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July 9, 2020 7:29 am

Sociology and the Rebbe

avatar by David Sholom Pape

Opinion

Menachem Mendel Schneerson — the Lubavitcher Rebbe — at the Lag BaOmer parade in Brooklyn, New York, May 17, 1987. Photo: Mordecai Baron via Wikicommons.

Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World by Philip Wexler (with Eli Rubin and Michael Wexler).

In an extraordinary passage by the 19th century novelist George Eliot (a pen name for Mary Anne Evans), a distraught young woman notices as she holds a candle before an old scratched up mirror that all the random scratches going in every direction suddenly take on a beautiful pattern of concentric circles, bestowed upon them by the candle’s light.

In the book Social Vision by Professor Philip Wexler, the candle, so to speak, is the vision of an experienced and seasoned sociologist, which is held up to throw light upon the overwhelmingly immense body of teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Sociology, of course, is the study of human society and social problems. This study therefore throws fascinating light on the vision of the Lubavitcher Rebbe as it applies to so many various situations and personalities, challenges, and issues on a local, national, and international scale as they impact on the society we live in.

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In the light of the sociologist’s “candle,” we begin to notice and pick out the fine details of the Rebbe’s vision, intricate and sensitive touches, and insights that would easily go unnoticed without this special “social” focus.

This is especially so considering that a major area of consideration in Professor Wexler’s study deals with the letters the Rebbe sent to people outside of the Chassidic or even religious community, as well as conversations with individuals who came to the Rebbe for all kinds of reasons in the early years when the Rebbe had more time to converse, and in the later years when the Rebbe would see literally thousands of people on a Sunday for brief but deeply meaningful consultations.

One remembers, for instance, how astonished New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was when the Rebbe urged him to pay more attention to and encourage a minority group in his constituency who could surely make a most valuable contribution to the fabric of society. Expecting that the Rebbe was about to ask for funds for the Chassidic community, he was flabbergasted when the Rebbe made it clear he was talking about the Chinese in Chinatown in downtown Manhattan.

Or take Shirley Chisholm from Crown Heights, the first African-American woman elected to Congress. When she was humiliated by her peers who assigned her to the committee that deals with agricultural issues in the Midwest, the Rebbe reached out to her, knowing that she was very upset, and suggested that she should not be offended by what happened, but rather she should realize that in her new position, she could see to it that surplus food supplies from the farmers should be directed to the needs of the inner city poor. When she retired from the House 25 years later she said that if poor people today have food stamps and WIC checks (areas of social welfare she helped introduce) it was because of the rabbi who taught her that every challenge comes with an opportunity to build and to grow.

With the aid of Professor Wexler’s sociological “candle,” we are privileged to be able to begin to piece together the multiple details of our own fragmented lives as they are unified in the “concentric circles” of the Rebbe’s social vision. What this study brings out is something totally new in understanding what the Rebbe is all about. It is not just his genius that shines through all these details, talks, and interviews. It is a holistic vision of life, from the highest of abstract spiritual ideas all the way down to the nitty-gritty of the world we live in today, with politics, crime, and social unrest.

A deeper understanding can be gained from an essay the Rebbe wrote, published in the introduction to the first translation of the Tanya into English, in which the Rebbe writes:

Chassidus in general, and Chabad Chassidus in particular, is an all-embracing world outlook and way of life which sees the Jew’s central purpose as the unifying link between the Creator and Creation. The Jew is a creature of “heaven” and of “earth,” endowed with a heavenly Divine soul, which is truly a part of G-dliness, clothed in an earthly vessel constituted of a physical body and animal soul, whose purpose is to realize the transcendency and unity of his nature, and the world in which he lives, within the absolute Unity of G-d.

From this point of view, we can appreciate what Professor Wexler has accomplished for us and what is most successful in his study. With the tools of his profession as a sociologist, he has been able to extract a multitude of details from the Rebbe’s teachings, and find in them a much larger picture of a far-reaching social vision, for he shows that the Rebbe’s success in influencing society derives from an alternative way of thinking about the “deep structure of society.” Not that this “deep structure” is the Rebbe’s innovation, but rather the practical application of teachings sourced from the 18th century founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, and from the Rebbeim who were his successors, which emphasize the core lessons of the Talmud and of Judaism’s greatest Sages, that one should see G-dliness and “know G-dliness on all levels and in all one’s ways.”

David Sholom Pape, (DPhil. Univ. of London, UK) lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, Shulamit and their family. He has been the editor of The Moshiach Times magazine, a publication of Tzivos Hashem, since 1983. He also teaches Chassidus at Machon L’Yahadus – Yeshiva for Mature Women.

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