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Letters from Yekaterinoslav: Uniting the Facets of Torah

Letters from Yekaterinoslav: Uniting the Facets of Torah

1933

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This photo of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson was taken during his imprisonment.
This photo of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson was taken during his imprisonment.

The early 1930s saw the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. As the climate in Berlin became increasingly anti-Semitic, Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his wife decided to move to Paris.1 Following Passover 1932, they did not return to Berlin, and R. Menachem Mendel spent much of the next year assisting his father-in-law and accompanying him on his travels.2 They did not complete their move to Paris until just before the following Passover.3

Five years after R. Menachem Mendel had left the Soviet Union, his parents remained in Yekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk), behind the Iron Curtain. Throughout the intervening years R. Levi Yitzchak kept up a voluminous correspondence with his son.4 “May your coming be for peace,” he wrote following their arrival in Paris, “settle in your new place, and may you have rest, tranquility and quiet forever.”5 “May your coming be for peace, settle in your new place, and may you have rest, tranquility and quiet forever.” With the passing years the situation for religious Jews in the Soviet Union was becoming progressively more difficult, and this letter shows that R. Levi Yitzchak and his wife relied on their son and daughter-in-law to send them properly supervised flour from which they baked matzah for the upcoming Passover festival.6

The letters between R. Menachem Mendel and his father during these years reveals deep familial warmth and concern running in both directions.7 They also reveal that R. Levi Yitzchak had a formative influence on his son’s philosophical and methodological approach to Torah study. Far from being limited to mundane affairs, the bulk of their correspondence delves deeply into the sea of Torah scholarship; a vast array of Talmudic, Kabbalistic and Chassidic sources are woven into multilayered tapestries of religious meaning.

In the abovementioned letter, R. Levi Yitzchak treats the matzah and wine consumed at the Passover Seder as a Kabbalistic allegory for the emancipation of human intellect through faith. In a letter written a month later, he congratulates his son on the treatise he had earlier sent him about the festival of Purim, remarking that “it contains sharpness and breadth of knowledge . . . discerning and deep understanding of revealed and hidden Torah.” At the same time he urged his son to base his Torah interpretations even more strongly in Kabbalah, “the luminary within Torah,” “for then it is clearly recognizable that the concept is true.”8

This passage is an exemplary articulation of a theme that stands at the core of R. Levi Yitzchak’s writings, and which would be further applied and developed by R. Menachem Mendel throughout his life: all facets of Torah literature and scholarship are essentially united. Kabbalah is not a discrete discipline to be studied in isolation from Talmudic and halachic texts, but actually provides a mystical benchmark by which all aspects of Torah study can be assessed and illuminated. As Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel carried this principle very far indeed, demonstrating the underlying harmony between halachah and Kabbalah even in areas where they are assumed to be at odds.9

In another letter to his son, R. Levi Yitzchak explained that the all facets of Torah are united because they are all equal expressions of the divine word. This “All of them were said by G‑d . . . G‑d Himself said the law, and He Himself said, ‘It is a falsehood.’” sentiment can be traced to the Talmudic statement, “These and these are the words of the living G‑d,”10 but R. Levi Yitzchak’s formulation is unprecedentedly radical:

All that is said in the written Torah or the oral Torah, whether in a legal or narrative passage, and in all the books authored by righteous scholars . . . and even the law about which afterwards it is said “it is a falsehood” . . . literally all of them were said by G‑d; exactly in that formulation that they were said . . . G‑d Himself said the law, and He Himself said, “It is a falsehood.”11

From this perspective, all the disparate views included in the kaleidoscopic corpus of Torah literature must, by their very nature, be inherently harmonious. For R. Menachem Mendel this was a seminal principle, which informed his thinking and methodology on every topic.12 In his teachings every detail of Torah is infused not only with the intention of the original author, but with the full potency of divine intention. The precise wording of every passage formulated by the Talmud, Maimonides, Rashi, or any other righteous Torah authority is loaded with unconscious depth and must be mined for instructive meaning.13 Building on the same underlying premise, R. Menachem Mendel would often interpret opposing opinions in correspondence to one another, demonstrating the corroborative consequences of their juxtaposition.14

Under increasingly isolated and repressive conditions, it is clear that R. Levi Yitzchak drew a great measure of comfort from the extensive Torah correspondence that he carried on with his eldest son. But eventually even this point of contact would be cut off. The exchange between father and son continued through the years that R. Menachem Mendel and his wife lived in Paris, until 1939, when R. Levi Yitzchak was arrested for crimes against the Soviet state. Cited against him as evidence was his subversive correspondence with R. Menachem Mendel, who is inexplicably referred to as “the chief rabbi of Warsaw.”15

Footnotes
1.
During this period R. Yosef Yitzchak urged his son-in-law and daughter, on several occasions, not to walk in the street unnecessarily, presumably due to rising political tensions and anti-Semitic agitation. See Igrot ha-Rayatz, vol. 15, page 105.
2.
R. Menachem Mendel’s journals from during this period are filled with stories and historical vignettes pertaining to the history of Chabad. See Reshimot ha-Yoman, pp. 222–325.
3.
See R. Yosef Yitzchak’s letters to his son-in-law and daughter dated the 10th of Nissan 5693 [1933] (Igrot ha-Rayatz, vol. 15, pp. 135–6).
4.
R. Levi Yitzchak’s letters to his son have been published in Likkutei Levi Yitzchak, vol. 3, pp. 197–423.
5.
Ibid., p. 298.
6.
Ibid., p. 299.
7.
The depth of this concern is also reflected in R. Menachem Mendel’s letters to R. Yosef Yitzchak (Igrot ha-Rayatz, vol. 15, pp. 79 and 93).
8.
Likkutei Levi Yitzchak, vol. 3, pp. 207–8.
9.
One important example of this concerns the Chabad custom not to sleep in the Sukkah; see Likkutei Sichot, vol. 29, pp. 211–9.
10.
Talmud, Eruvin 13b.
11.
Likkutei Levi Yitzchak, vol. 3, p. 266.
12.
For more extensive treatment of the Rebbe’s application of this principle, see here. Regarding the influence of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak on the Rebbe’s style of teaching, also see here.
13.
Sichot Kodesh 5724, p. 28.
14.
See for example Likkutei Sichot, vol. 15, pp. 243–51. See also sources cited in Elitov, Mishnato Shel ha-Rabbi mi-Lubavitch, pp. 133ff.
15.
Toldot Levi Yitzchak, vol. 2, p. 450.
Eli Rubin studied Chassidic literature and Jewish Law at the Rabbinical College of America and at Yeshivot in the UK, the US and Australia. He has been a research writer and editor at Chabad.org since 2011, focusing on the social and intellectual history of Chabad Chassidism. Through his writing, research, and editorial work he has successfully participated in a range of scholarly interchanges and collaborative endeavors.
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Twenty-eight articles, each encapsulating a period of the Rebbe’s life, and highlighting key themes that distinguish his ideas.
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