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Another Side of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

A new book gives us Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson as social reformer

Shaul Magid
July 03, 2019
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine

There is little doubt that Chabad Hasidism constitutes one of the most, if not the most, potent Jewish messianic movements in the 20th century. Messianic movements are complex, organic, bipolar creatures. Their power is generated by a mix of charismatic leadership and historical conditions that merge to create a volatile bubbling mix of religious enthusiasm, utopian optimism and, when they fail, foreboding and crushing disappointment. Such disappointment makes them prone to revisionism.

Revisionism is often a pejorative term, referring to a mutation or distortion of an idea. I do not use it that way in this essay. By revisionism I refer to a recalibration of a claim, ideology, or idea when history proves it untenable, in this case, when Chabad’s leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who many believed was the messiah, dies. For the movement to survive, it must reassess its central claim and interpret it in a way that both coheres with the present reality and also keeps the original idea alive. In the case of Schneerson, such revisionism gestated in the context of collective mourning and introspection. When Schneerson passed away, 25 years ago this week, more impatient minds offered more radical solutions, such as claiming the Rebbe did not die but is merely occluded, prepared to return at any moment. In some circles, his yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death (the third day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz), is referred to only as “the events of 3 Tammuz.” As is the case in many transitional periods, the status quo had a limited shelf life. The tension between Schneerson’s messianic status and the reality of his death was just too great to sustain. Internal Chabad revisions became necessary.

About a decade after his passing, various modes of revisionism began to take hold, especially in America. A newfangled “Rebbe” as spiritual guide began to take form in books such as Simon Jacobson’s 2004 Toward a Meaningful Life and the many works of DovBer Pinson, along with numerous other examples. The messiah morphed into a self-help spiritual guide who presented Judaism as a form of human attunement to the divine presence in the world in a multicultural post-New Age era. What is distinctive about this mode of revision is that the messiah trope largely became transformed from the personhood of Schneerson to the continued importance of his teachings, from a more traditional notion of messiah as redeemer to an American version of piety without asceticism. In essence, it became a new form of Hasidic self-redemption that reminds one of Tolstoy’s famous dictum, “Everyone wants to change the world but nobody wants to change themselves.”

Another revisionist mode began a few years ago with a series of biographies of Schneerson by Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, Joseph Telushkin, Adin Steinsaltz, Yehiel Harari, and Moshe Miller. The biographies present Schneerson as a thoroughly modern thinker, a traditional Jewish leader for our time. Even as they disagree on his background and lifestyle and each one views his messianic role differently, they mostly agree on his significance for world Jewry in the 21st century. What is eclipsed, sometimes erased, in the biographies, is Schneerson’s status as the messiah. This is countered by Elliot Wolfson’s 2014 Open Secret. Wolfson’s in-depth analysis of Schneerson’s metaphysical writings argues that messianism stands at the very center of Schneerson’s life work, and diminishing that dimension would constitute a misrepresentation of his literary oeuvre and mission. And, according to Wolfson, to read the messiah literally in Schneerson’s work is to set up Schneerson as a false messiah.

Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World is the most recent iteration of Chabad revisionism. Moving from the biographical depictions of Schneerson’s remarkable life, Philip Wexler offers us a Schneerson who was a social reformer, setting his sights not exclusively on the Jewish people, but on global transformation. Of course, this too is an expression of messianism. But the messianic dimension is largely suppressed in Wexler’s work and Schneerson appears closer to social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch and Catholic activist Dorothy Day than Sabbatai Zevi or the Baal Shem Tov.

Wexler is a seasoned sociologist who has been publishing on mystical and social reform for some time. With the help of Chabad historian Eli Rubin, who provides the hundreds of sources from Schneerson’s collected works that serve as the backbone of the study, Wexler sets out to present Schneerson as having a global project of social reformation that he calls “a global Jewish Renaissance,” built on the mystical metaphysics of Kabbalah and the social theory of Hasidic communal and spiritual life.

Wexler’s book distinguishes itself by setting Schneerson’s life and work in the context of a classic social scientific frame of modernity. He aptly places Schneerson as a critic of Max Weber’s “iron cage” of capitalism, born from the disenchantment of modern society through the secularization of the Protestant ethic. Framed this way, Schneerson becomes a proponent of post-secular America, or what Peter Berger called the “desecularization” of the world. In Schneerson’s case, however, this does not result in fundamentalism per se as much as a critique of disenchantment, with Hasidism holding the potential to create the kind of redemptive vision he supports. Schneerson’s attempt to subvert this disenchantment takes him far from an insular view of the world. His work includes an appreciation but also a critique of socialism as well as a critique of free-market capitalism and American education. It also features a veneration of the U.S. Constitution that borders on the sacred. I would go even further than Wexler to say that for Schneerson, the Constitution is a kind of proto-messianic document in that it provides the Jews with the conditions to complete their work in exile by enabling them to truly be a “light unto the nations” by “turning Judaism outward” (to borrow the subtitle of Moshe Miller’s biography).

For Wexler, Schneerson reverses the modern Jewish dictum espoused by the Hebrew and Yiddish writer Y.L. Peretz, “be a Jew at home and a man in the street”: He calls for his followers to “be a Jew at home and a Jew in the street.” Here America plays a crucial role, and Wexler’s discussion about the centrality of America for Schneerson is important. While Schneerson is not usually thought of as an American Jewish thinker like Mordecai Kaplan, Wexler argues that America stands at the epicenter of his mystical-social project and by extension his messianic vision. In a striking comment in Kfar Chabad Magazine, Schneerson notes:

American Jewry must recognize the sacred, historical mission which Divine Providence has entrusted to it at this critical moment of our struggle for survival … We must lead the smaller Jewish communities in other countries and continents even in the land of Israel, which must lean heavily on American support for its economic and spiritual survival.

Wexler goes even further: “Indeed, he [Schneerson] was wary that Zionism could replace religious life and practice as the defining feature of Jewish identity, that it could become a means by which individuals could avoid the personal obligation of being a practicing Jew.” This observation is born out in other sources as well. It is noteworthy that his two predecessors, the fifth and sixth Lubavitcher rebbes, were ardent anti-Zionists. As I have argued elsewhere, Schneerson was not as concerned with political Zionism, which he felt could protect Jews and left open the possibility of religion, as he was with cultural Zionism, which he felt (correctly) could serve as a substitute for religion as the cornerstone of their identity. There is a study yet to be written viewing Schneerson’s Chabad project, including the mitzvah campaign, as a critical response to Ahad Ha-Am’s cultural Zionism.

For Schneerson, America was not just another stage of exile; it was a final necessary stage without which messiah could not come. And the role for Jews in America was not simply to wait for messiah’s arrival by engaging in acts of self-preservation— as was the case in previous exilic locales—but to transform the larger society in order for messiah to come. Schneerson thus represents a distinctive form of Jewish post-millennialism, a veritable social gospel on a global scale. This is possible precisely because of America’s good nature toward the Jews (Schneerson famously called America a “medina shel hesed,” a “nation of kindness”) and because of the constitutional separation of church and state that enabled Jews to fully develop a program of social transformation using the tools of Judaism to bring its light to the gentiles. Wexler notes, “Elsewhere he argued that it was America in particular, rather than Israel, that provided the most fertile resources with which to craft a viable model for postwar Jewish life on a global scale.” Here we see that being “a Jew in the home and a Jew in the street,” which is easily and naturally done in Israel, is not what Schneerson had in mind. Rather, the street in which the Jew can be a Jew must still be a non-Jewish street in order to transform that exilic street, and the broader society, to prepare for its transvaluation. He supported his community in Israel but he believed its center, its mission control, had to be in America. To leave America, or the diaspora more generally, before the completion of that social transformation would be to retard rather than generate the redemptive process. Schneerson was not just a Jewish thinker in America; he was a Jewish messianic thinker for whom America was essential.

Wexler argues that for Schneerson, Torah is “progressive” and not “conservative”—that is, it is not exclusively about keeping Jews Jewish (or making them so) but equally about using Torah as a vehicle to transform secular society through Torah’s eternal and “absolute” values. His Noahide Laws campaign to the gentiles, his advocacy for a moment of silence in public schools, his support of environmentalism, his interest in science and religion, and his strikingly progressive comments about American prison reform all speak to what Wexler calls “a progressive post-secular turn …. that the social environment is moving beyond the axiomatic assumption of a secular disenchanted status quo.” It is Hasidism, Schneerson claims, according to Wexler, that can truly respond to Weber’s disenchanted modernity but only if it is presented in a register that extends beyond its more conservative and even xenophobic inclination. Hasidism can accomplish this not only because of its mystical base that Wexler translates in a universalist key, but because of its ethos of interpersonal reciprocity (between the human and God, the Hasid and the Rebbe, and between humans more generally) that cultivates what he calls a “Jewish humanism … according to which divine sanctity is enmeshed in every moment of the life of an individual, including those moments in which one’s morality is compromised by crime or sin.”

If this sounds a lot like Martin Buber it is because it is. Although Buber himself had little interest in Chabad Hasidism, Buber’s “Hebrew Humanism” was founded on similar Hasidic sources and principles, and his dedication to social change is expressed at length in his book Paths in Utopia and many other essays. Wexler chose to stay close to his subject instead of putting him in conversation with others who expressed similar ideas. But a comparison with Buber and, in addition with Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionism, Louis Finkelstein’s internationalism and others, would have been fruitful. It is true that such comparisons would be limited because Schneerson remained wed to Orthodox practice and to the unchanging and absolute truth of normative Jewish belief as the sole authentic representation of Judaism. Yet viewing Schneerson solely within his own orbit, suggesting that his vision is set apart from other Jews and non-Jews in his lifetime, limits our ability to see both his distinctiveness and his limitations and actually diminishes precisely what Wexler’s social scientific approach could achieve.

And it is precisely here where I find Wexler’s thesis most challenging. Social Vision illustrates “social revision,” but it is also a revision of its subject. The greatness and continued importance of Schneerson cannot be denied, and I am convinced Wexler is right about his project of social reform on the foundations of Hasidism. But I found the push toward defining him as an exemplar of humanism and universalism unconvincing. While Wexler cites numerous sources in letters and talks that point in that direction, for example, claiming gentiles also have a divine spark (to be precise, a divine spark, not a divine soul), the weight of Chabad teaching, Schneerson’s own words, and those of his disciples, tell a different story.

Schneerson’s resolve to alter the notion of Torah as that which separates Jews from the world to a notion of how Torah can affect the world, is illustrated in his assertion in 1957 that “The Torah need not be afraid of the world; rather its role is to run the world.” This is actually a striking statement. While it is certainly significant in its reorientation of Torah, it hardly represents a universalism whereby a variety of “truths” or pieces of a universal “truth” can coexist and work together for a common cause. Schneerson’s commitment to the notion of Sinai and its Torah as an absolute category of truth, whereby all other iterations of human religiosity are true to the extent that they are connected to them, in my view, falls short of the universalism Wexler suggests. If anything, this statement speaks to a kind of spiritual imperialism, as if to say, “I can include you in my vision only the extent to which you accept my view of the absolute as true and unchanging.” How is this structurally different than various kinds of other fundamentalisms? Schneerson may have wanted to bring Torah to the world in an expansive manner, and to a certain extent he did, but in the end the foundations of this thinking were not quite radical enough to make the sale. The revision in his orientation did not include a revision of the system.

While I fully agree with Wexler that Schneerson courageously stretched Orthodoxy and Hasidism to its breaking point, Schneerson was ultimately unwilling to cross that line whereby belief and practice would themselves require significant and irreparable changes in response to the changing world. And this tells me that the universalism Wexler argues for is just not there. I agree that Schneerson was a social reformer and that he believed his project of a global and humanistic post-millennial social gospel was what was required in the final stage of exile. But in the end the messiah is a Jewish messiah primarily concerned with the Jews and it includes the prophetic vision that the world will recognize Jewish theological superiority. And Schneerson’s ambassadors reflect this in that they could only extend their hand outward from within the confines of their Orthodox lives. Many still refuse to speak in churches (Schneerson held to a common Orthodox belief that Christianity is idolatry), mosques, and in some cases even Reform synagogues. What kind of universalism is it that prohibits one from speaking in the houses of worship of those one hopes to inspire? In other words, Orthodoxy in its myriad forms, even with its Hasidic inner-personal reciprocity and Schneerson’s global vision, could not accomplish the social reformation Schneerson may have intended on Wexler’s reading. I think Buber knew that and understood that Hasidism had to be recalibrated to achieve the Hebrew Humanism he espoused. Buber’s program was Pauline in that it posited a distinction between “the letter and the spirit” of Hasidism, whereas Schneerson believed that such a distinction was false, even, or perhaps precisely, in regards to Hasidism’s “universalization.” I simply think this is not the case.

The absoluteness of Torah as framed through normative Orthodox belief and practice cannot, in my view, bear the weight of the historicism, and certainly not the universalism, that modernity intended, nor the deconstruction that postmodernity suggests—and certainly not to create a true universal vision that would require a radical rethinking of divine election, the divine nature of the human, and not just Jewish, soul, and the limits of any tradition to fully respond to the progress of human development. This is not to say that a true mystical revision based on Judaism is not possible; I think it is. However, I do not think it is through its Orthodox iteration.

Mordecai Kaplan certainly had some of this in mind when he left Orthodoxy, rejected divine election as an operative category in a democracy, and reenvisioned Halakha as an expression of collective cohesion as opposed to the individual’s obligatory response to a personal God. Wexler does an excellent job illustrating how Schneerson goes as far as he can go to argue that the repository of Jewish mysticism and Hasidic social theory contains within its normative framework an antidote to the disenchantment of modern society that remains the final frontier before the end-time. But in my view, Hasidism defined as upholding normative Orthodoxy, in belief and practice, even in the hands of a genius like Schneerson, cannot serve to achieve what Wexler suggests is Schneerson’s social vision.

I remain sympathetic to Wexler’s presentation of Schneerson as long as it is presented in a revisionist register, that is, as long as it is open about its making normative, and not a scientific, claims. We need to seriously consider, for example, that Schneerson cultivated notions of his messiahship for years, albeit in a complicated way, even when he saw clearly that it was getting out of hand. Failed messianic movements must move on, and yet also retain a sense of continuity, and I think Wexler’s Schneerson is a marvelous prototype of that post-messianic revision. But if Social Vision becomes a template of a future Chabad community—and I hope it does—it will one day face the crossroads where its fidelity to Orthodox normativity will not be able to embrace the universalist “Jewish humanism” Wexler espouses.

I say this because in some way, it has already happened.

As I read Wexler’s Schneerson, his true acolyte, the one who most accurately and deeply absorbed and disseminated his message, was someone who left Chabad behind: Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. I do not say this flippantly. Schachter-Shalomi began his Hasidic career in Chabad after meeting a group of young Chabad freethinkers in a gem-polishing factory in Antwerp before the Second World War. Upon his arrival in America, Schachter-Shalomi became a disciple of R. Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (1880-1950) the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, and subsequently of his son-in-law R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson (who dropped the “h” in his last name after arriving in the U.S.). Schachter-Shalomi served as one of the first Chabad shelukhim in 1948, sent by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe to “infiltrate” a Hanukkah party at the newly opened Brandeis University with a young student from the Lakewood yeshiva named Shlomo Carlebach. He subsequently left to found his own “mystical revision” and “social reform” movement founded in large part on the principles of his youth in Chabad, revised to answer what he understood to be the changing paradigm of a post-Holocaust world. Once asked about his ties to Chabad, Schachter-Shalomi responded, “I graduated from Chabad.”

As I read Wexler, my hunch that Jewish renewal was, at least in Schachter-Shalomi’s mind, an extension of Chabad and that Schachter-Shalomi is Schneerson’s true disciple, is only reinforced. The notions of “Jewish humanism” “mystical revision,” and “Jewish Renaissance” is precisely what Schachter-Shalomi set out to do in what he called a “paradigm shift.” It is quite interesting that “paradigm” appears in the subtitle of Wexler’s book because that term was made popular in Jewish circles with Schachter-Shalomi’s book Paradigm Shift in 1990.

Unlike Chabad, Jewish renewal advocated a full recalibration of Jewish practice and belief, that is, a revision of the system, not in response to historicism, the tool of modernity, but rather, as a response to the realization of global consciousness born through his belief in a medieval Kabbalistic idea that each new epoch requires a new Torah. To understand Schachter-Shalomi one must read the Baal Shem Tov, Schneerson, Max Weber, William James, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and Ram Dass, all in heated conversation with one another.

I think Wexler intuitively knew this. He ends Social Vision with a discussion of Schachter-Shalomi and other members of the “neo-Hasidic” movement, mentioning Schachter-Shalomi’s ties to Chabad. Whereas some readers might take this as a coda or an aside, I think it is the very point of the book. I would make a stronger claim than Wexler to say that his revision of Schneerson is the bridge between the earlier revisions that saw him either as messiah occluded (Israel), spiritual teacher (Jacobson, Pinson, et al.), or intriguing personality (the biographies) to a revision that both views the more expansive suggestions in his work and the limitations that prevented him from implementing them. Wexler’s revision makes Schneerson the true progenitor for Schachter-Shalomi’s creative revision of Schneerson’s own program.

Schachter-Shalomi argues, against Schneerson, that true global and universal social reform cannot begin with an assumption that a highly particularist tradition built from a very different past can serve as an absolute category in an ever-changing, and paradigm-shifting, world. True revision requires a revision of the very tools used to promote it. Whether Schneerson thought that I do not know, but Wexler has done an exemplary job making that case. But in the end Schneerson could not go there. Some of his more deviant and wayward students, however, have done so.


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Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.