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Universal Responsibility: Faith, Education and Humanity

Universal Responsibility: Faith, Education and Humanity

1980s

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The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai has often been interpreted as a distinctly particularist event. It was then that the Hebrew tribe who had recently escaped Egyptian servitude became “the chosen people.” The Rebbe, however, emphasized that the particular status the Jewish people received lies in the universal responsibility that they carry.1

In support of his position, the Rebbe cited Maimonides, who dedicated several chapters of his legal code to ethical injunctions that apply equally to all nations. This universal moral code covers belief in G‑d, the value of human life, sexual morality, criminal and property law, animal welfare and a broad range of civic responsibilities. Maimonides admits that “the rational mind tends towards” these precepts, but asserts that they must nevertheless be accepted and lived by expressly “because G‑d commanded them in the Torah and made them known to us through Moses our teacher.”2

The Rebbe also cited the Midrashic tradition that the Ten Commandments were simultaneouslyThe particular status the Jewish people received lies in the universal responsibility that they carry. transmitted in all seventy languages of the world.3 “In order that no one should think that Judaism’s universal message is tangential,” he explained, “the voice of G‑d echoed so that all the peoples of the earth could understand it.”4

Accordingly, the universal mandate of divinely inspired morality is central to the Rebbe’s wider vision of Judaism as a path that will ultimately raise the entire world to a higher station. At Sinai, the Torah tells us, “G‑d descended upon the mountain.” This symbolizes the disintegration and collapse of the cosmic hierarchy, placing each individual in a direct relationship with G‑d. By virtue of divine commandment, man is made G‑d’s agent and empowered to raise up this lowly world and make it utterly transparent to transcendent divinity.5

As the Midrash puts it:

“When the Blessed Holy One created the world, He decreed and said, ‘The heavens are the L‑rd’s, and the earth He gave to humanity.’ When He sought to give the Torah, He nullified the earlier decree and said, ‘The lower realms shall rise to the higher realms and the higher realms shall descend to the lower realms.’”6

Many of us envision a civilization that upholds a moral code for the just governance and mutual good of all the world. But the Rebbe argued that human vision alone cannot carry enduring potency, it is too easily reduced to selfish utility, and it has too often deteriorated into amoral barbarism. When human vision is permeated by the potency of divine injunction, when people hold themselves responsible to G‑d’s purpose, when they act out of the reverential volition that such responsibility should inspire, then the world will become a higher place indeed.7Human vision alone... has too often deteriorated into amoral barbarism.

From the earliest years of his leadership the Rebbe spoke of faith-based moral education as the only basis for a viable civilization,8 and when Ronald Reagan became president of the United States in 1981, the Rebbe recognized in him a kindred spirit. Reagan strongly expressed his belief that the liberty of the American people “springs from and depends upon an abiding faith in G‑d,” advocated prayer in public schools and sought to amend the constitution so that no court could prohibit it.9

The Rebbe corresponded privately with Reagan10 and vocally applauded his initiative, defending their joint position in many public talks.11 Fear of punishment leaves room for the reckoning that guilt can be concealed, authority outwitted, and that personal profit is worth a risk. But no one can hide from their own deep set conviction that there is an “eye that sees and an ear that hears,”12 and that at each moment the Creator empowers every person to reveal His presence on earth and to raise the world to a loftier station.13

Accordingly, the Rebbe argued that the government should fund parochial schools, and especially encouraged a mandatory moment of silent reflection at the start of each school day.14 Children, he explained, would ask their parents what they should think about, thereby instigating more introspection and constructive conversation in general society.15 The claim that such measures were unconstitutional, the Rebbe said, ignored the spirit in which the authors of the constitution composed its words.16 As Reagan would also point out, the founding fathers came to America to escape religious persecution, and they composed the constitution to safeguard the religious foundation of their new country. They certainly never intended that these clauses would themselves be interpreted to prevent religious expression.17 Democratic emancipation opened the way for the Jewish people to fulfill their ultimate obligation.

Some looked askance at the Rebbe’s activism. In previous generations, they argued, Jews had never attempted to inspire faith based morality in their non-Jewish neighbors. Of what concern to him were the affairs of society-at-large? Why was he not content to minister to his own community? For the Rebbe, however, democratic emancipation opened the way for the Jewish people to fulfill their ultimate obligation. They were not given the Torah so that they could preserve it in the ghetto. They were given the Torah so that they could illuminate the world.18

Footnotes
1.
Likkutei Sichot Vol. 26, page 139.
2.
Maimonides, Laws of Kings, Chapters 8, 9 and 10.
3.
Shemot Rabba, 28.
4.
Likkutei Sichot, Vol. 4 page 1094.
5.
Likkutei Sichot 15:77.
6.
Genesis Rabbah 12:3; Tanchuma, Va’eira 15.
7.
A talk of the Rebbe on this theme is viewable here.
8.
In 1962, for example, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that prayer in public schools was unconstitutional, the Rebbe called for the ruling to be overturned. See this report by the Jewish Telagraphic Agency, and this report by the New York times.
9.
New York Times, May 18th 1982, viewable here and here and here.
10.
Reagan aide Gary Bauer later testified that the president personally wrote his replies to the Rebbe’s letters, for a report of his testimony see here. For an overview of their correspondence see here.
11.
See for example the 10th of Shevat 1983 talk by the Rebbe, viewable here.
12.
Avot, 2:1.
13.
Torat Menachem Hitvaduyot 5743 Vol. 2, page 899.
14.
Ibid. 903.
15.
A video of the relevant talk is viewable here.
16.
See above note 11.
17.
Reagan, Radio Address to the Nation on Prayer in Schools, February 25, 1984, see the transcript here.
18.
A talk by the Rebbe making this argument is viewable here.
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.