The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch is a look at one of the largest and perhaps best-known branches of Orthodox Judaism. It is written by journalist Sue Fishkoff who, although an outsider to the sect, manages to be insightful and respectful but still completely honest. There are very few books on modern-day Hassidic Judaism, and even fewer good ones, but The Rebbe’s Army is one that stands out. I would like to think this book would be fascinating even to people without a Jewish background, or perhaps more so, as they enter the topic without bias.
Chabad has a very paradoxical position in today’s world. Unlike many Orthdox sects of Judaism that eschew modernity and the secular world, Chabad has instead embraced it as a vehicle for their movement. Their website, Chabad.org, remains the most comprehensive and oft-visited resource for Judaism on the internet. Every year, Chabad holds a telethon that is broadcast on mainstream television in Los Angeles. Filled with celebrities, it raises millions each year for their various programs to help Jews around the world. Although they are not the largest Orthodox sect in terms of adherents, they are easily the most visible. Outside the Jewish world, they may be synonymous with the word “Jew” to many, with their identifiable black hats and archaic garb, often seen on television during liaisons with politicians during holidays. Despite their heavy media presence, they still remain devoted followers of their religious traditions and leaders, expressing their beliefs in the same way as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago in Eastern Europe.
Within the Jewish world, the movement is controversial for their vocal enthusiasm for religious observance and their outreach programs to encourage nonreligious Jews to return to the traditions and rites of orthodoxy. Although they meet disapproval for their pushy agenda on one front, Chabad provides services to Jews all over the world regardless of affiliation: summer camps for kids, rehab centres, educational programs and schools, assistance with Jewish observance, and religious and ethical advice. Travelers overseas may find “Chabad houses” to attend services even in the most remote of places, emissaries to the faith that open their doors to Jews in places with little or no community. Even a Jew who is vehemently opposed to Chabad’s methods may still use their website to consult a rabbi for advice or receive a daily newsletter, and may attend services at one of their synagogues for the High Holy Days.
Fishkoff also explores the more hush-hush and massively more controversial Chabad Messianic movement. The sect has long followed their Rebbes, the great leaders of the religious community, since it began in the 18th century. The last Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was responsible for founding many of the outreach programs that Chabad is known for today. Influenced by his wisdom and deep impact on contemporary Judaism, a movement developed within the Chabad community theorising Schneerson to be the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish people. This movement was shaken but not destroyed with his death in 1994, and many of his followers believe he will return from death to lead the Jewish people. Although this schism remains somewhat localised to New York, the Messianics are very vocal and still persist today, to the chagrin of the anti-messianics both within Chabad and other Jewish movements.
The Rebbe’s Army offers great insight into the philosophy and practices of Chabad-Lubavitch today. From the daily religious lives of the adherents, the philosophy behind their outreach programs, and their historical religious traditions, Fishkoff covers it all in an informative, accessible way. She doesn’t do this from afar, but dives right into the community starting at their headquarters in the Crown Heights neighbourhood in Brooklyn. She sits along side them at Shabbat tables, attends religious services, and speaks at great length with many, many Lubavitchers. Although she remains a non-practictioner, uncomfortable with many of their traditions, her approach is respectful and deeply illuminating.