The Chabad-Lubavitch movement has been in the news recently over a video clip of people laying tefillin at the airport.
The discussion mostly forgot about the movement’s impressive activity under its late leader, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who left us 24 years ago this Shabbat. His approach was characterized by a sense of responsibility for the entire Jewish people, as well as a concern for every Jew as an individual.
There is a saying attributed to Chabad founder Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi: “A Jew must never despair, and we must never despair of any Jew.” Unlike other Chassidic leaders and yeshivah heads, Chabad’s target audience was not only its own followers. Its shluchim, or emissaries, reach out to “our Jewish brothers and sisters wherever they are.”
Those who see Chabad Chassids in the streets of teeming cities and tiny villages at the end of the world wonder from where this unparalleled sense of devotion comes. In an age of doubt and hesitation, it’s difficult not to wonder at their belief in the righteousness of their path and the great optimism with which they brim. Where does this untiring motivation come from?
The answer? The Rebbe. According to the Rebbe, being a Chassid did not mean extra privileges; just the opposite, it carried responsibility. His Chassidim function as emissaries through whom he could reach every member of the Jewish faith. They are required to carry out the mission assigned by him. The rabbi lived his life as a model of uncompromising devotion. All his life, he saw himself as a representative of the previous Rebbe, his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. The motif that repeated itself again and again in his talks was of great belief in every Jew and the mission of devotion that obligates every Jew, his envoys in particular.
This total commitment was seen in the call most identified with Chabad: “You shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south” (Genesis 28:14). This means that Jews must work to spread Judaism and Chassidism without limits.
This is not simple; the Rebbe “endangered” his Chassids by exposing them to the wider world, to places where there is no holy atmosphere. Indeed, he was criticized for this in other Orthodox circles, Chassidic and otherwise.
Like every rabbinic leader of the modern age, the Rebbe faced the dilemma of how to lead his movement and whether to close ranks or open them up. He opted for a dialectic approach. On the one hand, he followed tradition and was unprepared to accept any compromise on ideology or Jewish law. On the other hand, he adopted technological innovations and some modern values, and saw them as tools for his holy work rather than a threat. This was also how he perceived Jewish secularism: He neither shut himself off from it nor accepted it as a good thing; he simply emphasized the obligation to the commandment to love the Jewish people.
Indeed, Chabad Chassidim broke through barriers to raise Jewish consciousness around the world. U.S.-born yeshivah boys became teachers in Morocco; Chabad seminary girls from France went to teach in Tunisia; families opened Jewish schools in the East and the West, and founded Chabad centers on university campuses. After the Rebbe’s death in 1994, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva, eulogized him with these words: “He cared.”
“Not in the narrow sense of caring about his own home, his own interests, but seeing the big picture,” said Lichtenstein, “ … caring enough to see things in historical and national contexts.”
Professor Rabbi Yitzhak Kraus teaches at the Midrasha branch of the Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.