Tag Archives: Rebbe

Reading “Rebbe” So Far

If a person consistently talks about the faults of others, he will usually overlook even the most obvious positive attributes of those same people.

Today, think of someone that you often degrade, and try focusing on one positive quality of that person.

(see Rabbi Chaim Zaitchyk -Maayanai Hachaim, vol.3, p 85; Rabbi Pliskin’s “Consulting the Wise”)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #79: Focus on the Positive”

I’ve been reading Joseph Telushkin’s book Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History which, according to Dennis Prager, is one “of the greatest religious biographies ever written.” I had heard good things about the book and put it on my mental list of books to read. Then I saw that my wife had checked out a copy from our local public library and thought of asking her if I could borrow it when she was through.

And then last week, I found the book on my desk with a note from her suggesting I read it. Of course, it was almost due (you can only check books out of the New Releases section of the library for two weeks), but I got a chance to start reading before it had to be turned back in. I went online and put a hold on the book, so when I returned it on a Friday, it was ready for me to pick it up and check it out on my library card the following Monday.

I’m a little over a quarter way through this 640 page tome and find it utterly fascinating. Telushkin is doing a great job of portraying the exceptional abilities and humanity of the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) while avoiding lionizing him and making him into an unrealistically perfect person (as perhaps some Lubavitchers tend to do).

We often hear the phrase, “It’s not personal.” But often, perhaps more often than not, disagreements do become personal. For example, in theory, since differences of opinion between political liberals and conservatives, and among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews, are over matters of policy and beliefs, they need not result in personal ill will among those holding opposing views or advocating different policies. As a Hebrew expression puts it: Halevai, if only that were true. For the Rebbe, though, it was true.

-Joseph Teluskin
“Chapter 9: Expressing Disagreement Without Being Disagreeable,” p. 131
Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History

If I had to pick one chapter to recommended to anyone who blogs or otherwise expresses their opinion on the Internet (of the chapters I’ve read so far), I’d pick this one. I think it should be required reading before writing and particularly before clicking on the “Submit” button and spewing our thoughts, feelings, and perspectives on the web for all to see…and particularly if we’ve got an ax to grind, religious or otherwise, that involves castigating another human being.

The Rebbe had many strong opinions, so it wasn’t always like he was playing the role of meek and mild “Mr. Nice Guy.” For instance, he believed that the only valid conversion to Judaism was an Orthodox Conversion and that people who had converted to a different branch of Judaism should not be considered Jews and particularly should not be allowed to make aliyah (have the right of return to emigrate to Israel as a citizen).

The “Who is a Jew?” issue — in which the Rebbe insisted on Israel only recognizing what he regarded as fully halachic, in effect only Orthodox, conversions to Judaism as valid — was one of those issues that provoked considerable opposition to the Rebbe, and one on which he found himself in periodic opposition with the Israeli minister of the interior, Yosef Burg (who was himself an Orthodox Jew). The Rebbe felt that Burg was permitting compromises on what he felt must be a non-compromisable issue. At a meeting with Bernie Rader, the Rebbe, in an uncharacteristic manner, screamed out at one point, “Why does he allow people who are not Jewish to be written down as being Jewish?” Yet, at this very moment of great annoyance, the Rebbe drew back and then, in typical Rebbe style, he said, “But it’s also true that he is a Jew who prays three times a day.” For Rader this was vintage Rebbe: “He always finished up by saying something nice about a person.” And not just a general platitude about the person being nice, but a specific detail (“prays three times a day”) that served to remind the Rebbe (and Rader) of areas in which he and Burg were united.

-Teluskin, p.134

Rabbi M.M Schneerson, the Rebbe

If I could copy and paste the entire chapter into my blog, I probably would, or at least make a downloadable PDF of the chapter available.

As we see from Telushkin’s recording the obvious outburst of the Rebbe in the above-quoted paragraph, the Rebbe was all too human. He could lose his temper out of frustration and scream at people. But he also realized what he did and backed off, seeking to define relationships, not by where people disagreed, but by where they were alike.

According to Telushkin, the Rebbe had the ability to focus on speaking critically of a person’s opinion without attacking their motives or their personal character. That’s extremely important because it’s quite possible to disagree with someone who has good motives and a fine character, and even if they don’t (or you believe they don’t), it is still possible, and perhaps from the Rebbe’s point of view necessary, to avoid embarrassing or causing emotional pain to another person, particularly another Jew.

Much of the time in public discourse, the Rebbe would state his opinion in contradiction to another person without ever mentioning that person’s name. Again, this was to accurately represent his stand on an issue, which was sometimes critical such as the Rebbe’s belief that “trading Land for peace” in Israel would not achieve peace and simply put Jewish lives in danger, without verbally assaulting the person having a different stand, who in all likelihood believed they were doing what was best.

Even when Rabbi Tzvi Greenwald, an Israeli educator and lecturer who was often accused of being too easygoing and tolerant in his interactions with non-religious Jews, asked the Rebbe if he should rebuke secular Jews in an attempt to motivate them to become more observant, the Rebbe’s response in part was:

“You will just build a wall between you and them, an impenetrable wall.”

-ibid, p. 140

The ability to treat another person with respect in the face of disagreement, especially on highly emotionally charged issues, is rare in my experience. Most of the time, even among religious people on the web and sometimes in person, relationships can be strained, even to the breaking point. This is hardly a good reflection on our Master and desecrates the Name of God.

Telushkin wrote that it isn’t known if this ability came naturally to the Rebbe or if he acquired it over many years of experience. It is known that the Rebbe was an extraordinary person even as a young man, many years before the would assume the leadership of Chabad.

The Rebbe
The Rebbe

One of the qualities a person must possess in order treat another person as a valued human being created in the image of the Almighty while disagreeing with strongly held opinions of that person is being “comfortable in your own skin.” That is, you have to realize that first of all, you’re not perfect either, and secondly, that your imperfections and your being God’s cherished creation is something you and the other person have in common.

If you fail to fully grasp and embrace those two facts, you will not achieve anything close to what the Rebbe did in these situations. In other words, you’ll be like about 98% of the people commenting in the blogosphere.

There is no person on earth so righteous, who does only good and does not sin (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

Reading the suggestions for ridding oneself of character defects, someone might say, “These are all very helpful for someone who has character defects, but I do not see anything about myself that is defective.”

In the above-cited verse, Solomon states what we should all know: no one is perfect. People who cannot easily find imperfections within themselves must have a perception so grossly distorted that they may not even be aware of major defects. By analogy, if a person cannot hear anything, it is not that the whole world has become absolutely silent, but that he or she has lost all sense of hearing and may thus not be able to hear even the loudest thunder.

In his monumental work, Duties of the Heart, Rabbeinu Bachaye quotes a wise man who told his disciples, “If you do not find defects within yourself, I am afraid you have the greatest defect of all: vanity.” In other words, people who see everything from an “I am great/right” perspective will of course believe that they do no wrong.

When people can see no faults in themselves, it is generally because they feel so inadequate that the awareness of any personal defects would be devastating. Ironically, vanity is a defense against low self-esteem. If we accept ourselves as fallible human beings and also have a sense of self-worth, we can become even better than we are.

Today I shall…

…be aware that if I do not find things within myself to correct, it may be because I am threatened by such discoveries.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Av 25”

As Rabbi Twerski said, most people who are disagreeable don’t think of themselves as perfect and the rest of the world as losers. In my experience, most people who are disagreeable are aware, at least deep down inside, of their imperfections and their insecurities. They attack or behave in a hostile or rude manner, not just because they think they are right, but because they have to be right. If they allow themselves to consider the possibility that they could be wrong, it would be a blow to their ego and would strike at the very heart of their vulnerabilities. They can’t afford to be wrong, to be humble, to apologize, to ask forgiveness because of the emotional distress that would result.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve greatly appreciated my interactions with Pete Rambo on his blog. We disagree about a great many things, at least in the religious arena, but have yet to attack each other or to personalize conflict. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted out of a relationship with those people who differ from me on some opinion in the blogosphere. I think it’s a quality the Rebbe employed in his dealings with everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike (more on the Rebbe and non-Jews in a minute).

I recently posted a blog about the value and priority of living a focused life. I have admired focused lives for at least forty years. And in recently reading Joseph Telushkin’s study on the life and work of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, I drank deeply from a remarkably focused life. Telushkin said that researching the book made a better man of him. Reading the book is doing the same for me.

-Rabbi Stuart Dauermann
“Learning From the Lubavitcher Rebbe How To Be A Mentsch and Servant of God”

I read this shortly after my wife recommended Telushkin’s book and it was encouraging. R. Dauermann’s parting words at the end of his short review were:

Read this book. It will make you a better human being . . . and a better servant of God.

In discussing my experience in reading the book with my wife (as far as I’ve gotten so far), I pondered whether or not the Rebbe was one of those rare persons in our world who truly was a tzaddik. I sometimes use that word to refer to people such as Abraham, Moses, and certainly Jesus (Yeshua), but no one who has lived in modern times.

Stuart Dauermann
Rabbi Stuart Dauermann

And yet if a tzaddik did live among us (Rabbi Schneerson passed away in 1994) and we have a record of his teachings and lectures (which we do), perhaps it would be a good idea to take R. Dauermann’s advice and read the Telushkin book. So far I’ve found it compelling and even inspiring. It is my prayer that reading of the Rebbe’s extraordinary life will make me a better person and better servant of God too, even as a non-Jew and a disciple of Christ.

A final note on the Rebbe and his relationship with non-Jews. In “Chapter 11: Judaism’s Mission to the World,” Telushkin relates how the Rebbe had encouraged Jewish businessman and philanthropist David Chase to pray daily as Chase’s birthday present to the Rebbe. Chase agreed, and while vacationing on his yacht, he asked the Captain each morning which way was east (the yacht would periodically change course, sometimes even while Chase was praying) so he could face toward Jerusalem while davening. The Captain agreed to tell Chase which way was east each morning and not to change course while Chase was praying.

One Sunday morning, the yacht pulled into Block Island and the Captain asked to go ashore for an hour or two.

Chase answered yes and asked the captain where he was going. “I would like to go to church,” Winters answered. “You pray to your God every morning, and you’re making me feel guilty that I don’t follow my faith. So I want to go to church and say my prayers.”

At his next visit to 770, Chase told the Rebbe about this incident. The Rebbe, to quote Chase, “got a big kick out of it,” and the businessman learned that the Rebbe shortly thereafter spoke of this event at a public lecture; he wanted his Chasidim to know that their behavior could encourage non-Jews, not just Jews, to come closer to God.

-Telushkin, p.158

Shabbat Shalom.

The Equality Puzzle, Part 1

“For all that You created to revive the soul of all that live…” Tosafos – For example, apples. – 37a

One motza’ei Shabbos, one of the chassidim of R’ Aharon Karliner came to visit him. During their conversation, the gabai brought a plate of fruit before them. The Rebbe picked up an apple, and fervently recited the appropriate brochah, thanking Hashem for the fruit of the trees, and he cut off a slice. He then proceeded to eat the apple.

The chossid sat across the table from the Rebbe, watching his every move. He had always thought of the rebbe as akin to one of the angels, and yet, here was his rebbe, eating a mundane apple just like everyone else would. For a fleeting moment, a thought flashed through the mind of the chossid, “We both eat apples, and we both recite brachos. True, the rebbe recites the brochah with a bit more concentration than I do, but we are both essentially the same.”

The rebbe was quick to notice the subtle change of demeanor from reverence to careful appraisal, and he said to his guest, “Tell me, what indeed is the difference between you and me? I eat apples, and you eat apples. I recite blessings, and you recite blessings. So how are we different?”

“I was just wondering the same thing,” the chossid admitted, somewhat startled and embarrassed.

“I’ll tell you,” the rebbe said. “When I get up in the morning, I look around and see all the beautiful things Hashem has created. I am overwhelmed with the splendor of creation, and the mastery of the universe. I am enthralled and I crave to praise Hashem, but I know that it is forbidden to say Hashem’s name in vain. So, I reach for an apple, which gives me the opportunity to praise Hashem as I say a brochah.

“But when you arise in the morning, the first thing you think is that you are hungry, and you want to eat an apple. You cannot eat it without saying a brochah, so you do so to allow yourself to eat. You say your brachos in order to eat, but I eat in order to say a brochah and to talk to Hashem.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Eating to Bless”
Berachos 37

Part 1 in a four-part series.

I mentioned just the other day that we believers who grew up in the west, particularly in the United States, seem to be all about our “rights” and all about “equality.” We have a philosophy that is even built into our Declaration of Independence (although at the time this document was written, it really only applied to white landowners), so it is difficult to even conceive of essential “inequalities” between different groups of human beings unless we invoke the terms “racism” or “bigotry.”

But is inequality between peoples true in terms of the Bible’s intent and more importantly, is it true in terms of God’s intent for humanity? On the surface, it would seem the answer is “no.”

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. –Galatians 3:27-29 (ESV)

It would seem then, that the Christian ideal is for anyone who has been “baptized into Christ,” there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female.” We indeed are all equal before the throne of our King and no one is superior or inferior in relation to each other in the eyes of God.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have differences, of course. It would be foolish to believe that men and women are completely identical right down to their physiology and biochemistry. Also, in terms of social status, duties, and responsibilities, in the day of Paul, there were still slaves and masters, equal in the love of God, but still a master held authority over the slave. The Galatians 3:28 “equality” didn’t “whitewash” humanity. There are still differences in biology and in social roles and status.

Which tends to chafe at some people, particularly those who are more politically liberal. After all, no one wants to support or commit acts of discrimination or injustice which lowers one human being in relation to another. If we’re all equal in God’s eyes, shouldn’t our identities, practices, and roles relative to the faith be identical, too?

Not necessarily.

I quoted the commentary on Berachos 37 above to illustrate that on the level of spiritual development, we can exist on very different planes of accomplishment. A tzaddik like the Rebbe obviously has a more highly developed perspective on spiritual matters than the Chassid who was observing him. Their transaction reminds me of another “Rebbe” relating to his own “Chassidim.”

An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” –Luke 9:46-48 (ESV)

Jesus knew “the reasoning of their hearts” even as the Rebbe in the story above noticed “the subtle change of demeanor from reverence to careful appraisal” of his Chassid. He was also just as quick to point out that there we indeed differences between a Rebbe and his Chassid, just as there were differences between Jesus and his disciples. We are also the disciples of Jesus and just like his students of ancient days, we have a long way to go in our learning and understanding. We are not equal to our Master.

Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. –John 13:16 (ESV)

I don’t think any Christian, regardless of denomination, tradition, or sect, would seriously consider themselves as equal to Jesus Christ, but do we consider ourselves always equal to one another?

Given the nature of human beings, probably not. That is, people have a tendency to elevate themselves at the expense of others. But is this always unjustified? It wasn’t in terms of the Rebbe and his Chassid. But what about between different groups of believers.

In traditional Judaism, Jews do not see themselves as superior to Christians or any other group of Gentiles. They only see themselves as functionally different based on the covenant requirements that were specified at Sinai. This viewpoint is illuminated by a response to an “Ask the Rabbi” question about why Jews don’t proselytize.

It would be discriminatory for Judaism to proselytize and try to convert those not of the religion. That would imply that everybody needs to be Jewish in order to make a relationship with God, participate in the Torah’s vision of repairing the world, and “get to heaven.” Yet this is not so.

The idea of demanding that everyone to convert is probably familiar to you as a Christian ideal. For example, a Baptist group in Florida recently spent over $1 million to distribute a video entitled “Jesus” to every household in Palm Beach County. It’s no coincidence that 60 percent of these homes are Jewish.

Be that as it may, the Jewish idea is that the Torah of Moses is a truth for all humanity, whether Jewish or not. The Torah (as explained in the Talmud – Sanhedrin 58b) presents seven mitzvot for non-Jews to observe. These seven laws are the pillars of human civilization, and are named the Seven Laws of Noah, since all humans are descended from Noah.

Maimonides explains that any human being who faithfully observes these laws earns a proper place in heaven. So you see, the Torah is for all humanity, no conversion necessary.

As well, when King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he specifically asked God to heed the prayer of non-Jews who come to the Temple (1-Kings 8:41-43). The Temple was the universal center of spirituality, which the prophet Isaiah referred to as a “house for all nations.” The service in the Holy Temple during the week of Sukkot featured a total of 70 bull offerings, corresponding to each of the 70 nations of the world. In fact, the Talmud says that if the Romans would have realized how much they were benefiting from the Temple, they never would have destroyed it!

Of course, anyone wanting to take on an extra level of responsibility can voluntarily convert to become Jewish. But that is not a prerequisite for having a relationship with God and enjoying eternal reward.

From “Jewish Proselytizing?”
Ask the Rabbi

interfaithYes, all men are equal in the sense that all men are descended from Noah, and thus the wisdom and truth of the Torah is for all humanity, but how the responsibilities of the Torah are to be expressed are a function of covenant responsibility from a Jewish point of view. Jews are obligated to the full 613 mitzvot as modern Judaism understands the Torah commandments today, while most Jews consider Gentiles obligated to a subset of the Torah as defined by the Seven Noahide Laws.

Christianity disputes this, not in terms of thinking that we believers are obligated to the full weight of the Torah, but that Jesus removed the Torah obligations for everyone, and replaced them with grace, love, and forgiveness. I don’t believe the Bible supports this particular theology and maintain that while we non-Jewish Christians are not obligated to the full yoke of Torah, the Jewish people do remain a people of the full Torah in response to God and Sinai.

Christians and Jews don’t particularly believe that one group is better than the other and equality between the two groups is less of a concern than incompatibility. They simply see each other as completely different religious entities. Jews are Jews and Christians are Christians.

But if Christians and Jews traditionally don’t struggle over issues of equality or superiority, then where is the problem? We’ll address that in Part 2 of this series.

A Light in Your Reflection

RebbeAre you a Soul Waiting To Be Released? A Chabad emissary brought an English professor from London to see the Rebbe. The professor sat very cold and silent. To break the ice, the Rebbe turned to him and asked, “tell me, when you look at me what do you see?” He was stunned, but remained quiet. Recognizing that the professor won’t say anything, the Rebbe continued, “I’ll tell you what I see when I look at you. I see a Divine soul waiting to be released.” Then he turned again to this professor and said to him, “so now what do you see when you look at me?’ the professor replied, “I see an observant Jew.” the Rebbe responded, “that’s not who I am.”

Rabbi Anchell Perl

I’ve been reading Gedalyah Nigal’s book The Hasidic Tales and there are a lot of intriguing lessons related in the stories of the Chasidim. I was both fascinated and frustrated by Rabbi Perl’s very brief rendition of his story. I asked him (via twitter) if there was a longer version, but if it exists, he’s not aware of it.

Who was the English professor? Why did the Chabad emissary bring him to meet with the Rebbe? What was supposed to happen? Was there any lasting result of the meeting or did it start and end just as we see in Rabbi Perl’s small story?

One does not just drop in on a Rebbe to shoot the breeze. A Rebbe is an exalted spiritual leader and it’s said that his prayers and other intercessions result in miracles. In Christianity, we know this about righteous people, too.

The prayer of a righteous person (tzadik) is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. –James 5:16-18

Only very important questions and problems are brought to the Rebbe and he often receives visitors late into the evening and even all through the night. I don’t think there is an analogous individual or relationship in modern Christianity. In Catholicism, the Pope is highly revered but there’s not the same “earthy” texture in an audience with the Pope as there is in a meeting with a Rebbe. At least, that’s my impression.

Last year, Susan Handelman, Professor of English at Bar Ilan University wrote a very heartwarming story about her experiences with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. You can read the entire content of her article by clicking A Professor’s Moving Recollection With The Rebbe. It’s stories like this one that illustrate one of the stark differences between Judaism and Christianity. In Christianity, it’s said that “God has no grandchildren”. This means that the children of a Christian aren’t automatically Christian, and therefore, they have no more innate attachment to Christ than a child of an atheist. Each individual establishes their own individual relationship with Jesus including, sometimes, no relationship at all. This is not the case with a Jew as Professor Handelman writes:

“I grew up in suburban Chicago in the 1950’s, a typical third-generation assimilated American. Like many of my generation I fled Sunday school and the temple to which my family belonged, and could see nothing true or compelling in what seemed to be the hollow rituals that most of the congregants hardly understood.

Being Jewish in that milieu was a vaguely uncomfortable and perplexing experience, but not any obstacle to full immersion in the non-Jewish culture which surrounded us and swept us along with it. What power took me out of the deep exile in which I lived — not just geographically, but intellectually, spiritually and emotionally?”

Being Jewish seems to be (obviously, I can’t describe this from personal experience) something that’s interwoven with your soul. Even rejecting every religious aspect of being Jewish isn’t enough to stop a person from being Jewish. God still holds the strings that bind your heart. You may walk away from the synagogue and the Torah, but you were chosen at Sinai beyond any ability to become “unchosen”.

In the late 1960’s, when many of my generation rebelled in extreme ways, the Rebbe understood us. He sensed that our restlessness came from a spiritual discontent. Instead of chastising us, he sent us his best Chasidim to found Chabad Houses — to teach us, to live with us, to love us.

I think that was what really lay behind the development under the Rebbe’s leadership of the extraordinary international network of Chabad institutions, from Hong Kong to Paris to Katmandu.

The Rebbe felt our pain, he intuited our yearning. And he saw us not just as products of late twentieth century America, but under the light of Jewish eternity. We were princes and prophets and sages; each Jew was royalty; each Jew was precious; each Jew was the emissary and reflection of G-d in the world.

My wife has become involved in our local Chabad and is friends with the Rabbi and his wife. My wife’s experience wasn’t like that of Professor Handelman, who was born and raised in a Jewish family and who grew up in a religious home. My wife didn’t even know her mother was Jewish until she (my wife) was in college. Although my wife became involved in the Reform synagogue before a Chabad House was established in our community, I think the Chabad served her in the same way it served Handelman.

Although Jews from other traditions don’t always meld very well with the Chabad, the Chabad serves an important purpose. They’re like a life-preserver thrown to the drowning, who in this case, are secular Jews, Jews who have lost their way, and those like my wife, who didn’t begin to explore being Jewish until adulthood.

Professor Handelman lived in the Chabad center in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn in the mid-1970s and experienced the presence of the Rebbe in a number of ways. She saw his compassion, dedication, and endurance as he continued to age and as he continued to serve, and it had a profound affect on her.

In the few years before he became ill, when in his nineties, he would stand in the alcove by his office every Sunday to speak for a few moments personally and face-to-face with anyone who wanted to see him, and give out dollars to each person to be given for charity.

How could a 90-year-old man stand on his feet for hours and hours without taking a moment’s rest, or a drink? And how could he focus so intently and exclusively on each and every person who came through the line of thousands which stretched for blocks outside his office?

I heard that when urged to sit during these long sessions, he responded by asking: how could he sit when people were coming to him with their problems, needs, and pains?

I only have the written experiences of others to tell me about the Rebbe and his life and character, but part of what Professor Handelman is describing is something we don’t have a lot of in the larger American (or worldwide) landscape anymore: someone to look up to.

ReflectionWhen I was a child in the 1960s, we had heroes; people we looked up to and admired, people we thought were important. It didn’t matter that, in real life, they were just as human as the next person and had just as many flaws. They were our heroes, we looked up to them, and we wanted to be like them. They were sort of a goal we could shoot for in our own lives as we were growing up.

As time passed, society’s ability to collect and disseminate information got better and we started learning so much about our heroes (or those people who were supposed to be our heroes) that we could no longer admire them. They were flawed, they were involved in scandals, they had affairs, they lied.

We became disillusioned. No one in authority could be trusted. There were no more heroes and there probably never were.


I said to a friend once, “It is so paradoxical to find this great tzadik in the midst of all the violence and squalor and despair of this broken-down part of Brooklyn.” And my friend responded, “And where else do you think you would find him? Where else does he belong — the Plaza Hotel?”

The Rebbe refused to abandon Crown Heights when the neighborhood changed. It was consistent with his refusal to abandon any Jew, to leave anyone behind. And it was consistent with his refusal to give in to fear. It was also consistent with the principle of mesirat nefesh, self-sacrifice for love of the Jewish people that he embodied and that he taught his followers.

And it was an affirmation of one of the great principles of Chasidic philosophy that “every descent is for the purpose of an ascent” . . . that from overcoming the darkness ultimately comes the greatest light.

As the Rebbe often said, we live in an era of “doubled and redoubled darkness” — that is, a darkness so deep we do not even know it is darkness any more. He was the light in that darkness, and he remains so even after his passing.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson passed from this earth 17 years ago on the 3rd of Tammuz, which this year was from sundown July 4th to sundown July 5th. Although my wife is very involved in the Chabad, my experience with them is somewhat limited. What I do know about the local Chabad Rabbi is that he’s human. He makes mistakes (I don’t say this out of malice or slander, but only because I know it to be true). He’s not perfect. He’s not a “saint”, if I can use such a word in this context. He is serious, devout, and dedicated. He’s also young, so he may have to acquire more experiences as he progresses down the Chasidic path of the Rebbe.

I don’t know if the Lubavitcher Rebbe was a “saint” either, but from what I can tell, he touched a great many lives, not only with his learning and his wisdom, but with his compassion and his humanity. As people, we are supposed to be able to see God in other human beings. You probably know a Rabbi or a Pastor or a teacher or even a neighbor or co-worker who shines with a special light that can only come from a relationship with God. It’s like the light that shone from the face of Moses after he spent time with God on Sinai. It’s something amazing and special and being with such people brings us that much closer to heaven.

What we don’t see often enough though, is that kind of light shining back from our reflection in the mirror. This is the true value of the tzadik; not in what they teach or in how honored they are in life, but in how, through them, God changes us and brings us closer to Him because we’re imitating the tzadik.

Perhaps we do have this example in Christianity as well, but we have to go back to Judaism to find its source:

I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. –1 Corinthians 4:14-17

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. –1 Corinthians 11:1

A disciple is a student who learns by imitating his or her Master. In the Chasidic tradition, the Chadisim (devoted ones) would imitate their Rebbe and so, in the modern Chabad movement, Chabad Rabbis strive to imitate Rabbi Schneerson. In Christianity, we strive to also imitate our Rebbe, but while the Lubavitcher Rebbe died 17 years ago, our Rebbe died nearly 2,000 years ago. The Chasidim believe that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah and will, in God’s proper timing, be resurrected to bring peace to the earth and to exalt Israel, as written in prophesy. We Christians also believe that our Rebbe is the Messiah and that he will, in God’s proper timing, return to us to bring peace to the earth and to exalt Israel, as written in prophesy.

Without having seen him, you love him. Without seeing him now, but trusting in him, you continue to be full of joy that is glorious beyond words. And you are receiving what your trust is aiming at, namely, your deliverance. –1 Peter 1:8-9

The Messiah walked among us as a man. He experienced human pain and suffering. He died and he’s alive again. We wait and we hope for his return in mercy and judgment. In the meantime, we look at our reflection in the mirror and search for the light of his face. We’re waiting for our soul to be released.

Keep speaking and acting like people who will be judged by a Torah which gives freedom. For judgment will be without mercy toward one who doesn’t show mercy; but mercy wins out over judgment. –James 2:12-13 (CJB)

Not in Heaven

HeavenThe Torah is not in heaven [i.e. though the Torah is of heavenly origin, it was given to human beings to interpret and apply].

from The Hasidic Tale
by Gedalyah Nigal
pp 148-9

This small snippet from Nigal’s book touches on something I’ve been pondering for quite some time. It’s a concept that’s common in Judaism but almost completely escapes Christianity, including many of the Jewish and non-Jewish believers of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah commonly referred to as “Messianic”. Here’s another example with more detail:

As a result of testimony by R’ Yehoshua b. Zeiruz, Rebbe ruled that fruits and vegetables which grow in Beis Shan were exempt from terumah and ma’aser gifts. Rebbe’s extended family members rose up against his ruling, and they wondered how he could release the obligation for tithing from items grown in Beis Shan, an area which his ancestors had deemed to be obligated in these halachos. Rebbe responded and said that this was an area of halacha which his ancestors had left for Rebbe to rule and to thereby be credited with this decision. Rebbe illustrated that a similar scenario is recorded in Tanach, where we are told that King Chizkiyahu ground up the copper snake made by Moshe Rabeinu to alleviate a devastating plague that threatened the nation. Later, this copper image was abused by the people, as they began to offer incense to it for idolatrous purposes. This is why Chizkiyahu had it destroyed. The Gemara notes that it is wonderous to think that this image which was being used for idolatrous purposes was not destroyed much earlier. Why would Assa and Yehoshafat, both righteous kings, not have destroyed this statue earlier? Rather, it must be that they left it intact in order for Chizkiyahu to take care of the matter.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“Leaving room for later generations to make their mark”
Chullin 7

There are a couple of things going on here. One is that the tzadikim (righteous people) and the sages in each age were given authority to make rulings about the Torah commandments and that these rulings were and are binding. The other thing is that rulings on the same Torah laws could be applied differently based on the demands of each generation.

Most Christians believe in “the Word” (i.e. the Bible) as the only authority (and certainly the absolute authority) over the believer’s life and consider the rulings of the Jewish sages to be “merely” the opinions of men and thus, they have no authority over a person’s day to day existence. The following is considered something of a “proof text” of this opinion in the church:

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” –Mark 7:1-8

Jesus was most likely referring to Netilat Yadayim or the ritual of hand washing, which is performed by observant Jews even today. This practice is considered to be a method of purifying the person after awakening and before eating and re-dedicating his or her life to the service of God.

It’s unlikely Jesus was speaking against the practice as such in Mark (see the full text of Mark 7 for the details) but rather, he was criticizing the Pharisees for focusing on what might be considered a matter of “lesser” priority and ignoring the more “important” duty (kaloh vs. chamurah or minor vs. major mitzvos) of caring for impoverished and elderly parents (and one of these days, I’d love to research how Jesus probably did practice the halacha of his day).

For the vast majority of Christians, what I’m saying now probably seems like so much nonsense. Christianity tends to put a great deal of value on being “Spirit-led” when trying to understand the Word and the Will of God in their lives and will only rely on local authorities (for the most part) such as a trusted Pastor or teacher to help interpret the Bible. In other words, the Bible is understood on an almost exclusively individual level, though most Christians in the same church or denomination probably share many of the same opinions about what the Bible says. Interpretation for the person though, remains primarily part of the relationship between the individual and the Spirit of God (though this has rather obvious potential pitfalls).

By contrast, Judaism has a vast repository of knowledge commonly referred to as the Talmud, that contains the discussions, arguments, and rulings of a long list of sages stretching back across the centuries to before the time of Jesus. Christianity, with the exception of branches such as Catholicism, has no such tradition. The dictates of the Church fathers and the commentaries of renowned teachers and spiritual leaders, both historical figures and modern men and women, while highly valued, are not considered perpetually binding legal rulings over the lives of the devout of Christ. Rulings, authorities, and judgments in Judaism, particularly among the Orthodox, are much more defined and delineated.

Even for those parts of Christian theology that are considered binding (belief in the Trinity, belief in the resurrection of Christ, belief that people who are “saved” go to Heaven when they die, and so on), it’s hard for the collective church to imagine that “legal rulings” could continue to be issued across the passage of time and into the modern era. What new interpretation of the Bible would be necessary today that didn’t already exist in the time of Jesus and the Apostles (and I know I might be unfair in saying this since “progressive revelation” is part of the Christian belief structure)?

Consider the following:

Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day. –Exodus 35:3

Based on this commandment in the Torah, observant Jews, to one degree or another, do not light a flame on the Shabbat. Back in the days of the Exodus, this was understood in a particular way. No candle lighting, no lighting a fire in a home or at a camp, and so on.

Netilat YadayimBut no one ever thought of things like the invention of the automobile, the electric light bulb, and the microwave oven. How does the commandment to not light a flame apply to these technologies? Can an electric spark be considered “igniting” something? Once the question comes up, who gets to answer the question and decide how it is applied and to whom? After all, if you’re a devout Jew who doesn’t want to violate the Shabbat, you’ll need to know if you can start your car, warm up a cup of coffee in the microwave, or pop on a reading lamp when it gets dark on the Shabbat (and as it turns out, the ruling is that an observant Jew can do none of these things without violating the commandment).

In religious Judaism, your life is orchestrated in a beautiful but somewhat complicated dance as you progress through the days and months and years. The Torah is both instruction book and part of the mystic presence of God in your life, but who can understand the Torah and all that it instructs? The average Jew may not have the time, the mental discipline, or the necessary intellectual capacity to study the Torah and the sages in depth and thus understand his or her responsibilities to God in all matters of living. Yet there is halacha and tradition upon which a Jew can count to guide his or her steps in this dance with God and with life. These traditions, rulings, and judgments have provided continuity and consistency in Jewish communities all over the world for thousands of years. Perhaps the Torah and the Talmud have been the instrument by which God has preserved the Children of Israel, when many other people groups from the days of Moses and before have simply ceased to exist.

The Torah may be from heaven but it is not in heaven. God gave it to the Children of Israel from the hands of angels to Moses, not because God wants to control the actions of each individual Jew, but because God loves his Chosen People and wants to take care of them. And while the Mosaic covenant and thus much of the Torah is not applied to the “grafted in” Christian, the Torah was always intended to “go forth from Zion” (Isaiah 2:1-4) and to be a guide and a protector, not only of the Jewish people, but for all the people of the Earth, if they will only turn to and walk with God in faith and trust.

Why am I saying all this? Why should you care?

Perhaps, as a Christian, you don’t care and you don’t think it matters and you believe that the Torah and the Talmud is best left to the Jews. If you happen to be Jewish, you may not care about the potential applications of Torah and Talmud to Christianity. For my part, as a Christian married to a Jew, I can see great value in studying not only the Bible, but the judgments, rulings, and insights of the sages, from Hillel and Shammai to Rambam and Rashi. Unless we understand how Jewish Rabbis and learned scholars read and understand the Torah and God, how can be begin to comprehend the Jewish sage and apostle Paul and what he wrote and taught? Indeed, how can we begin to comprehend the mind, the teachings, and the actions of the Jewish Messiah, the Christ…Jesus, as he was on Earth and as he is in heaven?

Without this understanding, while we may think we understand the sacred writings of the New Testament as they are “in plain English”, we eventually must face the reality that when we Christians read the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Apocalyptic writings, we are reading a deep mystery with very few clues, and peering into a wine-dark glass, seeing only dim shapes of what God is trying to illuminate on the other side. The Talmudic scholars can be our guides into ways of seeing God and His Word that would otherwise be missing hues in our color palettes. What might we perceive if we only chose to open our eyes and look?

A true master of life never leaves this world
—he transcends it, but he is still within it.

He is still there to assist those who are bonded with him with blessing and advice, just as before, and even more so.

Even those who did not know him in his corporeal lifetime can still create with him an essential bond.

The only difference is in us:
Now we must work harder to connect.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman