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Roundtable Repost: The Rebbes and How They Shaped Chabad

Chabad-Lubavitch traces its roots back to the last decades of the 18th century with its founding by Reb Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Many traditionalists within the Jewish community resisted R. Schneur Zalman’s boldness in introducing a new approach to Divine Service. But many more were drawn to his creative, spiritually empowering teachings. With his authorship of the Tanya, Chabad’s foundational text, the Alter Rebbe set an intellectually and experientially innovative Chasidic movement on a trajectory that would gain momentum, attracting Jews worldwide to a deepened spiritual engagement with Judaism.

Rabbi Dovid Olidort, Senior Editor of Kehot Publication Society and Rabbi Nochem Grunwald, Editor of the periodical Heichal HaBesht, participated in a roundtable discussion with the editor on the leadership and scholarship of the Chabad Rebbes over the course of the last 200 years, and how they have shaped Chabad-Lubavitch.

Baila Olidort: We generally accept the view that each Rebbe followed his predecessor’s teachings and that they were all dedicated to the continuity of Chabad as a discipline of Divine service. And yet, each Rebbe was distinct in personality, temperament and intellectual thrust. In some way, Chabad itself has evolved over the generations, no doubt as a result of the leadership of its respective Rebbes.

But it is also true that in Chabad we tend not to really engage in comparative studies of the Rebbes, their scholastic output and leadership styles. We rather think of the Rebbes in terms of their place along a continuum of Chabad’s  long history.

Dovid Olidort:  Chabad has shifted its focus at various points in its history, but its doctrine has not changed. It is true that in the works of our Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson), the Rebbes are generally regarded as “one leader.” But the idea of considering the distinctions between the Rebbes in terms of their personalities and their foci, that was something that the Frierdiker Rebbe (R. Yosef Yitzchak) himself observed. He described their personalities as corresponding to the different sefirot (emanations). The Alter Rebbe (AR), he said, corresponded to Chochma, his son Reb Dovber, the Mitteler Rebbe, to Binah, and the Tzemach Tzedek, Reb Menachem Mendel, to the sefirah of Daat and so forth.

And then our Rebbe drew distinctions in describing each one as corresponding to another one of the Ushpizin* of Sukkot. So while the Rebbes were all committed to advancing Chabad Chasidism as a pathway to Divine service, it is true that each one contributed to this differently. You need only peruse their correspondences and their writings and this becomes plainly evident.

The Rebbes themselves constantly referred to their predecessors, but they gave themselves a lot of liberty to chart their own path. Look at our Rebbe: on the one hand he saw himself as no more than an extension of the Frierdiker Rebbe, and yet his works do not really bear much resemblance to his father’s-in-law teachings. Compare a Sefer haSichos of the Frierdiker Rebbe to a Likuttei Sichos of the Rebbe. They are almost two distinct worlds. The Frierdiker Rebbe’s  Sefer haSichos are a collection of stories, inspirational thoughts and ruminations, with intermittent philosophical discussions delivered in free-style. The Rebbe’s Likuttei Sichos, by contrast, is text-based, analytical and Talmudic in style, constructed with argument, counter-argument and resolution.

If we wanted, in general terms, to lay out the differences, you might say that the Alter Rebbe (1745-1812) was the originator and innovator, the Mitteler Rebbe (1773-1827), the major expounder of Chabad and the one who dedicated himself to perpetuating Chabad as founded by his father; the Tzemach Tzedek (1789-1866), was the Rebbe who located Chabad’s ideas in classical Jewish sources; his son, Reb Shmuel, [the Maharash] (1834-1882) essentially carried on his father’s style, introducing a quality of boldness and fearlessness to the Chabad character; Reb Sholom DovBer  [the Rashab] (1860-1920), was a major innovator who culled from both the Mitteler Rebbe and the Tzemach Tzedek, but also gave new life to Chabad by establishing its flagship yeshiva; the Frierdiker Rebbe  (1880-1950) carried on his father’s legacy, but in the spirit of personal sacrifice, mesirut nefesh.

With our Rebbe, (1902-1994) the last in the dynasty of Chabad Rebbes, Chabad underwent a profound paradigm shift. The Rebbe reframed the focus and application of Chabad’s philosophy and ideology, interpreting its most esoteric teachings in a way that made them widely and personally relevant.

Nochem Grunwald: In some way, Chabad is all about characterization. You might say that’s one of the differences between Chabad and others who saw Chabad’s analysis of the sefirot as sacrilegious. Chabad’s view is, as Chazal say, Torah hi, v’lilmod ani tzorich. “It is Torah, and I need to study.” Same applies to this idea of scrutinizing the distinctions between the different Rebbes.

But it is worth remembering that the Alter Rebbe tried to preserve the balance between holiness and analytical knowledge. It is a tough balance to preserve because on the one hand, we believe that the Jew’s first obligation is to do what Torah demands. On the other hand, if you do that by rote, what then makes it Chabad? Chabad is, after all, an intellectual discipline that demands that we think analytically, and approach our avodat Hashem with intelligence, not blind observance.

BO: As the founder of Chabad, what was the AR’s leadership model?

NG: At first the Alter Rebbe saw himself only as a teacher. He was averse to the idea of himself as a “charismatic” Rebbe. (This was one of the key differences between Chabad and the other Chasidic masters of his time—”Polish Chasidim” as they are known in Chabad parlance). The Alter Rebbe did not see himself as the miracle worker or the inspirational conduit, the one who closes the gap between heaven and earth, or even the one who acts on behalf of the people. 

In his famous letter (that is printed in the Tanya), the Alter Rebbe presented himself as a teacher, a mentor or a guide to bring people—observant Jews—closer to G-d, and not a prophet. The famous Chasidic Master R. Shlomo Karliner, by contrast, a contemporary of the Alter Rebbe, was the ultimate charismatic leader. But the Alter Rebbe tried to develop a Chasidic system that would be independent of the Zaddik. At the center of his system was a doctrine, and not only a doctrine, but a guide book—the Tanya—so that Chabad Chasidut would serve as a tool for those who didn’t have a Rebbe.

BO: In one of your articles (Heichal Habesht Vol 7) you illustrate how many of the core concepts of Chabad were derived from the Magid of Mezeritch. How did the Alter Rebbe, a disciple of the Magid, strike this balance in the tension between continuity and innovation?

NG:  The Alter Rebbe did depart, in certain instances from the Maggid. The Alter Rebbe developed Chasidut for the “average,” person, while the Maggid’s court had attracted mostly an elite circle of people, and he addressed them as such.

One of the main ideas in early Chasidut of the Maggid and the Besht, is that one of the ways of serving G-d is by elevating profane thoughts. According to the Maggid, the way to do this is to ponder the thought, engage in it fully until you trace it to its spiritual origins and the sefira from which it derives. Here the Alter Rebbe departs from the Maggid and says that this does not apply to the average person. He says one should not be a fool and attempt this, but that he should better ignore it or suppress any negative thoughts, because engaging with it and elevating it—which is a novel idea—sets one on a dangerous path. So the Maggid’s approach was actually quintessentially a Chasidic idea, but the Alter Rebbe rejected it for the average person. He recognized that the Maggid was speaking to his elite circle of Chasidim.

In general, the Alter Rebbe spoke to a middling element—somewhere in between the elite and the masses. He wanted to offer guidance to people in avodat Hashem at whatever level they were at. Indeed, this may be the idea of the “Benioni” character around whom the whole Tanya revolves. The Alter Rebbe sees the Benoini as the type whose dry ritual observance can benefit  from transforming it into a soulful experience.

The Alter Rebbe believed that the Maggid advocated hitbonenut, or meditation as a tool to be used in one’s spiritual service. Many objected to meditation as an intellectualization of Chasidism; indeed, some of the Maggid’s students argued that he had never spoken about the idea of hitbonenut altogether, which is, in fact, alien to the whole Chasidic zeitgeist which is characteristically more spontaneous and visceral.

Herein, however, lies he difference between the objective of the Alter Rebbe to make the Chasidic ideals a practical living doctrine for the “average” Jew, versus other charismatic Zaddikim who were either reaching out to the super elite who eventually became themselves Zaddikim, or to the simple masses who derived their spiritual inspiration emanating from the Zaddik’s soul and avodah. In order to appeal to a self-sustaining Chasidic Jew, the Alter Rebbe had to introduce the idea of hitbonenut as a tool for the middle-of-the-road Chasid.

BO: After the passing of the Alter Rebbe in 1812, how was succession determined?

NG: With the passing of the Alter Rebbe, there was disagreement between his son, the Mitteler Rebbe as R. Dov Ber is known, and R. Aron Staroselyer, who was one of the Alter Rebbe’s leading disciples. Besides other explicit debates regarding the praxis of hitpaalut, or ecstatic prayer (as discussed at great length in their dueling classic works Kuntress HaHitpaalut of the Mitteler Rebbe, and Sharei Avodah by R. Aron). I  think that a major underlying issue was how “independent” Chabad doctrine is from the Rebbe. R. Aron felt strongly that conceptually, Chabad is not dependent on a “leader” or charismatic figure. It’s strictly a doctrine. And yet the Alter Rebbe did eventually accept the role of Rebbe as we know it, and his son, the Mitteler Rebbe prevailed in the disagreement with R. Aron. (In his later years, the Alter Rebbe did not turn away people who sought his help for concerns not related to spiritual matters, indicating that at that point he finally relented, and accepted the role of the “charismatic” Zaddik.) At this point, I think it became clear that Chabad is also Rebbe oriented.

BO:  Let’s talk about the Mitteler Rebbe and how he expanded and expounded on his father’s teachings. In issue 8 of Heichal Habesht, in the review of the book Torat Chaim by the Mitteler Rebbe you treat this issue.

DO: Yes, in that article I looked at the history of the MR’s involvement  in publishing Chabad Chasidic works, and reviewed Torat Chaim, his last book, an anthology of Chasidic discourses on the Torah (which went as far as the middle of Bereishit when he passed away, was then continued later by his son, and in more recent times, by our Rebbe). The MR devoted himself to elucidating his father’s work, and he developed Chabad Chasidut in both greater depth and more detail. In his introductions to his books on Chasidut, recently published in the new edition of his letters, he reflects a very intense interest to communicate the contemplation of Divine unity, which is really at the core of Chabad’s theology.

NG: The Mitteler Rebbe was highly analytical and very philosophical in his approach to Chabad. He took the Alter Rebbe’s methods and his Chasidic teachings and developed them into what we know today as the philosophy of Chabad. He dedicated himself to an intuitive analysis of the Alter Rebbe’s main ideas—themes such as yesh m’ayin, creation ex nihilo, cause and effect, light, essence and emanations, potential vs. actualization–creating complicated structures and substructures. 

He did notrefer to other sources or texts beyond the Alter Rebbe’s, and in that sense he was a Chabad Chasidic purist. His son-in-law the Tzemach Tzedek would say that if you cut his vein, he’d bleed Chasidus. I see in this expression an allusion to the fact (not only that his physical life was irrelevant to him, but also) that he saw Chabad Chasidus as kind of exclusive to everything else.

In a way, the Mitteler Rebbe embodied the Chabad of the Alter Rebbe. If you want to know what Chabad is, you need to study the Mitteler Rebbe. In terms of personality he was very intense  and demanding of his disciples. In some ways you might say he was uncompromising in his single-minded commitment to Chabad. He was very focused on avodat hatefila, contemplative prayer, and was very invested in ensuring its continuity. He saw it as his responsibility to grow and to perpetuate the vision of Chabad, and he wanted Chasidim to be fully engaged in this cause.

BO:  He passed away relatively young, and was succeeded by his nephew and son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, known as the Tzemach Tzedek. He was also the grandson of the AR.

DO: The Tzemach Tzedek was very different from his father-in-law (who was also his uncle). In Chabad terms, you can say they are as different as Bina and Da’at. He contextualized all the Alter Rebbe’s teachings, reconciled many scattered contradictions, and ordered and organized them, thus giving us a better understanding of the Alter Rebbe. Our Rebbe used to say that the Tzemach Tzedek was unique in connecting the esoteric and exoteric parts of Torah, and illustrating the unity between them.

NG: Yes, and he was quite the opposite in almost every way from the Mitteler Rebbe. He was the quintessential Talmudic scholar as expressed in his responsa, Tzemach Tzedek and all of his other writings. This fact in itself naturally transformed Chasidut  Chabad from its peculiar particularity into a much more broader  mainstream persuasion. He had such supreme mastery of Talmudic and Jewish legal and scholarly texts and traced all of the AR’s teachings to earlier texts, locating the whole corpus of the AR’s teachings within the rest of classical Judaism, the Talmud, Tanach, etc.

The Rebbe characterized the style and the era of the Tzemach Tzedek as the era of “peace.” It was indeed a new era of mutual recognition and coexistence. One of the simple reasons being that a new generation was born on the misnagdic side for whom the Chasidic movement was an existing thriving movement. The Rebbe saw the reconciliation as a result of the TT’s style of leadership.

BO: The Fourth Rebbe, Reb Shmuel, known as the Maharash, was leader of Chabad for a short time (1866-1883), and was probably, in his lifetime, the least known of the Chabad Rebbes.

DO: After the TT passed away, his five sons became Rebbes each in their own court. The youngest, the Maharash, became Rebbe in Lubavitch. He coined the concept of “Lechtchila Ariber,” which became axiomatic in Chabad—this is the idea of a kind of holy chutzpah that empowers the Chasid to confront challenges with courage and a boldness of spirit so that they don’t become obstacles on his path in avodat haShem.

The Maharash continued in his father’s path, but with new emphasis on certain ideas and themes that were not until then closely considered. One idea that was explicitly stressed by Maharash but wasn’t that central before is the perspective of reality despite the absolute belief in acosmism. Originally, Chabad taught that relative to Divine reality, our own reality is not authentic. In his discourse Mi Kamocha 5629 (1869), the Maharash argued that notwithstanding Chabad’s attitude until now  that all existence was perceived as null, the world in fact does have an authentic reality, even from a Divine perspective. Our Rebbe would frequently pick up on this theme and employ it in his own talks and discourses to support his call to engage with our environment and effect change in the world as we know it.

BO: When the Maharash passed away in 1883, his son, Reb Sholom Dovber was only 23 years old. But his leadership lasted until 1920.

DO: The Rashab was a major innovator. First of all, as far as Chabad teachings are concerned, he organized Chasidut in a formal, systematic way. This is why he’s referred to “The Rambam of Chasidus”—Maimonides was of course the one who ordered and organized the entire body of Jewish law. The Rashab’s contribution is also significant because he distilled many abstruse concepts in Chasidic thought.

In many ways, he was very similar to the Mitteler Rebbe. He was more textually and contextually focused than the Mitteler Rebbe, but as we see in his talks (in the collection Torat Shalom) he saw the Mitteler Rebbe as the paradigmatic Chabad Rebbe.  He, too, like the Mitteler Rebbe felt a sense of urgency about disseminating Chabad’s work, was intense in his leadership, and saw himself as reviving Chabad. His famous booklet Etz Hachaim, as well as Kuntres haTefila and Kuntres ha’Avoda, reflect this clearly.

NG: Yes, although he was similar to the Tzemach Tzedek in terms of his concern with text, the dedication to the conceptualization of Chasidut mirrors much more closely the method of the Mitteler Rebbe. In his view, the MR was the conduit between the Chasidim and the Divine. In fact it was the Rebbe Rashab who analyzed for us the difference between the Mitteler Rebbe and the Tzemach Tzedek.

In his two largest works, known as 5666 and 5672, as in others, he reorganized in a clear and distinctive way, the major themes of Chabad, such as Dirah B’tachtonim, and the mystical meaning of prayer, study and action.

In some ways, much of Chabad of today is an outgrowth of the Rashab’s activities. He opened Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim, he set up our “constitution” so to speak, so Lubavitch as we know it today is rooted in the Rashab. After the Maharash, Chabad dwindled, losing Chasidim to the allure of Zionism and the Haskala at that time and also because Chabad itself was less vigorous. So the Rashab worked to revive the Chabad spirit as it existed in the time of the Mitteler Rebbe, when Chabad was at its peak, and his influence and inspiration were very enduring.

BO: In 1920, his son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, or the FR became Rebbe. Was he similar in style to his father, the Rashab?

NG: People outside Chabad are more familiar with the talks of the Frierdiker Rebbe and his heroic leadership, and less so with his profound Chasidic discourses. His discourses are generally based on his father’s discourses that dealt with highly abstract levels of the Ein Sof. You might say that the Frierdiker Rebbe dedicated himself to further developing his father’s teachings in much the same way as the Mitteler Rebbe did to his father’s works.

But the Frierdiker Rebbe lived in one of the most tumultuous eras in Jewish history, when communism, the Holocaust, and finally, secular America, each presented its own significant challenges to Jewish continuity. Mesirut nefesh, the idea and virtue of personal sacrifice, was an important and central theme in his discourses and his leadership, and in the way he succeeded to transplant Chabad from one culture to another, ultimately relocating it to the US. 

BO: Our Rebbe’s leadership was often studied and scrutinized for the balance he struck so successfully and creatively between tradition and innovation. His teachings are firmly rooted in Torah, Jewish law and tradition, yet he was keenly attuned to contemporary life, to the challenges and the blessings of modernity. 

NG: The Rebbe was surely the most innovative of leaders since the Alter Rebbe, if not de jure, then de facto. While the focus of prior generations was contemplative prayer and meditation, the Rebbe used the same Chasidic concepts, such as dirah b’tachtonim—the creation of a divine dwelling place in this world—in establishing a new focus on action. He took classic Chabad ideas from the Tanya and used them in transforming Chabad into an action oriented movement, giving that priority above all else, in the avoda of the Chasid.

DO: Traditionally, Chabad taught contemplation and meditation as a function of the individual’s self-refinement. But the Rebbe felt that in the current climate of Jewish assimilation, the contemplative model would have to take second place to outreach and activism. My good friend, Rabbi Feitel Levin explored this in his book, Heaven on Earth.

In the Rebbe’s reconceptualization of Chasidic terms, the idea of “bittul” or self-nullification, also took on a new resonance: rather than engaging in meditative exercises such as pondering the insignificance of the self relative to the Divine, the Rebbe wanted Chasidim to turn their focus toward the other. Similarly, he reframed the idea of mesirut nefesh, which was in its plainest sense, necessary for the survival of Judaism in its long history of oppression as Nochem mentioned before.

In our times, with the freedom to live and practice as Jews, mesirut nefesh denotes a different expression of personal sacrifice. As the Rebbe explained in his Ve’ata Tetzave discourse, today mesirut nefesh requires that we become more aware of and sensitive to the existential condition of our reality, to the point where we are disturbed by it and motivated to focus not on our personal needs—even if they are spiritual—but to devote ourselves generously to others, and in that way transforms society so that the Divine presence is felt and noticed in its midst.    


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