Engaging the world

The strongest indication of the success of this path is seen in the children of shluchim who, though raised in an environment with few peers who share their values, continue the emissary chain.

July 6, 2019 10:02
RABBIS AT the International Conference of Chabad Emissaries, in Brooklyn, in 2016.

RABBIS AT the International Conference of Chabad Emissaries, in Brooklyn, in 2016.. (photo credit: ELIYAHU PARYPA/ CHABAD.ORG)

Twenty-five years is enough time to pause and reflect. This is what Jews around the world are doing this Shabbat as they observe the 25th yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. For hassidim who stood in the New York cemetery that ominous day, it’s almost unfathomable that so much time has passed. 
I remember the funeral vividly. With thousands gathered in the cemetery, I was standing inside the ohel, the granite-walled grave site, with some 75 others as the Rebbe was interred near his father-in-law and predecessor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson. After listening to the Rebbe’s secretaries recite a tearful Kaddish, there was an eerie silence. We stood there, wondering what was next, still unbelieving and filled with unasked questions about how we as a community, as hassidim, could proceed. 
The Rebbe had so inspired us and prodded us to do what we thought was impossible and create a Jewish renaissance around the world. But how could we continue? The solemn silence was shattered by the boisterous voice of Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, the Rebbe’s dedicated shaliach (emissary) from California, who made an oath: “Rebbe, we promise to continue the mission you entrusted us with.”
We filed out of the grave site not really knowing what lay ahead. But as the years unfolded, the doubts would recede, and we now see that this oath has been fulfilled. At the time, there were some 1,500 shluchim. Twenty-five years later, the number is close to 5,000 emissary families in more than 100 countries. Chabad has moved to the Jewish mainstream, becoming the largest Jewish movement in the world.
The academics and media predicted the disintegration of Chabad after the Rebbe’s passing, but it persisted because its values and teachings have been deeply internalized. Chabad is a movement rooted in profound ideals and intellectual engagement with the inner dimensions of Torah’s teachings and hassidic philosophy. A hassid’s outward practices are expected to reflect the values on the inside. The Rebbe demanded hard spiritual effort based on Torah study, self-reflection and rigorous spiritual debate. Judaism should be instilled in a person’s core, not dependent on societal or group values. 
The strongest indication of the success of this path is seen in the children of shluchim who, though raised in an environment with few peers who share their values, continue the chain and have a strong observance based on the ideals of Torah. Amazingly, over 60% of children of shluchim follow in their parents footsteps. This proves the strength of the values that they’ve been instilled with – that they can live in the broader society and be a part of it while retaining a deep commitment to Torah teachings.
With the passage of time, it’s easier to gain a deeper appreciation of the Rebbe’s vast achievements: Never in Jewish history has one man established so many institutions dedicated to Jewish education and renaissance; the Rebbe’s scholarship, an immeasurable intellectual treasure reaching into all segments of Jewish learning; the empowerment of thousands to dedicate their lives to others; and the many who cherish the memory of the Rebbe’s blessings and advice that molded their lives.
But there is one dimension of the Rebbe’s legacy that many seem to overlook, and that is his approach to Judaism’s relationship with the quickly modernizing society. Over the last two centuries, Jews have created a wide variety of responses to the opportunities of freedom and modernity. Some argue that we need to assimilate into our host culture, our Jewish identity subservient to the mores of modernity. Others advocate creating a unique society in the ancient Jewish homeland – displacing classical Judaism with secular nationalism. Many in the observant community, fearing the outside world, have built a fortress around Judaism with as little interaction with the broader society as possible. Underlying all these responses is a sense of insecurity reflective of our history in the last 2,000 years, of being subjected to kings and the whims and depots, institutional antisemitism and lack of religious rights.

THE REBBE, on the other hand, struck a different tone to the challenges modernity brought to Judaism. Instead of seeking insularity, he argued for engagement. Instead of withdrawal, he argued for marching forward with pride and self-confidence, and without any compromise to Jewish practice but with Judaism taking a leading role in life. The Rebbe felt that the time had come to take responsibility for Jewish destiny and not fear the world around us or abandon seemingly archaic traditions. He instilled his followers with a bold self-confidence and sense of optimism in a time when the world was shattered in the wake of the Holocaust. 
He encouraged Jewish intellectuals, artists and writers to use their gifts as a vehicle to inspire others and bring sanctity into the world. He prodded scientists to see the deeper spiritual dimension in their research and bridge the manufactured gap between science and religion. While some in the Orthodox world argued for disengagement from the broader society and others advocated the dilution of Judaism, the Rebbe had confidence that the teachings of the Torah apply to and resonate in modern times. And while he advocated a strong Torah education, he believed if a Jew was well-educated, particularly in the teachings of Hassidism, he could engage the society around him with a positive message.
The Rebbe was also deeply concerned about the welfare of Israel and her citizens. In the 1950s, when the late Israeli tycoon Efraim Ilin voiced doubts about his ability to build an auto plant in Israel, the Rebbe firmly encouraged him to move ahead, telling him that the plant would be the foundation of all of Israel’s industry. And it was. In 1956, Kaiser Motors Corporation in Israel was responsible for 28% of the country’s exports. 
Besides for concern for Israel’s economy, the Rebbe was a strong voice for its security, urging that the government stand strong in the face of adversity and international pressure, saying time and time again that political leaders would put the country at risk when making withdrawals which would endanger its security. As the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin remarked to ambassador Yehuda Avner when he exited the Rebbe’s office, “He knows more about Israeli security than 120 members of the Knesset.” 
The Rebbe’s approach of fidelity to Jewish tradition, while at the same time engaging with the broader society, sets Chabad apart from much of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) society in Israel, at times creating friction. This approach is not without risk. As Rabbi Mendel Glukowsky, one of the leading Chabad rabbis in Israel says, “We are in the gray area and that is toughest.” 
Chabad followers serve in the Israeli Army and enter the workforce. Last week, a member of another hassidic group argued with me, saying serving in the IDF might endanger a person’s spiritual welfare. I responded, saying that today’s secular Jews in Israel are not out to get Orthodox Jewry, but rather want to find a way for societal coexistence. And Chabad’s willingness to engage with others reflects a greater degree of self-confidence: If you have done the heavy spiritual lifting and your Judaism is deeply ingrained in the very core of your identity, then you can retain your values while still contributing to the broader society.
Shortly after his passing, the Living Legacy Conference was held in Washington to posthumously award the Rebbe a Congressional Gold Medal. At the conference, Jewish theologian Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said the event was misnamed. The Rebbe, he said, did not leave a legacy. He left marching orders. His hassidim, shluchim and all those he affected with his blessings and teachings continue to follow those orders to teach Torah, encourage Jews to reconnect to their heritage, illuminate the world with kindness, and bring sanctity and spiritual purpose to mankind.
The writer is president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County, California. His email is rabbi@ocjewish.com.

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