I have a friend who is very strongly oriented to the Lubavitch way of practicing Judaism. I am not. This has led to some interesting discussions.
After the Tablet article on head-covering came out, we had one of these discussions again. I happen to believe that if you're going to cover your hair, it had better look covered. No wigs. Especially not some long, flowing, gorgeous hairpiece that costs upwards of five grand and looks better than the graying, frizzy mop on my head. (Occasionally, I wear a wig, like to court or a job interview, but usually, when I do, it's covered. Does that make me rebellious or extra-pious?) My friend, however, quotes the last Lubavitcher rebbe as stating that wigs are preferred for two reasons--stray locks that fall loose aren't as obvious, and we're supposed to be modest, not frumpy or hideous.
And then I read an article that explained the perspective. Apparently, Rebbe Schneerson decided that Orthodoxy would be a lot easier to sell to assimilated Jews in the 1950s if it didn't come with the schmattes their grandmothers had discarded the minute they hit the goldeneh medina. America--where Jewish identity meant lighting Shabbos candles on Friday night (maybe) and then getting up early to hit the factory the next day. (Would this be a good time to mention that the Triangle fire was on Shabbos?) There was some attempt to stem the tide of assimilation, and that's where the Young Israel movement came from. But Chabad was trying to sell Chassidus to American Jews who wanted to join the melting pot. To "Devorah"s who became "Dorothy"s and "Itzik"s who became "Irving"s. To those who firmly believed that one should "be a Jew in the home and a man in the street." And, he was trying to do so during the height of 1950s conformity and xenophobia.
This, I truly believe, is what sets Chabad apart. Whereas other Chasidic sects are mostly the descendants of shell-shocked Holocaust survivors clinging to a spiritual leader out of fear in a world that seems full of anti-Semitism and genocide, Lubavitch draws its followers from a more assimilated crowd. Some of the excesses of other Chasidic sects (shtreimels, Yiddish-only, ghettoization, extreme gender segregation to the point of separate doors, lifetime learning to the exclusion of learning job skills) would not be tolerated by the target audience of American Jews.
Is Chabad a cult? Maybe. But certainly no more so than any other haredi group (two words--daas Toireh). My own thoughts are sort of mixed. I appreciate that they don't turn people away, I love the free services, and I like that they're willing to meet people on their level. However, I think they tend to have a bit too much hard sell to young, impressionable Jews (the SDSU Chabad had cheap rooms and lots of liquor--a great enticement for alumni who wanted the glory days of AEPi back), and they seem to put more emphasis on the Rebbe than G-d. Also, I find it troubling that the Sorbonne-educated Schneerson would discourage secular education for his own followers (Lubavitch boys' schools that cater to those born into it do not teach their students to read English until the third grade). One rabbi of my acquaintance has accused them of poaching congregants--but maybe those are the congregants that WANT to be poached. And then there's the whole "Schneerson as messiah/Schneerson isn't really dead" controversy, which just adds it's own touch of weird. However, at the end of the day, I do think they unfairly get a bad rap from the rest of the Jewish world. They mean well.