The past few years have been tough on religion. Muslim radicals have made a mockery of their faith. The Catholic Church is still reeling from sexual abuse scandals. And Judaism has such high assimilation rate that it appears that the faith cannot fully instill identity and commitment. We who claim the mantle of the faithful are often guilty of being religious without being spiritual, of being orthodox without being moral, and of praying to the heavens while trying to accumulate as much as we can here on earth.
That’s what always made the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson of blessed memory, whose yahrtzeit is this weekend, so special to me. As we watch religion so often awash in fraudulence, we wonder whether there are people who are inured to the temptations of money and power. And as I rummaged through my mind’s Rolodex the one who stood out as having never benefited from his position was the Rebbe.
The Jewish world remembers the Rebbe as a visionary leader who rescued Jewish observance from terminal decline. And that’s why he’s been partially forgotten outside of Chabad, the feeling being that Jewish outreach which he pioneered is doing perfectly well without him. What we forget is that the Rebbe realized his global vision not due to exceptional organizational skills but because of personal righteousness. More than anything else the Rebbe was a tzadik. His moral authority was such that it inspired in all who met him a desire to do better and be better. Seeing how he lavished no money on himself his followers gave more charity. Seeing how he never took a day off, his disciples moved to the far reaches of the globe to spread God’s message of love and tolerance. And witnessing the affection and respect he accorded to all who came to see him his admirers opened their homes to thousands of strangers.
The Rebbe was a man of extraordinary charisma. But it was his personal righteousness that was decisive. The Rebbe’s global outposts comprised millions of meters but he himself lived within the few hundred square feet of his own office. He was regularly visited by world leaders but he most came to life when he spoke to children.
A poll that came out this week shows that Americans are becoming increasingly disillusioned with religion, a trend that has moved West across the pond from Europe. If this is so then it results primarily from the absence of outstanding models of righteousness. There are few who inspire us. America has many examples of success but few examples of high moral rectitude. We are awash in sports stars but endure a paucity of saints. We have politicians who legislate and celebrities who burn brightly. But missing from the constellation are outstanding moral giants.
What America desperately needs today is a moral engine to motivate us — one that isn’t fame, power, or money. A quest for righteousness must move us as well. Money provides comfort but there are few pleasures as satisfying as liberation from the ego.
Righteousness is found principally in conferring dignity on others, transforming them from invisible to significant. Twice a week the Rebbe would travel to the grave of his father-in-law and pray for the thousands who wrote to him for guidance. The mark of his extraordinary sensitivity was that though he was in his late eighties he refused to ever sit in the presence of the resting place of his wife’s father and predecessor.
Now, every year, hundreds of thousands make pilgrimages to the same site because he too is now buried there. But where we pray for personal success he prayed for public redemption. Where we pray for the health of our investments he prayed for the health of other people’s children. And where we pray for upward mobility he prayed that those in pain be lifted from misery.
A few months after the Rebbe died I was forced by the Chabad leadership in the UK to relinquish my position as his emissary in Oxford after I had appointed Cory Booker, now the Senator from New Jersey, as President of our student organization, the Oxford University L’Chaim Society. Cory was a symbol of the thousands of non-Jews who had joined our organization.
Today it is often Cory who reminds me of the Rebbe’s righteousness and my need to walk in his footsteps even when I am wounded by others. “The Rebbe was about love, Shmuley,” he tells me. “Let others poison his legacy. But you have to honor the love he represented.”
Much as he is portrayed as the founder of “Judaism with a smile,” the Rebbe was so much more. The depiction of the Rebbe as the man who simply made Orthodox Judaism non-judgmental unfairly sanitizes his legacy and robs it of its revolutionary nature. The Rebbe was a fiery visionary. His Judaism was warm, but it was also highly controversial and intentionally divisive. The Rebbe forced you to take a stand. He played on your conscience and made you choose. Would you practice a convenient Judaism that focused only on your own spiritual development or would you turn your personal home into a communal center, inviting the less observant and neglected? Would you practice Judaism in private or would you be identifiably Jewish, with a kippah, in the street? Would you make peace with the world’s flaws or would you clamor for a perfect, Messianic world?
Chabad today is mainstream and, as such, has lost some of its revolutionary ardor. It is inconvenient to rock the boat when you are the captain of the ship. Hence, we hear little today about the Rebbe’s intractable opposition on territorial concessions in Israel. Gone is the Rebbe’s battle cry that Israel’s retreat would embolden its enemies and invite further attack. We hear little about the Rebbe’s insistence that Judaism had a message for non-Jews amid its call for a universal ethical covenant.
The Rebbe never pursued popularity, and indeed, there were many who objected to his message. He never feared controversy. It was influence, rather than power, that he craved. His mission was to make Jews uncomfortable with a materially driven life, and inspire them to answer to the higher, global calling of reinvigorating the Jewish people and perfecting the world. He never intended for his movement to simply open centers the world over so that Jews could get kosher meals while on vacation in the Caribbean or doing business in the Far East.
That Chabad can provide these essential amenities, thereby ensuring Jewish observance in the most remote places, is vital. But it is of secondary importance. The Chabad House’s principal purpose is to spread the Torah’s influence, and make the Jewish people a light unto the nations.
The Rebbe loved all Jews and he loved all people. He despised the squandering of human potential and always demanded more from his followers, especially when they believed they had nothing left to give. He always sought to be inspirational, but was prepared to be an irritant.
At the end of the Bible, Moses ascends to his burial at Mt. Nebo – unknown to us till this day – alone by God’s command. There was none to say the kaddish for him, none to offer a eulogy, no honor guard and no twenty-one gun salute. His legacy was not of the popular leader who was lauded by the people, but rather the law-giver who pushed his people to aspire to holiness, often against their will.
The Rebbe, who followed in Moses’ footsteps as one of the great Jewish leaders of all time, courageously trail-blazed the same lonely, yet fruitful, path. It is time we join him.