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Education, Postmodernism and the Challenge of Tradition

Education, Postmodernism and the Challenge of Tradition

Reflections on the Enduring Relevance of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson’s Religious Thought


A couple of months ago (March 28-29, 2012), a small group of academic and rabbinic scholars, along with educators and activists, held a deliberative conference1 at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss the educational philosophy of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.2 In his opening remarks, Rabbi Menachem Schimdt, director of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, and one of the conference hosts, made the following observation: “Many many people, most people, as a matter of fact, know what the Lubavitcher Rebbe looked like. A lot of people know that Lubavitch has a built a lot of buildings, runs a lot of programs and does a lot of outreach. But in terms of the amazing intellectual riches of Chabad philosophy there remains a lot of work to be done...”

That statement is true across the board. Over the course of two centuries, seven successive Chabad Rebbes were prolific exponents of complex mystical and philosophical paradigms, tackling such issues as the purpose and nature of existence, the relationship between G‑d and Man, the nature of divinity, moral authority, the problem of evil, and a host of other theological conundrums. While several hundred volumes of original Chabad chasidic texts have been published, and continue to be studied within the Chabad community, the enduring relevance of Chabad’s vast intellectual contribution is only beginning to be noticed and is little known in the wider world.3

This statement is especially true in regard to the last Rebbe, who ascended to the leadership following the passing of the his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Shneersohn in 1950, and led the movement from his New York headquarters for over forty years. During this era, many leaders of Jewish orthodoxy recognised scientific, technological, social and philosophical progress as a threat to traditional beliefs and the traditional way of life. Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, however, saw the potential challenges as opportunities for the advancement of religion. As a religious thinker [he] displayed a deep sensitivity to the contemporary zeitgeist and to the changing paradigms of modern thought.He harnessed new technologies for the dissemination of religious teachings, and as a religious thinker displayed a deep sensitivity to the contemporary zeitgeist and to the changing paradigms of modern thought. For Rabbi Schneerson, the new frontiers being broken did not place religion on the defensive, but on the contrary, provided a unique opportunity for religious development.4 Indeed, he may have been unique in utilizing deconstructionist strategies as a medium for the affirmation, dissemination and assimilation of theological axioms.

Traditionally, intellectual history has been marked by the pursuit of objective truth, and the development of various conceptual paradigms whose general purpose is to objectively measure the relative “truth” or correctness of a statement or a hypothesis. Postmodernist thought challenges both the notion that anything can ever be determined objectively at all, and also the notion that objectivity is superior to subjectivity. It is generally felt that such subversive radicalism places the religious claim of objective truth at a great disadvantage. Rabbi Schneerson, however, implicitly embraced the new conceptual avenues as a means to uphold a religious paradigm that enshrines subjectivity and personal choice as the ultimate measure of superiority.

One of the key themes in Rabbi Schneerson’s thought is his radical rethinking of the traditional Jewish concept of “free-choice” (bechirah chafshit). In Rabbi Schneerson’s discussions... the paradigm is reversed; ultimate free choice is truly subjective and free of objective influence.Traditionally, the discussion revolves around the need to make a truly objective choice, rather than one influenced by our subjective situation. In Rabbi Schneerson’s discussions of the concept the paradigm is reversed; ultimate free choice is truly subjective and free of objective influence. If there is an objective reason to choose, he argues, then it is not a choice made freely by the self.5

The educational challenge of today can be summed up as follows: Emancipation, scientific progress, cultural pluralism and the freedom of knowledge, all contribute to an environment where the options are wide open. Opportunities are no longer governed by purely objective circumstantial factors such as geography, community, social standing and economics, and one is increasingly free to truly choose one’s own path. How can one preserve traditional Jewish life in such a climate?

Rabbi Schneerson did not see this so much as a challenge as an opportunity: The choice to live a Jewish life, must now be a true choice, and is therefore far more valuable and potent than ever before.6 By the same token, the risk of choosing otherwise is also higher than ever, and the immensity of these new challenges requires a response of corresponding potency. Jewish education, therefore, means imbuing children with Jewish knowledge and faith that permeates them subjectively. We must provide children and adults alike with the opportunity to fully experience and internalize Judaism,7 rather than imposing it upon them objectively.8

The relationship between G‑d and man is to be viewed as an educational one, Torah law and lore being the medium for educational communication.

Over two days of intense sessions at the University of Pennsylvania, various aspects of Rabbi Schneerson’s educational theory were illuminated as facets of a broader ontological perspective that relates not only to the purpose and function of education but to the purpose and function of all existence. Indeed, during one deliberative session Dr. Naftali Loewenthal went so far as to comment that, “the Lubavitcher Rebbe turned education into the theme of human existence.” Consistent with the master/pupil metaphor so often employed in Chabad literature to describe the creator/creation relationship,9 the relationship between G‑d and man is to be viewed as an educational one, Torah law and lore being the medium for educational communication.10

Rabbi Schneerson used a similarly deconstructionist strategy to elevate Torah law and lore beyond objective criticism. Previously any religious debate turned on arguments for or against the objective validity or value of religious precepts. Such arguments took certain conceptual paradigms and moral values to be axiomatic, and religion was to be measured by the objective standard of reason. Here too, Rabbi Schneerson quite literally enshrined the subjective choice made by the divine self, as the ultimate source of all things. The objective standard of reason is itself beholden to that suprarational choice - the true standard of divine will and inexplicable mandate - for its very existence. The former (reason) must be measured by the latter (religious mandate) rather than the other way round. Far from undermining religious tradition, deconstructionist critical theory is employed to imbue Torah law and lore with a potency that transcends objective criticism.11

While Rabbi Schneerson re-articulated traditional theological positions in radical new ways, he certainly did not abandon the more classical paradigms of critical objectivity. Indeed, to declare all things equally subjective, would be to lose any coherent measure of validity. As Professor William Pinar remarked during one deliberative session, the postmodernist critique of absolute objectivity risks being taken too far, Clearly, all things can be strung upon a scale ranging from more subjective to more objective, and the one can only be determined in respect to the other.“It becomes an absolute point in itself; that anything is possible, that nothing can be determined... there can be no master narrative, there is only uncertainty, of that we can be certain.” Clearly, all things can be strung upon a scale ranging from more subjective to more objective, and the one can only be determined in respect to the other. Indeed, many axioms of chabad chasidic thought hinge upon a cosmological paradigm which has its roots in the cosmological argument for the existence of G‑d articulated by the school of philosophers established by Rabbi Saadia Gaon. Knowledge of G‑d’s existence and the validity of the Torah a medium for the communication of divine will is therefore predicated upon objective reasoning. Justification for religious law, however, is ultimately predicated upon divine choice and will. Likewise, objective argument may provide a platform from which the individual may take a subjective leap of faith, whose potency transcends rational justification.

Returning to the theme of education specifically, at the conference held at the University of Pennsylvania many aspects of Chabad educational theory were explored, including methodology, educational responsibility, the nature of the teacher / student relationship, the purpose of education and so on. Rabbi Shmuel Lew and Professor Barry Chazan collaborated to present a very insightful comparative overview of an educational tract by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (the sixth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch)12 in relation to the work of other, better known, educational theoreticians. Dr. Naftali Loewenthel discussed the ten sephirot as a paradigm of educational theory, and demonstrated aspects of its application within contemporary Chabad educational institutions. Dr. Aryeh Solomon argued that Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson’s thought incorporates a complete philosophy of education, gave a sweeping overview of its key themes, and led a group study and discussion of illustrative passages culled from the his talks and writings. Professors Philip Wexler and William Pinar discussed the need to rethink educational purpose and methodology on a more global level, and the possibility of lifting innovative educational paradigms from their chasidic context in order to apply them on a broader scale. Additional papers were delivered by Professor Randall Collins, Professor Jonathan Garb and Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, and a deliberative session was led by Rabbi Menachem Schmidt.

The ideas expressed in the present article are my reflections on themes that resurfaced time and again throughout the deliberations. Rabbi Schneerson advocated radically progressive methodologies... marked by their striking relevance to new theoretical paradigms, in the cause of traditional Judaism.As a group, participants were struck by the radically progressive methodologies advocated by Rabbi Schneerson in the cause of traditional Judaism, and intrigued by their marked relevance to new theoretical paradigms, which the modern world is only just beginning to confront. In the words of Professor Piner, a leader in the field of Curriculum Studies, “It seems clear that he [Rabbi Schneerson] transcended all the categories previously used to define the different aspects of educational theory.”


A general overview of the proceedings is provided towards the end of this article.


Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (1902-1994, often referred to simply as “the Rebbe”) was the New York based chasidic leader who inspired the transformation and growth of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement into an international icon of Jewish tradition, pride and dynamism. Rabbi Schneerson was also a scholar who possessed truly remarkable knowledge of both traditional Rabbinic texts and Chabad chasidic texts. He was also an innovative religious thinker, who created intellectual paradigms that would successfully perpetuate tradition hand-in-hand with the progression of modernity.


In recent years several academics have devoted time to serious studies of Chabad Chasidism, including Professor Rachel Elior (The Paradoxical Ascent to God: The Kabbalistic Theosophy of Habad Hasidism, SUNY Press, 1993) and Dr. Naftali Loewenthal (Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School, Chicago University Press, 1990), and more recently Professors Elliot Wolfson (Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson, Columbia University Press, 2009) and Immanuel Etkes (Ba’al Hatanya: Rabbi Shneur Zalman Meliady Vereshita Shel Hasidut Chabad ‏(Ba’al Hatanya: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and the Origins of Chabad Hasidism‏) The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 2011).


See my article here for a related overview of how Rabbi Schneerson reconsidered the challenge of political emancipation.


See Torat Menachem - Sefer Maamarim Melukot Vol. 3 (Vaad Hanachot BeLaHaK , 2002) p. 71

Of course, this assumes that there exists a quintessential “subjective” self that is greater than the sum of “objectively” imposed circumstances (geography, community, social standing and economics, etc.), a “divine self” that belongs to the eternal realm of the spirit. This point is underscored by the notion that true freedom of choice is only exercised for the good (See Sefer Ha’sichot - Torat Shalom (Kehot Publication Societ, 1983), p. 220), while bad choices are ultimately attributed to circumstance or “evil inclination” (yetzer ha’ra), which leads the individual astray from their true selves (see the discussion in Torat Menachem - Sefer Maamarim Melukot Vol. 2 (Vaad Hanachot BeLaHaK , 2002) p. 7474, based on Maimonides, Hilchot geirushin 2:20). A secularist may well take issue with such an assumption, but must then also confront the question, can the human ever be free to choose, or are all choices dictated by circumstance?

In private correspondence with this writer, Professor Pinar shared the following insight, “freedom is best understood not as license but as opportunity to align oneself toward the "right," for me a notion of ethics and justice that is always situational (although never conflated or identical to the situation) and thus variable if always linked to the eternal verities (such as compassion).”

This brings to mind the interplay between the notions of specified divine providence (hashgachah pratit) and free choice (bechirah chafshit), as explained in Chabad thought. G‑d orchestrates circumstance, bringing you to an objectively ordained situation where you are given the freedom to make a subjective choice. Somewhat paradoxically, it is the objective situation that is variable, while it is the subjective choice that touches eternity.


See Torat Menachem - Sefer Maamarim Melukot Vol. 3 (Vaad Hanachot BeLaHaK , 2002) p. 41.


See Lekkutei Sichot Vol. 1 (Kehot Publication Society, 1962), p. 245-246.


In private correspondence with this writer, Professor Pinar pointed out that while a line is drawn here between subjective internalization and objective imposition, one might also conceive of internalization as an instrument of objective imposition. He pointed out that secularists might see this as an insidious attempt to disguise religious coercion under a false aura of subjective choice.

This touches on the question of how to distinguish between indoctrination and education, and also on the question of the interplay that exists between objectivity and subjectivity. I would suggest that the answer to the first question relates to the degree to which the teacher cultivates the pupil’s subjective inclinations and helps the pupil achieve Independence and completion as an individual. Indoctrination entails that the subject submit and their character be stifled for the sake of the objective cause. Education entails the cultivation and expansion of the pupil’s individual character, in order that they may themselves arrive at the objective ideal. The latter issue of the interplay between objectivity and subjectivity is one that will be dealt with in more detail below.


See Tanya, Iggeret Ha-kodesh (Part IV), Epistle 15Epistle 15, viewable in English here, and with commentary here.


To cite all the occasions when Rabbi Schneerson’s repeated the formulation “Torah [is called so, because it] derives from the word hora’ah - teaching,” would provide some illustration of the extant to which this theme permeated his weltanschauung. However, the immensity of such a project renders it almost impossible. The following samples, selected randomly from the first decade of Rabbi Schneerson’s public talks, will have to suffice:

“Torah [is called so, because it] derives from the word hora’ah - teaching. This means that everything communicated in the Torah is a lesson applicable in every time and in every place, in day to day life.” Sichot Kodesh 5013, p. 322.

“Torah [is called so, because it] derives from the word hora’ah - teaching. Torah itself teaches the individual and draws forth that the individual will conduct themselves so [i.e. in accord with Torah law and lore], irrespective of personal inclination.” Sichot Kodesh 5015, p. 248.

“We have already discussed many times that every aspect of Torah is eternally relevant for all generations... even the stories, which are apparently connected to the time in which the event took place... since Torah [is called so, because it] derives from the word hora’ah - teaching, they are a lesson in every place and every time until the end of all generations.” Sichot Kodesh 5018, p. 134.


See the discussion in Torat Menachem - Sefer Maamarim Melukot Vol. 3 (Vaad Hanachot BeLaHaK , 2002) p. 138-146 and the sources cited there.


The Principles of Education and Guidance, English Translation by Kehot Publication Society viewable here.

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