Exploring the Rebbe in the Social Realm
Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World by Philip Wexler (with Eli Rubin and Michael Wexler).
There is no shortage of books that extol the influence and charisma of the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In recent years, several excellent biographies by a varied range of authors have given us a pretty accurate picture of his history and achievements — and how Chabad, the movement he headed, has brought Judaism to millions of unattached Jews and is a worldwide resource for all denominations.
There are hundreds of volumes of the Rebbe’s own extensive writings and talks in literally tens of languages. There are thousands of hours of recordings of him, as well as of those who experienced his charisma on record. So there is little that anyone can tell us about what he thought and what his impact was on his movement and so many lives that is new.
The book Social Vision, The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World is written by Philip Wexler, an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and previously a professor at the University of Rochester. Wexler says of himself that he “was led to leave my career in traditional sociology behind and to extend the horizons of my research to include the Jewish mystical tradition.”
He was assisted by Michael Wexler, a graduate of Princeton University and adjunct professor of writing at the University of Missouri, and Eli Rubin of Chabad.org.
In this work, Professor Wexler sets out to show that the Rebbe’s world view could be expressed as a legitimate sociological solution to the problems of modern societies that reject the spiritual and communal for the secular and the individual.
He draws on the works of some early pioneers and giants of the field of the sociology of religion such as Max Weber (no, he was not Jewish) and the French Emile Durkheim (yes, he was), who were the preeminent thinkers of the 19th century and focused on the social and religious components that helped in the development of modern societies. Whereas Marxism stressed the material, both Weber and Durkheim emphasized the influence of religion on the development of societies. Both men worked within an academic, rational framework to produce theories and constructs that held an important place in the academic world. Is there any validity to suggesting that the Rebbe had an academic social theory to compare to theirs?
The Rebbe wrote within the context of Chabad Hasidism, drawing on ideas from Hasidic literature. What sets the Rebbe’s ideas apart from others are the specific choices and interpretations that he placed on certain traditional ideas.
The foundations of Hasidism emerged during the 18th century. It brought religious devotion to the Jewish masses in a simplified, non-judgmental, and supportive way, regardless of the degree of one’s learning or commitment. God should be served out of love and joy rather than fear and anxiety (certainly not a Hasidic innovation given the number of times joy is mentioned in the Bible). It was an antidote to Lithuanian sobriety and conventional attitudes. It asserted that wealth belonged to the people rather than to individuals and should be shared with the community. It required devotion, separation, and a distinct social character even within Judaism. As well as piety, Messianism was a crucial aspiration that bred hope and optimism. Later came the idea of the Super individual, who represented the ultimate goals of Hasidism and could inspire his followers either to reach God through him as an intermediary or because of him. Closeness to the Rebbe meant imitating him in dress, mannerisms, and speech, and drawing inspiration from his very presence.
What was truly remarkable was the Rebbe’s practical as well as ideological program for Chabad in the United States, and the drive to bring passionate Judaism to the mass of assimilated or alienated Jews regardless of how far they may have strayed. This, in effect, brought about the whole Jewish evangelical Baal Teshuva movement we recognize everywhere today. But in the 1950s, it was unheard of. Hasidic groups, hitherto and still today in the main, tended to be inward looking, defensive, and the opposite of evangelical. And to achieve his goals, the Rebbe, instead of spurning modernity, turned to the new vehicles of public relations and advertising. He was the first Madison Avenue Rebbe, and it was this, as well as his personal magnetism, that set him apart as much as any ideology.
He also wanted to expand beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community, and encouraged his followers to get involved in political life, to lobby and reach out to local government, state legislatures, and Washington, and to take up issues of state and religion. In Israel, he campaigned against adulterating the law on Jewish identity and giving up any land for peace.
All of this is impressive, and his achievements do not need rehearing here — but it was a matter of his genius and leadership rather than theoretical innovation. His was a social, universal agenda rather than a social philosophy. Although his followers like to refer to the brief time he spent at universities in Europe, and despite his own passionate interest in the sciences, he remained in all his public statements an unreconstructed fundamentalist.
You could say the Rebbe was very influential socially. But to make a case for a rationalist, academic social theory in the tradition of Weber and Durkheim as this book implies, simply does not withstand scrutiny. Even so, in describing the Rebbe’s work in the social realm, this book is a valuable addition to Chabadology and a testament to the Rebbe’s greatness.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.