The Lubavitcher Rebbe has fascinated many tens of thousands of people and directly touched the lives of millions.
And yet, for such a powerfully public figure his personal life has remained elusive and mysterious. Recent attempts to portray him have been disastrous both from an academic perspective as well as a layman’s.
To fill this gap, Rabbi Chaim Miller has penned a literary masterpiece.
I love Chaim Miller’s biography of the Rebbe for four main reasons:
Firstly, he paints a human picture of the Rebbe.
Some Chassidim are critical of this and I have already heard complaints. But to me, the more I understand what the Rebbe’s chracter was like, the more I understand his passions and pains, the more I come to love him and am inspired by him. I would make this required reading in all Chabad yeshivot.
This does not mean that the Rebbe doesn’t seem so far from us anymore and therefore he becomes more relatable. I know a lot of Litvaks and Modern Orthodox are into this (as I heard endless times from my Litvak classmates), but it is clear to me conceptually that the Rebbe was on a different plane than us, in kind not just in degree – a complex topic deserving of its own conversation.
No, the reason I love reading about how lonely the Rebbe was at times, how uncomfortable he was being a public persona, his love for privacy, how much it pained him when Jews on the right and left fought him (the Reform on public menorah’s, the Reform on the “Who is a Jew” issue, Shach, Satmar and others on tefillin campaigns and his inclusivism on Israel and non-observant Jews), how much he loved and adored his wife, how much he yearned for children, how intensely focused on winning he was with respect to the Gurary court case, etc. etc. is because he was simply so lovable and inspiring that its exhilarating to read and discuss.
I.e. the fear some Chassidim have of bringing these matters into the public eye is entirely misplaced in my opinion. These fears would be justified, if there was something to hide. But there isn’t. The more you delve into the Rebbe’s persona as a man struggling to make his way in this world, the more you come to appreciate him. The true Chassid wants to delve deeply into the Rebbe’s thought and feelings, not shy away from them.
The second reason is how exhaustively sourced everything is. A single footnote can take hours and the hundreds of rigorously sourced footnotes drawing on secular research and writings and in-house Chabad publications alike really make this book a one of a kind on the Rebbe.
The third reason is that much of the Rebbe’s persona was hidden in ways both subtle and complex. Miller takes letters, private meetings, farbrengens, and weaves them into a cohesive and illuminating narrative. For example (p.102):
Menachem Mendel’s penchant for intellectual honesty could not help him wonder and inquire of his father-in-law, “At first glance, the path and teachings of Chasidut taught by the Rebbes of Vohlynia-Poland-Galicia seem closer to the path and teachings of the Baal Shem Tov’s Chasidut than the teachings of Chabad, especially in the emphasis on miracle-working.”95
The question prompted a fifteen-page reply from Rayatz, rich in anecdotal history of the movement, with many accounts of why miracle-working became unimportant in the Chabad system.96 Menachem Mendel was ecstatic. His preference for a dialogue of ideas rather than feelings had finally been met, and he found the material gripping.
From the depths of the heart I thank you for this precious gift. May I be so bold as to make an earnest suggestion from Your Holiness—if a request is necessary and if it will help. I am strengthened by the hope that from time to time you will honor and delight me with letters like this.
I lack a lot of knowledge about the background of Chasidut and its history…. and so with every fact that I gain in this area, I rejoice “as if finding a great prize” (Ps. 119:162).97
To the untrained eye, this letter doesn’t appear extraordinary. But, Miller contrasts it with earlier letters where the Rayatz literally had to beg the Rebbe for a dialogue of correspondence to which the Rebbe replied (p.99):
“The reason I have not written,” he writes in the winter of 1930, “which I am sure without my letter you could fathom for yourself, is that it is difficult for me to find interesting events in my life to tell you. Just to fill a piece of paper with incidental details, to write a letter for the sake of writing a letter—why should I steal your time for that?”74
Rayatz is persistent. “I want to clarify,” he writes back, “that when you will contemplate the truth as it is, what a deeply personal relationship ought to exist between us, you will always find something interesting that will extend beyond one page.”75
But Menachem Mendel’s world is the world of ideas, not of events and feelings. In his next letter, which represents a fascinating insight into the Seventh Rebbe’s self-image, he attempts to clarify the matter.
The reason why I have not written is due to the lack of interesting events to report. There are people for whom the central, overwhelming focus of their lives is in the world of thought, the world of ideas, and their main activities—activity being the sign of life—are focused inwards, to the “world set in their hearts” (Ecc. 3:11), and not to the outside world surrounding them.
After this introduction, I must say that, while I do not consider it to be a particular virtue, it seems that—whether as a result of my natural disposition or outside influences—I am such a person. For as long as I can remember, there has been a paucity of interesting events in my life, things that I found personally engaging.76
This, however, does not stop Rayatz from showering forth his emotions on paper: love and affection, repeated blessings for children and happy marriage, as well as his frustrations. In a letter penned after the festival of Shavuot, 1930, Rayatz wishes his son-in-law that “you and your wife, my precious daughter, should have a pleasurable life, with love and affection.”77 In a letter to Moussia on her twenty-ninth birthday, Rayatz writes, “My precious daughter! For everything in this world there is a limit and end, but the deep love of parents has no limit,” and he blesses her to have “fine, healthy, bright children.”78 In a letter to Menachem Mendel the following year, Rayatz’s affections continue to gush forth, “If my thoughts about you went straight onto paper, I mean if thoughts themselves could write, without the need of an actual hand,
The picture we get is of a Rebbe Rayatz deeply desirous of an ongoing exchange of pleasantries and news with the Rebbe, which goes largely unfulfilled by the Rebbe, something all the more astonishing when we contemplate how utterly devoted the Rebbe was to the Rayatz.
It is this intense care for detail and contextualization as well as subtle structuring that makes this book come alive into a gripping read.
Lastly but perhaps most importantly, Miller draws on the Rebbe’s thought extensively, showing the thread connecting who the Rebbe was a private individual with who he was a thinker and scholar. It is this, more than anything, that made previous attempts at portraying the Rebbe so irredeemably and hopelessly inadequate. The Rebbe was a master of an intellectual and writing about his life without depicting his complex thought is like writing about Einstein’s life without discussing his theory of relativity research and how it impacted the trajectory of his career and persona.
Here are some of my favorite parts (in order of: Rebbe as Military tactician, Rebbe on Israel, 6 day war, Rebbe on non-Jews,Rebbe on Meditation, Moshiach issue, Rebbe’s involvement in academia, science vs. torah issues):
We see the Rebbe as military tactician and highly intuitive thinker (p. 278):
The fortification chain, known as the Bar-Lev line after Israeli Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev, cost around $300 million and was expected to delay any oncoming army by 48 hours.
“It was a bitter conflict in the Israeli army,” Sharon recalled in an interview near the end of his life. “The Rebbe knew about it and he sent me a letter three or four years before the Yom Kippur War, describing the disaster that will happen to the Jewish people, what terrible damage and tragedy this Bar-Lev line will bring—totally, I would say, dealing with the military problem; analyzing as a military expert what would happen.”
When the Yom Kippur War erupted in October 1973, the Egyptian army overran the Bar Lev Line in less than two hours and with some 70,000 Egyptian troops attacking five hundred Israeli soldiers, it quickly became a slaughter. Lamenting the accuracy of the Rebbe’s analysis, and the failure of Israel to take it seriously, Sharon recalled, “As a matter of fact, that happened. It was a tragedy, but that happened.”80
On another occasion after the war, the Rebbe bemoaned in a letter to Jakobovits what he felt had been tragic losses as the result of Israel’s unwillingness to carry out an attack of anticipatory self-defense in 1973, as it had done in 1967.
Something I noticed and greatly appreciated was that Miller carefully curates those rare instances when the Rebbe spoke about himself in public, thus giving us a glimpse behind the Rebbe’s highly private demeanor:
In a sermon during the war itself, the Rebbe actually pointed to the summer children’s campaign as a sort of premonition on his own part. Citing Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, that a person can “prophesy without knowing what he is prophesying,”85 the Rebbe made an unusual reference to his own prescience: “Sometimes one does something, unaware at the time what the reason is, and only afterwards one appreciates that it was timely.”
“The entire summer,” he noted, “I spoke about the topic of ‘Out of the mouths of babes and infants You have ordained strength, to still the enemy and avenger.” What pushed me to speak about it? Why all of a sudden? Now it has been made clear how much we needed ‘to still the enemy and avenger.’”86
Miller’s prowess really comes to the fore on the frustratingly complex stance of Chabad towards Zionism and Israel. In a mere three pages he lays out a comprehensible and finely articulated position:
Before the establishment of the State, the Fifth and Sixth Chabad Rebbes had opposed any form of fraternity with the Zionists and their enterprise, fearing that Jewish nationalism, if given exaggerated importance, could lead Jews away from traditional observance.59 In 1947, however, when the State of Israel was becoming a reality, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe was among the very first to encourage many of his followers to settle there.
It was on the eve of the historic vote for the U.N. Partition Plan on 29th November 1947 in Lake Success, New York, that Zalman Shazar received a call in his hotel from Rashag. “The Rebbe wants to know how things are proceeding,” Rashag inquired. Shazar was moved that Rayatz, with whom he barely had any contact, was showing concern. and it aroused in Shazar warm memories of the Chasidic attachments of his childhood.60 “Please tell the Rebbe that we are in need of great mercy,” Shazar responded.
While still on the line, Rashag conveyed the message to Rayatz and returned to the phone. “The Rebbe requested that I convey that ‘G-d will help.’ The Rebbe also asks that, after the vote, would you come to visit him?”
“That is how my connection with Chabad began,” Shazar recalled.
The day following the U.N. approval, which was passed 33 votes against 13, Shazar had a long discussion with Rayatz, who proposed a Chabad settlement in the new state, later to be known as Kfar Chabad. Shazar, who was fully aware of Rashab and Rayatz’s historic anti-Zionist posture, initially expressed his surprise. “Don’t think I regret the past,” Rayatz responded. “Then, the answer was ‘no.’ Now, it is ‘yes.’” The Sixth Rebbe immediately sent a telegram to Paris, informing Chabad refugees from Russia that plans had changed and they were no longer going to settle in Canada, but in Israel.”61
This, of course, did not mean that Chabad embraced the idea of secular Zionism. The Seventh Rebbe, as we have seen, was extremely concerned—often consumed—with the welfare of Israel, but he did take certain measures to distance himself from the secular ideals and nature of the State. For example, he made a point of using the term Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel), rather than Medinat Yisrael (State of Israel), arguing that the former conveys the Jewish people’s Biblical right to the land, which is not at the mercy of other nations to decide.62 Similarly, he chose not to refer to the President of Israel with his official title, Nasi, claiming that the term had been employed by traditional Judaism with a different intention.63 But this formal distancing from the State and its secular ideals did not compromise in any way his vigorous involvement in supporting Israel’s wellbeing and security, which was real and tangible.
There is no doubt, however, that he was personally saddened by the fact that Israel had not been founded with a more positive embrace of Torah values. “In 1948,” the Rebbe lamented in a meeting with Rabbi Chaim Gutnick after the Six Day War, “it was a time of opportunity. But Jewish leaders stood by and debated whether or not to make mention of G-d’s name in the ‘Declaration of Establishment.’”64 In a 1957 interview, the Rebbe was particularly sharp, noting that when Israel was founded, “gentile codes of living and a gentile form of government were adopted by Jews… bringing Galut [Exile] to Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem… This is not the Zion we have yearned for.”65
But, as in so many areas, the Rebbe was willing to embrace paradox in his positions on Israel. “I have broad shoulders,” he once said in relation to this issue, “because my father-in-law, the Rebbe, has paved my path.”66 While the State was lamentably secular67 and historic opportunities had been missed for more Torah influence, the Rebbe appreciated Israel for the great blessing that it was and endeavored to support it as best he could. In fact, helping Israel and its people became one of his greatest concerns.
(What he did reject strongly, however, was the belief held by many religious Zionists, that the return of Israel to Jewish rule was something Messianic, the Atchalta De-Geulah (Beginning of Redemption), a position which gained significant momentum after the recapture of Jerusalem after the Six Day War.68 Only by fully realizing the unfortunate gravity of the current reality, the Rebbe felt, the lamentable distance of many Jews from Torah and mitzvot, can we gather sufficient focus to reverse it. “If we call darkness, darkness,” he surmised on one occasion, “then we will merit to call light, light.”)69
Perhaps inspired by the strong reaction of the Israeli people to the tefilin campaign following the Six Day War, and his growing influence among Israeli politicians and military leaders, the Rebbe began to speak publicly at farbrengens on a regular basis about issues facing Israel. One matter, in particular, consumed him: the question of territorial concessions for the sake of peace.
From 1967 until as late as 1991, some of the most emotionally charged sermons delivered by the Rebbe on a consistent basis were devoted to what he referred to as sheleimut ha-Aretz (the integrity of the Land), a sustained polemic against any territorial concessions on the part of Israel. Over one hundred and twenty five sermons were devoted to the topic, and the central argument remained consistent throughout. In matters of national security, the Rebbe argued, it is imperative to listen to military experts rather than the opinions of politicians who are inevitably swayed by an array of conflicting diplomatic concerns. “All military experts, Jewish and non-Jewish, agree,” the Rebbe wrote to British Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits (1921-1999), “that in the present situation, giving up any part of them would create serious security dangers. No one says that giving up any part of them would enhance the defensibility of the borders. But some military experts are prepared to take a chance in order not to antagonize Washington and/or to improve the ‘international image,’ etc.”70
While he campaigned vigorously with the message, both in sermons and in correspondence, this was not an area where the Rebbe succeeded in winning instrumental Rabbinic or political support. There is no doubt that his voice made some impact, but the course of the peace process in Israel has often proceeded in a way which the Rebbe warned would threaten national security and result in the unnecessary loss of life. When asked why he continued to speak about the issue amid the tepid response, he replied, “When you are really in pain, G-d forbid, you scream.” A 2002 anthology of the Rebbe’s talks on the topic, published as part of a campaign against the Gush Katif disengagement plan, was sorrowfully entitled, “I called and nobody responded.” 71
Miller notes that the Rebbe did not align himself with any political party:
He did, however, maintain high-profile ties with Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum, secular and religious, sharing a warm, personal relationship with all of Israel’s prime ministers from Rabin onwards. Regular delegations were sent by the Rebbe throughout the year to greet Israeli officials and bring them his blessing.58
Miller shows the light, humorous, almost mischievous side of the Rebbe:
While Chasidim were careful to follow the custom of remaining standing in yechidut, and not shaking the Rebbe’s hand, the Rebbe obviously did not expect these formalities from his non-Chasidic guests. Confusion, however, would sometimes arise when more zealous Chasidim would try to impress in advance upon their non-Chasidic friends the importance of following yechidut protocol. For example, Jaffe recalls:
Rabbi Shemtov gave me the full rundown. I took particular note of his instructions such as, “Don’t shake hands with the Rebbe,” “Don’t sit down,” and so forth….
Upon entering the Rebbe’s sanctum, we were startled and amazed to see the Rebbe actually stand up and come forward to greet us, with his hand outstretched.
“Oh,” said I. “I am sorry, but Rabbi Shemtov said that I must not shake hands with the Rebbe.”
“Never mind,” answered the Rebbe, smiling, and with a lovely twinkle in his eye. “We won’t tell Rabbi Shemtov.” He shook hands with me. He then invited us to sit down.
“Oh, dear, no,” said I, horrified. “Rabbi Shemtov told me that on no account must I sit down.”
The Rebbe laughed it off and said, “After the third time, I will see about you standing during yechidut.” So I sat down.104
(The story actually has deep implications for me in that I see it as representative of some of the Chassidims’ desire to create a one model fits all for relationships with the Rebbe, but I digress. )
Miller portrays the Rebbe’s arresting but charming penchant for engaging visitors on their own turf:
Both men and women were welcome in yechidut and couples would often enter together. The Rebbe was gifted with an exceptional memory for details and facts, and it was not unusual for him to recall, for example, the names of a couple’s children many years after an initial meeting. He would also show a surprising preparedness when meeting scientists, professionals, politicians and artists, often startling a visitor with concrete knowledge of their own field, even of the visitor’s own work. The Rebbe would use these common ties as an opening to press upon his more secular visitors the importance of re-evaluating the role of Judaism in their personal lives.
At a yechidut with Harvey Swados and his wife, for example, after responding to Swados’ questions about Hannah Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trials and the works of Martin Buber, the Rebbe began to prod gently into Swados’ inner world. “Now that you have interviewed me, I’d like to interview you. Unless you have any objections?” the Rebbe asked. “But I am afraid that I won’t be as diplomatic with you as you have been with me.”
The Rebbe turned the conversation, seemingly innocuously, to a discussion of Swados’s 1957 book On the Line, a series of fictional portraits of auto assembly workers. “What relation would you say that your book bears to the early work of Upton Sinclair?” the Rebbe asked.
“I was flabbergasted,” Swados recalled. “Here I was, sitting in the study of a scholar of mystic lore late on a wintry night, and discussing not Chabad Chasidism, Aristotelianism or scholasticism but proletarian literature! ‘Why,’ I said, ‘I would hope that it is less narrowly propagandistic than Sinclair’s. I was trying to capture a mood of frustration rather than one of revolution.’”
Swados immediately realized that the Rebbe had led him to answer his own earlier question. When discussing the Arendt book, the Rebbe had argued the Holocaust was not a unique visitation upon the Jewish people, but had arisen from a cultural-historical phenomenon of obedience to authority. Swados found the argument hard to swallow, but now the Rebbe had managed to tease out from him the same sentiments in the context of his own writings.
“Suddenly I realized,” Swados recalled, “that he had led me to the answer that he was seeking—and what was more, with his next query I realized how many steps ahead he was of my faltering mind.”
“You could not conscientiously recommend revolution for your unhappy workers in a free country,” mused the Rebbe, “or see it as a practical perspective for their leaders. Then how could one demand it from those who were being crushed and destroyed by the Nazis?”
As the Rebbe continued his “interview,” he steered the conversation towards his own concern: a Jew’s responsibility to his people. The Rebbe spoke of Swados’s responsibility both as a writer and as a Jew, and how those concerns might intersect, to the point where Swados was “hypnotized by the elegance with which he was leading me to meet him on his own grounds.”
As well as:
“His ultimate goal was to bring you to the ways of Jewish life,” Zacks wrote, “but his means were not confrontational and demanding. You could literally feel his warmth and love in addition to the power of his vast intellect.”
After a series of philosophically oriented arguments failed to penetrate Zacks’ resistance, at the 1970 meeting, the Rebbe employed a literary argument.
“He quoted Kazantzakis’ book Zorba the Greek to me during our conversation,” Zacks recalled. “Do you remember the young man talking with Zorba on the beach, when Zorba asks what the purpose of life is? The young fellow admits he doesn’t know. And Zorba comments, ‘Well, all those damned books you read—what good are they? Why do you read them?’ Zorba’s friend says he doesn’t know. Zorba can see his friend doesn’t have an answer to the most fundamental question. That’s the trouble with you. ‘A man’s head is like a grocer,’ Zorba says, ‘it keeps accounts…. The head’s a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string.’ Wise men and grocers weigh everything. They can never cut the cord and be free.”
“Your problem, Mr. Zacks,” the Rebbe told him, “is that you are trying to find G-d’s map through your head. You are unlikely to find it that way. You have to experience before you can truly feel and then be free to learn.”
“Let me send a teacher to live with you for a year,” the Rebbe offered, “and teach you how to be Jewish. You will unleash a whole new dimension to your life. If you really want to change the world, change yourself! It’s like dropping a stone into a pool of water and watching the concentric circles radiate to the shore. You will influence all the people around you, and they will influence others in turn. That’s how you bring about improvement in the world.”
Zacks politely declined the Rebbe’s offer, and the meeting ended. Over the following years the Rebbe wrote to Zacks five times, asking him to reconsider the offer,
Miller clearly shows the Rebbe’s daring and audacious claims about Israel during the Six Day War. I love this episode so much because the Rebbe went on record, in fact told people to stay, effectively taking responsibility for their lives. Put simply, the Rebbe had skin in the game. It doesn’t hurt that one of the four students mentioned in the following paragraph was my father:
The Rebbe’s response to the Six Day War in June 1967 was a watershed moment in his leadership that altered the way he was perceived both internationally and within his own movement. The weeks preceding the war were a particularly bleak period for the Jewish people. Egypt and Syria had taken a number of steps which led Israel to believe that an Arab attack was imminent, as they amassed troops on the borders of the tiny Jewish state, while the U.N. withdrew all forces from Sinai. Fears escalated as the media, both in the Middle East and throughout the Western world, repeated Arab threats that Israel and all its citizens were going to be wiped off the face of the earth. After signing a defense pact with Jordan’s King Hussein, President Nasser of Egypt declared, “The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel… standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. Today they will know that the Arabs are arranged for battle, the critical hour has arrived. We have reached the stage of serious action and not declarations.”13 President Abdur Rahman Aref of Iraq added his own sentiments, “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear—to wipe Israel off the map.”14
Fears escalated quickly in the absence of a clear decision from the Israeli government on how to react. Yitzchak Rabin, who was then the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, became temporarily incapacitated by a nervous collapse.15 The military indecisiveness which emanated from Prime Minister Levi Eshkol became patently clear to the public a few days later, on 28th May, in a stuttered radio speech conveying hesitancy and doubt in a time of crisis. While the Israeli army was far more developed than it had been during the wars of 1948 and 1956, panic spread about a possible impending genocide, which was persistently threatened by Arab neighbors. Many of those who were able to leave Israel did so, further exacerbating the concerns of the majority that remained.
The Rebbe, however, was adamant that foreign students who were in Chabad Yeshivot in Israel should not leave. To four students in the Chabad Yeshivat Torat Emet in Jerusalem, who asked whether to follow the advice of their local embassies and leave immediately, the Rebbe replied: “Continue to study with diligence. It is an absolute certainty that, ‘The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps’ (Psalms 121:4). I await good news.”16 To Rabbi Ya’akov Yehudah Hecht, who expressed concern over his son Shalom Ber, who was studying in Israel, the Rebbe wrote: “There is absolutely no cause for concern… The verse, ‘I will grant peace in the Land’ (Lev. 26:6) will be fulfilled.”17 To a Chabad Chasid who had recently arrived in Israel and asked if now was an appropriate time to visit 770, the Rebbe replied: “Now is not the time to travel from the Holy Land. We will see each other, G-d willing, next Tishrei.”18 In a number of other communications, the Rebbe warned against unwarranted fear, and encouraged trust in G-d. “I am not at all happy,” he wrote to one individual, “with all the panic and the exaggerations. G-d will protect…. especially in a place where, ‘the eyes of G-d are upon it always’ (Deut. 11:12).”19 The sheer confidence of these responses, at a time of national emergency, soon received public attention and they were reported extensively in the Israeli press.20
The Rebbe’s bold and innovative thinking regarding Gentiles is made digestible and coherent for the casual reader (though I disagree with Miller’s portrayal somewhat):
By the early 1980s only one piece was left to be included in this vast system—the non-Jew. How did Judaism perceive its relationship with, and obligation to, the non-Jewish world?
To answer this question, the Rebbe drew on a formulation of Maimonides, based on the Talmud,34 that while G-d does not expect the non-Jew to observe the detailed rituals of Judaism, the Divine will is revealed to all humanity in the form of seven laws of religious and moral behavior. These principles, which Jewish tradition traces back to a revelation to the Biblical figures Adam and Noah, represent categories of behavior, each with their own complex set of parameters: to avoid idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, and blasphemy; to practice compassion35 and to establish courts of law.36
While the concept of the “Noahide Code” was well known in Rabbinic circles since the Talmud, there had never been a notable effort to disseminate it or even to clarify its practical implementation. This is despite the fact that Maimonides frames it as a religious obligation incumbent on the Jew which “Moses our Teacher was commanded by the Almighty to compel all the inhabitants of the world to accept the commandments given to Noah’s descendants.”37 The reason for this omission, the Rebbe argued in an essay published in 1984, was that throughout history any activity that might appear as proselytizing is likely to have offended the religious sentiments of the host culture and endangered its Jewish community. In America and other religiously free countries this no longer represented a concern, he observed, and the Maimonidean injunction to influence the culture remained in full force.38
Jewish insularity cannot be undone overnight, and it may come as no surprise that the Rebbe’s message—articulated relentlessly during this period39—was not only lost on the broader Jewish world, but also on many of his own followers. Various suggestions proposed by Chasidim in response to the “Noahide” campaign were either rejected by the Rebbe, ignored, or elicited a warning that “this bears a tremendous responsibility.”40 What he did clearly appreciate was recognition of the Noahide Code at the governmental level, and as early as 1982 Ronald Reagan signed a declaration that “the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s work stands as a reminder that knowledge is an unworthy goal unless it is accompanied by moral and spiritual wisdom and understanding. He has provided a vivid example of the eternal validity of the Seven Noahide Laws, a moral code for all of us regardless of religious faith. May he go from strength to strength.”41
In a letter written shortly afterwards, the Rebbe expressed his appreciation to the President, noting that by “reaffirming the eternal validity of the G-d-given Seven Noahide Laws (with all their ramifications) for people of all faiths—you have expressed most forcefully the real spirit of the American nation.”42
After Reagan mentioned the Noahide Code a number of times in subsequent years, the Rebbe thanked him again in a 1987 letter, noting the cumulative impact: “We have reason to believe that your forceful, supportive stance to help upgrade the moral standards of human relationships on the basis of the so-called Seven Noahide Laws (with all their ramifications) as imperatives of a Supreme Being who monitors all human conduct has made a great impact on the consciousness of the contemporary troubled generation of mankind.”43
The Rebbe, however, was interested in more than recognition from Washington; he wanted to alter the orientation of the contemporary Jew to feel a responsibility to the broader culture. This was not a campaign where he would be satisfied with a special organization devoted to the cause, or particular “outreach” activities to gentiles; he was aiming for the fullest expression of an inclusivist mentality. It was the culmination of his worldview, articulated on his seventieth birthday to the New York Times, “For me, Judaism… encompasses all the universe.”
As well as:
…was a creative re-examination of universal spirituality in Chabad thought, to accommodate a greater measure of inclusiveness. In many instances, Judaism can appear to be quite “tribal,” obsessed with itself and its own people, and relatively unconcerned with the rest of the world. It was Maimonides especially who brought to light elements of Judaism which Jews and non-Jews can both avail themselves of, and de-emphasized those features which are particular to Jews.54 Among contemporary Orthodox thinkers, there are those which have embraced, to some extent, the Maimonidean/universalist strand of classical Jewish thought, and there are those who have taken a more ethnocentric, particularist position.55
In the evolution of Jewish thought, Chasidism, which emerged in the 18th Century, was a direct outgrowth of the Kabbalah, which had gained momentum from the 13th Century onwards. Kabbalah took the “chosen people” idea and sharpened it, arguing for an essential difference in human “hardware”—to borrow a term from computer technology. In the Kabbalistic worldview, the Jew is constructed differently from the non-Jew and blessed with a different type of soul, which makes his uniquely Jewish relationship with G-d possible.56 Like other strands of Chasidism, Chabad embraced this position, and it did so with vigor. At the beginning of his Tanya, the “Bible” of Chabad Chasidic thought, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi echoes the position of the Zohar and Kabbalistic writings, that Jewish and non-Jewish souls are different. While the Tanya says nothing particularly new, it did succeed in taking a somewhat obscure, unknown teaching from a small, elite group of Kabbalists and popularizing it among a very wide audience, since Chasidism was—and remains today—an extremely influential movement.
Awareness of the “special” qualities unique to the Jew, are helpful in energizing outreach activities. Chabad adherents are inspired to carry out the difficult work of painstakingly seeking out Jews who have become “lost” and deeply assimilated in the host culture, in the belief that they are redeeming individuals who possess a unique, Jewish soul. The Tanya’s position was instrumental in reversing the Orthodox marginalization of the secular Jew as “evil” or “irredeemable,” opening the doors for outreach—first in Chabad, and later by others.
But how could these deeply particularistic ideas be reconciled with a more universal spirituality?
In a number of published sermons from the early 1980s, the Rebbe took giant steps towards the idea of a universal spirituality, narrowing the gap separating Jew and non-Jew in traditional Chabad thought, though taking care not to erase it completely. For example, while Chabad had always taught that only the uniquely Jewish soul provides the opportunity of an embodied spirituality,57 the Rebbe suggested that “nevertheless, the giving of the Torah, as we know, deconstructed the binary distinction between ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ (between Divine emanation and created entities), which also affected Noahides, empowering them to be conscious of the Divine power which is embodied in them. And through a consciousness of the Divine power (the power of unity) they can also achieve a certain unity, comparable to the unity of Jews (though not precisely the same).”58
Here the Rebbe employs one of the most familiar ideas in Chabad Chasidut to suggest something unprecedented, and we could almost be fooled into thinking that we had been familiar with the concept all along. Every student of Chabad knows that Sinai represented a “deconstruction of the binary distinction between ‘upper’ and ‘lower,’” (bitul ha-gezeirah bayn Elyonim ve-tachtonim), namely, the possibility of spirituality becoming embodied in the physical world.59 So why not apply this to the non-Jew, and say that he or she too can enjoy an embodied spirituality? In prior Chabad thought, such an experience had been considered the exclusive domain of the Jew, but the Rebbe proposes here that a more inclusivist position is actually implied by one of Chabad’s own primary teachings. And while the gap between Jew and non-Jew is merely narrowed and not completely closed, the fact that the non-Jew is seen as a vehicle for an embodied spirituality which is “comparable” to that of the Jew represents a notable shift from earlier Chabad sentiments.
In another sermon from 1983, the Rebbe argued more forcefully for a near-complete democratization of spirituality in the Messianic era, following the Maimonidean vision that “the entire world will serve G-d together.”60 In this formulation, the non-Jew’s connection to G-d is not mediated by the Jew, nor is it limited to an inferior, veiled emanation;61 rather the very essence of G-d (Atzmut Ohr Ayn Sof) will be disclosed to both Jews and non-Jews.62
Miller spends several pages on the Rebbe’s trail-blazing push for meditation centers:
Another interesting initiative from the Rebbe during this period, which never reached its desired momentum, was an effort to establish meditation centers. By the 1970s, the number of Jews participating in cults in the U.S.A. stemming from the Far East was as great as twenty to fifty percent, which is strikingly high when one considers that Jews constitute only two to three percent of the American population. Especially popular was Transcendental Meditation (T.M.), many of the mantras and rituals of which were associated with Hindu gods.
From the early 1960s, the Rebbe had shown interest in developing clinically effective forms of meditation that would be compatible with the Jewish religion. Around 1962 the Rebbe had sent a proposal to Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski (b. 1930), a Chasidic psychiatrist who later became a popular author, to develop a system of meditation. “He sent me a paper on meditation in English,” Twerski recalled, “in which he crossed out parts that he thought were inappropriate and had written his own comments in the margins, and asked me to develop it. The parts which were crossed out as inappropriate had to do with secular and Oriental forms of meditation. His comments had to do with what to substitute for the omissions.” Twerski kept pushing off the idea until, when he finally found time to work on it, he could no longer find the paper.97
In January of 1978, with the rise of Jews turning to cults, the Rebbe penned a confidential memorandum highlighting the current problem, and a proposed solution, to be shared with select “Rabbis, doctors, and laymen who are in a position to advance the cause.” While the approach of Rabbinic authorities had been simply to ban T.M., the Rebbe, always the inclusivist, understood both the therapeutic benefits of meditation and the ineffectiveness of banning something without offering an acceptable alternative.
Miller also helpfully places different periods of the Rebbe’s life into context:
In a 1992 sermon, the Rebbe would later refer to the date of his wife’s passing in 1988 as a “new era” for Chabad, explaining in somewhat esoteric terms that a certain shift had taken place.20 That fact, though, was immediately apparent after her passing, when several major changes took place in the Rebbe’s court. Weekday farbrengens, even on special occasions, were discontinued. From the end of 1988, the Rebbe virtually stopped delivering Chasidic discourses.21 In 1989, the Rashi sichot and other analytical discourses were discontinued as a regular fixture.
The energies saved by these activities were devoted to other areas, and during the last years of his active life the Rebbe spent much more time with his followers. The Sabbath farbrengens, though significantly shortened, were intensified from a monthly occurrence to a weekly one. While in the past the Rebbe had prayed in the smaller synagogue upstairs in 770 during the week, only joining the larger crowds downstairs on Sabbaths and festivals, from 1989 onwards he participated in the daily prayers downstairs.22 While there were no weekday farbrengens, after the evening prayers the Rebbe would often ask for his lecturn to be brought over and he would deliver a short sermon while standing—for the Rebbe “short” meant thirty to forty minutes! Over time, these mini-sermons would become more frequent and take place every few days.
During these last years the Rebbe also intensified the publication schedule of his edited sermons and discourses. In addition to the weekly Likutei Sichot, he also edited and published a weekly annotated transcript of the sermons delivered at the previous week’s farbrengen. As if that were not enough, from 1987 onwards he began to regularly edit ma’amarim that had been delivered in earlier years, which were published to coincide with special occasions throughout the year.23
Miller deals with the sensitive Moshiach issue in an easy to follow flow of sources, facts, historical contextualization and thoughtful conjecture that we have by now come to expect from him:
What we have here is arguably a core feature of the Rebbe’s Messianism: the application of higher forms of wisdom, to solve problems in a broader context. Here the application is Jewish Law, but in the Rebbe’s view there is no limit to the relevance of Torah wisdom, especially as illuminated by Chasidut. “Torah encompasses all the universe,” the Rebbe told the New York Times on his seventieth birthday, “and it encompasses every new invention, every new theory, every new piece of knowledge or thought or action.”101
The Messianic Era is essentially the fulfillment of this vision, where every facet of reality is illuminated by Torah and Chasidut, thereby diffusing the conflicts which have historically plagued it. Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov had envisioned the Messiah telling him that when “your wellsprings will spread outside” the world will be perfected, because Chasidut represents a new paradigm of human thought, capable of healing our fractured world through nourishing an advanced ecology of the mind.
All this, the Rebbe felt, was not something to be completely relegated to the future, but must be initiated in the current era, as a “bridge” to the Era of Redemption. As we have seen, the Rebbe viewed the Messianic event as largely in the hands of G-d, but also as something that required human participation (see p. 330). In order that the Redemption should not represent a rupture of history by G-d, it is crucial that man first become receptive and actively prepared for it. In the Rebbe’s view, this “preparation” encompassed two key areas: a.) increased mitzvah observance, and b.) broadening the study and application of Chasidut.102
That was, more or less, the full extent of his practical message. He did not favor any this-worldy efforts to rebuild the Third Temple in Jerusalem.103 He did not encourage aliyah (emigration to Israel) as an activity that would hasten the coming of Mashiach.104 He did not point to any physical “Wars of G-d” to be fought.105 He certainly did not encourage any changes in Jewish law, which he consistently encouraged to be observed meticulously. And while he upheld the traditional belief that the Mashiach would be a man of flesh and blood, he did not deem the identification of Mashiach’s identity as important.
This last point seems to have been based on Maimonides’ ruling106 that Mashiach’s identity cannot be known with certainty until the Third Temple has been built and the exiles gathered in. As the Rebbe stressed in a 1968 letter, that even after Mashiach has
impelled all the Jewish people to study the Torah and to mend its fences, we are still not sure and require a further sign, namely, and built the Holy Temple in its place (clearly in the holy city of Jerusalem, indicating that there would be a large Jewish population in that city, yet we are still not certain of the end of the Galut (Exile), so a further factor must be fulfilled, namely), and he gathers in the dispersed ones of Israel—then he is certainly the Mashiach.”107
Unlike Christianity, where belief in a particular individual as the Messiah is seen as a crucial condition of Redemption, the normative view of Judaism, as codified by Maimonides, is that the identity of the Messiah cannot be known with certainty before he completes his work. He will eventually be identified only as the result of this activity, from which it follows that, to bring the Redemption, we need to focus on the work and not on the persona. As we have seen, in the Rebbe’s view this work consisted primarily of spreading Torah and mitzvot, disseminating Chasidut, and encouraging the belief in, and yearning for, the future era.
Ironically, any focus on the persona of Mashiach is liable to detract from the work of bringing the Redemption. After Judaism’s long history of false and failed Messiahs, especially the huge debacle of Shabbatai Zvi in the 17th Century, Jews have tended to view any Messianic pretender with intense suspicion and distrust. If we do not need to know, and cannot know with certainty, who the Messiah is—as Maimonides implies108—then this potentially contentious issue ought to be avoided.
This was the Rebbe’s view, articulated in a memorable 1984 sermon
When some of his followers began to sing a song in his presence identifying him as the Messiah, he interrupted them and said:
I would like to speak about something negative that requires fixing… There are some overzealous Chabadniks (shpitz Chabad109) who imagine that they are the ones who know what needs to be done, and how it should be done. They are unmoved when those around them sometimes attempt to dissuade them from something negative. They think to themselves: Who are these people to tell me what to do? Not one of them is shpitz Chabad!
What I am referring to is those who, as a result of their statements, verbal and printed, and their songs, have alienated many Jews from the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the study and approach of Chasidut. In fact there are Jews who had begun to study Chasidut and as a result of these individuals’ activities, they have stopped doing so. Not only are they failing to bring Jews closer, they are alienating those who have already begun to come close….
Let it therefore be known that anyone who continues with such activities, fights a war against Chabad Chasidut, against the Rebbe [Rayatz], against the Ba’al Shem Tov, and against Mashiach himself, who wants to come but is waiting for the further dissemination of Chasidut. These people, on the other hand, are distancing Jews from studying Chasidut, G-d forbid.
May G-d spare me from having to repeat this directive again.110
The sermon made a very strong impression and effectively silenced any attempts to publicly identify the Rebbe as a potential Mashiach for several years.
Seven-and-a-half years later, however, the issue resurfaced. Shock waves had been sent through Chabad on a spring Thursday evening, after the Rebbe delivered what was possibly the most eye-opening sermon in forty years, one which he would even refer to himself as the sicha ha-yadua (“famous sermon”). Much had happened in the preceding period. Communist Russia had imploded after sixty years of tyranny for the Jews, and Israel had experienced miracles in the Gulf War—both events which the Rebbe had interpreted as signs of exceptional Divine grace and potential Messianic awakening. While the Rebbe’s global influence and activities continued to grow, he had just celebrated his eighty-ninth birthday and fears were quietly mounting as to what would become of Chabad if the “unthinkable” were to transpire.
Despite the Rebbe’s advanced age, his “ship” appeared to be cruising smoothly towards its goal, with the captain still firmly at it head. That perception, however, was shattered when the Rebbe uttered the following words:
How is that ten Jews can gather together and, notwithstanding everything that has been done, we have not brought Mashiach? It’s utterly incomprehensible.
Then people offer their explanations, and ask yet another question. There is another farbrengen, which obviously is written down, and the assiduous students remember everything that is written; but then it just sits there. But the thought is deemed acceptable, G-d forbid, that Mashiach won’t come tonight, or tomorrow, or the next day.
You cry out for Mashiach, and you follow my instructions to do so, but if you really meant it sincerely there is no doubt that Mashiach would have come a long time ago, with the true and complete Redemption.
What more I can do, I don’t know. Because everything I’ve done until now has been futile and ineffective. Nothing has come of it. We have remained in exile, and what is worse, our worship suffers from an ingrained exile mentality, as I have stated on a number of occasions.
The only thing I can do is to hand this over to each one of you: Do everything you can to bring Mashiach! 111
The sense of frustration and resignation in the Rebbe’s words, even in print, is palpable. From that evening, until the Rebbe’s eventual passing three years later, Chabad remained haunted by the sermon. The Rebbe doesn’t know what to do? Everything has been futile and ineffective? He has resigned the matter into our hands? Such thoughts were unprecedented and absolutely shocking.112
Desperately seeking some unexplored angle, some Chasidim decided to revisit the idea which had provoked the Rebbe’s ire seven years earlier. Maybe things were different now? Maybe Mashiach was so close that it was acceptable to now broadcast whom they imagined him to be?
But at a farbrengen later in 1991, the scenario from 1984 repeated itself. After some of the participants chanted the same song in the Rebbe’s presence intimating him as the Messiah, he reacted critically
“It’s absurd that you should sing this song, with these words, while I sit here by the table. The truth is, I should have walked out.”113
In written communications from the period, the Rebbe was even more reprimanding. To the editors of Kfar Chabad magazine, who proposed to publish an article speculating about the identity of Mashiach, the Rebbe wrote, on 30th April 1991: “If you will, G-d forbid, do anything resembling this, it would be better to close down the magazine completely.”114
To another author, who wished to publish a treatise on identifying Mashiach, the Rebbe wrote on 17th February 1992: “I have already responded to you that articles such as these alienate many people from the study of Chasidut, reversing efforts to disseminate it to broader audiences.”115
His position was consistent with the 1968 letter: If we can only be sure of Mashiach’s identity after the Temple has been built and the Jewish people are living in Israel, as Maimonides rules, then what would be the point in discussing his identity before then? If one person is alienated from Chasidut, a necessary tool to bring the Redemption, we have thwarted our intentions.
What, then, did the Rebbe hope to achieve with his stirring 1991 address? Two weeks later, as the question of what to do next continued to burn, the Rebbe proposed what he deemed to be the most straightforward way to bring the Redemption: to study about it. He simply recommended people to absorb discussions of the topic from the Scriptures, Talmud, Zohar and teachings of the Chabad Rebbes.116 It was far from radical, but consistent with his message all along: We need to elevate the way we think. We need to hone our intuition.
Miller paints a broad picture of the Rebbe’s exposure to Western society and involvement in academia:
one recollection which has reached us from this period, Menachem Mendel was remembered as sitting backwards in a swivel chair speaking for hours to his wife about Russian literature.12 In another, he was spotted in the afternoon, still adorned in tefilin, studying the Jerusalem Talmud.13 So, from the limited information available, we get a picture of an exceptional mind, immersed day and night in the pursuit of wisdom. In fact, that very year, 1928, at Menachem Mendel’s wedding, Rayatz would publicly laud his new son-in-law as always being awake at four in the morning. “Either he has not yet gone to sleep,” Rayatz told his guests, “or he is already awake for the day.”14
On what basis did Menachem Mendel conduct these investigations into the greater wisdom and culture of Western Civilization? Jewish Law, which according to all accounts the future Rebbe observed punctiliously, is generally discouraging of such pursuits.15 Chabad Chasidic thought makes an even stronger case against secular study, which is seen as having a contaminating effect on the soul.
With the wisdom of the nations, a person defiles the intellectual faculties of inquiry (chochmah), cognition (binah) and discernment (da’at) in his Divine Soul with the contamination of the negative energy (kelipat nogah) contained in this wisdom (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Likutei Amarim, Tanya, end of chap. 8).
The Talmud does offer numerous sanctions to study secular wisdom, but they all have a common thread: there must be an obvious, pressing need for the study—either to earn a living, or to clarify a point of law, or to defend Judaism from its critics, etc.16 Nowhere do we find that normative halacha condones secular study out of plain curiosity, or to understand the culture, or to become generally more knowledgeable. The study must somehow be in the direct service of Torah.
In a 1949 letter,17 the future Seventh Rebbe offers the bold suggestion that, in exceptional cases, the study of secular wisdom without any immediately foreseeable Torah application is permitted. The proof, he argues, is from the above mentioned passage of Tanya, where the author cites Maimonides and Nachmanides as a Rabbinic precedent of scholars who immersed themselves in secular wisdom in a permissible manner.
Unless he employs [this wisdom] as a useful instrument, i.e., as a means of a more affluent livelihood to be able to serve G-d, or he 63 New Beginnings 1928 knows how to apply them in the service of G-d and His Torah. This is the reason why Maimonides and Nachmanides, of blessed memory, and their adherents, engaged in them (Tanya ibid.).
What is curious, the Rebbe asks, is why the Tanya cites the comparatively late cases of Maimonides and Nachmanides, when there are many earlier, more authoritative proofs from the Talmud itself? Apparently, the Tanya’s author deemed these later cases to convey an allowance for secular studies that goes beyond that which the Talmud and earlier codes explicitly condone.
In what way did these two medieval scholars, Maimonides and Nachmanides, absorb secular wisdom which their forebears did not? By Maimonides’ own testimony, he studied medicine when there was no immediate need for it, since his brother supported him financially.18 Only when his brother later died in a tragic accident was Maimonides forced to use his knowledge to earn a living. Nachmanides’ life is also replete with examples of secular study which had no immediately pressing justification.
So, concluded the Rebbe, while Judaism does not condone the pursuit of secular wisdom for the sake of curiosity alone, there is room for secular study that has no pressing need—provided that the individual is realistically confident that he will “apply them in the service of G-d and His Torah” at some later point in time. This was the Tanya’s point in citing the practical cases of Maimonides and Nachmanides rather than merely referring to the Talmud and the Codes: these two Rabbis both immersed themselves in secular study when there was no pressing need for it, and only discovered what the application might be “in the service of G-d and His Torah” later in life. If these guidelines are adhered to, the Tanya assures us, the contaminating effects of secular wisdom will be avoided.19
The argument here is subtle, but the ramifications are huge. If the need for secular study can be retroactively unraveled at a later point, then Menachem Mendel’s years of general secular engagement can be understood, according to his own insight, as consistent with the views of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, author of Tanya and founder of Chabad. There is no doubt that, in his later life, Menachem Mendel Schneerson made outstanding use of secular wisdom “in the service of G-d and His Torah.” Countless individuals have cited their encounters with the Seventh Rebbe as personally transformative because the notion of a Chasidic Rebbe knowledgeable of the culture and Western thought shattered their preconceptions about the relevance of “old-school” values in the new world. The Rebbe spoke to the most secularly educated people about Judaism in terms that would be meaningful to them, often drawing analogies and precedents from their particular field of interest and expertise. In hundreds of talks and letters, the Rebbe also suggested Torah lessons we might learn from current events, scientific developments and other secular themes. Regardless of whether, in 1928, Menachem Mendel was aware how exactly he would use his broader secular wisdom in the future for the sake of “Torah and worship,” his general commitment to do so was in itself sufficient to render it a sacred enterprise.20
Besides seeking a vocation and acquiring general wisdom that would be of value in the future, if we consider the times in which Menachem Mendel lived, there might have been a third element to his decision. From around 1880 onwards, Chasidic courts had been in decline and, especially in Russia, there had been a huge disenfranchisement of Chasidic youth. Communism, Zionism and rapid scientific developments had captivated the minds of the younger generation. A significant percentage of the Seventh Rebbe’s huge correspondence over forty years falls under the category of “guiding the perplexed,” responding to philosophical and otherwise critical questions about Judaism and its contemporary relevance in a modern age. Obviously, his responses to these issues did not dawn on him overnight and they were the result of prolonged personal inquiry. It is likely that, at the very outset of his academic pursuits, Menachem Mendel saw an extended period in university as an opportunity to reflect on the issues that were troubling young Jews and to come up with coherent, unapologetic solutions. Menachem Mendel wanted to purvey a Judaism that, while motivated by mesiras nefesh (utter devotion) and faith, was nevertheless intelligent and stood up to critical scrutiny. Even if this was not his own primary motivation,21 it was definitely something which his generation needed, both in Russia and later in the United States.
Why Berlin? Now in possession of a passport and the ability to travel relatively freely in Europe, he found many opportunities available to him. Of the major centers, Paris, London and Berlin, the third was by far the nearest, only a one- or two day’s train journey away through Latvia and Poland, and posed the least language barrier, due to the similarities 65 New Beginnings 1928 between Yiddish and German. Rayatz had ties with leading Rabbis in Germany which would prove to be useful connections to gain admission to the university. Berlin was also an extremely strong center for physics, which formed the core of Menachem Mendel’s interests.
Rayatz’s reaction to Mendel’s enrollment in Berlin University is difficult to completely fathom in the absence of any clear documentation. We know that, like his father, Rashab, Rayatz publicly opposed secular study for his followers; but we also know that he was impressed by Menachem Mendel’s general knowledge and that he paid for his son-in-law’s years of university study out of his personal funds.22 While this indicates that Rayatz was generally supportive, it is not clear whether attendance in university at this point was Rayatz’s own idea, or something to which he merely consented. Menachem Mendel was already versed in secular wisdom before he met Rayatz, and this does not appear to be a facet of his personality that the Sixth Rebbe personally nurtured. On an emotional level, there may also have been some fear associated with sending his young, newly married daughter off to a European metropolis—fears that definitely mounted with the rise of Nazism. Ultimately though, when Menachem Mendel finally graduated, Rayatz penned a very positive letter celebrating his son-in-law’s achievements,23 and the Sixth Rebbe certainly made good use of his young scholar for numerous assignments in Europe, and later, to build Chabad in America.
And lastly, Miller conveys the Rebbe’s opinion on academic bias, the drawbacks of secular wisdom and a taste of the Rebbe’s stance on Scientorah issues.
‘The nations possess wisdom’—believe them; ‘The nations have Torah’—do not believe them’” (Eichah Rabah 2:13), the Rebbe suggested,
The reason why Torah is given its name, which means hora’ah (direction)—even though in many types of wisdom we seem to find direction—is because the directives implicit in these forms of wisdom are essentially theoretical (that, in principle, a person should behave in a certain way), but they are not personalized directives, since they have no impact on the person. Only Torah, which exerts an actual influence on the person (enabling him to choose something which is at odds with his nature), offers genuine direction.19
Without the guiding light of the Torah, he argued, we are prisoners of our own ego. A human being is intrinsically unable, even with elevated forms of wisdom, to choose something which is against his nature or self-interest. The Seventh Rebbe felt that the professors at Berlin University (and later in Paris) were a case in point. They represented the peak of human intellectual achievement, and yet when an issue arose in their personal lives that required “a moderation of their natural inclinations” they were profoundly “subjective and unscientific.”
Another instance where the Rebbe made direct reference to German academics whom he knew personally was in regard to the early pioneers of Biblical criticism, in a 1964 letter.
I trust you know where and by whom Bible criticism originated, and that their criticism was not motivated by pure scholarship. Of course, I am certain that your professors do not share the motivations of the originators of Bible criticism, but, after all, it is not a question of the personality of the teacher, but rather of the approach of the system and ideology. The fact is that in all fields of art and creativity, it is inevitable that the artist’s character and sentiments should be expressed in some way in his artistic work, whether it be painting, sculpture or philosophy. It is well known that, insofar as Bible criticism is concerned, it expressed the character and prejudices of those who gave birth to this school, and who have expanded it, and it was their disciples and followers who brought about the terrible Holocaust against the People of the Book only a few years ago.
You need not be taken aback by this harsh expression, which, as already mentioned does not intend, G-d forbid, to cast any personal
reflection upon those who are your teachers at present, especially as I do not even know them, and we are duty-bound to judge everyone in the scale of merit. However, I happened to have lived in Germany for a number of years, and I have had occasion to meet with and talk to the disciples of the disciples of the founders of the Bible criticism, including Jewish followers of this school, and I have seen the spiritual devastation which it has caused.20
Here again we see a certain disillusionment with academic claims to objectivity. All humans—professors included—have motives, and personal bias may significantly influence what is ostensibly presented as an objective study.
From these few glimpses, we get a sense that the young Menachem Mendel was hungry for truth and engaged personally with a wide range of scholars; but he was suspicious of claims to objective detachment, especially in areas relating to moral choice or issues that touched upon the received wisdom of the Jewish religion. Of course, areas where Judaism clashed overtly with science would have easily caught the future Rebbe’s attention. When studying astronomy in 1929, if not before, he would have been troubled by the Copernican depiction of the sun at the center of the solar system, with all the planets orbiting around it, vis-a-vis the Torah’s assertion (later echoed by Ptolemy) that “the earth stands forever.”21
A pathway to solve to such issues, which have perplexed many in the religious world, was reached by Menachem Mendel through an insight penned by his philosophy professor, Hans Reichenbach. Reichenbach had majored in philosophy, but as a practicing engineer and physicist, he was well suited to examining the philosophical implication of theoretical physics.22
Menachem Mendel was clearly impressed by Reichenbach’s argument on this subject, as he repeated it in numerous letters to scientists and other intellectuals who were perplexed by the notion of a solar orbit and found it a point of departure from observant Judaism.23 In one striking example from the summer of 1975, a secular Jew who was disturbed by geocentrism argued with Chabad Rabbi Feivel Rimmler that the Rebbe himself, a college-educated man, must surely have rejected this outdated belief.
These are just small helpings of the masterful biography Chaim Miller has created.
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