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Chabad’s pathway to real commitment

Charges that Chabad offers quick-fix, superficial Judaism miss the wisdom of encouraging gradual observance of mitzvot

People have always criticized Chabad for its message of love without commitment. While “Love Without Commitment” might be a fun name for a romance novel, it’s a particularly harsh way to describe the central message of the world’s largest outreach movement. But, still, they have a point. They feel that we don’t ask enough of the Jews we reach out to. They can’t understand how we could meet a guy eating a cheeseburger and just ask him to put on tefillin. They think we have no standards, and call our brand “feel-good” Judaism, because to them feeling good is all we ask for.

Now, any good Jew should love criticism, or, at least, know that he should. So I’ll hold my fire against these critics, and instead will do my best to explain this most beautiful, yet most misunderstood, principle of our approach to outreach. After all, we in Chabad know best that positive messages always drive deeper than mean ones.

The most important thing is this: Chabad runs on mitzvot, the sacred commandments, and, ideally, Jewish life does as well. They’re the trade, gold, and currency upon which everything Jewish stands. According to Chassidism, they’re the meeting ground of G-d and man. Our Rabbis in Chabad Yeshiva would try and explain this to us by way of a well-known metaphor. “How could a mighty king ever connect with a simple peasant boy?” I could still remember their eyes, narrow and poised, as they let the question hang like a spirit in the air. “You know how? It’s when the boy joins the Army, and the King screams ‘Charge!’ When that boy runs forward for no reason other than the fact that he was told to, that’s the connection, and that’s a command.” Their point was this: When we follow G-d’s command, we are entirely one with him. We become his extensions, and develop, thereby, a complete and total unity.

But with all of their power, mitzvot still seem so small. Instead of just asking for a life of kindness, G-d asks us to put on a pair of tefillin. In place of just asking us to be spiritual, G-d asks us to light candles on Friday night. Apparently, G-d is obsessed with little things. But to us, it all seems fleeting; we feel no change. And for that reason, I believe, many people fail to recognize the beauty and wonder of a life of mitzvot. Because, at first glance, you just can’t.

But, maybe that’s the point.

We can’t suddenly become kind or spiritual. People don’t work that way. Any transformation that happens too quickly will be gone as fast as it came. It’s true with regard to money, love and especially to commitments. Change takes time. And it’s the recognition of that fact that inspired the Rebbe’s vision. When it comes to a fellow Jew, Chabad Shluchim emissaries aren’t looking for a “quick fix.” They know those don’t exist. Life’s far too big to be changed that way. But, what someone might do is put on tefillin once a week and perhaps attend a monthly class. Maybe he’ll even nail a mezuzah on his door and say Kiddush on a Friday night. As small as they are, bit-by-bit these minor changes will, G-d willing, contribute to a huge one.

You could try to catapult a Jew into his Judaism. I know some Rabbis who show off about how they could. One told me he could make a secular Jew completely observant in an hour and a half. And I bet it’s possible; at least with the handy use of guilt and fear. When a person hears about his grandparents rolling in their graves and the fires of Gehinnom, he’ll reconsider things, primarily because you just scared the hell out of him. You might call it Kaboom Kiruv. But it’s a childish approach, one that lacks patience and depth. People who turn around that fast haven’t internalized anything; Judaism was just superimposed onto them. It’s all artificial, and it won’t last long.

All in all, ‘Instafrum’, the idea that one could make instant dramatic changes to another’s observance, is a myth. The Rebbe just had the intellectual maturity to acknowledge that. He knew that real change isn’t fireworks and an overhaul. It’s gradual, and often plodding, like a child growing up. It’s not a difference you’ll see in the day-by-day; but give it months, maybe years, and you’ll see they’ve grown in the most profound and authentic way.

About the Author
Mendy Boteach spent two years with Chabad in Frankfurt, Germany, and was ordained as a Rabbi in Pretoria, South Africa. He's now a student at NYU, and works with This World: The Values Network.