Jewish movement and its doctrine, an offshoot of the religious and social movement known as Hasidism; its name derives from the initial letters of three Hebrew words that distinguish and characterize the movement: hokhma (“wisdom”), bina (“intelligence”), and da'at (“knowledge”). Chabad follows the common Hasidic themes of devequt (“attachment”), hitlahavut (“enthusiasm”), and kawwana (“devotion”), but it elevates the importance of the intellect in spiritual endeavours. Adherence to divine commandments (Torah) is encouraged, but excessive asceticism is discouraged. The leaders (tzaddiqim) of Chabad Hasidism tend to be teachers and spiritual guides rather than miracle workers. The strongest opposition to Chabad was based on the charge that it leaned toward pantheism.
The first leader of Chabad was Rabbi Shneur Zalman, a prolific writer of 18th-century Lyady, Russia, whose Liqqute amarim (“Collections of Sayings”)—popularly known as Tanya (“There Is a Teaching”) from its opening word—contains the theoretical doctrine of the movement and is an interpretation of Kabbala (esoteric Jewish mysticism). In addition, his five-volume version of Joseph Karo's legal code, Shulhan 'arukh, attracted numerous followers and several outstanding leaders.
The Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad Chassidism); Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch; our great-grandfather (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch—the Rebbe’s namesake); our grandfather (Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch); and of my father, the bride’s grandfather (Rabbi Sholom DovBer). As our sages have said, ‘Whoever repeats a teaching should envision the author of the teaching standing before him.’”
Those who attended the wedding later recalled the palpable sense of holiness which permeated the room as Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak delivered the discourse.
Shneur's descendants became the spiritual leaders of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, who migrated from Lyubavichi in Russia and set up headquarters in New York City. The group is noted for its missionary-like zeal in supporting schools, orphanages, and study groups and for various other activities that foster Jewish religious life in all its manifestations.
"Habad." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
The key to this success, organizationally, has been the concept of "schlicum," or emissaries, who are sent by the movement to a community in need and make a lifetimes commitment to serve and raise their families there. From their earliest years, Lubavitch young people see such a daunting commitment as the highest form of messianic undertaking. They are carefully selected for their assignments, but they are also expected to be self-supporting in their activities, recruiting assistance and raising funds locally. In this sense, Chabad is a movement that is both highly centralized and strongly decentralized.
There are nearly 3,700 emissary families around the world. They combine a kind of religious entrepreneurship, whose programs employ almost 50,000 other professionals, with a very personal ministry. "They have had a prominent impact on a great many Jews, especially in places without a large Jewish infrastructure as well as places remote from centers of Jewish life," said another scholar, not at all associated with Lubavitch, Jack Wertheimer, a professor of Jewish history and the provost at Jewish Theological Seminary. "They have often provided basic services, from education to kosher food, where they were lacking."
Wertheimer said there was both "a very loving, caring face to Lubavitch" and a more aggressive, militant one, "a kind of conquering mentality." Congregational rabbis, he noted, have sometimes felt that Lubavitch presented an unfair competition, targeting particular age groups for programs or mounting colorful, publicity-gathering events for certain holy days, while the rabbis had to provide a wide array of year-round services. Yet, "competition can be healthy and serve as a spur," he added, and other Jewish movements have been trying to meet the standard of "personal and caring presence" that Lubavitch has set.
Behind all this there is of course a theology, a spiritual vision -- of the rebbe himself and of the Chabad Hasidic tradition from its beginning. It is a vision that stresses how all creation is suffused with a divine essence; consequently, modern communications technology is to be embraced and put to good purposes.
From its beginning, Lubavitch teaching also had a strong anti-elitist, outward impulse expressed in the writings of its founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who wanted to make even the mystical dimension of Jewish observance accessible to the average Jews.
These are the things that Lubavitchers like to point to rather than the mundane organizational details, and probably they are right. Nonetheless, the teaching remains most powerfully expressed in the way it is lived out -- in this case by thousands of people willing to make lifetime commitments to serve Jews not of their movement, and often in obscure and isolated places.
New York Times/January 22, 2000
By Peter Steinfels
Copyright H. David Marshak, All Rights Reserved