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The Lubavitcher Rebbe: A View From the Ivory Tower


Disagreement among the academics who convened earlier this week at a conference on the Lubavitcher Rebbe was evident in healthy abundance, but a thread of consensus emerged in almost all of the presentations, none of which could adequately contain the Rebbe: “He was the embodiment of impossible contraries,” said Reuvein Kimmelman of Brandeis University.

That, it seemed was the impetus for a conference that drew disparate disciplines together for a meeting of minds on the individual who arguably had the greatest impact on post-war Jewry, both in terms of reach and depth. “Reaching for the Infinite, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Life, Teachings, Impact” was the theme of a three day conference at NYU that came to a conclusion on Tuesday, leaving many in the audience gratified but not satisfied.

“We conceived of this as a cooperative research project,” explained conference coordinator Lawrence Schiffman, Professor at NYU and Chairman of the university’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. In trying to understand the Rebbe and his leadership, said Schiffman, “we’ve used all kinds of disciplinary approaches—philosophy, history, sociology, art, ethnography, psychology, religion, and education.”

And even so, the conference barely scratched the surface of a subject that was, as Elliot Wolfson, scholar of mysticism at NYU said, “larger than life.” But it was an excellent if sometimes dense and text-specific introduction to the multi-faceted leadership of the Rebbe. In his exposition of “the secret of secrets” an esoteric concept in kabbalah, Wolfson examined a text by the Rebbe from the early 50s about how the “will of the heart” connects to the most sublime level of divinity where all differences fade, enabling the individual to transform and redirect his base and selfish inclinations towards holy and noble aspirations.

Professor Alan Brill of Yeshiva University, in presenting on the Rebbe as a modern thinker, suggested that the Rebbe, as distinct from his predecessors and traditional Chasidic leaders, believed in the “continuous progressive revelation” of Judaism, making the contemporary Jew worthy of newer avenues to revelation. So in a way, the Rebbe was a modern thinker, yet the Chasidism he brought to the contemporary Jew was not your “get out your guitar and sing,” sort, but a Chasidism that brought people to Torah and mitzvot. “Unlike Buber, the Rebbe was not concerned with moments of I-Thou but with moments that would bring people back to G-d.” Attuned to the vacuous materialism of modern American life, the Rebbe sought to empower the simple, uneducated Jew with direct experience of G-d, by creating single, transformational moments in the experience of individual mitzvot—lighting a Shabbos candle or giving charity, explained Brill. He created these “moments of faith,” or “moments of dedication” to cut through what the Rebbe—alone among other Jewish leaders—saw as the American “vanity fair,” and enabled people to recognize G-d directly revealed to them in these inspired moments.

In his presentation on the “Habadization of American Orthodoxy,” Adam Ferziger of Bar Ilan University, spoke to the Rebbe’s program of outreach, at first opposed, even ridiculed by other mainstream Jewish orthodox groups for its radical departure from conventional style, only to eventually be imitated by those very same critics.

Professor Moshe Hallamish, also of Bar Ilan, addressed a similar theme from a text-oriented perspective. Hallamish compared the Rebbe’s use of the Tanya, Chabad’s first and primary source text, with that of its author, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who originally composed the Tanya as a guide for spiritual struggle of his inner circle of disciples. In contrast, the Rebbe advanced the Tanya as a potent and relevant source for every Jew, even the uninitiated, instructing the Lubavitch publishing house to translate the work into foreign languages and to publish it in Jewish communities worldwide for maximum accessibility.

The redemption, or messianic awareness as a theme of the Rebbe’s leadership was scrutinized from various angles. In a comparative presentation, Professor Yakov Ariel of Chapel Hill explained that the Chabad paradigm is unique, and as a caveat to those inclined to draw parallels with non-Jewish prototypes, he said that neither evangelism, nor even the term “messianism,” are appropriate to the Chabad model of outreach. Naftali Loewenthal, Professor at University of London, analyzed the Rebbe’s statement presented in 1951 when he accepted leadership of the Chabad movement, in which he defined his mission to be the construction of a triad: the love of one’s fellow, love of G-d and love of Torah—each necessitating the other towards the empowerment of the individual to the attainment of personal redemption. Relating this statement to the Rebbe’s first discourse, Loewenthal explained this as the necessary groundwork for the attainment of general, or universal redemption.

Professor Ada-Rapoport-Albert of the University of London and a leading international representative at the conference, 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. This, she maintained, was a radical departure from the traditional model that paid women little notice.

Professor Dov Schwartz of Bar Ilan reflected on what he perceived as a tension between the Rebbe’s textual output that adhered closely to precedent and traditional norms, and his outreach activities that reflected an innovative and path-breaking boldness. Comparing him to the early kabbalist, Abraham Abulafia, who exhibited a similar dialectical tension, Schwartz said, “In the image of Rebbe we have the same dissonance between the outer and inner. There were two sides to him that fertilized each other and were nourished by one another. What makes the figure a genius is the inner tension, the dialectical factor in his personality.”

While the twenty-five presentations did a fair job of peeling away one layer of the Rebbe’s complexity only to uncover another, for presenters and audience it seemed a rewarding experience that illuminated unifying strands even in the thick of paradox. A dozen years after his passing, interest in the Rebbe’s person and leadership continues to intrigue as a subject worthy of study, and most would agree with Professor Schiffman that, “bringing this topic into academic discourse is a tremendous accomplishment.”

by Baila Olidort


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