Thursday, December 11, 2008

What the Brethren Could Learn from the Chabad Movement

Among those massacred by terrorists in Mumbai were Hasidic Jews who were members of what is known as the Chabad movement. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal Lucette Pagnano recounts his own experience worshiping in a Chabad House after 9/11 and then talks about the Mumbai deaths and the philosophy behind the movement:

I thought of that sense of safety and comfort as I watched the horrific events unfold in Mumbai, and specifically at the Chabad House.

I am absolutely certain that Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his pregnant wife Rivka, massacred by the terrorists, had also set up a safe-haven. Theirs was a retreat for Jews living in and around Mumbai or even those who were merely passing through.

I would venture that's one of the secrets behind the Chabad movement's extraordinary growth -- that they build little sanctuaries for lost Jews, alienated Jews, secular Jews, Jews who have no interest in traditional religion.

Chabad has redefined religion in part by getting away from the notion of large, formal temples to establishing places of worship that are small, intimate and, above all, deeply comforting; they have made religion personal.

And so, even as some other branches of Judaism and other religions have withered, they have ventured to the far corners of the earth: Siberia, Alaska, Kiev, Odessa, Ho Chi Minh City. But no matter where the Chabad house the philosophy is always the same -- to bring even the most alienated Jews back into the fold.

You go to a Chabad house and you can count on being invited to Friday night dinner by the rabbi and his wife. The model emphasizes old-fashioned notions of community and home -- the sense that religion is not a once-a-year affair but a way of life.

They have made inroads even among the militantly secular, I suspect, precisely because of their sense of conviction. No matter where they are in the world, in the Chabad houses of Siberia or Southampton the rabbis wear the traditional black hats and dark suits, the women long dresses and wigs. There is little attempt to blend in or assimilate.

It can be jarring to run into them on the streets of Southampton or South Beach, strolling in their religious garb, trying to ignore the stares of women in halters and fashionably dressed men in Bermuda shorts and sandals.

This article is interesting because it gives us a window into missionary Judaism, which is something you don't see very often. But as I read it I couldn't help but be reminded of the similarities - and differences - between these Hasidic Jews and my Anabaptist ancestors and relatives who made it a point to wear distinctive clothing to avoid assimilating with the "world." Of course the practice lives on among the Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and plain Brethren.

Like the Anabaptists, Hasidic Jews attempted to freeze history at a particular point in time by keeping the dress of their founding period while the world of fashion moved on. What was common attire in its day became a mark of distinction in later times. Among my Brethren ancestors the matter of dress was once very important. It is more than a little amusing to read the minutes from the big Annual Meetings in the 1800s and see how much time was devoted to discussing the propriety of making minute changes in clothing. Any change that appeared to follow the fallen culture was rejected. After the big three-way split in the 1880's, the largest group that became known as the Church of the Brethren began to leave behind the plain dress and assimilate with regard to attire. Many Brethren men, though, still wear the distinctive beard with no mustache (the mustache was commonly worn by military types) and if you travel east to Ohio and Pennsylvania you will find Brethren who dress somewhat plain. We still have that "set-apart" mindset in our DNA, as do Hasidic Jews.

But for some reason we do not share their missionary passion. When I read about the Chabad House movement where hospitality, community, and spirituality are offered in the heart of the cities, I think that this ought to be the perfect model for the Brethren. It fits our Anabaptist and Pietest DNA perfectly. But for some reason we don't get it. Even as our rural churches decline and our children move to the cities to find work, and we lose them to other denominations, there is not a flicker of interest shown at a denominational level in following our children there and setting up hospitality houses, house churches, or any enduring presence. We love to go into the big city to do service projects; we are great at that. But apparently we'd rather die than risk being corrupted by actually setting up shop there and making urban America the focus of our mission. The more I watch what is happening within our denomination the more I become convinced that we really don't believe we have anything important to offer to the world. If we did we could learn something from the Chabad movement.


Brethren Priestess said...

You make some great points. I do wish our CoB were more willing to engage people where they need us most (because the world DOES need our prophetic witness for peaceful faith). I remain ambivalent about whether we need to wear distinctive clothing to perform that witness, but I can see both sides to it. Thanks for sharing this valuable analysis!

liberal pastor said...

Well, I don't think there is any need for distinctive clothing, just a distinctive presence.

Chris Fitz said...

A great idea Jay, as always. There are several big contextual differences which may not have yet reached a tipping point for us to feel the urgency of this concept: 1.) we live in a Christian mainstream society so many of us, esp. young people still don't have redeeming ways of identifying ourselves without feeling like it's "assimilating" to mainstream gluttony, violence, etc.; 2.) many of us are parts of small Christian sects and in the case of the Church of the Brethren, would likely not garner enough brethren traffic to generate income and be sustainable, with exceptions for the major cities like DC where radical Anabaptists visit all the time. Hey, maybe that's the place to start....

liberal pastor said...

Thanks for the response Chris. In response to your #2 I would clarify the intent of my post to say that it would be my hope that we would not set up house churches or hospitality centers in urban areas for Brethren or Anabaptists only. The place to start would be with the local Brethren, but my hope would be that we would have an Anabaptist presence with a strong mission focus in order to reach out to others who may be looking for our kind of spiritual community. My experience is that they are "out there" if we are willing to make some effort at reaching them. But you have to believe that we have something worthwhile to offer.