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The tragic massacre by Muslim fanatics, of innocents in the Chabad/Lubavitch House in Mumbai, reminds us of two things. “Hatred,” as the Talmud says, “distorts the mind,” and spews evil out randomly. And who but Chabad would have a centre in a place like Mumbai, hardly a hotbed of Jewish religious life.

What more is there to be said about Islamic terror that has not already been said? That it has too many apologists in the so-called civilized world? The sort of facile pseudo-psychology that excused crime, because decadent capitalist societies caused it, has transmuted into the apologetic excuse that the perpetrators have been pushed into their crimes because of the errors of the west. The victims are to blame simply for the accident of being there.

I wonder if you noticed how it took two days before there was any mention in the Indian media of Jewish victims in Mumbai. Whenever local Indian commentators were asked about it they responded with a blank stare or simply moved on to another topic. There was something strange about their refusal to talk about Jews. Since Hindus are traditionally sympathetic to Jews, one is inclined to conclude that the combination of leftwing intellectual bias and rightwing religious primitivism were in their usual state of licentious cohabitation.

Chabad House was described as an outreach organization, which is not correct. It is an inreach organization, one that reaches to other Jews, who are technically part of the same ethnic/religious grouping. Chabad’s presence around the world is precisely to cater to the needs of Jews who are either on the move or who have moved out altogether. If one hears that there is a rabbi in Timbuktu, or along the banks of the Orinoco, or halfway up the Himalayas, you can be sure he will be Chabad, rather than Satmar or Belz, or even one of the other “inreach/outreach” organizations. They are hardly a proselytizing organization like, say, the Mormons, though their general inclusive atmosphere means that converts find them a more than unusually conducive and welcoming group within Judaism.

After a summer of bad press over Chabad Rubashkin abattoirs in Postville, this tragedy brings back to the foreground the altogether different and praiseworthy aspect of Chabad, which like any people, religion, or movement, has its saints and its sinners. I can think of no other organization in Judaism that consistently finds hundreds of willing young men and women so utterly devoted and dedicated to saving Jewish souls, willing to travel with their families to the strangest and often remotest of black holes. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe always used to speak of his followers as foot soldiers ready to obey his superior orders and go where they were sent. No other group succeeds in reproducing such good humored, smiling dedication in so many of its members.

I have always been fascinated by the fact that no matter how ludicrous one’s ideology, if one presents it with dedication and passion, the most offensive of ideas can sound appealing. Virtually all Jewish Orthodox inreach (baal teshuva) organizations fall into this category. They are essentially absolutist and fundamentalist. They have a well-defined religious framework of disciplined behavior and thought that acts as a safeguard and protective structure for the ordinary, moderately educated foot soldiers.

So I wonder if, in fact, the issue is really one of ideology at all. Religion is often a matter of comfort, of feeling secure, loved, and belonging. We are tribal creatures. It is true each tribe has its own characteristics, but it this sense of belonging and loyalty that can persuade many of us to believe in almost anything. As society becomes larger and more impersonal, people turn to smaller groups for security and identity.

Perhaps it is this that meets the needs of so many, rather than any doctrine or belief system. Perhaps this explains why sometimes religion leads to evil behavior. Men and women are not in it for truths or morals, but to be part of a tribe, a like-minded group with its own uniform and outward signs of belonging. That is what counts, and Chabad is brilliant at doing just that.

Although Chabad may appear to be selling ideology, they are marketing it with this sense of acceptance and belonging. This is what gives them the security that enables Chabad foot soldiers to go beyond the religious comfort zone. And that is what they were doing in Mumbai.

Very often they are the only visible Jews around, and sometimes they pay the price. In Mumbai we saw once again the two faces of religion and it seems obvious to me which is superior in every way.

14 thoughts on “Mumbai

  1. For the first time ever I am a bit confused your blog. Are you saying that the dedication ofChabad is about zealotry, which is more about ideaology and a sense of belonging and less about finding Hashem? I am not Chabadnik as you know, I think, but am admirer and a bit of a fellow traveller. I also stdy the Tanya. There are no clear lines or easy solutions there. So please clarify…. ( Also my experience of Lubavitchers is that individually they are often mavericks, psychologists, scientists, artists, academcs of all kinsds..particularly the BTs). Is your criticism entirely towards the Moslems are is it plague on both houses. Don’t get me wrong. I am just seeking clarity here.

    In friendship,


  2. In the article, Jeremy says that the success of Chabad was their appeal to people’s need to belong. So even if they are trying to “sell” an ideology that they believe will help bring Jews closer to G-d, I understand Jeremy to imply that the reason they are so successful at attracting, as you say, a broad range of people, is that people respond to this feeling of being part of a group.

  3. Conversing with you over the years, Jeremy, I’ve been enlightened, dismayed, elated and enraged.
    A man of your intellect, a man of Gd, could have been above politics and rhetoric. Should have been, I think. Shouldn’t our morality limit this need to push private agendas and require putting what we preach into practice?
    As you know, I distinguish between being a follower of Judaism and a follower of Israelism. I am the former but no longer the latter. Indeed, as I said to you before, I now feel Israel to be the single most dangerous threat to world Judaism today.
    You spoke of the Muslim fanatics who attacked Chabad house. You found sinister apologists behind the fact that the Indian media took two days to report that six Jews were killed in the attacks. How about the fact that it took the Indian media nearly 4 days to report almost 44 Muslims were also among those killed? But that fact doesn’t seem too important to you.
    Nor does the question about why Jews were attacked. Indian Jews have always had good relations with the other local communities. Under Islamic rule specially, the Jewish community prospered with royal grants to build synagogues and trading houses from Kashmir to the South. The lives of Persian-speaking Jewish courtiers of the Muslim Mughal emperors are well documented, especially as Jews tended to be employed as tutors to the royals.
    So why was Chabad House attacked? In the twisted thinking of the terrorists, they too made the error of linking Judaism with Israel. I wonder if you had the misfortune to see some of the Israeli reporters arriving to cover the terrorist attack? Trying so hard to exploit only the Jewish angle of this Indian tragedy. But, like I said, when you’re fanatically pursuing one agenda, inconvenient truths have a habit of simply disappearing. That’s probably how they train the terrorists as well.
    I remember the tragedy this last March when a terrorist attacked Mercaz Harav. I remember our conversation when you said that this act “plumbs new depths in depravity”. I remember my rage, yours too, at how innocents were killed while they studied and prayed. But am I alone in being enraged now when Israeli weapons target innocents in Gaza? When our planes bomb mosques? Where is the condemnation? Are we so blinded by our private agendas that the 300 and more killed by Israel in 2 days in Gaza is simply an inconvenient truth? One that will either not trouble our conscience or that we will simply explain away as ‘necessary’?
    Wonder what drives these terrorist fanatics? How about the terrorist fanatics on our side? In the 2006 Lebanon war we, the Israeli side, massacred over 1000 Lebanese civillians. That’s 1000 innocent men, women and children. Did you condemn this killing of innocents? Or were you busy criticizing the UN, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia…
    So everyone else is to blame. Maybe even those innocents are guilty of merrily striding into the path of our bullets, missiles and tanks? But Israel cannot be blamed.
    You talk of terrorism? Then please, condemn it WHEREVER it occurs. Regardless of WHO does it. Whether it’s Iran, Syria or Israel. When you see innocents being massacred, voice your condemnation. Regardless of whether they are Israeli and happen to be in Mercaz Harav or whether they were blown to bits praying in a mosque in Gaza.
    The day when even intellectuals ignore these ‘inconvenient’ truths, When those who are men of Gd start pursuing private agendas and bring themselves to see these atrocities as ‘necessary’, When only the much criticised Karta protest these massacres, is the day we shame ourselves. We have shamed ourselves enough already. I hope this changes. For all our sakes.


  4. I have consistently written in condemnation of Israel, its society and its leadership, and I write for Haaretz, the Israeli daily Left Wing paper that in its editorial condemned the Gaza incursion.

    However it is people like you who are responsible for what is happenning. You encourage Hamas and Hezbollah to think they can continue low grade war, raining rockets on civilian targets in Israel without recourse or retaliation, supported by European and Arab public opinion, and then cry ‘foul’ when Israel retaliates! Did you demonstrate against rockets falling on infant schools? No.

    No, I do not approve of retaliation. I do cry for the loss of human life. But why the hell do you continue to encourage rejectionists to reject and then complain? Pressurize them to settle instead.

  5. In this very bleak mid-winter it is painful to go beyond empathy and mourning.

    The 6th principle of the Besht applies.

    As an ex-Mormon I find very many similarities between how Chabad presents itself – and how the LDS Church does so.

    So in deference to the ongoing suffering – all I would say is that Judaism is an ancient religion which is not the exclusive “territory” of post-holocaust USA based Eastern-European rabbinic dynasties – no matter how efficiently they operate. They contribute but they should not dominate.


  6. So now I am responsible too. Move over UN, Syria, Iran…
    As we are “grading” levels of war, what level do you grade the one in Gaza? And, of course, this is

    happening now in retaliation for Hamas rockets, not because Kadima needs to create an issue. Right.

    And Hamas is encouraged by me. It derives absolutely no motivation from the blockades against

    Gazans and the rather large number of dead bodies piling up there. No, it acts because of people like me. That’s your argument? You don’t see the massive volumes of apologetics in your own statements?

    You insinuate that I wasn’t concerned in the past or at present, with the rockets falling on

    Israelis. With my own family now within range of Hamas rockets, with family and friends serving

    with IDF, with so much already sacrificed for Israel, your comments would have made me FURIOUS,

    once upon a time. But having experienced ‘Israel’ I am now used to this flippancy. The ease with

    which we silence any view not deemed desirable. How many has Israel lured, used and discarded, this

    supposed utopia of Judaism? Again, you assume that since I criticise Israel, I must not care about

    Israelis. It is BECAUSE I care about Israelis, not just selfish concern for family and friends but

    ALL Israelis, that I criticiise these policies. Can you guarantee that with this action in Gaza my

    friends and family in Israel will be safe? That there will be no reprisals? No increase in

    radicalism against us? That these deaths will finally resolve this issue? I don’t think so. When

    after all this, we return to some other “grade” of war, when Kadima and its like move onto other issues, where will that leave us?


  7. You write ‘The ease with which we silence any view not deemed desirable.’

    I have told you that I write criticising Israel. I have told you I write for Haaretz. Haaretz criticized the Israeli attacks on Gaza. Please tell me who is silencing criticism of Israel???

  8. Jeremy, I didn’t mean to go on and on. My criticism’s aimed at a wide portion of Israeli ‘mouthpieces’, whose opinion on ANY topic is the justification of Israel’s policies. ANY policies. Whether they are of long term benefit to Israelis is often not even a consideration. It’s always “support Israel”, without even thinking of the issue at hand. This usually means supporting whatever regime of corrupt politicians happens to be installed in office at the time.
    I am aware of your work and certainly didn’t mean to tar you with the same brush.

    I find myself bouncing from depression to rage and back again. I’m sitting shiva and that’s probably not helping in establishing a balanced emotional state.
    I realise you are doing what you can, as I hope I am, to stop this latest human tragedy. I am beyond frustration in our collective inability to see sense. I wonder if you have an antidote to this poison of despair that almost robs us of the very will to live.
    The only consolation I have is that I am doing all I can. Unfortunately, I know that will not be enough.


  9. I’m so sorry you are sitting Shiva. I was too, last month, for my younger brother. It’s tough emotionally and adds to the emotion of whats going on in Gaza. I wish there were a magic wand, but human beings are so limited and subjective. I am inclined to say that since God got us into this mess, He or Allah or whoever can jolly well get us out of it. But of course that denies human responsibility.
    Don’t despair.

  10. Thank you for your kind words, Rabbi. Please also accept my condolences on the loss of your younger brother. May his

    memory be as a balm to your pain and bring happiness to your heart.

    I would have liked to say I am coping with my grief. I guess I am, in a sense. I know I will survive this period of

    grief. But I also know that I am irreversibly changed because of it.

    I see they are still killing women and children in Gaza. And Hamas is continuing its tragic, pointess rockets. I

    the IDF targetted a UN school. The Red Cross says they forced civillians into a building and then shelled it. Only one 13

    year old boy survived. Then they prevented the Red Cross from approaching the site for four days.
    In response, the IDF says it will investigate.

    This has become a much repeated, macabre jest. Israel’s forces attack civillians and deny the press access. Then when

    accused of atrocities, Israel investigates Israel and finds Israel not guilty.

    It seems that in spite of all this destruction being localised to Gaza, the death toll nearly 800 Gazans and about 11

    Israelis, the citizens of Israel are under the impression that it is they who are under attack. That it is Israel that is

    on the defensive. Almost as if Israel is heroically fighting for survival.

    I know the history, I know what Hamas is and yet, I can not bring myself to support Israel’s actions.

    I put myself in the shoes of a Gazan opposed to Hamas. How long will my opposition to Hamas last when Israeli planes bomb

    my family? How long before I turn to the only group that offers any hope of survival to my children? I can only see a

    rise in support of Hamas. And if Hamas is destroyed, then whatever violent group takes its place. Yes I can see the

    political game here. 20 years ago we were supplying support to Hamas to undermine Fatah and PLO. Now, we supply guns to

    Fatah to undermine Hamas. This is not a sustainable policy. All we do is sow the seeds of hatred in more and more people.

    Hamas is a terrorist organisation. But I bet it’s also terrifying trying to defend your kids against the IDF.

    I hear anti-semitism is growing. As if people are not angry at Israeli military actions but at Jews. Again trying to link

    Judaism to Israel. There is an increase in anti-Israeli sentiment, but I wouldn’t call that antisemitism.

    Feeling completely helpless in standing up to this mindlessness, I feel, as you said, of asking the Almighty to get us

    out of this mess. You voiced my feelings exactly. Since He got us in this mess in the first place. However, I have a

    confession. I am losing/have lost my belief. And its something I do not state lightly. Sitting Shiva, this feeling of

    unease, helplessness and despair has grown and I am only now able to articulate it. I don’t know if your religious

    training helped you through this. I remember my unquestioning faith as a child. And even until a few years ago. But now,

    I feel in turmoil. If He is there, if He is concerned about us, if He hears our prayers, then how is it that He does not

    act. I see the images of children dead in Gaza and wonder what their sin was. But then I think of the hundreds of

    innocents dying the world over who don’t even make it onto the TV screen. And where was He when 6 million were being

    burned alive? Were they not praying as they saw their families, their children being slaughtered?

    And it goes further. Over the years, I have heard many explanations of Moses’ orders concerning the Midianites. None have sat well with me. And why did He stand with Babylon against Judah? What are we being taught here? What does all this religious observance get us? While some pray towards Jerusalem and others Mecca, in the overall scheme, does it matter? Both suffer.

    Sorry, my thoughts are all over the place. I don’t know if I’ve articulated myself well enough but I hope you understand. I wonder if your training and learning over the years has given you an insight into this. Is there any real substance to our ‘faithfulness’? Or is it something we make up to ward off despair?


  11. Thank you for your honesty and your pain.

    On Gaza I have no comfort to offer. There’s a good editorrial in the Economist. It’s like two drunks battering each other senseless and no one giving up. Even the Arab leadership is divided and I only pray they and the ‘three’ can work out some solution but it will only work with boots on the ground as it has in Lebanon.

    As for anti-Semitism, it has always been there, the oldest disease. Jews suffered under Islam and Christianity, and even if now it has tansmutted into Nationalism it is still irrational. Of course there is a difference between anti-Isralism and anti-Semitism, but the virulence is the proof. How come no one is demonstrating abourt Sudan or Ceylon? It is stoked by a combination of politics and visceral antipathy.

    Now to the other issue. If one thinks of God as a Big Daddy in the Sky, or Superman then indeed one has legitimate cause for complaint at all the horror perpetrated on God’s earth.

    But if we have been given choices and we humans abuse choice, as we always have, then we are to blame. As someone said, the question is not “Where was God at Auschwitz”, but “Where was man??”

    I experience God as an emotional rather than rational concept; in meditation it comes through the awareness of the universe and its energies. And therefore it is easier to accept the world as it is, rather like loving someone, warts and all.

    Loss is debilitating. I have experienced every kind of loss–generations on either side of me, parents, and a child–and I survive simply by focussing on what is and what must be done and on those around me who live and love, and the future.

    I send you my concern and love and positive energy. You are a valuable sensitive soul and your agony pains me. You need a good strong hug!!!!


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