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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2012
Number 77
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Jewishness in the World: A Chabad Definition

An essay by Steven Windmueller

The Visual Culture of Chabad by Maya Balakirsky Katz, Cambridge University Press.

The Visual Culture of Chabad by Maya Balakirsky Katz is but the latest publication to appear concerning Chabad Lubavitch. For folks who are outside of the world of Hassidism, this text serves as a most useful roadmap toward understanding the cultural and social messages that this highly creative and successful religious movement is seeking to convey. Well researched and highly resourceful in unpacking Chabad’s operational modality, Dr. Katz, provides her readers with a specific set of images that frame the mechanism and message of this movement. Trained as an art historian and committed to exploring the nexus between media and religion, Maya Katis uniquely qualified to carry us through this inquiry. Through the use of image, Chabad has sought to advance its specific religious, political, and social goals. “Chabad’s belief that God’s hand could be forced to inaugurate the messianic age using the tools of publicity-architecture- painting- mass media- and photography-drives much of its late-twentieth century visual culture.” Over time, according to Katz, Chabad has created a form of “visual messianism”.

While other organizing principles are introduced by Dr. Katz, as are some of the core controversies surrounding Chabad within and outside of the Jewish world, I have framed this review around ten guiding principles that would seem to capture the core themes associated with the marketing of Chabad and its current message:

1. Committed to the new media, Chabad has been able to employ following the death Rav Schneerson the “rebbe archive” in order to create “the virtuality of leadership”.

2. Under the Rav’s leadership the movement was transformed into a global network, creating “Chabad sacred space”. This involved constructing distinctive graphic symbols including logos-publications-stamps-stickers-posters that served to define and individuate the organization and its message.

3. Employing the notion of “ufaratzta” the Hebrew term derived from the biblical passage (Gen. 28:14), “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the West and to the East, to the North and to the South”, Chabad in the late 1950’s and 60’s established its own organizing principle. Its institutional motto for the promotion of “yiddishkayt” (religious Jewish culture) would be repackaged and marketed in “song, literature, architecture, and graphic design.”

4. The appearance of ufaratzta can also be found in Isaiah (54:3) where geographical expansion is aligned with a messianic vision. Employing a numerological formula (gematria), ufaratzta corresponds to “770”, the address of the world headquarters of Chabad, 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Being able to make this physical connection permitted Chabad to join together its worldwide mission and programs to its center of operations.

5. Over the course of his tenure Rav Schneerson would introduce mivtzoyim (religious revival campaigns). Some of these campaigns had associated with them “acts of kindness” directed toward Jews and non-Jews, while others were identified with performing specific religious practices, including the wearing of tefillin for young men over the age of bar mitzvah, encouraging women and young girls to light Shabbat candles, and engaging married women to visit a ritual bath following their menstrual cycle.

6. Chanukah menorahs displayed in public parks, malls and other open spaces would serve as the single most defining element of this campaign of engagement. By adopting a menorah “that not only represents a break with traditional menorah design but with the Zionist-inspired design”, Chabad would establish its own “religious diaspora symbol” which over time has become a central marketing and branding image of the organization.

7. “By drawing on the idioms of ‘art’ and ‘display’ for presentation of mivtzoyim, Chabad not only promoted religious Jewish culture, or yiddishkayt, but did so in a manner that was unapologetic, publicly embracing its diaspora roots and future.” Countering the Zionist focus on the land, Hasidim through its use of public ceremonial art would celebrate the “return of religion”. While the rest of American Judaism would claim the private space of the sanctuary, Chabad would capture the public square.

8. In taking ownership of the street, Chabad would employ art and “musicological practices” as a way to attract unaffiliated Jews. In creating “a comfortable and familiar environment for culturally aware, nonobservant Jews” Chabad focused on reinvigorating traditional Jewish culture, by transforming public space into a sanctuary for religious engagement and connection.

9. Employing its array of public programs afforded Chabad the opportunity to achieve “brand recognition”. For example, Rav Schneerson would single out the month of Kislev, “employing Chanukah as a particularly auspicious occasion to reflect on the movement’s institutional mission.” Through its intercontinental satellite programs, streaming video presentations, its Chanukah Live spectacular, the movement was able to target key constituencies and to deliver core messages. In doing so, Chabad achieved yet another of its marketing and mission functions: kiruv (outreach) to key Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

10. Over the course of time, Chabad has successfully been able to achieve many of its core operating goals. On the one hand “much of Chabad visual production consciously embeds the styles, pictorial conventions, and symbols of other cultures to manifest a distinct worldview,” while at the same time the organization continues to strive to maintain its “theological absolutism”.

Chabad would move over time from a charismatic leader-centered institutional model to the largest international Jewish religious organization, where movement branding was to be its central mantra and focus. Toward that end Dr. Katz captures the essence of her study when she writes:
“We are justified in viewing the history of Chabad visual culture predominantly as the art of protest, rooted in a long tradition of political, social and religious activism. Portraits of religious leaders double as commentary on citizenship, pictures of celebration double as campaigns against assimilation, public holiday exhibitions double as demonstrations, and Chabad symbol systems double as symbols of revision.”

As part of her succinct summary, Maya Katz would argue that Chabad redefined “Jewishness in the world.” As a movement with its “defense of diaspora culture” and its celebration of “American pluralism,” Katz holds to the notion that Lubavitch Hasidism is seeking to replace Zionism in the United States.

The story of Chabad Lubavitch continues to unfold as one of the most unique, yet at times controversial, Jewish stories of the 20th and 21st centuries. Maya Katz takes us on a significant journey that is designed to unpack the core elements of this movement and its message.

Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles campus, and a contributing editor.

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