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Of God and Man:Some thoughts on the Rebbe

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This article first appeared in JUF News 20 years ago upon the passing of the Rebbe and is posted now in honor of the 20th yahrzeit

That he was of a different order of magnitude than the rest of us is commonly accepted. The complex and varied responses to his death, from the perfunctory to the adulatory to the confused, on the part of all sorts of Jewish organizations and leaders, is witness to that.

His death leaves no one untouched. How we respond to a person of Rabbi Schneerson's spiritual stature says as much about us as it does about him.

In death, as in life, he has become a critical standard of measurement. Like the mystical philosophy of Chabad which he successfully represented and taught to the Jewish world, his very life, the living scroll of Torah that it was, is in need of unraveling, for it is composed of layer upon layer upon layer, each one more radiant and closer to God than the one that precedes it.

His traditional garb, his public speeches in Yiddish, the appearance and dress of his devout followers  belie the fact that he was the most modern of Jewish spiritual figures. Modern in the sense that he engaged in a dialogue with modernity and reached out to, worked with and lived amongst all sorts of Jews.

Aside from modern Orthodoxy, Lubavitch is the only Orthodox movement willing to accept and embrace all Jews, no matter who they are and where they stand. The Rebbe of Lubavitch can be better appreciated in reference to another spiritual giant, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who passed away a little more than a year ago. Their lives are in such amazing parallel that the divine hand may  not be  hard to discern. They both lived into their 90s. They both emerged out of the great, scholarly, philosophic and mystic traditions of  Lithuanian Jewish civilization in Byelorussia, with its grounding in Talmudic scholarship and Chabad philosophy. They were both educated prior to World War II at the University of Berlin, each one thereby appearing to break with the past.

They both came to America and realized that the New World required new Jewish strategies. They both rebuilt Jewish civilization in the half‑century following its destruction in World War II. They believed in outreach, investing thousands of students with the authority and the spirit to teach Torah to the masses; the one, the Lubavitcher Rebbe through his Chasidic emissaries, and the other, Rabbi Soloveitchik through the rabbis he taught and ordained.

They had a major intellectual difference over whether to grapple with modernity through philosophy or science. Rabbi Soloveitchik sought to engage the Western world and its challenges to Judaism through the study of philosophy in order to develop a theology of Halakhah, Jewish law, that would address the modern human condition in all its complexity. The Lubavitcher Rebbe sought to engage  the challenges of modernity through the study of science in order to understand and be in awe of God's creation.

What both had in common was a deep understanding of the circumstances of modernity and of the need of Orthodoxy and classic Jewish faith to interact with the modern world and with the rest of the Jewish world.

Here, however, the similarities part. Whereas Rabbi Soloveitchik used as his medium Talmudic scholarship and philosophy, which were designed to appeal to the intellectual elite who would then deal with the masses, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a man of magisterial scholarly proportions, sought to relate to the Jewish people after the model of the kohein, the priest, who is accessible to all rather than after the model of the melekh, the Jewish monarch, who is accessible to just a few. This distinction was made by Rabbi Soloveitchik himself when he eulogized another Chasidic Rabbi, the Tal'noye Rebbe, in order to describe the difference between the Lithuanian rabbinic scholar and the Chasidic Rebbe.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe understood phenomena  that only a great spiritual figure can grasp. For, if in fact one is involved in the life of the spirit, then one knows how spiritual life develops. One knows that children have a spiritual life, that teenagers have spiritual lives, that men and women have spiritual lives that grow, develop and follow their own course throughout the human life span. Chabad is nothing if not a system for the religious cultivation of the human personality. Preceding Freud by a century the Tanya of Rabbi Schneur Zalman Borokhovitch, the first Chabad Rebbe, is a highly developed psychology of the human inner life based on the Qabbala of the soul.

Therefore, the Rebbe was one of the first, if not the first, to put forward the notion that in order for Jewish children to become attached to the Jewish tradition, there has to be such a thing as Jewish fun for Jewish children, not just fun for Jewish children.

At the same time, his originality of thought in Jewish theology is prodigious. Too much of it is, to this day, confined to the Yiddish language. Hopefully that will soon change. He was that sort of person whose very being of faith infected others with faith. Those who were shaped by his faith then brought theirs to others.

He understood that the Jewish people can be reached only through personal example and love. He, more than anyone else (yes, in this season of exaggerations one must be careful) loved the Jewish people unconditionally.

His simple piety, his plain love for the Jewish people and his profound intellectual and spiritual gifts were daunting. Some, in all denominations, found him threatening. On a recent edition of the television program "Nightline," Chaim Potok was honest enough to admit this when he told Ted Koppel that he was afraid to meet with the Rebbe privately for fear of being "overwhelmed by the power of his charisma."

Who was this man for whom Jewish summer camping and Jewish fun for children was as important as sitting with world leaders?

Who was this man who sat with each and every type of Jew and was able to penetrate to the depths of their individual souls and personalities?

Who was this man who asked Jews to engage in massive campaigns of simple mitzvot that express love of the Jewish people and love of humanity?

Who was this man at home in science and at home in prayer, at home in mysticism and at home in the languages and histories of the world?

Who was this man?

The truth may very well be a truth that many modern Jews are not willing to consider. But, nevertheless, here then the consideration: We are a people rooted in the belief that, at one moment in time, God broke into history and redeemed our ancestors from Egypt; and that, at another moment not too long thereafter, God broke through into our time and our space and revealed His will and His word in the Torah, and that all who were there heard Him declare, "I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the Land of Egypt."

If that is the case, then are we not willing to consider that from time to time, possibly in each and every generation, almighty God  in the manner of the shekhina, the abiding presence, breaks through in an abundance of the ru'akh-spirit to great persons of the spirit?

The life of the magesterial Rebbe of Lubavitch summons us to a Judaism rooted not just in mitzvot-commandments but in a commander, not just in deeds but in the spirit, not just in the history of the Jewish people but in deep and profound relationship with God. Is it not possible that in the second half of the 20th Century, as has happened  many times before, the ruakh-spirit of God came to rest upon this man, and  like prophets of old, he then made that spirit accessible to all of us?

Is that not, after all, possible?

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