Here it is.
The big controversial post you all've been waiting for.
"STEG BASHES CHABAD"! (oooh....)
Let's get this party started. What we have here are a series of anecdotes of my interactions with Chabadians (Lubavitchers), with a bit of philosophy added. As you will see, much of my interactions with Chabad have been negative. I tried for a few years to be accomodating and try to see their point of view, but it just didn't work. I even went on a shabbaton in Crown Heights, and visited their world headquarters. But unfortunately, the more I got acquainted with what their point of view actually seems to be, the more I wanted nothing to do with their movement.I'm Shaking
One Sukkos during college, my brother went out to the suka
in back of the local Chabad House, where they had conveniently set up a table with an etrog
to shake. The high-school-age son of the Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin was out there, and seemed to be in a bit of a rush trying to help people shake the lulav. My brother knew what to do from previous years (after all, we've been shaking lulavs our whole lives), but just needed a few seconds to recall exactly how to do it. While he was searching his brain for the proper pattern of shaking, "Guy" (that's what we'll call the son) started giving him directions that just didn't sound right, so my brother said (all quotes are paraphrased), "Hold on, I'm trying to remember my family's custom; that's not how we do it." To which Guy responded, "well that's how the shulchan oruch says to do it."
At that point, in my brother's words, i think that my custom's probably older than the shulchan aruch / but i just graduated from jewish high school / and i'm all smart / so i want to look it up in the shulchan aruch as a little learning thing
So "Guy" goes inside, brings out a Shulhhan ‘Arukh + Mishna Berura, they find the correct section and begin researching. And the researching consisted of Guy finding the proper place, glancing at it, and then poking at it repeatedly and saying that it's saying what he's been saying. And then he left. After he left, my brother continued to work through the words of R' Yoseif Karo and R' Yisrael Mei’ir Hakohein Mi-Rodin, and realized that they were describing not Chabad's custom, but his own!
Shulhhan ‘Arukh « Orahh-Hhayim « section TRN"A « laws 9, 10
This ni‘nua‘ (shaking) means that one moves their arm in front of them forwards, shaking there three times in moving away and three times in moving back; and afterwards tilting the hand to one side, and doing the same thing — and similarly for every side of the four directions, and up and down.
[Then R' Moshe Isserliss explains that it's the moving back and forth which constitute the 'shaking'.]
The 'shaking' is done circling around rightwards: east, south, west, north.
In R' Yisrael Mei’ir Hakohein Mi-Rodin's Mishna Berura
, he explains the same sequence of shaking — starting facing east, and then proceeding clockwise, followed by up and down — and goes into more detail.
Neither of them mention the AR"Y's custom (which Chabad follows) — south, north, east, up, down, west — although it is cited in two other commentaries: Be’eir Heiteiv and Sha‘arey Teshuva.*Sha‘arey Teshuva, interestingly enough, quotes "the rabbis of Italy" who hold by the same system as R' Karo — circling around rightwards — but understand it to mean in a counterclockwise order!
After this, I thought about it, and came to the conclusion that "Guy" must have been remembering reading his custom in Chabad's
"Shulhhan ‘Arukh", which was written not by R' Yoseif Karo in Safed in the late 1500s, but by the founder of Chabad, R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi, 200 years later. So I found a copy of that, and found the correct section, but it was lacking in directions for how to shake a lulav. Eventually the source was found: it was in the Chabad siddur. "The custom", "the way it's done", which Guy was so insistent was codified in the more-or-less universal law code of the Shulhhan ‘Arukh, wasn't even in their
"Shulhhan ‘Arukh" — it was a note in the uniquely Lubavitch siddur.And Wet
There's this Chabad rabbi who used to be the assistant rabbi of a Chabad House, and is now the rabbi of a [non-Chabad] synagogue. Let's call him... "Driver". You'll see why later. Anyway, Driver invited me and a number of other friends over to his house for shalishudes
) one Shabbos afternoon. After the meal was over and we were about to bentš
, he started passing around a washing bowl for mayim ahharonim
. Now, I'm sure that I had heard of the custom of washing not only before a meal but afterwards also, but I wasn't familiar with it. No one I had ever eaten with had done it, and so I was interested in learning about it. As the washing bowl headed my way, I asked Driver, "So, where does mayim ahharonim
"It says in the Shulhhan ‘Arukh you have to do it."
Now, I don't know what he
was thinking, but where I
come from, when someone asks you "where does this come from?" they're not making an appeal to authority — they're asking for understanding and explanation. They're asking minayin?
as it's used in the Talmud. "From where do we learn this? What Tanakhic or Talmudic sources exist for this practice? How is it done in different communities? How did it evolve from the time of the Gemara until today?"
So he didn't satisfactorily answer my question. His idea of what a question is seemed completely different than mine. And since I didn't want to cause conflict, I just did it.
Afterwards I looked it up.
And I found out that, yes, it's true that the Shulhhan ‘Arukh declares that mayim ahharonim
is obligatory. However, hundreds of years before R' Yoseif Karo, the Ba‘aley Hatosafot had declared the practice non
-obligatory and unnecessary on behalf of Ashkenazic Jewry, due to the fact that what they saw as the primary reason for the practice had become no longer applicable to Jews living in a changed geographic and economic situation. And although there had been Ashkenazic authorities who disagreed with the Tosafot, their rationale had stood the test of time as a valid Ashkenazic opinion.
Maybe Driver was referring to his
"Shulhhan ‘Arukh"?And Scruffy By Choice
Another story about my brother.
It was the period of Sefirat Ha‘omer
, and in a friendly conversation with him and our friend "Magz", the assistant rabbi of a Chabad House (let's call him... "Weaver") told them that it was absolutely 100% forbidden to remove hair from one's face, at any time of the year. Completely asur
. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Except for one single heteir
given in extraordinary circumstances, that allows men to shave for business reasons — and is only around 150 years old. And since there are laws against religious discriminaton in the USA, Magz should just let his beard grow all year long and not complain about it being itchy, since he can't lose a job over it.
This was news to both my brother, who remembered learning about the permissiblity of shaving in halakha
class in high school, and Magz, who although lacking in formal Jewish education, had many other observant and learnèd friends who shaved. So my brother, Magz, and Weaver all got on the computer and did a quick online search. But they couldn't find anything definitive either way.
A few days later, my brother goes and looks up all the sources. Mishna, Gemara, Mishneh Torah, Mishna Berura... and he finds that in all of them there's a distinction between forbidden
methods of facial hair removal, and permitted
methods of facial hair removal. So he takes the sources, and brings them to show to Weaver, who was shocked. It then took him around two hours
to prove to Weaver that if all of these halakhic sources say that there are permissible ways to remove hair from your face, they can't all be joking!
Weaver, however, wasn't completely convinced. In my brother's words, he accepted the halacha as the halacha, but said that the pshat of "lo tashchit" means that shaving, even in a halachicaly permissible way, is against the "spirit of the law"
.But Not Drunk
So, one weekday morning I made the mistake of accepting a ride with Driver back from shul to the neighborhood we both lived in. It was not that long before Purim, and Driver asked me what my plans were. So I told him that since I'm not a big fan of smelly piss-drunk people, I was going to avoid the college and Chabad and instead go to the Purim se‘uda
of the local shul.
DRIVER: But it's a mitzva to get as drunk as possible on Purim!
STEG: According to some people (i.e. many great halakhic authorities over the centuries), all you need to do is drink a little and then go to sleep; or drink slightly more than you would normally. According to some, you don't even have to drink at all.
DRIVER: Yeah, well, some people also work on Shabbos and eat on Yom Kippur.
Did he just call the Hhafeitz Hhayim, the Me’iri, the Ran, Rav Efrayim and other well-accepted Torah scholars brazen sinning heretics
? I think he just did...
I ended up seeing him on Purim, and he was completely trashed. And he claimed that he only does it because of the obligation. That's a little hard to believe, though, since I've seen him just as drunk and out of it on Simhhas Torah, when no such obligation exists.Nor Soulless
Once upon a time, I was at Weaver's for a Friday Night dinner. His 'devar tora'
(which amounted to reading some old essay of his rebbe's) mentioned the doctrine of multiple souls
— the idea that every individual has a number of different souls, including Animal and Human levels. So I asked him if that was the official Chabad cosmology, that everyone has multiple souls; after all, the Rambam said that each individual only has one soul
, which just happens to perform various different functions depending on whether it's a human's human soul, a cow's cow soul, or whatnot.
I was wondering why they chose one theory of souls over another.
He had no idea that the other theory even existed, and couldn't quite conceive of the idea that Maimonides would explicitly disagree with the opinions of his rebbes.
According to Chabad philosophy, as expressed in their "Written Torah" (their words not mine), the Tanya
of their first rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, not only does everyone have multiple souls, but even among human beings our souls are qualitatively different. According to him, Non-Jews have purely evil souls. However, there's nothing in the Tanakh, Talmud, or other early Jewish literature that supports that claim (He "proves" it by quoting a rejected opinion in the Gemara
as authoritative, and it doesn't even say what he wants it to say). The Torah says, instead, that we were all
created in the "Image of God". And the Mishna explicitly states that claiming any kind of intrinsic superiority over the rest of Humanity is a violation of God's plan of creation, when it says:
Why did God create the human race from only one original individual? ...In order to promote peace among humanity, so that no one could tell anyone else, "My Daddy's bigger than your Daddy!"...— Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:5And I Follow My Ancestors
Open up the introduction to the Hebrew-English edition of Chabad's siddur. It talks about how the original Nusahh ha-AR"Y
was created by the Qabbalist R' Yitzhhaq Luria in order to form a special "comprehensive gate of prayer" that anyone could use to guarantee that their prayers got to Heaven. And how no records of his original text survived, and many kabbalists and early hhasidim tried to reconstruct it, until the First Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, restored it and published it.
I have no problem with that. Our prayers have changed over time, that's obvious. If people want to go grafting pieces of the traditional texts of different Jewish cultures together in order to form one unified nosahh
that could serve mixed communities, more power to 'em. If they want to edit their own ancestral texts for grammatical correctness or poetic beauty, that doesn't bother me either.
What the intro to Chabad's siddur does, however, is go on to quote early hhasidic leaders who claimed that this new text isn't an extra style, to be used in addition to the traditional siddur texts of Ashkenaz, Sefarad, Aram Soba, Romaniote, or whichever else — it's a replacement
. We all need to throw out our old sidurim
that we inherited from our ancestors, and start using this newfangled hybrid text because otherwise, they pretty much say outright, our prayers might not even be able to reach God.
I've encountered this attitude from Chabad books and people many times — the rejection of "Traditional Judaism" as unfulfilling, and the need to replace it with something new and improved: Chabad Chasidism.Where does this attitude come from?
Maybe from here:
It's part of a letter
supposedly written by the Ba‘al Shem Tov, where he says:
I asked Moshiach, "When will you come, master?" And he replied, "By this you shall know: it will be a time when your teachings become publicized and revealed to the world, and your well-springs have overflowed to the outside. [It will be when] that which I have taught you — and that which you have perceived of your own efforts — become known, so that others, too, will be able to perform mystical unifications and ascents of the soul like you. Then all the evil klippos will be destroyed, and it will be a time of grace and salvation."
In other words, the messiah will only come when the Ba‘al Shem Tov's teachings are embraced by the world. The Torah wasn't enough. Sinai wasn't enough. We've all just been going through the motions, wasting our time and not getting anywhere because the ultimate Goal — mashiahh, tiqun ‘olam,
the fulfillment of all our prophecies — has been impossible to reach
without this New Revelation of Hhasidism and (especially!) Chabadism.
Which I guess explains why most of the Lubavitchers I've met have barely any knowledge at all outside of their own movement. It makes sense that they're unfamiliar with R' Soloveitchik and R' Shimshon [ben] Refa’eil Hirš, as the leaders of a competing conception of contemporary Judaism (a.k.a. Modern Orthodoxy). But R' Yoseif Karo? The RM"A? Maimonides? It also explains why R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi called his halakhic work "Shulhhan ‘Arukh", appropriating the name of a previous generation's halakhic code. This is what happens when you believe that your own movement — your immediate 4 amot
— is the be-all and end-all of Judaism. It's all very logical — if all of history depends on you spreading the Good News, you're going to spend your time learning the "prophetic" essays of your semi-divine Rebbe, and not worry so much about all the outdated and useless halakhic and philosophical opinions of a bunch of rabbis who don't really matter anyway, in the grand scheme of things.
This is my beef with Chabad, the negative impression I've gotten of their movement and their ideology. I know that there are good Lubavitchers out there, such as one Chabad House rabbi my brother knows who "never implies that other people's Halakhic Judaisms aren't good enough" and "also gets along respectfully and jokes around with the [Conservatives] and the [Reforms]; he never implies they're bad." But I missed meeting him the last time I was in his area. So I'm stuck with the ones I know, who, for instance, were horrified that anyone would want to arrange a mínyan where they can daven their own ancestral nusahh
, and didn't see the light and benefit of becoming one with the New World Order.