Chabad in Copenhagen: Fundamentalism and Modernity in Jewish Denmark (1)

By Buckser, Andrew | Ethnology, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Chabad in Copenhagen: Fundamentalism and Modernity in Jewish Denmark (1)


Buckser, Andrew, Ethnology


After establishing its mission in Copenhagen, Denmark, over ten years ago, the Hasidic group, Chabad, has little success to show for its proselytizing efforts. Yet it is admired and welcomed by the religiously liberal Danish Jews for its stringent religiosity, cultural otherness, and commitment to social ethnicity. Despite the profound ideological differences between the two, relations between Chabad and the Jewish community have been markedly positive. Indeed, Chabad's organizational independence has allowed it to relieve internal strains that have increasingly troubled the established Jewish community. The anthropology of religious fundamentalism has largely focused on ideological conflicts between fundamentalist and liberal religious ideologies. This case suggests that closer attention to social processes can enrich an understanding of the complexities of social interaction and the possibilities for engagement between ideologically opposed religious groups. (Hasidism, liberalism, Danish Judaism)

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One Saturday in the autumn of 2000, just after midday, I joined a procession leaving the gates of the Great Synagogue in central Copenhagen. It was not a grand procession, but a ragged chain of perhaps thirty people trailing along the narrow sidewalks of the Danish capital. We had just come from religious services, and our suits and dresses stood out among the crowds of shoppers and tourists. It was our leader, however, who stood out the most. A small man of about thirty with a long auburn beard, he wore a long black coat, black pants, boxy black shoes, and a huge black fedora hat. He strode briskly at the front of the column as we wound our way through the old center city, taking us across the bridge to Frederiksberg and finally to a small brick apartment block with a metal plaque outside one of its doors. The plaque read "Chabad House," in Hebrew and English. The man in black, an English-born rabbi named Yitzchock Loewenthal, stood by the door and greeted us as we straggled up, a few at a time, to shake his hand and thank him for his invitation before going inside. There we stayed, most of us for hours, generating a buzz of talk, prayer, and clanking dishes that filtered through the windows of the little apartment until well after sunset.

The weekly walk from the synagogue to Chabad House will never rival the changing of the palace guard at Amalienborg, but for those who know its context, it is a remarkable event. The long walk itself is a striking act of piety in a generally nonobservant Jewish community, where few worry about the prohibition against driving on the Sabbath. In a self-consciously modern Jewish community, moreover, where most Jews dress, speak, and behave in a manner indistinguishable from their non-Jewish neighbors, marching through the streets behind a man in full Hasidic dress makes a powerful statement. Perhaps most surprising, however, is the procession's size. Ten years ago, Chabad House did not exist; eight years ago, it attracted only a handful of tourists and the occasional curious Dane. Today, it regularly draws dozens on Saturday afternoons, and hundreds for its frequent holiday festivals. It maintains weekly Kabbalah classes, Hebrew instruction, social gatherings, and Sabbath dinners, each with a body of regular attendees. The larger Jewish community in Denmark is shrinking, following a trend common to much of the Western world, but the growth and vitality of Chabad are unmistakable. In its piety, its commitment, and its public visibility, Chabad seems to have found an appeal that has eluded the Jewish establishment in Copenhagen.

On its face, the success of Chabad in Denmark seems to confirm a widespread thesis in the social science &religion: that in late modern societies, fundamentalist theologies can outcompete mainline liberal religious traditions. From the resurgence of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, to the growth of Hasidic movements in America and Europe, to the burgeoning Hindutva movement in India, to the rising popularity of charismatic Catholicism in Central America, to the spread of Shiite fundamentalism in the Middle East, conservative religiosity has become ever more culturally and politically influential over the past several decades (Almond, Appleby, and Sivan 2003; Antoun 2001; Eisenberg 1996; Failer 1997; Lawrence 1989; Shahak and Mezvinsky 1999; Stump 2000; Westerlund 1996). …

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