s incredibly valuable. However, this kid tells me, ‘I didn’t know the birkat hamazon.’ I said, ‘Excuse me? Remember, at [Hebrew school], where you were a student for five years, we said the birkat hamazon at each class?’ [And he said,] ‘Oh, but its very different the way they do it’.
I agree. It is different. But this young man felt like he didn’t even know something called the birkat hamazon, and he’s a kid who was fairly involved in his high school Reform Jewish education. I don’t want to say don’t go to a Chabad house. What I do want to say is don’t throw away your Jewish authenticity in your encounter, because you have a very valid Jewish experience.
There’s a line of thought in the organized Jewish community that says that non-Orthodox students should go to the Chabad house as a means of developing a Jewish identity, even if they don’t particularly identify with the set of values espoused by Chabad. Is this appropriate?
[Chabad] does not line up with all of the liberal Jewish values that we’ve learned from our tradition. I would argue that egalitarian values are, in my Jewish life, from the tradition, not opposed to the tradition. There’s the question of to what extent tikkun olam and social justice are a primary part of one’s Jewish practice. Chabad would certainly say that to help another Jew in distress is very important, but if you’re talking about organizing the Darfur rally at the college Hillel, they would say, ‘Why would you be spending all that effort? We need to take care of our own.’
One of the most problematic things is that Chabad subscribes to a view that a Jewish soul is inherently more sacred than a non-Jewish soul. Yes, there are sources: Hasidic, Kabalistic, and probably even rabbinic where you could construct such a notion. But I find that to be the most problematic aspect of Chabad. And it’s not going to be in the first conversation with a Chabad rabbi, it’s not going to be in the fiftieth, but it under girds much of the Chabad worldview and their mission to spread out around the world and bring Jews back to the fold. Frankly, that’s a serious conversation that has to be kind of explored. It’s not easily done by an 18-year-old [student] versus a 35-year-old Chabad rabbi who’s got fifteen good responses, but their version of Judaism is in my mind problematic and not necessarily built on the same intellectual and moral foundations as the rest of traditional Judaism.
And what about the older donors? They know all this. Why do so many secular adults give money to Chabad?
I think the reality is that many liberal Jewish donors to Chabad are hedging their bets. [They think,] ‘When all is said and done in 50 or 100 years, I don’t know if this liberal Jewish path is going to still be around. And the Chabad people remind me of my zayde.’ No, really, the guy could be 28 years old, but he reminds people of their zayde. It touches a heart string, as well as that little gnawing doubt that maybe [the Lubavitch] are the ones that are going to endure the onslaught of modernity, and maybe they are the ones who are going to make sure that in four generations there will be Jewish life. It pains me that they don’t have enough belief in what they do and what they’re providing for their children to support their own religious congregation to the same extent as they would Chabad. I think it’s Yitz Greenberg who called it the ‘Zayde Principle,’ and I think that is the secret to their success, because obviously financially they’re doing quite well. And I would never preach against supporting them. My approach would be to emphasize how important it is to support financially the main institutions of Jewish life. Reform Judaism is now the largest movement in North America, and I don’t think it’s because we’re watering down Judaism, I think it’s because it’s a Judaism that is in sync with the challenges of modern life.
What should Chabad’s role be among secular and non-Orthodox Jews?
As a Reform rabbi, I think that their role ought to be as one of the spiritual paths within Jewish life. A passionate, committed, very authentic path, but one of the paths and not the path, not a hierarchically overarching path making others seem less authentic or less serious.
I was in midtown Manhattan, and I’m walking down the street and this wonderful friendly warm Chabadnik stops me and says, ‘Are you Jewish?’ I’m walking along, I’m wearing a grey suit. I don’t know, maybe I have curly Jewish hair. I said, ‘Yes, are you?’ And he looked at me and started to laugh and he pointed to his tzit tzit and to his beard. I said, ‘You know, appearances are not always reality.