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Putting Women in the Picture

Putting Women in the Picture

The Rebbe’s views on women today

Section of a manuscript by Dr. Susan Handleman with revisions by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the Rebbe's handwriting. An explanation of the Rebbe's comments, as well as a facsimiles of and commentary on the additional manuscripts, appear in this article.
Section of a manuscript by Dr. Susan Handleman with revisions by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the Rebbe's handwriting. An explanation of the Rebbe's comments, as well as a facsimiles of and commentary on the additional manuscripts, appear in this article.

This essay is adapted from The Chabad Movement in the Twentieth Century, eds. Yitzhak Kraus and Moshe Hallamish (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2005), with permission of the editors.

Let me begin with a story I heard from Robert Abrams, formerly the borough president of the Bronx and district attorney of the State of New York, and currently a practicing lawyer. As an influential New York politician, he had several private audiences with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was often visited by such figures. On one of his visits to the Rebbe, Mr. Abrams was accompanied by his wife, Diane, who sat beside him in the Rebbe’s office while the two men discussed current political and economic issues. Diane Abrams is herself an accomplished lawyer, and by her own account “not a shy person at all.” Assuming, however, that the Rebbe was interested in conversing only with her husband, she sat silently as they spoke. After some time, the Rebbe turned to her and said with a smile: “Why aren’t you saying anything? These are the days of women’s liberation . . .”1

This little vignette summarizes the essence of what I want to say here, and my study of the Rebbe’s writings, talks and activities in relation to women—and my own personal contact with him. I think he discerned the deeper meaning of what was occurring historically in relation to women. The Rebbe saw within the stirrings of the women’s movement a deep spiritual inner dimension and strong redemptive energiesHe saw within the stirrings of the women’s movement a deep spiritual inner dimension and strong redemptive energies. He understood the need to use these energies for the good, and so encouraged women to speak, articulate their yearnings and achieve their spiritual aspirations. And he himself worked very practically to implement all of this—from a global level down to encouraging one woman sitting in his office to speak her mind.

While I have written other essays that examine in depth the Rebbe’s halachic and theological approaches to the status of women in Torah, this one will be somewhat different. It supplements those with a personal account from the point of view of an outsider/insider or participant/observer. There are many forms of knowledge, and there is a certain dimension of understanding one gains only through an insider’s position, and through having known one’s subject “face to face.”2 This is particularly true in relation to a “Rebbe,” a figure who functions on many levels—not just as a thinker, writer, teacher, rabbi or public leader, but also as an intimate, personal counselor. So I hope to add a personal perspective to the literature about the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s relation to women’s issues.

While it is quite clear to me that the Rebbe understood and sympathized deeply with the yearnings and aspirations of women on many levels, it is important to first portray briefly here the larger theological-metaphysical framework in which he perceived their strivings, and their place in his overall vision of Jewish history, the mission of the Jewish people and redemption.

The Rise of the Feminine Era in Kabbalah and Chassidism

Those familiar with chassidic philosophy recognize the idea that there are “sparks of holiness” (nitzotzot kedushah) scattered throughout our lowly physical world, awaiting their redemption through our actions. Concurrently, there is the chassidic-kabbalistic principle the Rebbe also often cited, that “everything that happens below has it source in what happens Above.” I think he took this principle also to mean that there was a specific historical-theological reason why the women’s movement was occurring in our times, and that our task was to infer what it signified for the current generation.

In an oft-quoted passage from a talk on Jewish education for women given in 1990, the Rebbe reinterprets the basic Talmudic and halachic sources regarding women’s Torah study, draws out the practical implications, exhorts women to increase their study and teaching, and asks for the community at large to support this endeavor. He further asks: why has this increase in Torah learning for women occurred specifically in the recent era? On the one hand, the Rebbe answers, there is the traditional idea that each generation further from the divine revelation at Sinai is on a “lower” level, and so there is an increasingly greater need to bolster it. The Rebbe described the increase in Torah study by women as one of the “positive innovations of the later generations”Nevertheless, he continues, the result has been a great good, an increase in Torah study; and this increase in Torah study by women he emphatically describes as one of the “positive innovations of the later generations.”3

From another perspective, each generation further away from Sinai is also closer to the final redemption and the messianic era. And so, the Rebbe adds, we could say we have merited the increase in Torah study for women precisely because of that proximity: it is part of the preparation for—and already a taste of—redemption. A defining characteristic of the messianic era is a great increase in knowledge and wisdom; and so we now already have a “taste” of it, just as there is a halachah (Torah law) that before Shabbat one is to taste each of the special dishes to be enjoyed at the Shabbat meal.4 (This also connects to the idea the Rebbe often repeated, that different parts of Torah are revealed in the times appropriate for them. Hence, he explained, only in recent generations has the esoteric “soul” of Torah—kabbalah and chassidism—been revealed and become increasingly accessible to the masses. Even though these latter generations might be on a lower level than previous ones, they also have a greater responsibility, for they are to purify and complete the final galut (exile) and open the way to redemption. Hence the most sublime parts and secrets of Torah are revealed in the latter generations, and they already begin to “taste” of the Torah of the messianic era.)

But there is an even deeper connection—continues the Rebbe in the above talk—of women to the messianic era. Kabbalistic and chassidic teachings have a special understanding of the role of the feminine in the era of redemption and the world to come. Then, say the classical sources, all the “feminine” aspects of the world will emerge from their concealment and diminution in the unredeemed world, and rise to the highest stature.5 That is the deeper reason—says the Rebbe—that in our generation the innovations and increase in Torah study connect to and are emphasized in relation to women. The effect of their study is also great, for as the Talmud says in a well-known line: “In the merit of the righteous women of that generation were the Jews redeemed from Egypt.”6 And so, the Rebbe concludes, in the merit of the righteous women of our generation, may the full and complete redemption come.

Many other chassidic leaders and thinkers, including his own predecessors in the Chabad movement, write of the time of the redemption in these kabbalistic terms as the elevation of the “feminine” side (malchut or nukva, as it is called in the literature). As far as I know, however, the Rebbe is the only one to specifically connect this long-held and abstract mystical idea to concrete sociological phenomena occurring in our time. He did not let it remain a metaphorical depiction of some coming future era far from us, unrelated to the current realities of women’s lives.7The Rebbe concludes that in the merit of the righteous women of our generation the full and complete redemption will come

This perspective paralleled his reinterpretation of the halachic obligations of women in the mitzvah of Torah study, and within Chabad, his encouragement of their dramatically increased public participation in Chabad outreach activities.8 He also transformed the role of the shluchah—the wife of the shaliach or Chabad “emissary.” The Rebbe sent thousands of young families to serve as his “emissaries” all over the globe to found Chabad houses and reach out to fellow Jews. He made the women’s role independent in its own right. He instituted the Kinus ha-Shluchot, an annual conference in the Chabad Center in New York for these women emissaries, just as the Chabad male shluchim had all gathered from all over the world once a year in Crown Heights. The women came to New York for a long weekend of workshops and lectures, and had special gatherings with the Rebbe in the main synagogue; the men sat upstairs, where the women usually sit for prayers, while the women sat with Rebbe downstairs.

My Personal Experience

Dr. Susan Handelman (left) with the Rebbe in 1992.
Dr. Susan Handelman (left) with the Rebbe in 1992.

My relationship with the Rebbe began when I was a graduate student in English literature in the 1970s, and used part of a fellowship I had to research and study for six months in the Chabad world center in Brooklyn, New York—the place where the Rebbe had resided since coming to America in 1941. Over the years I developed strong ties to the community and to Chabad Chassidism, and had personal contact with the Rebbe in many ways: participating in his farbrengens (public gatherings), corresponding and consulting with him, intensively studying his writings, and brief face-to-face encounters. I had ample opportunity to observe him up close, and to experience personally his relation to women.

During my time in Crown Heights and afterwards, I wrote several essays about Chabad chassidism, many of which were based on research into the Rebbe’s writings, and several of which he edited personally. In 1978, while completing my Ph.D. work in literature, I also co-translated into English, with a Chabad rabbi, an important philosophical and hermeneutic discourse of the Rebbe’s on the nature of chassidic thought, entitled Inyanah shel Torat HaChassidut (English title, On the Essence of Chassidus9). The manuscript was given to the Rebbe to be checked prior to its being published in honor of his 75th birthday. My rabbinical co-translator told me with a smile that it was reported to him that when the Rebbe was shown the manuscript for his comments, he did not question my participation or credentials, but instead those of my male colleague, who was well-known as a highly learned Torah scholar: “Since when does Rabbi G. know English so well?” asked the Rebbe.

At the suggestion of one of his secretaries, Rabbi Binyomin Klein, I had also consulted with the Rebbe about my Ph.D. dissertation topic. I was not the only one, of course, to be writing to the Rebbe for advice. The secretary told me that the Rebbe received and answered about four hundred letters a day. This was in addition to the endless phone calls and faxes that deluged his office in the course of any 24-hour period, along with the personal audiences he had with his followers and the many different people who came from all over the world to see him, and which lasted late into the night. I had at that time thought of two possible dissertation topics: one on Shakespeare, and one on literary theory and rabbinic methods of interpretation. I often like to ask people which topic they thought the Rebbe advised me to write about. Many answer, “Shakespeare.” I had two possible dissertation topics: Shakespeare or literary theory and rabbinic methods of interpretationWhen asked why, they surmise he would not like me to mix rabbinic and secular studies, or would not think that as a woman I had enough knowledge to pursue that topic. Those who choose the rabbinics option say they think he would want me to try to bring Yiddishkeit into the university, as part of the well-known Chabad emphasis on outreach. The answer was neither. The Rebbe’s advice, as conveyed to me in the note typed by Rabbi Klein reproduced below, was as follows:

My translation into English: “It depends on what could be surmised about the attitude toward religion and Judaism of those who will be examining her Ph.D. work (that they should not be anti-religious, for then there would be some apprehension that they would disturb her and be opposed, and so forth).”

(Parentheses in the original; the Rebbe’s answer was also phrased in the third person, in the formal European style of polite respect.)

This response, I would say, was characteristic of the Rebbe. For as much as he was deeply immersed in the mystical traditions of chassidism and kabbalah, as much as he was forcefully engaged in a wide variety of campaigns to spread Yiddishkeit to every corner of the world, as idealistic he was about the “pure spark” in the soul of every Jew and about the ever-present potential of redemption, he was also very grounded, and pragmatic down to the last detail. The answer reflects an astute awareness of the politics of the university and of academic committees. It was very astute advice, which I followed, and which I now also give to my own graduate students: choose your academic advisor and dissertation committees very carefully. In the end I chose to pursue the topic of rabbinic interpretation and its relation to modern literary theory, which eventually became my first book, The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory.

The Rebbe Edits My Work

There were other very concrete and pragmatic ways in which the Rebbe assisted me in my writing and encouraged my academic work. One was connected to his active and intense interest in the activities of the Chabad women’s organization, N’shei Chabad. One of the organs of this organization was a journal called Di Yiddishe Heim, “The Jewish Home.” It is a small bilingual “in-house” magazine, half the articles written in Yiddish and half in English, and directed towards a lay audience of women of the Chabad community. When I came to study in Crown Heights in 1977 while a graduate student in English Literature, the feminist movement was in full swing. As a graduate of an Ivy League women’s college at the forefront of the movement (Smith College, where my commencement address was given by Gloria Steinem), I was troubled by the issues feminism raised about the role of women in Judaism. As I learned more Chabad philosophy, I found very interesting talks and writings of the Rebbe and sources from previous rebbes which discussed the role of the “feminine.” In order to help myself deal with these questions, I wrote an article based on these sources for Di Yiddishe Heim entitled, “The Jewish Woman: Three Steps Behind?”

Articles for the journal were written by both men and women, and the editor was a woman. I wrote the article and handed it in to her, and she accepted it for publication. A short while afterwards, long before the article actually appeared in print, I wrote my first personal letter to the Rebbe to consult with him about something. After answering the personal issue, he added the following words:

Translation: “I enjoyed her article in the forthcoming ‘Yiddishe Heim,’ and may G‑d grant her success in all her other activities.”

I was surprised, and did not know how the Rebbe would have known about the essay before it was published. So I asked the editor, who told me that although few people knew about it, after she had edited all the manuscripts, the Rebbe went over them again, editing them himself. And he took this time due to his great interest in the activities of women and his desire to support and encourage them. I subsequently wrote several articles for this journal, many based on ideas from his published public talks and discourses; and, as a favor to me and encouragement to write more, the editor gave my original manuscripts back to me with the Rebbe’s corrections.

In these corrections, one sees him relating with great care to the efforts of a young academic woman beginning to learn chassidic teaching and trying to relate it to current issues in philosophy, literature and politics. The extraordinary pains he took to read and edit my writing in English—including its typos, punctuation and grammar, as well as phraseology and ideas—astounded me and reminded me of the kind of the detailed, fatiguing reading and commenting I did for my own students when I taught intensive courses in English Composition. What follows are some representative examples from these manuscripts.

“One Sentence of Torah”

One essay I wrote was on “The Search for Truth—‘Religion’ and ‘Secularism,’” discussing the relationships among secular knowledge, Torah and science—an issue with which I was concerned at the time. In the article, I wrote the following paragraph:

Click on image to see a facsimile of this paragraph with the Rebbe’s handwritten revisions in pencil.
Click on image to see a facsimile of this paragraph with the Rebbe’s handwritten revisions in pencil.

Scientists, for example, have had to deal with the “uncertainty principle” and the recognition that at a certain level of observation, the observer so interferes with his data that he can’t attain any certain conclusions. Philosophers no longer attempt to explain the whys and hows of the universe, and restrict themselves mostly to analyzying language and logic—refusing to deal with “metaphysical” questions. Modern literature is extremely bleak, describing in painful detail the emptiness of the mind turning on itself, disconnected from the heart, and incapable of action. [Note: I must add here that this was written before the use of gender-inclusive language became prevalent, so all the pronouns refer only to “he.”]

The Rebbe edited this paragraph by

  • deleting the extra words “so interferes with his data that he”
  • changing “any certain conclusions” to “a certain conclusion”
  • adding apostrophes to the phrase “why’s and how’s”
  • correcting my typo in the word “analyzying” to “analyzing”
  • changing the phrase “language and logic” to “events, phenomena etc.”

In this essay, as well as others I wrote in an earlier time of more youthful extremism, he also qualified my large generalizations—as I often find myself now doing with the writing of my own students. Further on in the essay, I referred to a sichah (“talk”) he gave about this subject10 and I wrote:

Click on image above to see this paragraph, as well as the paragraph that follows (described below) in the original manuscript with the Rebbe’s revisions.
Click on image above to see this paragraph, as well as the paragraph that follows (described below) in the original manuscript with the Rebbe’s revisions.

. . . all secular sciences are limited and imperfect. They do not posses anything outside of themselves, or outside of reason—and furthermore, reason itself has its own inner limitations. Nevertheless, the Rebbe points out, it is precisely these limitations that satisfy a person, because he can grasp the entire system and contain it. He feels the satisfaction of mastering a body of knowledge, and hence, secular knowledge leads to arrogance.

In this paragraph, the Rebbe

  • deleted the word “all” in the first line, so it then read instead “secular sciences are limited and imperfect”
  • inserted the words “today’s human” to the next line, which now read “or outside today’s human reason”
  • qualified my sweeping generalization in the last line by inserting the adverb “very often” to the phrase “secular knowledge leads to arrogance,” to now read “secular knowledge very often leads to arrogance”

The essay continued with my writing in the next paragraph that the opposite was the case with the study of Torah, which is an unlimited, infinite wisdom:

Thus one can never contain Torah, master it. A person always feels how far he is from grasping the whole of it and fathoming its infinite depth. Therefore, he doesn’t become arrogant, but on the contrary—humble. And the more he learns, the humbler he becomes, and the greater is his thirst for learning Torah.

The Rebbe here, in what is my most favorite revision of his, inserted the words “all the content of even one Dvar (sentence of)” in the first line. The Rebbe relates with great care to the efforts of a young academic woman beginning to learn chassidic teaching and trying to relate it to current issues in philosophy, literature and politicsIt then read: “Thus one can never contain all the content of even one Dvar (sentence of) Torah, master it.” Yet he was indeed one of the masters of Torah in our generation. I remember attending his farbrengens—public gatherings the Rebbe would hold. The large synagogue in Brooklyn would be packed with a thousand or more people. If it were a weekday, he would start to speak at around 9:30 PM, and often give several sichot or “talks,” each lasting about forty minutes. Without a note, he would speak into the early hours of the morning, for five or more hours, citing liberally from memory and constructing innovative interpretations intricately woven from of the whole corpus of Jewish literature—Bible, midrash, Talmud, the classic commentaries, kabbalah, Jewish law, chassidic philosophy.

There are also the many personal stories of scientists and mathematicians who corresponded with and spoke to the Rebbe about the technicalities of their work, and which he corrected as well. In the essay I wrote on Torah and science, I went on to paraphrase a well-known talk of his given on Parshat Noach 5738,11 in which he speaks of the pre-eminent truth of Torah that “G‑d is One” as also meaning the following:

Unity is more true than diversity; the real truth is the interdependence of all things into a unity, the Unity of G‑d. The multiplicity of creation is no contradiction to the Unity of G‑d; indeed this multiplicity comes from His Unity, as Chassidut explains at length.

The Rebbe has pointed out that science is approaching the same realization, so to speak. He explains that it was once thought that every natural force was an independent power, that the substance of every being was composed of many different elements. With the growth and progress of science, however, man is coming more and more to realize that this multiplicity and separation of elements is something external—merely the manner in which parts combine, the way they are broken down or expanded. Science has more and more reduced the number of essential elements until it has come to the realization that the essence of the existence of the world consists in the unification of two aspects: “quality and quantity,” or “energy and mass”; everything is a unity of these two aspects. What science does not yet realize or admit is that this unity is from G‑d and is an aspect of His unity.

His corrections to this paragraph were:

  • to change the phrase “composed of many different elements” to “composed of essentially different elements”
  • to delete the word “external” from the phrase “this multiplicity and separation of elements is something external”
  • to insert the phrase “has made it its goal to” to the beginning of the sentence, “Science has more and more reduced the number of . . .”
  • to invert the word order of “more and more reduced” to “reduced more and more”
  • to change the phrase “essential elements until” to “basic elements and forces until”
  • to change the phrase “the unification of two aspects : ‘quality and quantity’” to “the two ultimate aspects: quality and quantity”
  • to qualify my sweeping generalization, “What science does not yet realize” to “What some scientists do not yet realize”

Women’s Unique Powers of Eliciting Holiness

There was a case, however, in which the Rebbe intensified a large generalization I had made, one specifically about Jewish women.

In another essay I wrote, entitled “Judaism and Feminism: Our G‑d and the G‑d of Our Mothers,” I explicated some of his writings on the nature of feminine spiritual power in the light of chassidism and kabbalah. The focus, in particular, was on the relation of the two sefirot (the divine attributes in kabbalistic thought, which also are the superstructure of the world) chochmah and binah, “wisdom” and “understanding.” These are also called “Father” and “Mother,” and he discussed their relation to the “Fathers” and “Mothers,” i.e., the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel, and the powers they bequeathed to the Jewish people. To summarize briefly: in commenting on the Parshah (Torah reading) of Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1–25:18),12 the Rebbe discussed the quality of binah, and the ability of the feminine “attributes” to more closely affect the physical world and bring what is actual out of what is potential—both in the kabbalistic schema, and on the parallel psychological-physical plane of our mundane world of male and female.

In the essay, I prefaced the idea by explaining a foundational notion in chassidic thought, and wrote that before the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the physical and spiritual “realms had been separated from each other and not connected.” To this sentence, the Rebbe inserted the adverb “perfectly”—“had not been perfectly connected.” The Rebbe discussed the quality of binah to bring what is actual out of what is potentialHe had further elaborated the idea in the sichah that the mitzvot performed by the patriarchs and matriarchs, who lived in the pre-Sinaitic era, helped prepare the way for the stronger, more perfect connection that would occur later, but their mitzvot could not affect the physical world as strongly as those we perform after the giving of the Torah.

Here he had made a very interesting distinction between the kinds of kedushah, “holiness,” the patriarchs and the matriarchs respectively brought into the world. The matriarchs of Israel brought a different kind of kedushah into the world than did the patriarchs, he maintained. The patriarchs could draw into the world a “holiness” that would remain in the physical object after the mitzvah they performed was fulfilled—but only in that part of the physical which had a connection to the patriarchs themselves. For example, the mitzvah of circumcision which Abraham was commanded drew kedushah into the body that fulfilled the mitzvah, but not into the world outside. However, through Sarah, the first matriarch, kedushah was drawn into a part of the world outside of her, and this power she bequeathed to all Jewish women. (For a further analysis of how and why this is so, see the original sichah).

In another sichah,13 the Rebbe wrote of another distinctive trait Jewish women possess more than men, which is indicated by G‑d’s giving of Rosh Chodesh (the first day or days of the Jewish month) as a special holiday to Jewish women in all generations and into the world to come as a reward for their not participating in the sin of the golden calf. The Rebbe describes this special female attribute as a certain unshakable attachment to and deep faith in G‑d that helped the Jewish women in the desert resist the trials to which the Jewish men succumbed. Although this feeling of pure faith is rooted in the heart of every Jew, male and female, he adds, it can become covered over or concealed due to various difficulties, and its effect on daily life and behavior no longer be visible. Jewish women, he asserts, have however a special strength in not permitting concealment of this feeling and its effects on behavior. As I summed up these ideas in my essay, I wrote:

The Rebbe points out that the reason why this great reward is given to all Jewish women in all times, till the coming of the Messiah and after (and not just to the women of that one generation [who left Egypt and contended with the golden calf]) is because the power to withstand such a great test which even the men could not endure comes from an innate superior trait that all Jewish women in all ages possess.

In the original version, I myself had twice underlined the word “all” in the first line, but not in the last part of the sentence where this adjective is used again. Here, however, the Rebbe intensified my generalization by underlining once again the last two uses of the word “all”: “all Jewish women in all ages.” And then once more again later on in the essay, where I summed up and wrote, “Every Jewish woman, in every time and every place, has inherited the special powers of the matriarchs,” he underlined the first word, “Every.”

“There Must Also Be A Girl In The Picture”

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Around 1980, the Rebbe initiated a campaign to encourage children to take more part in the overall public activities and initiatives of Chabad, and become part of Tzivos Hashem, “The Troops of G‑d.” Many pamphlets were produced for this campaign, and the chassidim who were in charge of it founded a journal for children called The Moshiach Times. Several highly interesting editorial comments and corrections to this magazine were also made by the Rebbe. One of the later staffers of the journal, Dr. David Sholom Pape, compiled a series of these.14 He relates that on the cover of the very first issue there was a drawing of two rows of children—one of boys and above it another of girls, each child carrying a banner with a letter on it, which all together spelled the words ahavat Yisrael, “Love of a fellow Jew” (figure 1).

One of the older chassidim on the staff balked, and wondered if it was “modest and chassidish for boys and girls to be on the same cover.” The younger members of the staff argued that since it was a magazine for both boys and girls, it was indeed appropriate. To resolve the dispute, the cover was sent to the Rebbe for his instructions on the matter. The Rebbe, however, did not instruct the staff to remove the girls from the cover.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

The matter arose again when the second issue was prepared for Purim, and the cover had a boy and girl in Purim costumes, dressed as Mordechai and Esther blowing bubbles in which were images of the mitzvot of Purim (figure 2). Again, objections were raised that such an image of a boy and girl playing together in proximity was against chassidic ethics; the previous cover had had the boys and girls separated in rows, but now the boy and girl were next to each other! The cover was again sent to the Rebbe, who simply returned it with a check indicating it was fine to print.

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

The third issue was designed for Passover and had a cover sketch of a boy looking into a stamp album, each stamp depicting one of the fifteen steps of the Passover Seder. The angle of the drawing and the size of boy’s head and the album left no room for an image of a girl as well. Since the other two covers had been sent in, this cover was also sent to the Rebbe for approval, and the answer came back:

Tzarich lihyot gam na’arah—“There also needs to be a girl.”

The artist redrew and redesigned the cover to add the head of a girl on the left side and the boy on the right side (figure 3), and by then a custom had been established to send the covers in to the Rebbe for all the issues.

A few years afterwards, in 1984, a cover was prepared by a well-known cartoonist for the Elul issue, portraying a boy returning home from summer camp to his room, carrying his sports equipment. The room is portrayed as filled with holy objects, equipment for a solider in Tzivos Hashem—a chumash, siddur, charity box, and so forth, and he is wearing a kippah and tzitzit. The cover was sent in to the Rebbe, who returned it with two comments: “The tzitzit should be seen” and “There must also be a girl in another corner.”

Figure 4: The first draft of the cover (leftr) and actual cover drawn after the Rebbe remarked, "There must also be a girl in another corner."
Figure 4: The first draft of the cover (leftr) and actual cover drawn after the Rebbe remarked, "There must also be a girl in another corner."

I conclude with these stories since I think this directive, “There must also be a girl in the picture,” summarizes what I have been saying throughout. On the broadest theological-metaphysical level, the emergence of the aspect of the “feminine,” of malchut, was also the deepest question of redemption. And the Rebbe connected the most abstract speculations and concepts in kabbalah and chassidism to the most practical and detailed endeavors in daily life.

I think this stance was also related to how he saw himself in the role of the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe. His mission was to continue and expand all the work of the previous rebbes, but especially that of his father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn—to widely diffuse, develop and bring the latter’s work completely into concrete reality. There is a Chabad chassidic idea that each of the seven rebbes paralleled a different sefirah. In this schema, the sixth rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, paralleled the sefirah of yesod, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the seventh, was malchut—the last sefirah in the kabbalistic schema, which is on the “feminine” side of the sefirot. Malchut, the last sefirah, receives and channels all flow from the preceding configurations of sefirot, and connects and implements them in the physical world. It is also called “sovereignty” or “kingship,” as defined by the notion of a king whose power comes only by virtue of the people, and whose life is given over to serve the people and to implement physical action in the world.

The Rebbe would often vigorously end his public discourses with the words “u-lematah me-asarah tefachim, b’karov mamash!” (“Below ten handbreadths, soon and really!”) In other words, to bring all the wishes for good for the Jewish people, for redemption, for tikkun of the world—to bring this all down from abstract concepts and spiritual ideas to “below ten handbreadths.” “Ten handbreadths” is the halachic measurement for a “private domain” on Shabbat, but more to the point, a reference to the rabbinic saying that “the Shechinah (divine presence) never descended below ten handbreadths.”15 In other words, to bring this all completely down to earth, to the ground, to our collective and individual literal, historical, physical, daily, mundane existence. And this, too, I believe, is what he tried to do in putting women “into the picture” of Jewish life, not just in theory, but pragmatically and actually—“soon and really”!

See the video interview with Diane Abrams in which she relates this anecdote.
I have written in depth about this question in my essays, “‘Knowledge Has a Face’: the Jewish, the Personal, and the Pedagogical” in Personal Effects: The Social Character of Scholarly Writing, eds. David Bleich and Deborah Holdstein (Utah State University Press, 2002), pp. 121–144, and “‘Stopping the Heart’: The Spiritual Search of Students and the Challenge to a Professor in an Undergraduate Literature Class" in Religion, Scholarship and Higher Education: Perspectives, Models and Future Prospects, ed. Andrea Sterk (Notre Dame University Press, 2002), pp. 202–230.
Al Devar Chiyuv Neshei Yisrael be-Chinuch uve-Limmud ha-Torah 5750 [1990]” in Sefer ha-Sichot, vol. 2 (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Kehot, 1992), pp. 455–459.
See the Rebbe’s discourse on the nature of chassidic philosophy and its innovations entitled Inyanah Shel Torat ha-Chassidut (and the appendix printed there, a discourse given on the last day of Passover 1970) on the timing of revealing new insights and aspects of Torah. It is translated into English in the volume On the Essence of Chassidus (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Kehot, 1978).
That is the deeper meaning of the famous verse from Proverbs (12:4), “A woman of valor is the crown of her husband,” and from the prophet Jeremiah (31:21), “The woman will encircle the man.” The crown, symbolizing the highest kabbalistic sefirah (divine attribute) of Keter, sits on top of and encircles the head. Similarly, in the prophecy of Jeremiah, “the woman encircling the man” signifies the highest level of divine revelation, in the mode of a “circle” (makkif). In a circle, all points are equidistant from the center, as opposed to the hierarchical structure of a line. A circle also symbolizes what encompasses and can’t be contained and delimited. There are hints to this in the wedding ceremony, where the bride indeed encircles the groom, and in the language of the wedding blessings. See further the chassidic discourse of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his Torah Ohr, end of Parshat Vayigash, and his commentary on the siddur and the wedding blessings for the relation of male and female in the messianic era and the world to come.
Sotah 11b.
Naftali Loewenthal adds, however, that “at the same time, one cannot quite leave out what R. Yosef Yitzchak [the Rebbe’s father-in-law and predecessor] was doing. His presentation (in his Zichronot) of women secretly studying Talmud in the ancestry of R. Schneur Zalman, his setting up of Achos ha-Temimim [a women’s study group] in Riga in the 1930s, and his statements about this, are very interesting in terms of a new view of womanhood. The messianic aspect is not stated, but then in general his intense messianism (seen in Ha-Keriah veha-Kedushah) is not expressed in his discourses and other teachings.” Personal e‑mail correspondence with the author, August 19, 2002.
See my essay “Women and the Study of Torah in the Thought of the Lubavitcher Rebbe” in Jewish Legal Writings by Women, eds. Micah D. Halpern and Chana Safrai (Jerusalem: Urim Press, 1998), pp. 143–178, for an explication of his technical halachic analysis of the mitzvah of Torah study for women. This analysis was printed in the Rebbe’s Likkutei Sichot, vol. 14 (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Kehot, 1978), pp. 37–44, and reprinted in Chiddushim u-Veurim le-Shas, vol. 1 (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Kehot, 1979), pp. 217–223. The Rebbe concludes, through a careful analysis of the classical sources and Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, that the mitzvah of Torah study for women is based not only on the need she has to know the laws pertaining to her—the classic justification—but acquires its own independent status as talmud Torah for its own sake (li-shemah).
On a sociological level there were also many mivtzoim, public campaigns initiated by the Rebbe, that involved dramatically increased public participation of women in both their performance and their promulgation. Among these were the campaign to have all girls from the age of three and upwards light Shabbat candles, and to spread and publicize in as many forums as possible public knowledge of the mitzvah of taharat ha-mishpachah, the laws of family purity.
See note 4.
Likkutei Sichot, vol. 4 (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Kehot, 1964), p. 1101.
Likkutei Sichot, vol. 15 (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1980), pp. 42–48.
Likkutei Sichot, vol. 5 (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1972), pp. 336–353.
Likkutei Sichot, vol. 8 (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1974), pp. 317–319.
Dr. Pape printed them in the Souvenir Journal: Celebrating the Wedding of Bentzion and Rochie Pape, 30 Adar I, 5760—a private illustrated gift volume distributed at the wedding of his son. I am grateful to R. Shlomo Gestetner of the Mayanot Institute in Jerusalem for locating this source for me.
Talmud, Sukkah 5a.
Dr. Susan Handelman is a professor of English at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. A native of Chicago, she is the author and editor of numerous books on Jewish thought, a translator of the Rebbe's treatise On the Essence of Chassidus and a contributor to
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Leah Urso Modiin, Israel July 19, 2012

Thank you for sharing! There is much to be learned from each of the Rebbe's edits. Reply

Esther Liba NJ June 22, 2012

My Compliments! Ms. Handelman, I've always enjoyed reading your articles, but this one is more than "just enjoyable;" it gives the reader an insight into the Rebbe's enormous erudition, coupled with his simple love of every person.

Thank you for painstakingly describing each thoughtful edit that the Rebbe rendered in pursuit of the most harmonious "whole." Reply

Anonymous sacramento June 21, 2012

A beautifully written article - thank you!

However, one question remains unanswered for me. Is the extension of the feminine in our times inclusive of women who are called to serve as rabbis? So many are called these days - a phenomenon unique to our times. Reply

Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY June 22, 2006

Reply to Karl Dyer This is in response to Karl Dyer of Lubavitch Indiana who found it "a bit much" that a Ph.D. in English asked the Rebbe to correct her papers. Mr. Dyer comments, "Did Einstein ask the Rebbe to look over his Theory of Relativity?" Professor Herman Branover, an expert in magnetohydrodynamics, was once told by the Rebbe that there was a problem with the math in one of his equations. Sure enough, Prof. Branover checked his equations again and the Rebbe was 100% correct. Our holy and righteous rabbis are begged for medical and business advice despite lacking MD and MBA degrees. The answer is, "G-d shares His knowledge with those who fear Him." Torah is the blueprint of the world. Those whose lives are bound up in the Torah attain special insight into how the world really works. The Rebbe was a brilliant man with a degree from the Sorbonne, but he also had Divine inspiration, knowledge that he couldn't possibly have acquired through normal channels. This ability came directly from G-d. Reply

Anonymous London, England March 29, 2006

Dr Handelman expresses herself eloquently and succinctly. It was a real treat to get a glimpse into the private correspondence between the Rebbe and Dr Handelman. I am as in awe of her blessed teaching ability now as I was in the 1980s as her student at the University of Maryland , where I had the priviledge of taking courses she taught as a professor in Uni, as well as private chassidic study sessions off campus.
These issues are current and relevant today and Dr Handelman has done us observant and not yet observant Jewish women a great service by bringing the Rebbe's message to us in a way that touches our essence and helps us define ourselves as "modern" Jewish women. This is a must read! Reply

Leah Jacobs Lakewood, NJ August 31, 2005

feminism and women pursuing their talents Thank you for your insights, wisdom and awareness. I had no idea of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's contemplations on feminism. Is this classic chassidis? Does it matter? Its brilliant and refreshing. This gives me something to work with in my pursuit of regaining my professional pursuits. I gave them up when I became religious thinking it was not necessary anymore. Fulfilling all our potential in this world is the goal. Now I have to convince my daughters. I must get a copy of your book. Thanks again. Reply

Anonymous September 9, 2004

In my opinion, this article would be much improved if you had stayed with the subject. I don't think the Rebbe's editing, and in such detail, down to punctuation, should be in this story. Reply

karl dyer, indiana via September 7, 2004

putting women in the picture/susan handelman I find it amazing that a Ph.D. in English had the Rebbe correct her papers. What's next? Did Einstein check his theory of relativity with the Rebbe first? I have no doubt he was a great man, but this is a bit much. Reply

Eli Federman Milwaukee, WI September 6, 2004

Great article Great read!
Insofar as equal wages, equal employment opportunities, equal educational opportunities etc. the feminist movement has done boundless good. In the early 1900’s an ideal called “protectionism” emerged—the belief that societies repressing women were in reality safeguarding them from the “evils” of the world. Many women supported this philosophy which stood in opposition to women voting rights, the 19th amendment. Despite its religious underpinnings I can assure you the Rebbe opposed this school of thought.
The Rebbe’s unique feminist approach shattered the negative housewife image many feminists perpetuated, with good intentions. In truth, being the educator of children (be it a mother or father. Call me a “misandrist”—opposite of misogynist, but I think women do a much better job with this) serves as the spokes of the societal wheel and is the most prestigious occupation, not one to be taken lightly.

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY September 5, 2004

How heartening and validating. And what great editing. Reply