Some people wonder what it means to be accepting, especially in a frum community. Don’t we have standards and beliefs that we need to defend and maintain in our community?
Here is my take: To me, it simply means not walking around trying to fix people. I simply don’t try to fix people, I’ve been focused on stopping to do that. I think moving away from religion for a minute will help clarify this.
Here’s a real life example: Last night, I came home and after speaking to my wife asked her if she paid our library fines that I had asked her to do and that we really need to do so that it doesn’t affect our credit.
She told me that she went to the library but that no one was able to help her pay at their new electronic kiosks and that Lev was going crazy and pulling all the books of the shelves (he does this at home A LOT).
Right away, I tried to fix the situation and to fix her in a sense. I said, “Well, why couldn’t you just wait till someone could help you? Maybe you could have given Lev a bottle, and maybe do that next time? I know it’s hard for you but we really need to do this and I’m in school all day and get back only after the library closes and WE REALLY NEED TO DO THIS!”
That didn’t go over so well. I went outside and reflected on this exchange as I often do when things don’t go as I planned, in order to learn from it.
Here is what I discovered: I was trying to fix her, my own wife! Wow. Isn’t that crazy? I wasn’t listening at all. I was only listening to get my turn to talk to point out HOW MUCH THIS NEEDS TO BE DONE and why can’t she just do this one thing …blah blah blah….
Instead I came back and said, “Ok tell me again what happened, and this time I’m actually listening.” And I discovered that my wife had had a bit of a tough day, had spent an hour in the library trying to do this, even though she has work and school deadlines coming up, then had gone to a Jewish store to buy Lev shoes where the customer service was epicly bad, legendarily so.
And I thought, wow there is so much going on here. And I was just present and available to her, to see her as she is, not as I want her to be.
And that is acceptance to me. You know something, it’s so crazy how we behave sometimes. I go to shul without a kappote sometimes and without a tallis sometimes (for various reasons) on Shabbas. And so many people will see me in shul shabbas morning learning, and try to fix me, either by giving me a wierd vibe, look or even saying something in a half joking way. They are totally not present to me, they are trying to fix me and correct me, set me on the right path. And it is so unreal, so inauthentic, so lacking in any sort of genuine camaraderie.
Maybe they think they can really fix me, maybe they feel a religious obligation to fix me, maybe they think they’re just helping me overcome what they see as apathy or laziness and its not a big deal, maybe they feel like by fixing me they can feel better about themselves, maybe its easier to fix others than it is to fix yourselves – but one thing I know: IT HAS TO GO.
There is a place to help others overcome obstacles in their life. I personally have almost never seen it happen in a authentic healthy way, the rare exceptions are a few farbrengens I was privileged to take part in with shofar graduates who really REALLY did not think that my doing things wrongly makes ME wrong in any way. They truly saw me as I am without any need to fix or correct me. Instead they heard me say what I was struggling with, and offered me ideas and experiences from their life that resonate to what I was going through. And just that raw authenticity of sharing where they struggle with this and what they’ve done was incredibly transformative. And by the by, they shared of themselves with literally no idea or expectation that it would help me, nor did they think they knew something I didn’t, nor did they think they had mastered this.
The irony is that if frum people stopped trying to fix other frum people, there would be much less need to fix anyone!
Have a great shabbas you all
Last summer, I was exploring different types of online education for Jewish kids. As part of that exploration, I created Khan-Academy-style videos on Chumash – website here.
Although I am not involved in this anymore, I am still always thinking about how to create a system of Jewish day school that actually is functional and affordable so if you have kids, please show them these videos and get their feedback .
That is all
Chapter 1 of Shemos Overview – here.
Chapter 1 of Shemos, verses 1 through 10 – here.
Chapter 1 of Shemos, verses 10 through 13 – here.
Chapter 1 of Shemos, verses 13 to the end of the chapter – here.
New words in Chapter 1 of Shemos – here.
P.S. If you find my pace a bit slow, that’s because I had 10 year olds in mind. However, with the wonders of YouTube, you can just click on 2x speed, and my pace will become as if I were speaking to an adult!
P.P.S. Here is a video I made describing the vision of this project – here.
Why is it important that my soul is a piece of God (Godness) and not merely godliness?
The answer is that I would then be defined by my bad actions, at least temporarily.
Godliness is an expression of God. Therefore if my soul was godliness it would not be able to exist or assert itself when I’m acting in ways that do not express God. When I do a sin, my soul would flee and be absent since it stems from a reality of open connection to God (godliness) and cannot exist in a place of opposition to God.
Precisely because my soul comes from God Himself and is Godness, can I do sinful actions and remain constantly connected to God and therefore never lose my core identity of goodness and beauty. God can exist even in darkness, even in places and actions that oppose him. Since to God, darkness and light, evil and good are equally close and far from him.
Tanya asks why there is any hierarchy if we all have the same depth of soul?
The answer is that indeed there is no real hierarchy of value or importance. What then is a leader, a Rebbe?
A Rebbe is Berry Schwartz. Berry Schwartz as he would be if Berry Schwartz was actively living and expressing in every moment the deepest core level of his soul. A Rebbe is a Yechida in motion.
The Rebbe Rayatz was in Warsaw when it was being bombed by the Germans. He took shelter in a basement with hundreds of other Jews. All of a sudden, BOOM! A bomb fell on the house next door. All the people cried out together, “Shema Yisroel” with intense devotion.
The Rebbe remarked later that at that moment all the people’s souls were expressing themselves on a level of essence (yechida) and therefore he was the same as everyone else.
This is quite ironic.
Non-Hasidim perceive no existential (i.e. it is a diff in degree not in kind) gap between their leaders and themselves but don’t believe in the equality of core identity among Jews (though that is changing). Hassidim, contrarily, do believe in the equality of core identity but also perceive an existential gap between themselves and their Rebbe.
Why would I honor a Torah scholar more than a water carrier or a stock trader? They’re both equally vital to God, the world and the purpose of existence. They both have a mission to do on this world.
To claim that by learning Torah, I become more valuable or significant is a decidedly non-Hasidic notion based on the idea that actions define our worth since there is no essential core identity called a Godly soul.
Honest Disclosure: I feel strongly about this and am letting my feelings come in to my head. Therefore there is a very good chance I won’t really listen to what you say. Instead, while I’m reading your response or comment, I’ll probably be thinking all the while how to respond and reaffirm my position. But please don’t let that stop you writing to me; my commitment to you is to not allow this natural tendency to stop me from listening to you as hard as I can.
The statements we tell ourselves about ourselves have power.
Our words are more powerful than we imagine.
Our words can call forth new realities and possibilities.
Jewish essentialism [a.k.a. as chassidus] states this with conviction and force.
When we tell someone they are wise or smart, we literally call forth in them a new possibility of wisdom or intelligence.
This is so shocking I need to repeat it.
The words we call other people actually shape them and bring out the quality we are calling them by.
This is why G-d is called by ten names or qualities before he created the World [what are known as the hidden sefirot, the sefirot genuzot] even though he was simple and undefined before he assumed he role of Creator. Because in order to bring about the quality of creative power [the 1rst sefirah of chochma] He needed to be called by this name so that he can bring forth His creative power.
Hey, if it works on G-d it can work on us.
Science has weighed in as well with the famous IQ experiment also known as the Pygmalion effect.
The idea was to figure out what would happen if teachers were told that certain kids in their class were destined to succeed.
He chose from every class several children totally at random. There was nothing at all to distinguish these kids from the other kids, but he told their teachers that the test predicted the kids were on the verge of an intense intellectual bloom. As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations of these kids really did affect the students. “If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ,” he says.
This is such a powerful game changer once you really really get this and discover it in a vivid experiential way.
Yesterday I got up late and missed my morning run. Usually this would really get me down and make me feel lazy or out of control which often leads to me thinking I’m a lazy person, unwilling to do the hard work. Well, you can see where this is going. Starting the day thinking, or even fighting not to think (!) that I’m lazy literally makes me lazy that day. Or it makes me very driven from an unhealthy place, a place of neediness, a place of having to prove that I’m really not lazy. Either way I rob myself of the real power and energy and creativity I can bring to my day.
But then, something amazing happened. I decided to really not go there. To really allow for the fact that I missed my run and woke up late and that that’s all there is to it. I’m not lazy, I’m not unwilling to do the hard work. All that actually happened is that I got up 90 minutes past when I set my alarm. So all that baggage that would have run my day vanished; was gone. I simply decided that I wasn’t lazy, that I didn’t need to prove my work ethic to anyone. And just like that, my day took on a whole new vibrancy and I went out into the world as a me, without anything else riding on my shoulders. And amazing things happened.
But here’s the thing. You really can’t fake it. You’ve got to really commit to your word, to the story you tell yourself about yourself.
So now you have a choice. Right now; this very moment is pulsating with incredible potential and possibility.
You can close the tab you’re reading this article on and continue being how ya be.
Or you can call yourself and relate to yourself as a powerful unstoppable holy beautiful and wise person, a force of nature, a force to be reckoned with.
And all you need to access this is to fully embrace this identity and call it forth from yourself by the power of your word and mind.
There is always choice. We can argue all day about whether mental illness takes away our choice or not. But the real conversation is whether you and I have choice or not. Anything else is a smokescreen.
Choose how you want to feel and feel it.
Choose how you want to be and be it.
Ve’idach pirusha hie, the rest is commentary.
OVERVIEW: In this essay, I review a recent chinuch seminar I attended and present what is good and bad about the current state of Jewish education. I also propose some suggestions for improving the system.
Incredibly, it appears that there is only one organization actively trying to create a curriculum in teaching chumash and gemara: the Menachem Foundation. I recently attended part of their two day seminar on teaching chumash.
I was impressed and excited about some of the stuff they’re doing but also frustrated and hungry for more.
What I liked most was that they represent a turn towards tools and skills rather than just content memorization. I.e. giving the teacher’s an awareness that, although learning parshas bo is important and holy, the primary goal as a teacher is to give the student tools so that he can become free from the teacher and learn on his own.
To do this, the presenter gave several tools for teachers to focus on.
2) Prefixes and Suffixes
3) Verb conjugation
4) Understanding the stop signs in the trop
5) Extracting a summary or main idea from a cluster of pesukim.
6) And more
They had a workbook with examples from each of these tools and the presentation was professional and engaging – accessible here (this is an early sample, not what was presented at the conference): http://mymef.org/assets/Zekelman-Standards.pdf?rs_file_key=136562612451dd6e892bf9b427255123
I was very impressed at the step forward they represent.
WHAT NEEDS WORK
What I didn’t like was that no actual process was given for teaching these standards properly.
In other words, the curriculum is being given sharper focus and a clearer understanding of the goals of the teacher is emerging from the program, but how do teachers actually present shorashim in a way that engages the kids. How does a teacher present verb conjugation, a topic that would bore most adults to tears let alone kids, in a way that the kids can take ownership and even interest?
Kids will not learn until they are ready. I sat through 7 years of chumash classes and ignored every single word. In 7th grade, I took an interest in chumash, spent 3 months reading books and learnt how to read a pasuk. Many of my friends had similar, if not as extreme, experiences.
On the other hand, the kid must be taught text, they must be able to decode the hebrew to become flourishing Torah learners.
What to do?
One thing to do would be to create pockets of creative thinking and student-led projects in the midst of all this hyper-obsession with the text.
I.e. the teacher could read pesukim with the class and focus on pinpointing the shorashim in the pasuk for 40 minutes, then give the students a problem in the text that mefarshim bring up and let them think and debate what the resolution is.
The teacher could even give out mefarshim, in english of course as the kids don’t know hebrew yet, and have the kids debate which answer is best, i.e. most logical or fits the pasuk the best. Already at 6, 7 and definitely 8 years old, kids take to this like a frog to water. They crave engagement and being able to think about things, instead of sitting in one place for hours (something most adults I know cannot do) and being presented with a top-down passive role in their education.
Another very helpful thing would be to give the students real ownership over these tools for decoding text.
The teacher could split the class into 5 groups of 5 (assuming 25 kids as per Rava’s maximum suggested amount, See Baba Basra 22a) and teach one kid from each group shorashim for the next perek, one kid from each group verb forms for that perek, one kid from each group the summary of the perek, and have each kid teach what he knows to the group. This allows for incredible leadership and active learning by the presenter. It also opens up the other kids to more questions and critical thinking as they feel freer to ask from a fellow student, do not need to raise their hand, and each group only has 5 kids.
Lest you think this is innovative, I have news for you. This was done in the first schools in ancient Israel in the times of the tannaim. A tanna used to teach 1 kid bereishis, one kid shemos, one kid vayikra, one kid bamidbar and one kid devarim. He would then have each kid teach the other what he knows. #bringbackthegoodolemontossoridays.
וסליקנא למתא ומקרינא חמשה ינוקי בחמשה חומשי ומתנינא שיתא ינוקי שיתא סדרי ואמרנא להו עד דהדרנא ואתינא אקרו אהדדי ואתנו אהדדי ועבדי לה לתורה דלא תשתכח מישראל היינו דאמר רבי כמה גדולים מעשי חייא אמר ליה ר’ ישמעאל בר’ יוסי אפי’ ממר אמר ליה אין אפי’ מאבא
I went to a town [which contained no teachers] and taught the five books to five children, and the six orders [of the Talmud] to six children. And I bade them: “Until I return, teach each other the Pentateuch and the Mishnah;” and thus I preserved the Torah from being forgotten in Israel.’ This is what Rabbi [meant when he] said, ‘How great are the works of Hiyya!’ Said R. Ishmael son of R. Jose to him, ‘[Are they] even [greater] than yours?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘And even than my father’s.’ – Baba Metziya 85b.
In general, the mistake I feel many people keep making is that they are conflating textual skills with content skills.
If the goal is to have kids be able to read and decode hebrew to allow for independent learning of chumash, then why only use the chumash for this? Why not have them decode an interesting novel in hebrew?
Goals must be clear.
There is limmud hatorah, the mitzvah of learning Torah as a holy exercise of devotion to G-d and then there is yidiyas hatorah, the value of knowing and comprehending Torah. When we conflate them, each one can suffer at the expense of the other.
If a kid is having difficulty with grasping the prefixes of verbs, give him a page of instructions to find a prize in the school. When he wants that candy, he’ll need to know if babayit means inside the house or towards the house; he’ll figure it out. Ve’kaheina rabbos (etc…)
We need to delink acquiring hebrew textual skills from the chumash if the conflation is preventing some kids from acquisition of hebrew skills or if the focus on analysis and comprehension strictly via a pasuk is blocking kids from engaging in analysis and creative thinking.
Ideally the two become one at some point and the text does not block comprehension but that is not the case in the beginning.
Although this is really a topic of its own, allow me to touch on it briefly. Right now, content memorization is slowly going to give way to skills and standards but skills themselves should eventually give way to values.
What is the core value of Jewish education? More specifically, what character traits and values can we expect to nurture in a 5 year old? An 8 year old? A 10 year old? The obvious caveat is that each child is different but of course, we are speaking of general standards that can then be tweaked for each individual child.
The end product of a Jewish education should be a kid who enjoys learning Torah, who takes pleasure in it.
The end product of a Chassidish education should be a kid who takes pleasure in Godliness, in holiness, in eidelkiet.
But there is a gradual build up.
A 5 year old should be taught to take pleasure in being neat and orderly, to be clean.
A 7 or 8 year old should take pleasure in not wasting time.
A 10 or 11 year old should begin taking pleasure and enjoying understanding something, in comprehension of nuances.
The Rayatz delineates some of these things in his Klalei Hachinuch Veha’hadracha.
We need to get clearer on these values and on the methods of how to inculcate them in our kids.
Without clarity on values, skills and content will improperly take precedence. For example, if a 7 year old should begin taking pleasure in guarding his time, when a teacher holds the class into recess time by two minutes to finish the pasuk, he is sabotoging this value. He is placing content over values, or Torah over derech eretz, if you like.
By not taking the chunks of time in the schedule with the utmost gravity, by not taking the kids’ time seriously, he is sending a message and attitude that time is not ironclad, it is flexible, you can push things off and not take the task of the moment too seriously.
The Rebbe’s implicit expectation of a five year old was a seriously creative and immersive thinking experience for Chumash and Rashi. Much of the Rebbe’s methodology 1)
An example that will serve our purposes is the word pilegesh, which Rashi does not comment on the first time it appears in vayera [Bereishit 22:24], apparently feeling that the word is understood simply. Yet, upon its second showing in chayei sara[Bereishit 25:6], Rashi here feels the need to explain what a pilegesh is, saying nashim bekesuvah, pilagshim belo kesuvah?!
Having the kids exposed to repeated demands for thoroughness and consistency is a fantastic way to get those creative juices flowing and making them active learners and not passive receivers. The tool the Menachem Foundation talked the least about but that I was most excited about was getting kids to become aware of and ask about any inconsistencies in the rules of hebrew they have learnt.
Another example 2)
To a great degree, proper and rigorous chumash creative thinking skills are the best preparation for Gemara.
Some teachers simply do not know how to control a class or keep their interest. Keeping 25 kids, ages 5-9, sitting in one place, completely silent while being passive learners, looking at etymology of hebrew words is excruciatingly hard, (some would say, a losing proposition which is why I’m such a fan of montessori) and the curriculum did not talk about this at all. I heard some teachers in the back saying how nice everything looks on screen but that when they have one kid fighting with another, two kids talking in the corner etc….they don’t know how to be so mindful and thoughtful with these standards in class. Besides the need for a great curriculum i.e. what to teach, how to teach should be emphasized just as much, if not more.
Another serious issue is that learning disabilities, particularly dyslexia which hits kids struggling with hebrew especially hard, was not mentioned. 1 in 5 kids have dyslexia and alternative pathways need to be formed. Having student-led learning would, in large part, take care of this as students could focus on what interests them, and passion cures all ills, but failing that, real alternatives must be thought about. My wife is a dyslexia consultant (elishevaschwartz.com) - call her, what are you waiting for!?
Overall I think they are doing great work and it gave me some food for thought on the high-school Gemara curriculum I am working on.
Will the real Rebbe please stand up? 1,418 pages have been published on the Rebbe in the last month and yet, to some extent, the Rebbe remains as elusive as ever.
Who was the Rebbe really, truly?
Was he a man who saw beauty in this world, whose primary orientation was of engagement and integration?
Or was he a man who primarily saw the world as a place where Judaism stands distinct, where the division between the physical and the holy is robust and strong.
He didn’t quite fit into the Charedi camp but he didn’t either fit in the Modern Orthodox camp, or the Litvish, or even the Chassidic (was there any other Chassidic Rebbe, even non-Chabad, who went to university?).
He had a liberal vibe about some things and a conservative mindset about others.
He was very different than previous Chabad Rebbeim, and yet, his differences were not divisive ones; they seemed to be natural progressions of Chabad thought and doctrine.
He defied an easy labeling, a quick shorthand stereotype to help contextualize him . We all use, indeed must use, broad boxes to orient ourselves in this world, but the Rebbe, frustratingly, vexingly, incredibly, did not allow this boxing to be placed on him.
For example, dow do we understand that the Rebbe read Dick Tracy, Zorba the Greek, and Upton Sinclair?
[See Miller See Miller’s “The Rebbe; a biography”, page 219, 385,177 respectively.]
Many Lubavitchers are dumbfounded by this. To deal with this complexity they resort to a binary labeling: “The Rebbe only read these things in the bathroom.”
Maybe he did, but guess what, other Chassidic Rebbe’s managed without these bathroom readings.
Additionally, we simply don’t know where and when the Rebbe read, nor do I think its our business or even relevant.
Others see Tracy as only being a waypoint to good. I.e. the Rebbe only used it as a way to bring Jews back to religion.
You see, people who live in a binary world can only see bad and good. Dick Tracy = non-jewish person and comic book = bad = Rebbe could not have saw any value in it = he only read it in bathroom/only read it to impress people so he could bring them back to religion/only read it to understand the mindset of people who read Tracy so he could better convince them to come to religion etc….
Chassidim like this miss the point and reduce the Rebbe back to a system which he worked his entire life to deconstruct.
You want to know what I think? I think the Rebbe was a messianic person, I think he was behaving with the world as though it were redeemed already, as though the value in the physical, in the Dick Tracy’s and the Upclair’s and the value in physics and philosophy, was there already just waiting to be teased out and articulated.
I believe the Rebbe saw beauty in non-observant Jews and in gentiles, in people from all walks of life. I believe the Rebbe saw the world as a garden, as the title of his first and seminal Chassidic essay boldly states: basi legani – [God says:] Come to my garden [ the world].
The Rebbe defied the natural order of things. He didn’t buy into the division between the world and God, rather he saw the world as an affirmation of God, as a reality that danced in step with God’s tune, as he so often pointed out world events, like the fall of the Soviet Union that suggested a world resonating to God’s truth.
The Rebbe wanted girls on the cover of magazines for the youth. [Miller, p. 338]
Some Chassidim took the girls off the cover as they felt it inappropriate. Yet the Rebbe put it back on. Why?
What harm could there be in more seclusion, more chumrot, more segregation?
But to the Rebbe, there was something amiss in a world where girls cannot be on the cover of a Jewish youth magazine.
Here is the irony.
Some Chassidim, feeling that this characterizes the Rebbe falsely, will be pushed to say the Rebbe compromised the truth in order to draw people close.
Put simply, he lost battles to win the war as any great tactician must do.
I.e. to preserve the system they know, they are willing to say the Rebbe deviated from the pure truth.
Or as one Chassid told me, “You know the Rebbe from the colorful people, the BT’s, the people like your father, the interesting Lubavitchers etc…to those people the Rebbe presented Judaism bidi’eved, after the fact. Not optimal, not pure, only 75% truth.
I know the Rebbe from the black and white Jews, the traditional normal Chassidim. To those people the Rebbe spoke 100% truth.”
To me, not only is that disrespectful to the Rebbe’s integrity, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of who the Rebbe was a person, as well as what he stood for.
You see, the Rebbe, far from compromising on pure Torah or Chassidus, took Torah to its logical conclusion.
If God created the world and is the source of reality (ein od milvado), if there is divine providence (hashgacha pratis), if the intention is to find depth and value and beauty in the physical world (dira bi’tachtonim), then by God, lets do just that!
Let’s read Dick Tracy and study under Schrodinger, because there is nothing to fear; if you know how to look, the divine truth resonates from all places. Not as a concession, not as a way and means to get to somewhere else (e.g. using Tracy to sway Jews to religion), but as a valuable exercise in and of itself!
Now, there is a prerequisite, namely, one must know how to look and one must be so confident and integrated in their identity that they won’t be distracted by Tracy as Tracy, and instead will have the foresight and wisdom to read Tracy and see Godliness.
[The Rebbe also differed from Hirsh's Torah im Derekh Eretz in that the Rebbe believed the value of Tracy was placed there by Torah itself being that Torah is the blueprint from which the World was created. Thus the inclusivism opens from within the tradition, not without. A complex nuance for another time.]
Practically speaking, there may not be that much difference between the two. For even one who is not afraid of the world, and can read Tracy and see Godliness may choose to just marinate in the open and revealed channels of Godliness, i.e. the Torah. But there are times and moments that reveal the underlying worldview and that, in the final tally, really make a difference.
Here we come to great question. What parts of the Rebbe do we want to emulate and what parts do we say, “Oh, that? That’s not for us, that’s like a Rebbe thing.”
But to ask that is to not know the Rebbe at all. Because the Rebbe lived in an integrated world, he breathed for a time when all Jews will unsubscribe from the system in which, the world is in conflict with God. He yearned for a time when Jews will see value and beauty and holiness in the lowest of things. And he broke the binary system by showing us that we need not live by its rules.
It is true, that for now, in the pre-messianic stage, we must be careful of living so wildly and powerfully. We must keep our eyes on Torah, on the beis midrash, on mitzvos, but, as the Rebbe so eloquently put it in an essay from 1958:
To be in this world and not fall prey to its distractions, we must yearn to be invested exclusively in Torah. But when we do that, we can be within the world, stay within the world, and be above. We can redeem the beauty in this world, the holiness resting in every thing you see. We can proclaim God not just in the study hall and not just in 770.
We can even go to Manhattan and proclaim God’s truth on 5th Avenue and the world will be receptive. And ultimately, the mission, the goal, the whole point is that, Moshiach will come and we will go to 5th Avenue, and proclaim God’s truth right there, not as a way of bringing Jews to the study halls and prayer houses, but rather, to see the beauty of God reflected in 5th Avenue itself – a dirah bitachton, as the tachton remains a tachton.
And the Rebbe modeled this by living as a messianic person and finding the value in the world, not as a way of connecting to Torah, but as a way of nurturing the Godly resonance he saw in every single thing.
So break the binary system down. The Rebbe went to college, and loved all forms of secular wisdom, and loved people, and saw beauty where others only saw ugliness. And no, the Rebbe didn’t live such an inclusivist mindset because he saw it a means to draw Jews close, or because somehow he felt there a way to use the ideas of physics or engineering to connect to Torah or understand it better. He simply did not subscribe to the divide between God and this world, while at the same time remaining committed to Halacha with a steely resolute commitment.
And here it gets more complicated. I think he encouraged us to do the same, to start living messianically.
What that means, I haven’t quite figured out yet.
But, I’m excited for the journey.
Chabad has this curious phenomenon where they alternately get attacked for being too inclusivist or too exclusionary. Of course, this is nothing new, as the Jewish saying goes, “Anyone to the left of me is a heretic and anyone to the right of me is a fanatic.”
To wit: Chabad is sometimes criticized as being a happy-go-lucky, non-judgmental, touchy-feely brand of Judaism where everyone is accepted. Chabad is also sometimes criticized as being elitist, particularist, and disrespectful of Gentiles with the first chapter of Tanya often cited as prooftext that Chabad thought is offensive to Gentiles.
While I believe that the first chapter of Tanya is egregious misunderstood, one thing I know: Chabad is not the one seeking to use Gentiles as tools to bolster Jewish statistics as Zvi Zohar for the Hartman Institute, which prides itself on its inclusivist mentality, recently wrote:
“But Jewish continuity is not only a matter of quality. Numbers matter. Even if we do our best to maintain a high retention rate of born Jews, many will nevertheless leave us, given the general religious atmosphere prevalent in the United States. We must do our utmost to be warm and encouraging toward those seekers who, unhappy with their current religion, indicate interest in joining us.”
While Zohar writes about those Gentiles unhappy with their religion, I think that given the general tenor of those who push this agenda, and given the fact that a Gentile who is truly unhappy with his religion and actively seeks out Judaism, is ultimately embraced by Halacha and Orthodox practice, Zohar is really calling for, essentially, Jewish missionaries.
In doing so, the conservative, reform and more liberal parties that often push this agenda, demonstrate a lack of respect for Gentiles that Chabad itself does not.
Chabad believes, as do almost all Orthodox streams of Judaism, that Gentiles are perfectly fine, have a relationship with God, can even receive a portion in the world to come, and are not in need of “saving.”
Nigel Savage, president of Hazon, also wrote something similar recently (both articles are from the Forward):
“The word “evangelism” sits uneasily with Jewish people. We have been at the wrong end of it for too many centuries. Too many of our people have died at the hands of those who believed that their god and their religion was the only true way. But we entered the world as a proselytizing religion. Maimonides includes converting people to Judaism as one of the 613 mitzvot. I think that it is time for the Jewish community to start inviting people, publicly, to become Jewish.”
When we contemplate stereotypes, such as “the Orthodox don’t respect Gentiles and the progressive streams of Judaism do” we should be skeptical of this simplistic narrative. We should broaden the conversation and realize that, in many ways, the Orthodox demonstrate a profound respect and acceptance, conceptually and practically, for the “nations of the world.”
I applaud the drive to do good and be of service to the world; it just needs to be channeled in the right way. Seeking to convert Gentiles to the tribe is not one of the right ways.
Think that Gentiles are just fine as is? Think they need to become Jews? Let me know!
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.
Buy Turning Judaism Outwards here.
How can we tell who is the greatest righteous leader of the generation, the nasi?
I remember in my litvishe school, where I was hounded as the odd man out, the weird lubab, we would childishly argue:
“Reb Ahron Kotler (or just switch this any other Litvish gadol) was the greatest! He knew so much more Torah than your Rebbe!” I would hear all the time.
Of course, being in 5th grade, I would shoot back, “My Rebbe is so much greater than your Rosh Yeshivas!”
If only because there is literally no way to base this opinion on any facts. Its pure conjecture. I say this, you say that. We hit the wall.
But as far as I know, there is only one man who undertook the obligation of taking care of all Jews, whether they be Litvish, Chasseeeedish, Lubavitch, Modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative etc…whether they were black, yellow, red or white.
One man who lost sleep because some soldier on an army base in Greenland wrote to him that he didn’t have a shofar for Rosh Hashana, one man who sent messengers to some far-flung town in Australia in the middle of the night because he had just received a letter from a teenage girl that she doesn’t know how to light Shabbat candles, one man who spent money funding the magazines of groups opposed to him, one man who felt personally responsible for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of every single Jew.
I think we should honor the astonishing fact that the Rebbe took responsibility on his shoulders for the Jewish nation as a whole.
Does that mean he was the greatest tzaddik? No. Does it even matter whether he was the greatest? No. Is he still my Rebbe even if he wasn’t the greatest leader? Yes.
But he was willing to put himself on the line for every single Jew, no matter their level of religiosity or affiliation. To my knowledge no other leader has done that for quite some time. Let’s honor that.