Chabad-Lubavitch has become known for welcoming travelers and providing Shabbos and holiday kosher hospitality in the far reaches of the world. What is behind this remarkable phenomenon?
One of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The Lubavitcher Rebbe as he was known, or simply the Rebbe as he was called by thousands of followers, was born in Ukraine in 1902. He served as the Rebbe of the Lubavitcher Hasidic dynasty until his death 25 years ago.
Many volumes have been published about the Rebbe over the decades since his passing, but none are like the meticulously researched book recently published by sociologist Philip Wexler entitled "Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe's Transformative Paradigm for the World." It provides a view of the Rebbe’s activities from the perspective of a professor of sociology. With the assistance of Chabad research writer and editor Eli Rubin and son Michael Wexler, Wexler follows each chapter with copious references, and the bibliography is twelve pages long.
Wexler writes that "Schneerson was not only a religious leader and theorist, but also an engineer of social change, engagement, and participation.” He sets out to show that “He was a brilliant tactician who re-created and galvanized a transformative social movement." While the American Protestant work ethic chose capitalism, the Rebbe guided the turn to a liberal social ethic, with elements of neo-Hasidism and neo-mystical social responsibility.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson arrived in the United States in the summer of 1941. Ten years later his father-in-law died, and he became the seventh and last Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch.
In 1951, a few months after assuming leadership, he was interviewed by Dr. Gershon Kranzler for the Sept-Oct issue of Orthodox Jewish Life. Born in Germany, Dr. Kranzler studied philosophy at the University of Wurzburg and later, after immigrating to the United States, sociology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic pursuits, he had a distinguished career in Jewish education, culminating as principal of the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore for over a decade.
As recorded by Dr. Kranzler, the new Rebbe argued, "It is a mistake if we conceive of the worldwide dispersion of the Jewish people as a catastrophe...Our history in exile is an unbroken chain of the emergence and disappearance of such centers in country after country, and from one corner of the earth to the next. As the Jewish sun set in one land, it had already begun to rise in another...Providence has prepared a new home for Torah and Yiddishkeit in this country, while the flames devoured the bastions of the strongest and most impregnable Jewish fortresses on the other side of the ocean." In this statement, Wexler notes, the Rebbe's vision of America is transposed from the realm of kabbalistic theory into the realm of socio-historical analysis.
Thus shifting the view of Judaism in America from negative to positive was one of the Rebbe's early goals. Two other goals were to go to confront young people and tell them the whole truth about Judaism and Jewish tradition.
Wexler devotes a chapter to the Rebbe's principled societal approach of reciprocity. One must not live only for the self, but there must be reciprocity between the self, the community, and the cosmos. The theme of Rosh Hashanah as a day to take stock and assess that reciprocity was one that Schneerson returned to regularly over the decades, not only on Rosh Hashanah.
The Rebbe's views on education and ecology are examined in detail by Wexler. The Rebbe’s practice of standing for hours giving out dollar bills and brachos is documented by hours of video and personal tales that became life long memories for thousands. In addition, using and adapting the latest technology to reach people in the far corners of the world was an important aspect of the Rebbe's program.
To emphasize the Rebbe’s relevance today, Wexler begins his epilogue with a quote from a 1972 interview published in the New York Times. The Rebbe said: "I don't believe that Reform Judaism is liberal and Orthodox is conservative. My explanation of conservative is someone who is so petrified he cannot accept something new. For me, Judaism, or halacha, or Torah encompasses all the universe, and it encompasses every new invention, every new, theory, every new piece of knowledge or thought or action."
Wexler published "Social Vision" on the occasion of the Rebbe's 25th Yahrzeit. Over the past years, the gravesite, or as it has become known, the "Ohel," has attracted tens of thousands of followers. It was reported that Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz prayed at the ohel on the anniversary of his own father's death. Minister Katz was said to have prayed for his father, for the success of the people of Israel, and for his own success in his speech to be given at the United Nations representing Israel instead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Model Naomi Campbell, TV personality Paula Abdul, and basketball star Lamar Odom, all published their visits to the Ohel on social media.
Two recently reported incidents highlighted Chabad rabbis assisting strangers, thus demonstrating the reach of Rebbe’s social vision.
''United Hatzalah volunteer EMT and Chabad Rabbi Menachem Bakush was called upon to save the life of a local Indian man who drowned in a nearby village named Majach."
"When a Chassidic woman on an El Al flight suffered a gall bladder attack, the entire airplane and the Chabad Rabbi in Halifax galvanized to help her get to a hospital."
After more than 25 years, the influence of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe's social vision continues to grow and spread.
Title: Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe's Transformative Paradigm for the World
Authors: Philip Wexler, Eli Rubin, Michael Wexler
Publisher: Herder & Herder
Pages: 300 Publication date: July 2019