Last week marked the 112th birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Few men are able to shape the world in death as they did in life. To do so is to subsume your existence to a lofty ideal with such complete thoroughness that your existence comes to symbolize the very values for which you toiled.
Perhaps only two in the latter half of the 20th century men can be said to have so completely revitalized their communities that they achieved immortality by becoming the symbol of their people. One would be Martin Luther King, Jr., who offered dignity and self-worth to a persecuted people, and the other would be the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who offered identity and spiritual purpose to an assimilated nation.
Had King not lived, the African-American community might still reel under the brutality of discrimination and racial injustice. Had the Lubavitcher Rebbe not lived, the Jewish community might still be hemorrhaging millions of members, ignorant of and estranged from their peoplehood and tradition. The two colossi further share the distinctions of having used oratory and scholarship rather than political office to galvanize vast armies of followers to breathe new life into their moribund communities.
The principal difference between these giants lies in the fact that King’s renown spread globally to the white community while the Rebbe’s remains largely confined to Jews. This is curious given that King’s work was confined principally to the southern United States while the Rebbe’s operations spanned the globe. That the Rebbe is today viewed as a Jewish rather than a world figure and remains unknown to most of the non-Jewish world is a serious omission that requires rectification and constitutes the foremost failure of the otherwise astonishing achievements of the global Chabad movement. He was a once-in-a-millennium holy man whose call for moral virtue, spiritual heroics and acts of lovingkindness was as universal as it was electrifying.
In 1992, just before the Rebbe’s 90th birthday, hundreds of his worldwide emissaries gathered in a hall in Brooklyn to discuss how the important milestone should be observed. One rabbi got up and said that every emissary should bring 90 constituents to meet the Rebbe. Another suggested that 90 new Jewish day schools be opened over the course of the year.
I was one of the younger rabbis in the room, having just moved to Oxford, England. I approached the microphone with trepidation. “We should endeavor to have the Rebbe awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.” My suggestion was greeted enthusiastically by the younger emissaries present and with skepticism by the older guard. Ultimately, no steps were taken to have the Rebbe nominated, a missed opportunity if there ever was one, given that few world personalities articulated man’s capacity for ushering in an era of eternal peace more eloquently than the Rebbe did.
To be sure, our people have always erred in believing that Judaism is only for Jews. The universal values which our religion has given the world have been largely treated as secondary to core Jewish ritual. As such, who would have thought that the teachings of a bearded rabbi in a long black coat could appeal to techies in Silicon Valley or ranchers in Wyoming? Could the foremost spiritual leader of such a tiny people really have broad appeal? And yet, the Dalai Lama, with shaven head and flowing red robes, the nominal head of Tibet, with only about three million citizens, was transformed into a global icon by his followers and was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. Mother Theresa, in her simple white habit, won for her faith-inspired humanitarian work in 1979. What the followers of both decided early on was that the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa had a global mission, while the followers of the Rebbe concluded that his was a Jewish one.
This was never the case. The Rebbe took every opportunity to reach out to non-Jews. Several times a year, when his live addresses were broadcast on national television, he spoke to the mainstream public. Whether the subject was the need for a moment of prayerful silence in public schools, or a call to greater acts of charity, the Rebbe made it clear that his intention was to reach out to the widest possible audience. Most importantly, he made it a central staple of Chabad activity to teach the universal code of morality, embodied in the Bible’s Noachide covenant, to all non-Jews.
When my mother worked in a bank in Miami Beach, a childless Cuban Catholic co-worker asked me if she could write to the Rebbe for a blessing for children. I told her the Rebbe would welcome her letter. A few weeks later, she called me to share how elated she was that she received a warm response from the Rebbe. The fact that she later had two children is beside the more relevant point of the Rebbe’s love for all of God’s children.
Nearly twenty years after the Rebbe’s passing, Chabad and the wider Jewish community’s outreach to non-Jews remains largely non-existent. Chabad is the most successful Jewish educational network in history. But there remain millions of Jews who still have not been impacted by its work and who can only be reached by influencing the mainstream culture in which they live, including their non-Jewish friends and neighbors.
The Rebbe belonged not only to Chabad and not only to Jews, but to humanity at large and all those who seek inspiration from giants who teach us to live selflessly, righteously and lovingly.