On Kennard, Shochet, Chabad and Modern Orthodoxy

The community in Melbourne, and abroad, has been buzzing about a series of articles/indirect interchanges between Rabbi James Kennard, principal of Mount Scopus College and Rabbi Yitzchok Shochet of the UK. I caught the tail end as we were heavily involved in planning and enjoying the wedding of our daughter! I had a moment after the Shabbos Sheva Brachos to quickly read Rabbi Kennard’s second article (I haven’t seen the first) in the Australian Jewish News, and formed some thoughts which I now have a moment to put down.

Firstly, the usual disclaimers and context:

  • Three of our children married into Chabad families. Our fourth will also do so in a month or so.
  • I attended a Chabad school, Yeshivah College in Melbourne
  • I did not attend a Chabad Yeshivah after year 12, I went to Kerem B’Yavneh, a religious zionist yeshivah (call it Chardal if you like)
  • I was Rosh Chinuch at B’nei Akiva for a few years, and my wife was a Meracezet in Sydney
  • None of our children attended a Chabad Yeshivah or Seminary after their Schooling.
  1. There is little doubt that a follower of Chabad, who considers themselves a Chosid, needs to effect the wishes and approach of the late and great Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Ramash נ’ע
  2. There is little doubt that the philosophy of Chabad is that the Geula (Moshiach) will be effected when Yidden will augment their Torah with Chassidus Chabad. אימתי קאתי מר
  3. There is little doubt that where a person has no known minhag because their family practices have lapsed, that Chabad will only introduce Chabad minhagim to that person, and will in general not make an effort to find out what a family practice might have been. This is because Chabad philosophy considers their approach as one which subsumes other approaches, and is superior at this time. שער הכולל
  4. There is little doubt that Chabad has indeed changed its approach to Zionism, in practice. Whereas the Rashab spoke with vitriol in a manner not too different to Satmar, the Ramash’s language became far more sanguine and displayed an acceptance? of historical reality (to use the words of the Rav, “History has paskened that the Aguda was wrong”)
  5. Chabad never saw the establishment of the State as the moment of the beginning of Geula. On the other hand, the establishment of the State certainly occurred during the time when the Geula was imminent, according to Chabad philosophy.
  6. In general, unlike many groups, Chabadniks do not spend their lives in Kollel. They either go out and get a job/study, or they become Shluchim. That’s not to say they embrace Torah Im Derech Eretz as a particular philosophy. Rather, it’s how one survives and lives.
  7. Chabad was and still is a leader in Jewish outreach, and this stems from extreme! Ahavas Yisroel, as stressed in Chassidus Chabad, where the Neshomo Elokis of a Yid is what counts, at the cost of all other considerations. This is a good thing!
  8. The Rav himself stated that Chabad taught the world how to bring Yiddishkeit into Reshus HoRabbim as opposed to Reshus HaYochid.
  9. The Rav noted that the differences between the Tanya and Nefesh Hachaim were semantic nuances that most did not and could not understand. The Rav did, of course. Indeed, Rabbi Brander mentioned that the Rav wrote a Pirush on Tanya which is still בכתב יד!

Until now, I have written about Chabad. Of course, like every group, there will always be a mismatch between the philosophy and some of the implementors (call them Chassidim) of that particular philosophy. Some Chassidei Chabad are what one might call “more tolerant” of difference, whereas others (often these are newer chassidim) range from less tolerant to downright intolerant of anything which isn’t in immediate accord with the Chabad approach to life. In this, one could argue that Chabad are no different to others. I would argue, however, that Chabad are different. Their difference lies in the fact that they absolutely revere and adhere to their approach to Yiddishkeit and do so with Mesiras Nefesh. Any student of history or sociology will have noticed that elements of this reverence have rubbed off on so called Misnagdim, who now have Rebbes in everything but name. “Gadol HaDor” anyone?

I agree with Rabbi Kennard that there isn’t only one way. I have always felt that way. Indeed, when I was a student and introduced to Tanya, I had a “stand up” with my teacher who said that Moshe Rabbeinu was a Lubavitcher. I said this was absurd and he called me a “Moshchas”. I think that’s where I started going down hill 🙂

It is a well-known Gemora (I think in Taanis) that says that Hashem will, in the future, create a circle of Tzaddikim (in plural) who will dance around him and point to the epicentre of truth, which IS Hashem, בעצמותו. Many have repeated the interpretation (two which readily come to mind are Rabbi Akiva Eiger (whose grandchildren were Chassidim) and Rav Kook (whose mother came from Chabad)) that a circle was chosen rather than a square or indeed a line (dance) because each Tzaddik represented a different but equal approach to Avodas Hashem: call it a different perspective.  The  point of this Gemora (I think it might even be a Mishna, but I’m writing without looking as I have little time at the minute) is that each approach is equidistant to Hashem. Each is valid. Each is correct.

How can they all be correct? Simply because it’s a matter of perspective. Two people can be in the same room and the same spot, and witness or observe the same thing from two perspectives. Both are right. Both see truth. One of my sons is very talented in design. I have zero talent in the area in which he excels. I will not see what he sees. At the same time, I’m perhaps extra-logical. My PhD intersected with formal logic. My son won’t see or be bothered by what I see or am influenced by. Undoubtedly, this also extends to the concept of education, where we are enjoined to teach each child according to that particular child’s needs and expectations, approach and ability. חנוך על פי דרכו

No doubt, the Chabad perspective on the Tzaddikim in the circle will be that they consist of the line starting from the Baal Shem Tov through to the Ramash, and the reason they are equidistant is that they represent the same spark of Moshe Rabeinu, and that is a super soul which incorporates the souls of all of us. (This is not entirely correct though because the Ramash inherited the greatness of the Rayatz who inherited the greatness of the Rashab etc)

Personally, despite my background, I have not developed an understanding or appreciation of Chassidus Chabad or any other Chassidus. When I was introduced to Mussar, I disliked the  almost “abusive” approach of reproach. I learned Kuzari (which Rabbi Kennard might be interested to know was originally something that Chabadniks had to know together with Moreh Nevuchim!) but found it outdated.

I was attracted to the Rav, and elements of Rav Kook, in the main. That’s just me. That being said, I don’t know if so-called “modern orthodoxy”, which is a term the Rav did not like, is what is “needed” by the congregants of the Great Synagogue. I do not know how Rabbi Kennard knows that either. If he does know it, then I would hope that he flew to Sydney and addressed the board and congregation of the Great Synagogue and explained to them why that style of philosophy was the correct one for the Great Synagogue.

Perhaps I am spoilt. I saw a Chabad at Elwood Shule in the frame of Rabbi Chaim Gutnick. The Shule davened Ashkenaz, and still does. In fact, I inserted that expectation into the constitution of the Shule! Rabbi Gutnick was a master orator and a Chabad Chossid, however, I never witnessed him pushing Chabad down the throats of his congregation. Occasionally, he would refer to his master and teacher, the Ramash, but in the end, he related to people כמות שהם, “as they were”. His son, R’ Mottel follows in exactly the same footsteps as his father, although he does mention the Ramash more often than his father. Some may call this “Chabad Light”, but I beg to differ. It’s what you achieve that matters. I know that Rabbi Chaim Gutnick discussed his approach and issues with the Ramash on several occasions, and the latter called him הכהן הגדול מאחיו

At the other end of the spectrum was the late and great Rabbi Groner. He wasn’t the Rabbi of a non Chabad Shule. He was the Rabbi of a Chabad Shule. He was the head Shaliach of the Rayatz and then the Ramash. He certainly projected Chabad through a more defined prism, however, at the end of the day, he too never shoved Chabad down my throat, and I was known to be vocal on issues  I might have. I often heard him give a drasha based on a vort he read from someone other than the Ramash (not that it contradicted Chabad philosophy).

I attend a great shiur by R’ Yehoshua Hecht. He has no problem with saying “the Rebbe Nishmoso Eden“. He is as strong a Chosid as anyone else, and speaks without fear or favour.

I am aware, though, of some who are “not as well read” or “not as exposed” to the different Jewish world views and people who exist. As such, they are certainly less tolerant, more narrow-minded, and frankly, less likely to succeed! (in my opinion).

The point I am making, of course, is that it is more about the Chosid him or herself, than the Chassidus itself.

I recall coming back from learning in Israel, and R’ Arel Serebryanski asked me at a Farbrengen (yes, I do enjoy a good farbrengen, but sadly there aren’t many good ones these days) to learn Tanya with him. I responded that I would do so if he agreed to learn Chazon HaGeula from Rav Kook with me in return. He promptly averred. That’s fine. R’ Arel has his Chassidim and his circle of influence, but I’m obviously some type of “Klipa” that is in the too hard basket 🙂

So, while I don’t learn Chabad Chassidus per se, I have to say that their approach of love and being non judgemental as a primary mode of returning Jews to their roots, is something that is inspiring and we all can learn from. Clearly, places like Aish HaTorah have adopted this approach. It’s the only approach that can work in my opinion. The days of chastisement  and admonition have long passed their expiry.

I did not like Rabbi Kennard introducing the issue of child abuse in the context of his article. I felt that this was completely out of context and in boxing terms a hit below the belt. Rabbi Kennard is not a fool, and he knows full well, as we all do, that actions speak louder than words, and words unfortunately seem to fall in the domain of lawyers and those who are litigious by nature. When the Labor Government came into power they promised an apology to the indigenous population of Australia. Speak to any indigenous person. They will tell you that an apology is meaningless in the context of a void of action. Action is the key, and like Rabbi Kennard, I have no doubt that action has and continues to be taken to make sure that world’s best practice of prevention is implemented in the School in question.

I think it was unwise for Rabbi Shochet to debate Rabbi Kennard on this matter. Did he really think that he could argue cogently with the points that Kennard had made?

I also think it was unwise for Rabbi Kennard to make a call on the Great Synagogue’s needs in the Australian Jewish News, when in my opinion there are much more important issues threatening all Orthodox approaches in the circle I mentioned above. The Jewish world is buzzing about “egalitarianism” and the actions arising out of that fever. There is a growing Shira Chadasha, a private Hechsher that is causing waves of discontent, Ramaz’s issues with Tefillin in the women’s gallery (will Rabbi Kennard allow that at Scopus?), the Maharat debate and more.

Yes, I agree with Rabbi Kennard that there is more than one way. Yes, I agree with Rabbi Kennard that Chabad (like others) think that their way is the best way, but I am interested to know where the issue of Chabad and the Great Synagogue’s choice of Rabbi sits in terms of importance to the Jewish world, vis-a-vis the issues I outlined above (and more).

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia although my views have naught​ to do with my employer. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

24 thoughts on “On Kennard, Shochet, Chabad and Modern Orthodoxy”

  1. Criticism where criticism is due but ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’

    The Rebbe, OBM (Ramash, as you call him) didn’t push Chassidus Chabad because that was the party line and it was expected of him. I believe, IMHO, that he encouraged its study, taught and developed it because he felt it was the most effective tool we have to stave off the influence of the outside world and prepare us for the Geula.

    Results speak for themselves. It builds and develops strong emunah and bitachon (those who are not clear on their difference, look into them), provides a powerful hashkafah to take on the world, rather than just remaining passive or reactive and supplies a deep and broad philosophical platform to comprehend the ‘crazy’ world (= Olam hasheker) we live in.

    Obviously, it does not have all the answers and is not the only tool or perspective a Jew should have, but it is a modern, cogent and dynamic tool both in strengthening ourselves, ‘warming’ others to Yiddishkeit and even reaching out to the non-Jewish world (where that is relevant).

    If a Chassid isn’t prepared to stand up for his Rebbe or brand of Chassidus, then what sort of Chaassid is he? However, those of us with a modicum of grey matter upstairs should realise Yiddishkeit and Jewish Philosophy existed before the Alter Rebbe or indeed before the Baal Shem Tov arrived on the scene. Appreciation of Torah and the array of sforim that exist is important in providing a perspective and a recognition of the cultural and academic legacy we possess and hopefully makes us a little more humble before the giants of yesteryear.

    Let us not get involved in petty tiffs but rather combine our strengths in an effort to build up the great house of Israel. Afterall, perhaps only 10% of world Jewry are in anyway knowledgeable or shomrei mitzvot.

    So as a great salesman once said, ‘it’s not that no one wants what we have, but that we have an almost inexhaustible market out there!’

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      1. Au contraire.
        I would like to see it’s use grow, not only because it brings him in line with the names of the other Rebbeim, but it is tidier, and more fitting than “the Rebbe, OBM.”

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  2. Thank you for comprehensive and thought-provoking comment on the “debate” (though that might be too grand a term). I would just like to respond to the final point which seemed to suggest that I should not have written my original article because there are more important things to discuss.

    I find that argument less than compelling. It could be used to shut down debate on any subject whatsoever if that subject does not fit one’s subjective definition of “the most important matter”. But more to the point, I have published 54 articles in the Jewish News to date, in addition to the shiurim and lectures that I give regularly. Most of the articles are on subjects related to Jewish education, Jewish identity, Jewish engagement. The shiurim are on Chumash and Maharal. The lectures are on topics such as Torah and Science, Why Believe in G-d, Will we have Jewish Grandchildren.

    I think I’m entitled from time to time to write about a topic that you might not feel is “the most important”. And, as it happens, I think this topic – the need to ensure a diverse rabbinate and how to achieve that – is pretty important.

    Shabbat Shalom

    James Kennard

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    1. Thanks for your response. Far from decrying your right to choose your topic or implying that the issue of a diverse Rabbinate is not important, I just am of the opinion that there are some issues which are burning brighter, and I enunciated those. We can agree to disagree. I would welcome articles on some of the topics I have suggested. I know they are issues confronting a non diverse Rabbinate, right now.

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  3. The thing about Chabad teaching their minhagim to other people is a common criticism. Do other groups really make an effort to ensure that people follow the minhagim of earlier generations? I don’t think I’ve seen that, and in fact this was not the historic norm: people were expected to adopt the minhagim of people around them. As a practical matter, how could a school (e.g.) cope with teaching kids to daven if it had to teach two, three, or half a dozen different nusachs?

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    1. Joe CHABAD are evangelistic about the superiority of people adopting Minhag Chabad and Nusach because of Shaar HaCollel. I recently had a person who I reintroduced to Tefillin. I did research on his family and concluded it was Nusach Sefard. Chabad would without question simply apply their mode of Tefillin. Yet, we are enjoined to על תטוש תורת אמך

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      1. The pasuk tells people not to abandon their own traditions. It’s not addressed to third parties trying to bring people closer to Torah. If you reintroduced him to it then he had already abandoned his own traditions. Also, there’s a question of scale. I suppose that in a one-off situation it’s not much harder to get someone wearing the same tefillin as their grandfather, but that’s not the case when you have many people passing through your doors. It would be an unreasonable burden to expect Chabad to know and support other minghagim, particularly when the bearers of those minhagim have abandoned the people they should have been teaching.

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        1. Good apologetics Joe, but you would NEVER EVER see a Chabadnik with two sets if Tefillin, Ashkenaz and Sefard (nobody wears Lubavitch) nor would they ever THINK to do so. That’s what they should do but Shaar HaCollel and NOT practicality is what rules. Also nobody abandons … That’s impossible

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          1. It’s not limited to chabad I believe Chacham Ovadya paskened that whoever brings someone to wear tefilin vechulu who would not have otherwise has the status of pseudo father (teacher=father) and he takes on their minhagim.

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            1. Something tells me this is definitely not the full Psak. I can’t imagine for one minute that Chacham Ovadya would pasken that a Teymani should start wearing Ashkenaz Tefillin! Please provide your Mekor

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            2. I don’t remember it off hand I would have to check it up. But, why is it so hard for you to imagine, especially since he has the well known psak of Eretz Yisroel being Minhag Maran for Ballei Teshuvoh who come with no pre-parental minhag. I presume that would imply vice-versa in lands of minhag Ramo

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  4. The Great is the last bastion of Anglo Orthodoxy in Sydney.
    The last time I davened there on a Shabbos there were 3 dozen men including the Rabbi and Chazzan plus a dozen ladies, the echo was palpable
    I believe 5 people walked to shul.
    It is a most challenging position for an activist Rabbi; the congregants are unaware of Halacha in the main; the board of management do not want any fundamental change.
    The young people with family ties to the congregation who are interested in the Torah Lifestyle invariably daven in shuls in Bondi/ Rose Bay where there is a Shomer Shabbat atmosphere.
    It is hard to appreciate what relevancy the Great holds for 21st Century Orthodox life, probably they should move into the area of the Eastern Suburbs where Jews live.
    If the Rabbi is Chabad or another hue is of marginal importance.

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    1. The Great is one of many large Shules whose mode has been challenged by non transparent fiefdoms of well meaning CHABAD houses and Shtieblach. It is critical to have diversity and the best man must be chosen. They need to focus on growing the great to what it was, and not redefining it in the mould of their own imperatives

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  5. The various Chabad Houses do a wonderful job in reaching out the unaffiliated in their location.
    Some are better at their jobs than others.

    I agree completely with your point:
    “by non transparent fiefdoms of well meaning CHABAD houses and Shtieblach.”
    I am not sure to what extent a prospective shliach goes through a vetting process to determine if he will do justice to his shelichuss and bring honor to the movement and not the opposite.

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  6. R Ovadia Yosef does, indeed, rule that Sefardim who choose to wear Rabbeinu Tam should break with the Sefardi tradition, and wear them in the manner of the Ashekenazim. או”ח כרך א סימן ג

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    1. I assume this is Yabia Omer? I will look, but there is really no comparison with adding Rabeinu Tam or other minhagim as opposed to Rashi Tefillin as per the Minhagei HaSefardim. Are you seriously suggesting Rav Ovadya would tell them to do so? We know that on Nuschaos there are the powerful arguments if Reb Moshe in Igros Moshe that Ashkenaz is the mother Nusach for Bnei Ashkenaz. Please note: I daven Sefard (chassidish) because that’s the family Minhag and my Zeyda wore a gartel. What I’m about is not saying who is right or wrong but rather having an overarching respect for difference. As I stated, when I re taught someone to put in Tefillin I did research I into his family, and bought accordingly. To me this is the type of respect for difference that we need to reintroduce. My little brain can’t imagine the Aybishter having a problem with Toras Imecho except when it’s a PERSONAL Chumra or Hanhogo. For example, it is clear in the Poskim if your Rov does something in his house, that does not turn it into normative Psak unless he explicitly intimates to YOU as a Talmid. That you should follow or may follow. I don’t use an Eruv for non Chabad reasons but never in my life would I impose that on my children or wife

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  7. “Rabbi Brander mentioned that the Rav wrote a Pirush on Tanya which is still בכתב יד!”

    Can you tell us where you got that from?

    Thanks.

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