Academic journal article Communication Research Trends

Balakirsky Katz, Maya. the Visual Culture of Chabad

Academic journal article Communication Research Trends

Balakirsky Katz, Maya. the Visual Culture of Chabad

Article excerpt

Balakirsky Katz, Maya. The Visual Culture of Chabad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. 260. ISBN 9780521191630 (cloth) $99.00; 9781107684058 (paper--issued 2014) $29.99.

Visual culture is an appropriate research approach for a religion like Judaism, which focuses upon the practical carrying out of commands (there are 613 positive and negative commandments in the Five Books of Moses in the Bible). One of the most "visual" branches of the ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews is Chabad.

In contrast to the Lithuanian school of Haredim that emphasizes study of the Talmud, Hassidic sects like Chabad give equal weight to the heart in the Jew's ties to God. In the case of Chabad, which began in the early 19th century in Eastern Europe, the role of meditation (Kabbalah) and song is central, even if it is also characterized by Torah scholarship.

Within the world of Hassidism, there are very wide differences between sect and sect. They are generally characterized by a withdrawal from Western secular society, living behind cultural ghettoes. Chabad is notable for its evangelical approach or outreach--"kiruv" in Hebrew--mostly towards assimilated Jews, but also towards Gentiles. This took on added significance after the Second World War, and after the Chabad leadership moved from Europe to New York at the outset of the War. The Holocaust and extermination of six million Jews was seen by Chabad's spiritual mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Schneerson, and Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who succeeded the former on his death in 1951, as a "preparation" for the messianic redemption. And, the way to "reach the redemption" was for Jews worldwide to fulfill the religious commandments (mitzvot).

Another difference between Hassidic sects concerns their attitudes towards modern Zionism and the state of Israel. For example, Satmar--one of the largest Haredi communities in New York--is ideologically hostile to Israel in contrast to Chabad, which notwithstanding its base in the Diaspora, is qualified in limiting its criticism to the state's secular character.

The adoption by Habad of Jewish religious and other symbols--whether in terms of the application of public relations to its outreach work, to photographic imaging of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, or such symbols of prayer as the menorah at Chanuka, the laying of phylacteries (tephillin) by men in their daily prayers, and the lighting of Sabbath candles by women--makes a study of Chabad's visual culture timely and important.

Balakirsky Katz does a masterly service and provides a penetrating portrait of visual culture and Chabad. And while there are not a few academic works on Chabad, The Visual Culture of Chabad deserves a rightful place on the bookshelf by looking at Chabad through the lenses of material religion or sacred space.

The author begins her study by focusing on the use of rabbinic portraiture, showing how Rabbi Yosef Schneerson made the use of photo imagery a key part of his leadership in Poland in the 1930s.

The Chabad usage of Chanukah lights--the "menora"--is another useful example of visual culture. In theological significance, the Chanuka festival is low down the totem pole of religious festivals. It commemorates a miracle that after the Jewish Temple was rededicated by the Maccabees following the Greek invasion, oil for the Temple candelabra lasted eight days. But since the 1970s the last rebbe Menachem Mendel made the menora a focus of Jewish identity, and lighting of the menorah which had up to now been done in the past inside private houses became a public matter with huge menorahs being erected in public places in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. The author chronicles the battle of Chabad against U.S. bureaucracy and certain interest groups which oppose religious expression in public. Chabad's upgrading of Chanuka has been seen by some, right or wrongly, as an attempt to give Jews their own festival at Christmas time. …

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