June 15, 2009
A Different Side of Chabad
— Martin E. Marty
Whenever I stroll down "my" Michigan Avenue in Chicago I pass forlorn pickets in front of the now forlorn-looking Congress Hotel. After six years I had never understood why this union is picketing this hotel. This week's Forward (June 11) cleared the matter up with a front-page plus two-page story: "Long Strike at Chicago Hotel Pits Jew against Jew." The owner and the union leaders are both Jewish, and argue their respective cases religiously.
If that issue is not sufficient to show that religious arguments cannot help but surface in Forward, a left-of-center English-language heir (b. 1990) to Forverts, a Yiddish paper of once-militant socialist and consistently secular bent, a page-through of this current and typical issue should illustrate a thesis we hold hereabouts. It is that, lurking behind most communal controversies in our culture(s), religion persists as a force for good or evil. Other headlines this week: "Orthodox Video Silent on Reporting Sexual Abuse to Police," "Sotomayor's Religion, Ethnicity and Gender Reignite Affirmative Action Debate," "Terror Case Stirs Debate on Informants at Mosques" (relating to a synagogue bombing in Riverdale, N.Y.), "Elusive Common Ground" (an editorial on the murder of Dr. Tiller), "New Converso Rabbi Hopes to Help Others Follow His Jewish Path," "Why Straight People Go to Gay Synagogues and What We Can Learn of Them," "Mormons Fascinated by Potok," "Straight Talking from Gay Shuls," plus religious references in articles reporting that Israeli Jews are less pro-settlements on the West Bank than they once were. Any of these stories could prompt a comment in Sightings, but one stands out.
The one that elicits or should elicit debate begins on page one: "Popular Rabbi's Comment on Treatment of Arabs Show a Different Side of Chabad." Popular he is: Chabad Lubavitch Rabbi Manis Friedman who, according to writer Nathaniel Pepper, "has won the hearts of many unaffiliated Jews with his charismatic talks about love and God," is the man who attracted Bob Dylan into a relationship with Chabad. Here is what was behind the headline. In the "Ask the Rabbi" feature of Moment magazine, Friedman responded, when asked how Jews should treat their Arab neighbors: "The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way. Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle)." Then there would be "no civilian casualties, no children in the line of fire, no false sense of righteousness, in fact, no war. I don't believe in Western morality. Living by Torah values will make us a light unto the nations who suffer defeat because of a disastrous morality of human invention."
Instantly, Jewish leaders who work for interfaith relations and "Western morality" criticized Friedman, while defenders of Chabad and Friedman's outlook rallied to support him. Of course, he later explained himself and criticized Moment. Also it was noted that Friedman was quoting a Torah text-it's in the "Christian Bible" too-commanding not only genocide but omnicide. And it is true, we have to locate the popular part of his movement in a larger context. Mordecai Spektor, publisher of American Jewish World, began to: "They are fundamentalists. They are our fundamentalists," Spektor wrote, and this language was representative of what such Chabad-Lubavitchers believe.
In such exchanges, mirror images of militant and extremist Muslims, one finds some refuge in the semi-secular, dialogically "human inventions" of "Western morality" that are fortunately reflected on many other pages of Forward any week.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.