Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tzav (Shabbat Hagadol) 5759/1999

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Shabbat Haggadol 5759/1999

Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavich Rebbe

A Life of Reaching Out to Jews

Rabbi Yitzhak Krauss

Midrasha for Women; Dept. of Philosophy

The name of Habad has come up of late in contexts which are not exactly flattering. The current debate, revolving around the messianic personality issue, has somewhat overshadowed the accomplishments of this movement under the leadership of the late Lubavich Rebbe of blessed memory, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson. In this short essay, written in commemoration of R. Menahem Mendel Schneerson's birthday which falls on the 11th of Nisan [March 28], I would like to review his teachings and the emissary work done under his leadership.

The main characteristic of the late Lubavich Rebbe was his sense of responsibility for the Jewish people as a whole and his commitment to caring for all Jews, wherever they may be. To R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of Habad Hasidism, is attributed the saying: "No Jew must despair, and one must not despair of any Jew." The many and varied activities of the Lubavich Rebbe had a definite direction. He began his public works in the lifetime of the previous Lubavich Rebbe, R. Joseph Isaac Schneerson, who appointed him director of the "Center for Jewish Education," the implementing arm of Habad. The periodical Ha-Pardes of 1951 described R. Menahem Mendel's activities prior to being appointed Lubavich Rebbe:

As chairman of the Center [Center for Jewish Education, Y. K.], he succeeded in bringing about a spiritual revolution among hundreds of young Americans who were completely disconnected from their Jewish roots. The new Lubavich Rebbe has marvelous organizational talent. In a short time he succeeded in organizing American youths in the Young Habad Organization. He instilled them with the spirit of living by the Torah and Hasidism, stirring them to deeds in which there is great spiritual devotion. If today one finds young men openly going about with beard and side-locks, proud and not intimidated, ... if hundreds of emissaries circulate all over America, arousing the public to return to Judaism, to observe the laws of family purity, to found heders and yeshivot -- if the standing of the religion has acquired new sanctity, has been strengthened and extended to remote corners of the United States, it is all thanks to the devoted efforts and spiritual dedication of the new Lubavich Rebbe, who served his Rabbi and father-in-law, the late Lubavich Rebbe, with all his heart and soul. It is he who has actually realized the command of the late Lubavich Rebbe and who is to credit for the success of the spiritual revolution that has been taking place in the United States in recent years.[1]

This broad sense of vision was characteristic of Habad Hasidism under the leadership of Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, and continued especially during the last 50 years under the leadership of the late Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson. The Lubavich Rebbe did not address himself only to his followers and adherents, but rather to "our brethren, the sons and daughters of Israel, wherever they may be," as he wrote in his general letters.[2]

In the first decades of Habad's activity in the area of what is now called "outreach", this subject evoked derision against the movement and the person standing at its head.[3] The degree of responsibility assumed by R. Menahem Mendel can be seen in his letter of 1957, which deals with the issue of studying Torah versus working in education after one's marriage:

Regarding what he wrote about an overall arrangement for yeshiva study, continuing to sit and study even after marrying, ... the ruling of our sacred Law is well-known: that fulfilling a commandment which cannot be performed by others takes precedence over all else (Moed Katan 9b). In recent generations working in the field of the rabbinate and education in sacred matters, etc., has actually become a matter of saving lives.[4]

He admits that certain "exceptionally talented individuals" should be allowed to study Torah as their profession, but to say that this is the way for the masses, "to allow dozens of capable men to sit in yeshiva and study Torah all day, at a time when hundreds of thousands are crying out for help ... one must look closely to see who permitted such a practice."[5] The strong position which he took on this issue stemmed from two factors: the spiritually degenerate condition of the Jewish people after the Holocaust and assimilation. Contrary to his usual manner, which was characterized by taking a positive approach and not being negative about one's fellow, in this case, given the severity of the plight of the Jewish people, he felt that sharp criticism was in order:

One need not dwell excessively on this sorry state, but it appears that there are still some ... who follow this method, saying they have saved their own soul... Imagine, if it concerned a person's own son ... or his only daughter, who needed to be brought closer to G-d and His teaching, would he then cloister himself off in an inner room and rely on a miracle to happen, just so that he could study Torah a few more hours of the day?[6]

Many who see Habad followers active on the streets of a busy city or in some remote corner of the earth wonder where they get such emissary zeal, seldom equaled. The outside observer, seeing the way these emissaries function in the modern world in an era of doubt and uncertainty, cannot help but be amazed by their absolute faith in the correctness of their way and the great optimism that pervades them.

The explanation for this is the Rebbe, as he was called by his followers. According to Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson, being one of his followers does not mean enjoying greater privileges; on the contrary, it is a matter of greater responsibility. His followers serve as his emissaries, and through them he addresses each and every individual Jew, wherever he or she may be. This closeness of the follower places demands on him, calling on him to fulfill the challenge placed before him by the Rebbe. In the way he lived, the Lubavich Rebbe himself served as a model of uncompromising emissary work. His entire life he viewed himself as the emissary of his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, who, as mentioned, placed him in charge of the educational center; as R. Jacob Joseph himself put it on several occasions, "Essentially, I had to be in that place and work there, but since I could not be everywhere at the same time, I placed my emissary there, and it was as if I myself were there."[7]

Typically Rabbi Menahem Mendel would conclude his talks, after discussing a subject relating to the weekly reading, by drawing practical conclusions from the issues at hand. These conclusions were not theoretical; for, as he put it in many talks, "Actions are the main thing." For his adherents following these talks everywhere, the practical conclusion had the force of a command or emissary plan of action. Therefore for those who wonder where the indefatigable motivation of Habad Hasidim comes from, the answer lies in his leadership and talks.

A recurrent motif of his talks was his great faith in each and every Jew, wherever he or she may be, and the emissary duty placed on every Jew, his emissaries in particular. For example, take his public talk the first week he was appointed Lubavich Rebbe:

In actual fact, everyone is an emissary of the Holy One, blessed be He. Both the children of Israel, each and every one of them having being sent by the Holy One, blessed be He, to make Him a dwelling place among the mortals by obeying the commandments of the Torah ... except that this mission can be somewhat obscured. Thus it is the role of those who are called, those who are appointed to be the actual emissaries, to reveal to each and every person, both Jews and non-Jews, that they are agents of the Holy One, blessed be He, and to rouse them to action to fulfill their role and calling in actual fact.[8]

The absolute devotion to this calling finds expression in the saying most closely associated with Habad Hasidism: "You shall spread out to the westand to the east, to the north and to the south" (Gen. 28:14). In 1958 Rabbi Menahem Mendel first came out with this motto,[9] which served as a landmark to his followers, heralding heightened activity in the years to come. What this "spreading out" meant was spreading the teachings of Judaism and Hasidism without limit. It must be said that this was far from simple, for the Rebbe's demand meant "endangering" his followers, exposing them to what goes on in the world at large, in places where there is no atmosphere of sanctity, such as cities in the Far East or resort towns on the seashore. Indeed, this creed of "spreading out" at one time evoked harsh criticism in Orthodox circles, among Hasidim and non-Hasidim.

This call was issued, notwithstanding its dangers, due to the decline in strength of the Jewish people as a result of the Holocaust and the wave of assimilation spreading like a disease in the Jewish people. During these years Rabbi Menahem Mendel encouraged his adherents, and even those not among his followers. In a letter from 1959, answering various questions the youth asked him about faith, he wrote:

At this hour it is the inner call from the depths of the soul of each and every one -- to be in the foremost ranks of activists performing their duty, not only as their personal obligation but also as reservists, constituting the most active and finest forces of our people that were decimated after the Annihilation; not only to do away with the shift from one extreme to the other, as we have said, but also to disseminate the eternal values of our people, the Jews, in the most absolute manner, with the vigor and strength of youth, until each and every one be a spark kindling the light of the soul in every person around.[10]

Moreover, like every Orthodox leader in our century Rabbi Menahem Mendel was faced with the dilemma of how to lead his movement in the modern world. Two ways stood before him: to shut himself off from the world or to adapt to it. He did not choose either of these two paths, but a dialectic between them. On the one hand, he followed the ancient way and would have no compromise in the realm of halakhah and ideology, being meticulous in the extreme. On the other hand, he accepted the innovations of technology as well as several modern values,[11] which he saw as assisting, not threatening, worship of the Lord. In a similar manner he related to secularism among the Jews, neither segregating himself nor accepting secularism as positive, but stressing his commitment to the commandment to love one's fellow Jew, plain and simple, without considerations of self-interest.

The Rebbe's adherents answered his call, and it became the code of Habad Hasidim. Indeed, they blazed the way, bringing Jewish awareness to every part of the world. American-born yeshiva students became teachers in Morocco, Habad students from France taught in Tunisia, and families of yeshiva men opened Jewish schools in various locations throughout the world, east and west, and founded Habad centers on university campuses.

Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, head of Har Ezion Yeshiva, summed up Rabbi Menahem Mendel's work in one word: "caring." "The Rebbe's most basic characteristic was caring. Not in the narrow sense of caring for his own family and his own shtibel, but caring in the context of broad, far-reaching vision ... caring to see things in their historic, national dimension."[12] Rabbi Lichtenstein concluded his eulogy for Rabbi Menahem Mendel by commending the work done by Habad, stressing this against the criticism that was and is still directed at the followers of the Lubavich Rebbe: "Also those who are not particularly close to this movement, even those who might be critical of it, must acknowledge and appreciate the greatness that lies in this movement and that was in this great person. Furthermore, one must feel sincerely grateful. Also people who were not part of the world of Habad have been enriched by it and by its illustrious leader, the Lubavich Rebbe, who headed it for more than forty years and did so much to promote the movement and to promote those values that we share together."[13]

[1] "Ha-Admor he-Hadash mi-Lubavich" (editorial article, author anonymous), Ha-Pardes (25,2) Iyar 5711 (1951), p. 24.

[2] Cf. the collection of his general letters, most of which were published in the general press, Torat Menahem -- Igrot Melekh, KeHaT publications, Kefar Habad, 1992. Also see the article by the journalist Aryeh Maliniak, "Moreh Nevukhim," that appeared in Maariv (3 Tishre 5750 - 1989), a photocopy of which appears on p. 91 of the introduction to this book. This article refers to these letters that originally appeared in the daily press: "It stands to reason that the publication of religious epistles in the secular press is intended to spread Jewish learning among the Jewishly uneducated like ourselves... If the Rebbe wished his message to reach only his followers, he would send them private letters through the mail. Hence I understand that the letters were intended for the layman like myself, and I gave them my full and serious consideration." Maliniak's consideration of these letters, as he explained, came from theconcern that their author, the Lubavich Rebbe, had for the general public, which finds expression in the marginal notes appended even to a routine letter of greeting.

[3] Cf. the periodical Kefar Habad, from 1980-1983, which responds to criticism of the approach taken by the Habad movement.

[4] Likutei Sihot, KeHaT, New York, 1990, vol. 23, p. 443. Cf. Responsa Divrei Hakhamim , ed. A.D. Ginzberg, New York, 1986, pp. 265-268, which cites views indicating the halakhic rule of one's own life taking precedence also holds in "spiritual matters" . I wish to thank Rabbi Neriah Guttel for calling my attention to this source.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sefer ha-Shelihut (ed. M. M. Laufer), KeHaT Publishers, Kefar Habad, 1987, p. 16.

[8] Talk of 13th Sh'vat, 5711 (1951), Torah Menahem -- Hitva'aduyot, KHT, Israel, 1994, Part 1, p. 227.

[9] Cf. Talk for Parshat Ekev, 1958.

[10] Igrot Kodesh, KeHaT, New York, Part 18, p. 414.

[11] Cf. public talk for Parshat Va-Yeshev, 1991, on the French national anthem and his attitude towards France in comparison with the attitude held by R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady.

[12] "'Justice shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his waist,' from the eulogy for Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavich Rebbe," Alon Shevut - le-Bogrei Yeshivat Har Ezion, 4, Tishre 5755 (1994), p. 101.

[13] Ibid., p. 105.