There is no shortage of books that extol the influence and charisma of the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. We have a pretty accurate picture of his history and achievements. Chabad, the movement he headed, has brought Judaism to millions of unattached Jews and is a worldwide resource for all denominations.
A book, “Social Vision, The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World” by Philip Wexler Emeritus Professor of Sociology of Education, argues that the ideas of the Rebbe can be compared to the writings of the giants of social theory. It is an example of how the religiously committed try, in my view inappropriately, co-opt and adopt secular theories to bolster their own agendas.
Sociology as an academic discipline emerged in the nineteenth century by two pioneers and giants of the field, Max Weber (no, he was not Jewish) and the French David Émile Durkheim (yes, he was). They focused on the social and religious components that helped the development of modern societies. Whereas Marxism stressed the material and secular, both Weber and Durkheim emphasized the positive influences of religion as well as other factors.
David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was born into a long line of rabbis. Although he lived a completely secular life, he resisted conversion to advance his career. He suffered as a result. As he did for publicly supporting Dreyfus. Much of Durkheim’s work was concerned with how societies could maintain their values and coherence in the modern era. Traditional social and religious ties were no longer assumed. Instead, new social institutions were coming came into being that lacked a spiritual dimension.
Max Weber (1864 -1920) was born into a German Christian family. He is best known for his thesis that religion , specifically ascetic Protestantism, played an important role in the economic dynamism of Western European Protestant nations. In “Ancient Judaism” he wrote that Judaism had fathered Christianity and Islam. And it was crucial in the rise of the modern state precisely because of its empowerment of individual responsibility and self-reliance. Judaism’s influence, he said, was as important as Hellenistic and Roman cultures.
Both men worked within an academic, rational framework to produce theories and constructs that held an important place in the academic world and still are core academic texts.
The Rebbe, by contrast, drew ideas from Chassidic and classical Jewish literature. What set the Rebbe’s ideas from others, were the specific selections and interpretations that he placed on those Jewish sources in contrast to others. He certainly neither experimented with nor submitted academic articles on sociology. Can there be any validity in suggesting that the Rebbe had an academic social theory to compare to theirs?
Chassidism emerged during the eighteenth century. It brought religious devotion to the Jewish masses in a simplified, non-judgmental, and supportive way regardless of the degree of one’s learning or commitment. God should be served out of love and joy rather than fear and anxiety (certainly in itself, not a Chassidic innovation given the number of times joy is mentioned in the Bible). It developed the idea of the super individual, the Rebbe as opposed to Rabbi, who represented the ultimate goals of Chassidim and could inspire his followers either to reach God through him as an intermediary or because of him. After its initial phase of spiritual innovation, creativity, and informality, it soon became part of the Orthodox fundamentalist world and did not accept secular academia as a point of reference.
Although most of institutional Chassidism began to focus on its own identities, the Rebbe’s practical programs brought passionate Judaism to the mass of assimilated or alienated Jews, initially in the USA, regardless of how far they may have strayed. This initiated the evangelical Baal Teshuva movement we recognize everywhere today. But in the 1950s it was unheard of. To achieve his goals the Rebbe, instead of spurning modernity, turned to the new vehicles of public relations and advertising. He was the first Madison Avenue Rebbe and it was this, as well as his personal magnetism that set him apart.
He expanded his influence beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community. And he encouraged his followers to get involved in the public arena by engaging with political life, to lobby and reach out to local government, state legislatures, and Washington. And to take up issues of State and Religion. In Israel, he campaigned against adulterating the law on Jewish identity and giving up any Land for Peace. Society, wherever it was, mattered, Jewish and non-Jewish, but on his terms.
An example concerns Shirley Chisholm who in 1968 was the first black woman elected to congress. She had hoped to be given a significant role but instead was sidelined by racist politicians and assigned to the lowly Agricultural Committee. She was disappointed and frustrated. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, who lived in her constituency, reached out to her. She told him how disappointed she was.
The Rebbe told her that she should not be disappointed but that God had given her a great opportunity to do good. Thus encouraged she discovered that farmers were producing surpluses that were not being used and she worked to channel them into the food stamp program for the poor. This was her greatest achievement. At her retirement party, she said “I owe this to a rabbi who is an optimist. He taught me that, what you may think of as a challenge, is a gift from God. And if poor babies have milk and food it is because this rabbi in Crown Heights had a vision.
The Rebbe’s great achievement was to inspire people to find practical ways of helping society. His was a social agenda rather than a social philosophy. Although his followers liked to refer to the brief time he spent at universities in Europe, and despite his own passionate interest in the sciences, he remained in all his public statements an unreconstructed fundamentalist. To say his thought was academic is like comparing pop music to classical. It is a very different phenomenon although no less valid for that.