Notwithstanding my disdain for labels (like "ultra-Orthodox"), the issue of Chabad identity and its markers is an important one that is worthy of exploration. Let's consider some of the responses to an earlier article:
In response to a question from Dr David Weiss, the Rebbe said: "When a Jew endeavours to take a step forward in the service of G-d and the love of his fellow man every day, I am happy to consider him my chassid" and in the name of Rabbi Manis Freidman: "The question of who is a chasid has to be asked and viewed from the Rebbe's perspective, if we could ask the Rebbe today who are his Chasidim, would he point to you?"
This was countered by another comment: "... it is likely the Rebbe was telling Dr Weiss something he needed to hear. We have a much higher aspirations to be considered a chosid. Many of the young people today who don't act very chasidish are probably taking steps forward in their service of G-d and the Rebbe would consider them a Chosid.”
I’m reminded of the story of a regular at a Chabad House who kept asking the shliach if he could start
wearing a kapote, to which the shliach finally responded “perhaps you should stop driving to shul first?” This person probably felt he was a chossid, and wanted to publicly identify by adopting the uniform. The Rebbe would consider him a chossid; indeed the shliach would consider him a chossid, and yet he’s still (at the time of the story) a mechallel shabbos b’farhesiah.
There are many markers of a chossid – internal and external, temporary and more permanent. It might be easy to put on a kapote every Shabbos so one can (a) blend in with the crowd, and (b) make a statement as to your public identity. But the kapote can come off as quickly as Shabbos comes out. That would classify the kapote as a temporary, external marker of a chossid. My zeide Reb Zalman Serebryanski OBM eschewed the black kapote that was quickly becoming ubiquitous during his time in Melbourne, and instead preferred a grey one. He once (probably jokingly) remarked to my father that chassidim should choose colours other than black. Many of the elter chassidim just wore a dark suit. These days, the kapote certainly has a greater importance as a marker than in previous generations (and for the record, I don’t wear one).
It’s important to note that the external markers of a chossid can come before or after the internal ones. Someone might take on a particular practice as a way to help drive their feelings. In other cases, it is the feelings that precede the practice. Everyone is different and is motivated differently.
There are many different external markers of a chossid (and chassidiste), and in a world where we seek to rank and judge others, they are used to pigeonhole people. This has led to stupid labels like Chabad Lite (will we have Chabad Zero too one day?) which on one hand might be used as a self-descriptor to say “I’m still a chossid even though I don’t do X”, or by someone else to say “you’re less of a chossid”. Both those arguments only serve to drive wedges in the global Chabad community. And besides, being “Chabad Lite” is a bit like saying you’re a little pregnant. Either you are, or you aren’t!
As a rule, I reject any statement of the form “you’re not a real chossid if you don’t do X”. At worst, it will result in the target questioning and possibly reconsidering if they are a “real chossid”. And if the person does indeed rise to the challenge and chooses to do “X”, what is the motivation? Is it because they actually want to? Or to satisfy another person’s judgement of them? The risks seem to outweigh the benefits.
The question remains: is there some minimum set of qualities or observances that a person must have to call themselves a chossid?