“I am not enthusiastic if someone says he is ‘committed’ to Chabad. I prefer inspiration, not commitment.”
—The Lubavitcher Rebbe
In a recently published account of personal meetings between the Rebbe and a London businessman, the Rebbe strongly advised him against a certain consideration. As he did so, the Rebbe said, “No one is trying to force you. We try to persuade that it is best for you. You have no need to use the term compulsion. Don’t force your will . . .”
The question was one of immediate practical concern to the individual, and the Rebbe was unequivocal about the appropriate course of action. But in his response, the Rebbe made plain his preference that the individual act of his own volition rather than out of commitment or compulsion to the Rebbe’s position.
Parents, teachers or leaders may speak of trust in their charges to make the right choices, but that trust is sorely tested against the fear that they may choose wrong. Invariably, most forgive themselves a bit of coercion to secure the results they want. Yet in a lifetime of correspondence with a wide variety of Jewish people, the Rebbe consistently proved his confidence that the individual, no matter how thin his or her knowledge, will freely choose in the spirit of Jewish values if given the correct information.
It may seem a naÃ¯ve trust, but then the Rebbe could hardly afford to be naÃ¯ve in matters bearing directly on issues of Jewish life and continuity. What, one wonders, was the Rebbe relying on when he insisted, in speaking to those who sought his counsel, that they do not force their will to do what is right?
In his last formal, scholarly distribution, the Rebbe answers this question with a meditation on the faith of the Jew. The Chasidic discourse, recently published in English translation under the title Nurturing Faith, considers the phenomenon of the alienated Jew who, when squeezed in a moment of existential threat, responds with uncharacteristic fidelity to his or her Jewish identity. The Rebbe locates the faith of the Jew in this moment of crisis—a faith that becomes plainly apparent in its transcendent energy.
Stirring and moving as it is, the Rebbe searches deeper. With penetrating eyes he peels away additional layers and uncovers an alternative kind of faith, a faith that is not situated in crisis, but resides rather in one’s own center, and is the impetus that propels the individual to ever higher aspirations.
The discourse is deep and complex, a scholarly and contemplative work that has been studied in great depth for more than a decade now. But to the Rebbe, who saw the entire range of Judaism—from the mystical secrets of the kabbalah to the cry of a thirsty child—as part of one organic whole, these delicate ideas found their immediate application in the lived life, and were exquisitely vivid in his interaction with others. In each individual he met, he saw as real the faith we idealize, and responded to it with an immediacy we generally reserve for proven facts.
Many leaders seek results—and some even get them—by the sheer force of their presence. Not a few have been known to exert a measure of compulsion or coercion for the certainty of a desired outcome. But the Rebbe saw the faith of the individual as the most authentic, most potent propeller of human goodness and noble aspirations. Maybe that is why he could be so bold and yet so gentle, so kind and yet so resolute, as to have told the gentleman from London not to force his will.
As we mark the 11th year of the Rebbe’s passing and wonder at the continued motion of his activities, we finally begin, or hope to begin, to understand.