The late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, better known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, is considered one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century. The seventh leader in the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, Schneerson is credited with transforming the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and broadening the appeal of Judaism and Chasidism worldwide.
In 1994, Schneerson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to world education, moral development and charity.
The book Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World was published to coincide with the Rebbe’s 25th yahrtzeit, which was commemorated last week. The Exponent reached out to the book’s authors, Philip Wexler, sociologist and executive director of the Philadelphia-based Institute of Jewish Spirituality and Society; Eli Rubin, a historian of Chasidic Judaism; and writer Michael Wexler, to talk about their work. True to the spirit of the project, they responded collaboratively to our questions via email.
Why did you think it was important to write this book?
Schneerson is a figure whose influence on contemporary Jewish life, and more broadly on religious culture in the United States and beyond, cannot be ignored. Yet it is easy to misunderstand who he was, what he stood for and why he continues to be an inspiration to so many. We describe his call for a revitalization of public education in the United States and globally, an end to the inhumanity of incarceration and for robust government investment in renewable solar energy solutions. Viewed through a new lens that combines sociology with deep readings of Schneerson’s teachings, we found that his social vision has the potential to provide a new set of answers to contemporary challenges.
Why did you focus on the social vision of the Rebbe, rather than writing a biography?
A mere biography can only do justice to a merely superficial person. Schneerson was anything but superficial. We wanted to help people see a new way of thinking about themselves and their relationships with other people. We live in a time when we have more knowledge than ever before at our fingertips, yet we are seeing very few new ideas. For the last 100 years, debates about society, leadership, economics and government have often been reduced to a debate between advocates of socialism and advocates of capitalism. People are desperate for new approaches to the problems and challenges that we face as individuals, as communities, as nations and globally.
What is the Rebbe’s social vision?
In contrast to the Protestant Ethic — which, according to sociologist Max Weber, mutated into the spirit of capitalism — Schneerson’s social vision derives from the Chasidic ethos, according to which all people stand in a direct reciprocal relationship with God and with other people. Personal perfection can never be attained without simultaneously attaining the perfection of even the most marginalized corner of the globe. Imperfection is always a springboard for repair, for joyous reconciliation with God and with other people. Schneerson taught that God left the world unfinished so that we could all become “partners in creation,” by working diligently together to raise up the world and help it progress towards perfection. His radical idea is that we can actually give a gift to God, not by rejecting society, but by improving it.
The second half of the book explores the Rebbe’s theory of reciprocity. What is that?
The fundamental tenet is that individuality is enhanced through contribution to the collective, rather than compromised. As Schneerson once wrote, “A feeling of true happiness comes to a person when he is able to do something for the good of another … every creation, if only it acts in concert with its telos, is not merely a recipient, but also a giver.” It is through meaningful and purposeful reciprocity that constellations of relationships are built, which coalesce into vibrant communities greater than the sum of their parts. The word “telos” here is key; it is the purposefulness of human life that makes human life and interaction sacred, bringing us not only into close relationships with other people, but also into a close relationship with God. Thereby all individuals can attain dignity, joy and fulfillment grounded in everyday manifestations of divine being, social being, and human being. As we show in the book, this has practical applications, whether in personal life, in public policy or international diplomacy.
What would the Rebbe think of society today, such as our use of technology and individualism? Would he support virtual synagogues as a viable alternative to community prayer?
Many of the social problems Schneerson addressed during his lifetime still plague us, and there is much in the book that speaks to the current intensifying political polarization. Schneerson was a pioneer in harnessing technology’s potential for mass communication. For him, this provided the capacity to overcome our sense of individual isolation and bring a spiritual dimension into the realm of science. Although, the traditional institution of the synagogue was certainly not something he wanted to replace. His view of technology and individualism alike was at once appreciative and critical.
What would the Rebbe think of our problem with mass incarceration in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania, considering he wrote extensively on the inhumanity of incarceration?
For Schneerson, a crime is not simply a rupture of the law, or a transgression of the individual against the collective. It is a rupture in the fabric of the self, a rupture in the fabric of society and ultimately a rupture in the fabric of the cosmos. Such a rupture cannot be healed by isolating the perpetrator from society. Isolation alone actually preserves each of these ruptures without providing a path of repair, whether on the level of self-repair, social-repair or cosmic-repair. If unattended, these ruptures can actually fester and deteriorate. A more holistic approach would provide a constructive framework in which perpetrators could right their wrongs, doing whatever possible to undo the damage. Recognition of the tremendous moral obligation they are under, can provide the impetus for a reformed criminal to achieve and contribute something of even greater value than they would otherwise have aspired.
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