Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Doing Things Differently
Over the years people have asked me why Lubavitchers are so different. It is commonly known that Lubavitch is unique even in the Chassidic world, and has its own way of doing things – at times even different from the minhagim of the Arizal. I have had many a conversation about this and about how this divergence in minhagim somewhat isolates Lubavitch from the rest of Klal Yisroel. Recently I had another such conversation, and I thought it might be useful to put these thoughts out here for those who wonder about this, and to get some other opinions as well. Of course, there are many layers to the answer, but we need to cover a little of the history first. It would be too time (and space) consuming to deal with this here in depth and at length, so please understand that this is a very general post on the subject:
Since the beginning there were differences within Klal Yisroel. Each tribe had their own nusach, minhagim, batei dinim, etc. In the days of the Mishna, there were great differences between the students of Hillel and Shammai, and so it has been throughout the ages – differences have always existed. Indeed, this has also had its problems – from the passing of R' Akiva's talmidim during sefira, to the machlokesen that lead to the Churban, etc – but it would seem that it was not the differences that were the problem per se, as much as the inability to get along harmoniously with those differences. So we should recognize that although Klal Yisroel is one nation and one people, different schools of thought within Klal Yisroel are (and always have been) legitimate.
Skipping ahead, we cannot help but notice the significant differences between regional practices: Ashkenazim & Sephardim have quite distinct differences; Among Ashkenazim there are many differences between German Jews (Yekkes) and other Eastern Europeans; Italian Jews have also many distinctive practices – the list goes on and on as we subdivide further and further. But then there are changes that aren't regional, and that's what we're getting to: differences based on ideology and beliefs instead of region. What makes Lubavitch different is that they are hard to classify: Are they a Chassidus? If so (as it would seem that they are) why are they so different from other Chassidim? Are they Lithuanians? If so (and being that Lubavitch is located in the Lithuanian region, it would seem that they are) then why are they different from other Lithuanians? Basically, the question is really, how do we classify Lubavitch?
And that is half of the answer. Lubavitch does differ from other Chassidim for various reasons, but not the least of which is that they maintain a number of regional (Lithuanian) practices (from pronunciation and dress to things like not stealing the afikoman or saying tachanun on a yahrzeit) as opposed to their Ukrainian / Polish or Rumanian / Hungarian counterparts – while at the same time they share many "Chassidic" practices such as nusach haTefiloh, and general Chassidic concepts and values. Thus, Lubavitch is a mixture of various different ingredients from most other groups – and that sums up the first half of the reason for why Chabad is so different from everybody else.
With all that said, there has been a clear progression – especially in the last generations – towards very distinctive differences. Lubavitcher seforim of Minhagim have appeared fast and furious. Chabad has more clearly marked out distinctively different ways to do so many things that there is very limited overlap left – but it was not always this way. In generations past there was much less emphasis on minhagim, and people generally followed their family traditions; only recently do Chabad Chassidim attempt to follow every practice of the Rebbes either quoted or witnessed. In fact it is written in Otzar Minhagei Chabad (Tishrei, P.163) how while traveling, the Rebbe Rashab once directed R' Zalman Havlin (who was leading the davening) not to say slichos on 17 Tammuz, as the Alter Rebbe did not say it at his minyan. When the surprised R' Zalman noted that in shul in Lubavitch it was customary to say it, the Rebbe Rashab responded: "The minyan in Lubavitch is no proof, because in Lubavitch everyone does as his heart desires."
But things have changed somewhat, and we can only speculate about the reasons. In the last 50 years we have seen Lubavitch directed more towards a military structure with a revolutionary spirit – and all revolutions need an identity. Sure, each specific custom or practice has its own specific rational and basis – and they all have merit – but it serves other purposes as well. Just as 300 years ago, the revolution called "Chassidus" brought different attitudes, emphasis and flavor – all as part of the movement's revolutionary message – the Rebbe, and Previous Rebbe before him, sought to create yet another awakening and another revolution. The simple truth is that every revolution fades and turns into the establishment; when this happens its practices become the establishment's as well. But if one seeks to keep the revolution alive, to reach the heights that were once being sought, it is also important to keep the movement fresh and distinct. As the Kotzker Rebbe famously said, "If we continue to do what we did, we will continue to be what we were." Just as early Chassidim brought change – often radical (shechita for example) – Lubavitch, in my opinion, has sought to do the same. It seeks to maintain a dignity of difference and a message of perpetual revolution. And while that may have its drawbacks, it certainly has its merits as well.
A Jew is called an Ivri, meaning from across the river. The significance is that we are foreigners by definition: by definition we are anti-establishment; by definition we don't belong; by definition we are different. It should probably even be normal for Jews not to seek to fit in, and perhaps even to the contrary….