Neither Haredi nor Modern Orthodox: Defining Chabad On Their Own Terms

Neither Haredi nor Modern Orthodox: Defining Chabad On Their Own Terms

330px-Haredi_JudaismDefining the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has been a thorn in the side of Jewish sociologists since at least the 1960s. Chabad does not fit into any of the neat categories used by those studying contemporary Orthodoxy. It is very clear to those studying the movement that while the group is essentially a Hasidic sect, it cannot be simply labeled as “Haredi” as one may comfortably do with groups like Satmar, Bobov and Belz. On the other hand, it would be a quite a stretch to count the movement as part of the “modern Orthodox.”

The more sociological categories for contemporary Orthodoxy are those of “church” and “sect,” better known as the church-sect typology. These two technical categories should not be confused for their non-sociological definitions and are measured as ideal forms of religious organization. The categories are used by sociologists to explain the fundamental differences between the modern Orthodox from the Haredi. Again, Chabad slips between the two labels as the institutions and members of the Chabad movement cannot all fit into either category. Israel-Jerusalem_Day

Simply put, Chabad cannot be a “sect” in the sociological definition of the term as the Chabad houses, and the Jews who belong to them, are not isolationist by any measure, but rather one of the most inclusive forms of Orthodox institutions. On the other hand, Chabad communities display much of the same patterns as other Haredi communities (members may be very devout, insular and rejecting of the secular world), thus striking itself out as a “church” for not compromising its ideals to ensure greatest social cohesion.

Here’s a wonderful quote from Charles Liebman, the late American-Israeli sociologist from his 1965 essay in the American Jewish Year Book, “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life” where he lays out an interesting definition of Chabad:

“The relationship of its followers to the Lubavitcher movement may best be described as one of concentric circles around the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneersohn, with the inner circle located predominantly, but not exclusively, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where the Rebbe lives and the headquarters of the movement is located….”

“The phenomenon of non-Orthodox Hasidim (President Zalman Shazar of Israel is the outstanding example) is troublesome to many in the Orthodox camp. They wonder how a presumably ultra-Orthodox leader can find such affinity with and arouse such sympathy among unobservant Jews, and whether he has not in fact compromised some essential demands of Orthodoxy in order to attract this great following.”

“The Lubavitcher movement, however, can only be understood on its own terms, and it does in fact stand outside the Orthodox camp in many respects. The movement does not recognize political or religious distinctions within Judaism. It has refused to cooperate formally with any identifiable organization or institution. It recognizes only two types of Jew, the fully observant and devout Lubavitcher Jew and the potentially devout and observant Lubavitcher Jew. This statement is often cited as a charming aphorism. In fact, it has tremendous social and political consequences. In every Jew, it is claimed, a spark of the holy can be found. The function of the Lubavitcher emissaries who are sent all over the world is to find that spark in each Jew and kindle it. From the performance of even a minor mitzvah, they argue, greater observance may follow. Thus, every Jew is recognized as sacred, but no Jew and certainly no institution outside the Lubavitcher movement is totally pure. Consequently the Lubavitcher movement can make use of allies for particular purposes without compromising its position. It can follow a policy of expediency because it never confers legitimacy on those with whom it cooperates.” (pp. 80-81)

Interestingly, more recently Dr. Adam Ferziger suggested that sociologists of Jewry had exhausted the usefulness of applying the church/sect typology to Orthodoxy (that is, Orthodxy in general, not just Chabad). These two labels, states Ferziger, no longer offer accurate insight into the nature of American Orthodoxy. Among his main points for why use the typology needs to be reassessed is the changing relationship of Orthodox Jews (the “sectarians”) and non-Orthodox, that outreach (kiruv) pioneered by Chabad and the modern Orthodox have been adopted by the Haredi communities as well. Still, practically, the litvak and the hasid are still considered Haredi, the modern Orthodox remains modern Orthodox, and Chabad continues to play the misfit in the Orthodox typology.


Ferziger, Adam S. “Church/sect theory and American orthodoxy reconsidered.”Ambivalent Jew—Charles S. Liebman in memoriam, ed. Stuart Cohen and Bernard Susser (2007): 107-124.

Liebman, Charles S. “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life.” The American Jewish Year Book (1965): 21-97.


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