The Legacy of the Rebbe: We Must Never Give Up on Any Jew
I would like to discuss 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 Hasidic leaders and yeshiva heads, Chabad’s target audience is not only its own followers. Its shluchim, or emissaries, reach out to “our Jewish brothers and sisters wherever they are.”
Those who see Chabad Hasids 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 Hasid did not mean extra privileges — just the opposite. It carried responsibility. His Hasidim functioned 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 Rebbe 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 and his envoys in particular.
This total commitment is 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 Hasidism without limits.
This is not simple. The Rebbe “endangered” his Hasids 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, Hasidic 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 Hasidism broke through barriers to raise Jewish consciousness around the world. US-born yeshiva boys became teachers in Morocco; Habad seminary girls from France went to teach in Tunisia; families opened Jewish schools in the East and the West, and founded Habad 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.