The Chabad Paradox
The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Shneerson
by Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman
Princeton University Press, 382 pp., $29.95
Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and The Mystical Revolution of Menahem Mendel Schneerson
by Elliot R. Wolfson
Columbia University Press, 472 pp., $35.00
The Hasidic group known both as Lubavitch, after a town in Russia, and as Chabad, an acronym for the three elements of human and divine intelligence, Chochma (wisdom), Bina (understanding), and Da'at (knowledge), is not just the most successful contemporary Hasidic sect. It might be the most successful Jewish religious movement of the second half of the twentieth century.
While mainstream Orthodox Judaism has seen extraordinary growth through the ba'al teshuvah movement of "returners" to religious observance, the foundations were laid by Chabad. And while Orthodox Jews often express disdain for Chabad and its fervent shluchim (emissaries), they also rely on them for prayer services, Torah study, and kosher accommodations in out-of-the-way places from Jackson,Wyoming to Bangkok, Thailand, not to speak of college campuses around the world.
The Conservative movement historically caters to moderate suburban traditionalists. But many suburbanites now find themselves more comfortable at Chabad's user-friendly services. Once the source of a distinctive middle-class Jewish nightmare—that one's child might come home with tzitzis, a fedora, and extraordinary dietary demands (an "invasion of the Chabody snatchers," as a joke of my childhood had it)—Lubavitch is now a familiar part of the suburban landscape.