Mendel Kalmenson

The Rebbe’s legacy after 25 years: Accessible Judaism

Menachem Mendel Schneerson - the Lubavitcher Rebbe. (Credit: Wikipedia/Mordecai baron via Jewish News)
Menachem Mendel Schneerson - the Lubavitcher Rebbe. (Credit: Wikipedia/Mordecai baron via Jewish News)

After Steve Jobs died in 2011 a one-line obituary in a mainstream media outlet read: “Steve Jobs put a powerful computer inside a phone and that phone into 120 million pockets.”

It struck me then that throughout history the people who left the greatest mark on the world, and became household names, were not necessarily those who created life-changing inventions, but were those who gave the public access to those life-changing innovations.

Access seems like an innocent enough word, and an uninspiring enough concept – after all it suggests that the giver of access created nothing of his own, and merely distributed someone else’s genius – but in fact it is access that has been behind some of the world’s greatest transformations and revolutions.

Just think of recent household names like Mark Zuckerberg from facebook, Sergei Brin of google, Jan Koum of what’s app, Peter Thiel of paypal, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and the list goes on.

The common denominator of them all, and the reason we know their names, is not because of their academic genius or political or technological prowess, but because of the access they have given us all, changing the way we shop, transfer money, research, and keep in touch with family and friends.

In Jewish history as well, we remember and celebrate those who opened the gates of Jewish knowledge and experience to the masses.

Of all the things he could be remembered for – his legendary leadership, his unique level of prophecy, his moral imagination – Moses, or Moshe Rabeinu as he has lovingly been called by Torah giants and laymen alike throughout Jewish history, is remembered simply as “Our Teacher.”

And the same can be said of Rebi, the compiler of the Mishna, and Maimonides, through his Mishne Torah, and Rabbi Yosef Karo and the Alter Rebbe through their respective Shulchan Aruch’s, codes of Jewish law, each of whom in their own day and way made Talmudic law available to those who often had neither the time or ability to engage directly with the depth and breadth of the Talmud.

Another notable example is that of Rashi, arguably the most renowned of biblical commentators, who wrote in the preface of his commentary on the Bible: “I have done no more than attempt to make available the plain meaning of the text.”

In the moving preface to his book titled Rashi, Elie Wiesel explains why he chose to write a book about an 11th century talmudic scholar and commentator:

“Why Rashi?

Ever since childhood he has accompanied me with his insights and charm. Ever since my first bible lessons in the Cheder, I have turned to Rashi in order to grasp the meaning of a verse or word that seemed obscure. He is my first destination. My first aid. The first friend whose assistance is invaluable to us, not to say indispensable, if we’ve set our hearts on pursuing a thought through unfamiliar subterranean passageways, to its distant origins. A veiled reference from him, like a smile, and everything lights up and become clear…”

What makes the great men mentioned so relevant and beloved to the Jewish people hundreds and even thousands of years after their passing is the fact that instead of devoting their intellectual genius to to the creation of novel Torah interpretation and commentary, devoted their intellectual energy and output towards making available Jewish knowledge to one and all.

And the same is true not only of Jewish knowledge but of jewish experience. Take the Holy Baal Shem Tov, for example, who became known and endeared to the jewish people for his efforts to make Judaism accessible to the illiterate and downtrodden Jewish masses in his time and meaningful to uninitiated Jews in future times.

In our generation it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, and his emissaries,by extension, who are known for revolutionising the way in which Jewish people are given access to their precious heritage.

Who hasn’t been approached by a chabad yeshiva student on the streets of london, paris or Manhattan and offered the opportunity to do a mitzvah on the go, be it tefilin, shabbat candles, lulav and etrog, shofar, a menorah for chanuka or a matzah for pesach.

Who hasn’t encountered a fully loaded Jewish Mitzvah mobile home – called a Mitzvah tank in Chabad jargon – parked on a busy street corner, in which Jews of all backgrounds, nationalities, and levels of knowledge or observance are welcomed warmly like long lost relatives returning home.

How many hundreds of thousands of our unaffiliated brethren have been touched by the efforts of Chabad rabbinic students over the years who choose to spend Jewish holidays and their school vacations travelling the world in search of lost Jews looking for connection.

I myself had the privilege of participating in this program called Merkos Shlichus, or what some call the Roving Rabbis. In one mission alone, I traveled with a partner to southeast asia for close to three weeks, and connected with close to a thousand Jews in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia!

The Rebbe devoted his every waking moment toward the expansion and proliferation of Jewish access points both geographically and experientially.

In his own words to Zalman Shechter who once asked: “What is the difference between a Rabbi and a Rebbe? the Rebbe said:

“A rabbi is one who teaches his pupils when they come to him and will answer a question when it is brought to him. A Rebbe does not wait for you to come to him. He reaches forth among the people and tries to awaken them and inspire them, and tries to find ways and methods to bring faith to them.”

One of those ways and methods was perhaps controversial in its time but today has become mainstream, namely the embrace of modern technology as a platform to reach people who had little or no access to Judaism otherwise.

In 1959 it took the form of Tanya classes on the radio, and soon after the Rebbe’s talks were televised around the world.

One example of a Jewish person’s life who was changed as a result of those televised talk’s is recounted in a hilarious book by Holywood producer Jerry Weintreb entitled, “You’ll know I’m dead when I stop talking.” As he tells the story, his journey into Judaism began at a hotel one night as he was flipping through the TV channels and chanced upon a spirited Farbrengen being televised.

The Rebbe took his venerable place in the line of great Jewish leaders dating back to Moses who made it their life’s mission to unlock and distribute the joys and depth of Judaism to every last Jew.

As we mark the Rebbe’s 25th yahrzeit this coming Shabbat, it pays well for Rabbi’s, Jewish leaders, chaplains, and community organisers to reflect on the Rebbe’s legacy of accessible Judaism and emulate his example in Jewish schools, neighbourhoods, and communities the world over, turning the words of Isaiah “Enlarge the place of your tent” into a living reality.

About the Author
Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children. Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom, A Time to Heal, and Positivity Bias, and an upcoming book titled "People of the Word: 5o words that shaped Jewish thought"
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