Commentary

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk

        

The Rebbe, Jewish Women, and Selective Perception

 

In 1950, Menachem Mendel Schneerson {1902-1994) became the chief of the Lubavitch Chasidim.  Lubavitch is a Russian city where Hasidim were first organized by the Baal Shem Tov, The Master of the Good Name.

In 1928, at the age of 26, Rav Schneerson left Russia and with his wife moved to Berlin, where he studied mathematics at the university. Five years later, in 1933, Hitler became dictator of Germany. Therefore the Rebbe moved to Paris where he studied electrical engineering. Then, in 1940, the Schneersons moved again, as the Germans had occupied France. By way of Nice, the Rebbe and his wife arrived in New York in 1941. In New York, the Rebbe worked as a naval engineer for the US Navy until, at the death of his father in 1950, he became the head of the Lubavitcher Chasidim. Promptly, from 1951- 1959, the Rebbe founded a girls’ school system accessible to all Jewish women. He also organized an annual convention for all American Jewish women. This led to the publication of a number of books concerning the role and beliefs of Jewish women. The Rebbe then organized an outreach group of his followers, who have travelled to remote locations to meet Jews who were otherwise ignored. The outreach also went to college campuses to reach students,  many of whom had abandoned Judaism. Chabad houses were established in many communities. These houses made it possible for  Jews to meet and learn together. These Chabad Houses also served to rectify misconceptions about Chasidic practices. Then the Rebbe created a Yiddish/English journal called Di Yiddishe Heim, dealing with Chasidic family life. All this allowed Chasidic women to study and advocate for women in America.

Chasidic women have been encouraged to use the internet and thereby bring the present world into their home.  Technology is also used by Chabad to reach nonaffiliated Jews. In sum, the Rebbe was a true friend of women who succeeded to teach his followers to give women an equal and honored place in the Jewish community.

Yet, nonaffiliated Jews, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, and a host of agnostics, atheists, and bigots, have claimed that the Rebbe and his followers were anti-woman. Those who make such claims know nothing about the Chabad movement, but sit in judgment with statements to the effect that the segregation of men from women during prayers, Torah reading, and sermons, “proves” that Chasidim don’t like women. Those who make such criticisms began in 1950, the year the Rebbe first assumed leadership of the Chabad movement, to relegate all American women to housewives only. Then it was said in American schools that only boys, not girls, were to learn mathematics and science.  Before 1970, the criticizers of Chabad would not allow women to hold an elective office, segregated women in college classes and taught them only “Home Economics,” refused to allow women to become physicians or pharmacists or lawyers, and would not even allow police to arrest men who had beaten their wives.

Those who made all the criticisms of Chabad based their beliefs solely on the practice of separating men from women during prayer services. Furthermore, these criticizers convince themselves that anyone wearing a beard or black hat must be a congenital woman hater. They do not see the facts; they know only their prejudices. This is called “selective perception,” in that we see only that which we already believe and do not notice whatever contradicts our beliefs. 

I have repeatedly heard some Jews say with anger that they cannot tolerate the “black hats,” as the intolerant claim all Chasidim are narrow mindless sexists.

Yet, the facts seem to gain more and more adherents. Consider that Conservative Judaism was once supported by 39% of all affiliated Jews. Most recently that number has declined to 15%.

Shalom u’vracha.

  Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

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