“Menachem Mendel Schneerson is larger than life,” said Elliot Wolfson, a professor at NYU and scholar of Chasidism. “To speak of him is fraught with danger.”
And yet that’s precisely what a cadre of academics and scholars of Chasidic thought are attempting to do this week as they tackle a variety of themes related to the Rebbe and his legacy. Coming to NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, from as far as Australia, Israel and the U.K., the academics are presenting at a conference billed “Reaching for the Infinite, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Life, Teachings and Impact.”
A collaborative effort by Professor Lawrence Schiffman of NYU, Professor Naftali Loewenthal from the University of London and Professor Elliot Wolfson, the conference will examine the various facets of the Rebbe as scholar, mystic, leader and teacher. Sunday, the first day of the conference a panel of scholars explored the Rebbe’s contribution to traditional Jewish scholarship. Rabbi Chaim Rapoport of London, presented an in-depth analysis of the Rebbe’s methodological approach to Rashi, the 12th century foremost Biblical commentator.
Rapoport concluded that the Rebbe’s teachings had interest beyond the inner circle of Chabad study. “The last decade has witnessed a significant resurgence of interest in the Rebbe’s Torah among many other Jews.” Many who have published their own commentaries on Rashi “have adopted aspects of the Rebbe’s methodology,” he said.
Professor Schiffman gave an overview of the scope of the Rebbe’s scholarship, quantitatively—including texts from ancient, medieval and later periods, and in his employment of both traditional and modern methodology in parsing the words of these classical texts. Ephraim Kanarfogel of Yeshiva University followed the thread with further elaboration based on his own expertise as a scholar of Jewish texts of the high middle ages.
At a subsequent session, presenters looked at the Rebbe’s ideology, and the Chabad community, with, respectively, Professor Yitzchak Kraus of Bar Ilan University, and Stephanie Wellen Levine of Tufts University.
Professor Ada-Rapoport-Albert of the University of London looked at how the Rebbe opened the way for women to become vibrant members of Chabad life, empowering them as “channels” through which sanctity can be drawn into the world, a radical departure from the traditional model that paid women little notice.
The conference which runs through Tuesday, will continue with presentations on Chabad and the Rebbe vis-Ã -vis modernity, redemption and its relationship to the broader world, including non-Jewish society.
Anticipating the magnitude of the enterprise, Professor Wolfson suggested in his remarks, that the more one learns about the Rebbe, the more they understand how much more is yet to be known. Indeed, trying to get to know the Rebbe, he said, is ultimately an attempt of “Reaching for the Infinite.”