Alon Goshen-Gottstein

The Rebbe – the last ‘religious genius’

A guide to understanding the Rebbe’s greatness that goes beyond heart-tugging stories
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Mordecai Baron/Wikipedia)
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Mordecai Baron/Wikipedia)

Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of the passing away of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

No one can dispute the Rebbe’s greatness and the immense contribution he made to Torah learning and to the Jewish people. Endless stories are recounted of him, moving, powerful, some miraculous. I myself was blessed to be multiple times in his presence and can speak to the power that emanated from him, a transformative power that lifted one up to a higher state of consciousness, a gift that great spiritual individuals make to those who seek their company. But here is the challenge: do we have a way of describing the Rebbe’s greatness other than saying he was “great,” pointing to his contributions and telling moving stories about him? I believe there is. It is called “religious genius.”

Who is a “religious genius”

Nowadays “genius” is part of the title of almost every ultra-Orthodox rabbi. They are הרה”ג  — the genius rabbi, having totally devalued the term, turning it into an honorific. I use the term in a very strict and precise way, based on a research project carried out by 50 scholars, on exemplary figures in world religions (all religions) and the attempt to develop a category by means we can relate to those who were transformative and who exhibited a greatness of personality that significantly exceeds common religious excellence. In previous posts, I struggled with the application of this category to individuals who transformed Judaism, but exhibited moral flaws. With regard to the Rebbe, we need not struggle. He fits my understanding of who is a “religious genius” fully. A “religious genius” is appreciated with reference to a set of interior qualities that he lives to the full and through appreciation of how a religion has been transformed through him. Outstanding individuals, tzadikim, may have high degree of attainment in their interiority, but have not made a significant advance to Judaism itself, its teachings and structures. Similarly, activists, theologians, academics and people of goodwill may have contributed much to understanding Judaism and evolution of the people, but without the depth of power that comes from spiritual excellence. A “religious genius” combines both aspects, lending authority, power, and hopefully a long-lasting legacy to his transformative contribution to the life of Judaism and the people. Let us then consider the Lubavitcher Rebbe in light of both dimensions.

Spiritual Interiority of “Religious Genius”

We have identified certain key traits in a class of individuals across religions, by means of which we can describe their interior life, approximating “what it feels” like to be a person of that league. Here are some of the key traits:

  1. Love is a central defining element in any portrait of “religious genius.” Love is manifest as altruism, the supreme expression of love offered selflessly in service of the other. A loving heart and presence extends to God, to the fellow person, to the entire world. The more expansive the love, the higher the state of being that is manifested, the greater the expression of “religious genius.” There is no need to elaborate on the profound love and caring the Rebbe had for every Jewish person, anywhere in the world. This is the hallmark of his work. Less well known, perhaps, is how far his love and care extended beyond the Jewish community, leading him to take positions on public issues with an eye to the well-being of others. He is the only Jewish leader, I believe ever, to have undertaken a campaign (not just a teaching in the books) for the moral advancement of all humanity, through the spreading of the seven Noachide commandments.
  2. Expanded awareness of reality — This is one of the features that distinguishes religious genius from ordinary piety and even from many expressions of saintliness. A religious genius lives in more than one plane of existence. He or she is simultaneously present to the physical order of life and to the alternative order, to which he or she is increasingly drawn. The genius of “religious genius” comes from the fact that all actions, engagements, teachings and all expressions of the religious life are experienced from an awareness that transcends the physical plane, even as the individual seeks to transcend his or her sense of limited personal self. The Rebbe lived in constant awareness of such reality. From there, he drew his inspiration, holy spirit and vision. Possibly his most fundamental teaching relates to God’s aspiration to make a home for Himself in the world below (דירה בתחתונים), thereby drawing on that expanded awareness and making it a foundation for the here and now.
  3. The logic of imitation — Awareness of higher or broader reality leads to an inevitable dynamic wherein one seeks to conform the one reality to the standards, vision or perfection of the other. The  pinnacle of genius lies in  intuiting another order of reality, seeking to ground it, transforming oneself and the entire world in a movement of totality and harmony toward that higher perceived reality.  Religious genius is the bridge between two realities, and the primary means of constructing this bridge is imitation. In a more practical sense, the Rebbe lived in constant awareness of the presence of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the previous rebbe. His near-daily visits to the latter’s tombside, and the hours upon hours of prayer and seclusion spent there should be appreciated also in light of conforming to and imitating the higher reality and the person who was representative of it.
  4. Humility — This leads us to the following trait of the “religious genius,” utter humility. Humility may be understood as proper recognition of one’s position in the great scheme of things. Humility is related to decentering of the self, and its reorientation in a larger view. In many traditions, and certainly within Chabad Hasidism, this is understood as ultimately leading to some form of annihilation of the self, bitul ha-yesh. This was an ideal, and I believe a realized ideal, in the Rebbe’s person. His refusal to accept the mantle of leadership for the longest time and the fact that he continued to view his father-in-law as the “leader of our generation” (נשיא דורנו), are expressions of such self-effacement. To be sure, one could be powerful and have strong opinions even from a place of bitul ha-yesh. Such was the Rebbe.
  5. Self-surrender. Self-surrender is closely related to the capacity to serve others, as one’s view of oneself is transformed, and as one increases in loving capacity. Self surrender assumes growing in awareness of that larger presence or reality, of which one is but a part. As awareness shifts, the question of the true author of our actions increasingly comes to the forefront. Is it the self or the greater Self, the Divine, the absolute, that is the true actor. The individual becomes an instrument for higher purposes. Perhaps it will suffice to recall the Rebbe’s inaugural teaching (מאמר). He spoke of the role of the tzadik (righteous person) as being a manifestation of divinity in body, thereby highlighting the sense of the instrumentality of his person and his future work, with God as its true and ultimate author. To be clear, I do not assume that this exempts an evolved religious actor from mistakes and does not make his every word an utterance of truth (for his disciples it surely is). But it does provide an orientation to the internal attitude of the person and how he or she operates as an instrument of a higher order of reality, or at least in quest of such instrumentality.

This is a partial presentation of internal traits of “religious genius,” offering us a window into the interior reality of the person and in our case to that of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

External Achievements of the “Religious Genius”

A “religious genius” transforms tradition by his teachings and by his actions. The “religious genius” has the capacity of applying intuition and intellect to bringing about new understanding, grounded in awareness of a broader existential dimension, of reality. The new understanding offered by the religious genius provides creative and constructive solutions, for solving religious and spiritual problems, of a particular community or tradition. A religious genius will accordingly have high positive output, effectively addressing challenges and issues that are fundamental to a tradition, or more universally: to being religious.

The world at large is aware of the Rebbe’s public profile. Only his disciples and specialists are aware of the stunning scope of his creative output and the innovation contained therein. I have neither the capacity nor the time to unpack this statement. Suffice it to say that we have not yet begun to scratch the depths of the Rebbe’s contribution to Jewish thought, mysticism, and spirituality. Some academic studies have begun the process, but it may take a generation for us to appreciate the dazzling intellectual scope and originality — hermeneutical, philosophical, and mystical — of the Rebbe, his vast, almost immeasurable knowledge and his creative output. Based on my random and occasional study of this output, I believe we will discover that he does not simply regurgitate earlier teachings. The reference above to making this world a home for the Divine is but one expression of a revolutionary reframing of tradition, cast in new light with practical orientation.

What everyone does recognize, however, is how the Rebbe changed the Jewish world.. Single-handedly, he created a new stream in Judaism, one that defies common communal political distinctions. He raised service to others to an unprecedented height, eclipsing even the importance of Torah study, creating an army of emissaries who have emulated his selfless giving. Shifting internal religious values in order to address a contemporary need, he has redefined Jewish theology and Jewish society. How many people in Judaism’s history have been instrumental in creating a new movement within Judaism?

I consider the Lubavitcher Rebbe to be the last religious genius. No one since comes even close to the scope outlined above. Many fine individuals have many of the aspects listed above. None encompasses the totality in such a transformative way. This is as true now as it was in his own days, making him the last of Judaism’s religious geniuses. Yet he himself looked forward to the coming of another one, a greater one. If we recognize the Rebbe as the latest in a chain of religious geniuses, we do his memory well not only by looking backwards in time to his own person but also by looking forward, as he did, to the coming of yet a greater teacher and religious genius.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.
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