"Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." – Elie Weisel. ~~~ "The seal of G-d is Truth." – Rabbi Hanina, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 64a.
I was drawn to Chabad-Lubavitch, a grouping in Orthodox Judaism, because it seemed to be the perfect combination of social service and religious mystery. Long before the pop-Kabbala craze made famous by Madonna, Chabad was teaching a form of Jewish mysticism to Jews like me who had grown up in secular homes. And it combined that mysticism with social service. Chabad had a drug treatment facility in LA, poverty programs in New York City and Jerusalem, underground outreach in what was then the repressive Soviet Union – and a rabbi just around the corner from practically every Jew in America, even those in Jews who found themselves in Iowa, Texas and Minnesota, far away from the coastal centers of Jewish life. Under its charismatic leader or rebbe, Chabad focused on macro issues – for example, opposition to the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, promotion of prayer in American public schools, and the staging of public displays of Jewish religious symbols on government property – promoting an in-your-face, unique and unapologetic brand of Judaism that included any Jew, no matter how removed from Jewish life he might be, in its body politic. As a Chabad wag is fond of saying, "All Jews are members of Chabad – some just don't know it yet!"
My involvement in Jewish life predated my joining Chabad. I was active on my college campus, with a national Jewish fraternity, with an international Jewish student group, and in the effort to rescue the small endangered Black Jewish community of Ethiopia. It was this last involvement that would lead to my excommunication.
Soon after joining, I asked Chabad to help with this rescue. I spoke with Chabad leaders, men close to the Rebbe. Chabad would not undertake such a mission without permission from the Rebbe, I was told. (His immediate predecessor had been described as the "Pope" of Orthodox Judaism.) So I wrote the Rebbe directly. After months of waiting, asking, and waiting again without a response, I sent another letter, this one sent certified special delivery, to the Rebbe in Brooklyn. In it I listed some things Chabad could do to help the Ethiopian Jewish community. After each item, I asked a simple question: Is Chabad doing this? If not, why not? I also asked if the Rebbe considered these black Jews to be Jewish.
I already knew the answers to the first part of those questions. Chabad was not doing these things. Less than 40 years after the Holocaust, I wanted to know why.
Two months passed. The Rebbe did not answer my letter. I decided to leave Chabad. Before doing so, I gave my contacts in the Chabad leadership another chance to get an answer from their leader.
They returned with an answer. The Rebbe had read my letter. He directed me to continue the work I was doing to help Jewish communities, especially the work I was doing locally. And, if I wanted to resolve any dispute over the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews, I should do so through the leading Orthodox Jewish legal authority in the United States. The Rebbe did not feel himself competent to decide this complicated issue of Jewish law.
The Rebbe had answered my letter but had not answered any of my questions – and Chabad was not helping Ethiopian Jews. Still, I saw hope. If this leading Orthodox legal authority would endorse rescue, surely the Rebbe would order his followers to help.
So I worked on it, months later getting that endorsement. Soon after, I took a leading Ethiopian Jew to Washington to meet with senators, representatives and State Department officials. After successful meetings, we decided to go to New York to meet with Jewish religious leaders to line up support for rescue. Our first stop was Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn where we were refused a meeting with the Rebbe. However, the chief judge of the Chabad religious court agreed to see us. He endorsed rescue and our efforts.
Four months later, Operation Moses, the rescue operation that saved thousands of Jews from Sudanese refugee camps bordering Ethiopia, would begin.
Fast forward 20 years. Chabad was still not involved with Ethiopian Jews, but the issue did not seem so pressing after the rescues were completed. I remained in Chabad, working at times for the organization in America and Israel. I went to rabbinical school, studied and was about to take the equivalent of rabbinic boards. A large Israeli-based Chabad magazine was publishing a series of letters from the now late Rebbe. These were private correspondence meant to answer difficult and often intimate questions. The Chabad publication got around privacy issues by removing the name of the correspondent. In my case, the letter read "To Mr.___, S. Paul, MN 55116."
The letter was an answer to my letter on the rescue of Ethiopian Jews. The original may have been lost in the mail. More likely, it was taken by an alert aide who recognized its potential damage to Chabad and the Rebbe's reputation. The letter is a collection of excuses. Why other things, like American Jewish spiritual needs, are more pressing than saving poor, starving Black Jews and therefore must come first. Fanciful denials of Chabad involvement in Washington lobbying and Israeli immigrant absorption – two well-publicized Chabad activities. But worse yet was the tone, so mean, spiteful, and uncaring about the suffering of Ethiopian Jewry.
Because the Rebbe could not bring himself to write the phrase "Ethiopian Jews" – perhaps a good indication that he, despite rabbinic rulings to the contrary, did not consider them to be Jews – he wrote the phrase, "the matter that you are so concerned about." Because of this, and because the letters the Rebbe responded to were not filed with those responses, Chabad did not realize the true import of the letter, and they published it.
I waited a month before responding. Then I published my letter to the Rebbe along with the Rebbe's response on my blog started for that purpose, www.FailedMessiah.com. Because I refused to take down the blog, I was excommunicated. That means:
1. I can no longer be counted as part of a prayer group.
2. I cannot lead prayers or receive any religious honors.
3. I have been shunned by members at the request of the rabbis.
4. Members are urged not to do business with me or to see me socially.
5. I cannot work in religious-related business.
6. I have completed rabbinic training but cannot sit for what is the equivalent of my boards.
7. I have been told that there is no repair for my soul and that I will burn eternally in hell.
I have also:
1. Been threatened.
2. Had websites hacked and destroyed.
3. Had my home address and telephone number posted on the internet.
4. Had thousands of dollars of magazine subscriptions and other materials illegally charged to my name.
Would I do it again? Yes, I would.
UPDATE: January 2007 – I no longer have an interest in being a rabbi. My religious beliefs have changed much since I started this blog. For more details, please read this.