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Divine Zeitgeist—The Rebbe’s Appreciative Critique of Modernity

Divine Zeitgeist—The Rebbe’s Appreciative Critique of Modernity


Abstract: If to be modern is simply to reject the past and capitulate to contemporary consensus, the Rebbe took no part in it. But if to be modern is to entirely emancipate yourself from history, to transcend the flux of fashion and actualize the full potential of the present moment, the Rebbe was way ahead of the curve. One example of the Rebbe’s approach is his emphasis of the Torah’s universal vision, and of the seminal distinctions separating the secular universalism of modernity from the religious universalism of Judaism.

Emancipation and universalism are timely opportunities for the unfolding of eternity. Photo: JEM / The Living Archive
Emancipation and universalism are timely opportunities for the unfolding of eternity. Photo: JEM / The Living Archive

From Modernus to Modernity

For at least fifteen hundred years, people have used variations of the Latin word modernus to reference the present and distinguish it from the past. In more recent centuries, the significance of that distinction underwent a drastic change. Rather than venerating the received traditions of the past, people began to take a more skeptical approach. It has become the self-conscious project of modern people to emancipate themselves from history. The products of rational analysis, scientific discovery and independent Through the Torah, G‑d’s plan extends to every facet of life and existence, including the collection of phenomena we refer to as modernity.innovation are instead upheld as objects of veneration.1

For many, this shift is one of the factors putting modern identity and religious faith at odds with one another. Religion draws its authority from the prophets and scholars of the past, embodying the very type of tradition from which modernity seeks to release itself. Religion has always incorporated a certain tension between reason and revelation, but modernity intensifies it to an unprecedented degree.2

A different but related factor is the modern development of communication technology, which continues to advance at breakneck speed. Pre-modern societies were relatively self-contained, and the influx of outside information relatively limited. Traditional cultures, and religious ones in particular, consequently engendered a narrower worldview and a more close-knit sense of identity and purpose. In contrast, modern channels of communication now provide a veritable flood of knowledge, eroding any localized sense of particularism with the infinitely varied strands of a globalized perspective.3

As a result of these tensions, religious people in the Western world are often forced to ask themselves difficult questions about how far they can uphold their traditional values and how far they must capitulate to a growing secular consensus. Among Jews, the response to modernity and secularism has ranged from outright capitulation and assimilation to unyielding traditionalism and self-segregation.4

Though these responses appear to be polar opposites, they share a common denominator with almost every other response on the spectrum. Both of them acknowledge Judaism and modernity to be in conflict. The question is only how to deal with the conflict: Should we capitulate, resist, or try to negotiate Modernity is a product of history. And history itself—the entire expanse of created being, experience and time—is a product of the Torah.some kind of compromise?

But there was one individual who neither capitulated, resisted or negotiated. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994), the seventh rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, refused to acknowledge any conflict at all. Through the Torah, he taught, G‑d’s plan extends to every facet of life and existence, including the collection of phenomena we refer to as modernity.5

The idea that modernity stands in conflict with the received traditions of Judaism assumes that both Judaism and modernity are produced and shaped by the evolving contours of history. But the Rebbe would often cite the Zohar’s statement that G‑d “looked in the Torah and created the world.”6 Both G‑d and the Torah, he explained, entirely transcend the earthly constraints of time and space. Modernity is a product of history. And history itself—the entire expanse of created being, experience and time—is a product of the Torah.7

Eternity and Time

In his seminal essay On the Essence of Chassidus, the Rebbe used an anecdote to illustrate how this vision of Torah reconfigures its relationship with the various political and ethical ideologies of the modern era:

All ethical ideologies that people have contrived of their own intuitions are a mix of good and evil, truth and falsehood. And the good elements that each one of these ideologies contains has its source in the Torah.

There is a well-known story about the Rebbe, my saintly father-in-law [Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880–1950), the sixth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch], which illustrates this point. On one of his journeys, he encountered several men debating and expressing differing opinions about the relationship of Torah to the various political ideologies, and with which system the Torah agrees. Each one of them brought forth a source in the Torah in support of his ideology. When they asked the Rebbe [R. Yosef Yitzchak] for his opinion on this question, he answered: “The Torah, since it is the absolute perfection of truth and goodness, contains within itself all of the best elements of all these ideologies.”8

Judaism—G‑d’s vision for humanity as communicated via the Torah—at once transcends each of the various political ideologies of the modern era and is also the ultimate source of them all. Accordingly, none of them can stand in complete conflict with Torah. On the contrary, each of them presents an opportunity for the further revelation and development of another facet Judaism at once transcends each of the various political ideologies of the modern era and is also the ultimate source of them all.of the Torah’s wisdom.

Elsewhere, the Rebbe applies the same idea to the relationship of the Torah with the entire spectrum of time itself. The Torah at once transcends history and unfolds within history, just as G‑d at once transcends the world and is also active throughout the world.9 Accordingly, no specific era can stand in conflict with Judaism. On the contrary, every moment in the history of humankind represents a further opportunity for G‑d’s all-encompassing vision to unfold.10

The central reason why many people perceive Judaism as standing in conflict with modernity is because they perceive the Torah to be something from the past. In the Rebbe’s eyes, that was a fundamental mistake. The Torah is eternal, not only in the sense that it will survive forever, but in the much deeper sense that it utterly transcends the temporal distinctions of time. Modernity might seek emancipation from the past, but Judaism is inherently emancipated from the past.11 But to be emancipated from the past does not mean to jettison the past in favor of the present; it means incorporating what we receive from the past into the continued unfolding of the timeless Torah.12 The Torah is not subject to time; time is subject to the Torah.13

To contemplate the Rebbe’s concept of modernity and Torah is to contemplate the mysterious interplay of time and eternity.14 Time is fragmented and transitory, eternity all-encompassing and everlasting. But in the Rebbe’s eye, time is the playing field upon which eternity unfolds and is practically actualized. It is through harnessing the unique opportunities inherent in each moment that we Harnessing the unique opportunities inherent in each moment, we cumulatively transform transience into an ever-widening window onto the everlasting.cumulatively transform transience into an ever-widening window onto the everlasting.15

The transcendent span of the eternal Torah might be compared to an infinitely colorful mosaic.16 From our limited perspectives, as we stand within the transient trajectories of history, we toil to uncover the mosaic, one tile at a time. On the one hand, each individual tile must be seen as a decontextualized facet of a far greater truth. On the other hand, each new disclosure provides greater context within which the mosaic’s broader pattern can be better understood. The mission of each generation is not to abandon the discoveries of their predecessors, but to build on them, so that the quintessence of Torah can further unfold.17

The Old New Universalism

In the same way that the Rebbe considered Torah to be inherently applicable for all time, he understood it to be inherently applicable for all people.18 Accordingly, the modern developments of global communication, a more universal perspective, and even secularization actually paved the way for Judaism’s inherently universal vision to be brought to the fore. A close study of the Rebbe’s many treatments of this topic reveals that this was is in no way a capitulation to modernity. On the contrary, the Rebbe specifically insisted on preserving the seminal distinctions separating the secular universalism of modernity from the religious universalism of Judaism.

Quote: The Rebbe, Sichot Kodesh 5726, pp. 97–98. Photo: JEM / The Living Archive
Quote: The Rebbe, Sichot Kodesh 5726, pp. 97–98. Photo: JEM / The Living Archive

As the Rebbe pointed out, Judaism’s universal vision was not formulated in response to its modern counterpart, but is attested to in Judaism’s most ancient texts, and was fully described in Maimonidescode of Jewish law, Mishneh Torah, which was composed in the 12th century. This work was unique in comprehensively describing all precepts of Judaism, including those that could not be acted upon for long periods of history. As the Rebbe saw it, Maimonides laid out the eternal vision of Judaism as it stands beyond chronological constraints.19 This does not mean that Maimonides’ code describes an utterly utopian era, but it does provide a complete vision of how to implement G‑d’s will in the world, whatever the situation. Changing political, historical and scientific realities may sometimes render entire sections of Mishneh Torah inapplicable. But these limitations do not change the Torah; they change the degree to which we are The specific phenomena of the modern age create an unprecedented opportunity for the actualization of Judaism’s unique brand of religious universalism.empowered to practice the Torah’s precepts.20

The Rebbe highlighted Judaism’s mandate of universal ethical responsibility as an example of how modernity actually enables us to realize the core vision of Judaism in previously unprecedented ways. As codified by Maimonides, the Jewish people carry an eternal responsibility to communicate and actualize the Torah’s vision of a universal moral code. But for long periods of history, they were socially ghettoized and politically powerless. An overt attempt to persuade the wider public of Judaism’s universal message would have been extremely difficult, even dangerous. Now, however, things are very different. The specific phenomena of the modern age—the advances of democracy, emancipation and communication technology—collaboratively create an unprecedented possibility for the actualization of Judaism’s unique brand of religious universalism.21 The freedoms of liberal society empower people to assimilate this vision and embrace it of their own essential choosing.22

Divine Zeitgeist

Modernity has made universal messages so fashionable that their potency is too often drowned in an overwhelming flood of sameness. But when we take a closer look at Maimonides’ code of Jewish universalism, it quickly becomes clear that some of its elements don’t jibe with the secularist trends of the current zeitgeist. Judaism’s universal mandate governs not only the establishment of a civil judiciary, criminal and property law, animal welfare and the absolute value of human life, but also sexual morality and belief in G‑d.23

Even more significantly, while Maimonides says that “the rational mind tends towards” these precepts,24 he also asserts that they must be accepted and lived by expressly “because G‑d commanded them in the Torah and made them known to us through Moses our teacher.”25 Judaism’s universal mandate is concerned not only with the way people behave and what they believe, but also with the theoretical basis for such behavior and belief. It is not enough to rely on reason, your personal sense of morality, or even religious faith. In stark contrast to the modern emphasis on reason and personal autonomy, Judaism’s universal code demands a conscious submission Judaism’s universal mandate is concerned not only with the way people behave and what they believe, but also with the theoretical basis for such behavior and the divine revelation at Sinai as the ultimate ground of all ethical vision.

The reason for this, the Rebbe explained, is that this universal code is in no sense peripheral to Judaism. It is not an afterthought directed at non-Jews, but rather the ultimate fulfillment of Judaism’s all-encompassing mission. At Sinai, it was the Jewish people in particular who received the Torah. But from the very outset, the Torah’s mandate was to raise the entire world to a higher station. Many of us envision a civilization that upholds a moral code for the just governance and general good of all the world. But human vision does not carry enduring potency, and can be too easily reduced to selfish utility. Only G‑d’s vision, as revealed to Moses at Sinai, has the authoritative power to imbue even our smallest deeds with the universal purpose of all existence.26

The Rebbe’s universal project demonstrates the complexity of his approach. He was very much alive to the fact that many modern attitudes are antithetical to Judaism and to religiosity. Yet he did not see them as inherently evil, to be cast out, derided or ignored, but rather as corruptions of a divine truth, to be raised up, refined and transformed into more accurate representations of their G‑dly core.27

To Learn and to Teach

Though modernity purports to break away from traditional modes of thinking, it has been around long enough that many of its axioms have themselves become entrenched as unchallengeable institutions. The critical methodologies of science have led to wonderful discoveries, truly making the world a better place. But science has also become the basis for a particularly insidious type of groupthink, creating a discourse of polarization The Rebbe approached modernity neither to capitulate nor to do battle, but to learn and to which any idea considered “old” is simply dismissed out of hand.

The Rebbe, however, was not intimidated by the fads of modern convention. He approached modernity neither to capitulate nor to do battle, but to learn and to teach. He appreciated critical methodologies as important tools to be used on the path to enlightenment, but insisted that skepticism too must remain vulnerable to critique. The systemic entrenchment of skepticism is conducive only to cynicism and closed-mindedness; it shuts the door on progress and leaves no room for advancement.28

As with his treatment of the eternal and the timely, and of the universal and the particular, the Rebbe probed the core of the most contentious questions of his age, teasing out the complex fundamentals through which apparent polarities interact. On questions of personal rights and public responsibilities,29 of scientific theory and religious belief,30 of gender equality and difference,31 of emancipation and education,32 of divine good and human evil,33 the Rebbe rose above his time, as a visionary who saw in every present moment a unique opportunity for the temporal unfolding of eternity.34

The Rebbe’s engagement with modernity was not at all peripheral to his broader vision of Judaism, the Torah and Chassidism. In On the Essence of Chassidism, the Rebbe described the Torah as a revelation of the very essence of divine being. The essence of G‑d, he explained, utterly transcends even the loftiest conception, and is also the intimate essence of every specific thing. From this innermost perspective, no two things can stand in conflict with one another. Both are to be perceived as complementary refractions of the indivisible essence of all things. The specific purpose of Chassidus is to amplify, explicate and communicate this innermost perspective so that it can be fully assimilated throughout all reality. And it is precisely through the harmonious synthesis of apparent polarities It is precisely through the harmonious synthesis of apparent polarities that the utter pervasiveness of G‑d’s essence is most eloquently elaborated.that the utter pervasiveness of G‑d’s essence is most eloquently elaborated.35

In hundreds of public talks, personal letters and published discourses, the Rebbe iterated and applied this daringly refreshing perspective in many different contexts. Over the course of more than forty years of leadership he taught us how we can look modernity in the eye, honestly and unflinchingly, appreciatively but also critically. If to be modern is simply to reject the past and capitulate to contemporary consensus, the Rebbe took no part in it. But if to be modern is to entirely emancipate yourself from history, to transcend the flux of fashion and actualize the full potential of the present moment, the Rebbe was way ahead of the curve.

See Gustavo Benavidas, Modernity, in Mark C. Taylor (ed.), Critical Terms for Religious Studies (University of Chicago Press, 1998), 186–204.
See Harvie Ferguson, introduction to Modernity and Subjectivity: Body, Soul, Spirit (University of Virginia Press, 2000). See also the relevant discussions and sources cited by Michael Allen Gillespie in The Theological Origins of Modernity (University of Chicago Press, 2008), 6–7 and 10–12.
See Peter Beyer, Religion and Globalization (Sage, 1994) and Religions in Global Society (Routledge, 2006).
See the relevant discussion and sources cited by Naftali Loewenthal, “The Hasidic Ethos and the Schisms of Jewish Society,” in A. Rapoport-Albert, Moshe Rosman and Marcin Wodzinski (eds.), Jewish History, volume 27, issue 2–4 (Special Issue: Toward A New History of Hasidism, December 2013), 377–398.
For some aspects of this, and for a particular discussion of what might be seen as postmodernist elements of the Rebbe’s thought see Loewenthal, 388–394.
Zohar 2:161a.
See, for example, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, Torat Menachem, vol. 7 (Lahak, 1997), 44: “The beginning of all things is in the Torah, as our sages said, ‘[G‑d] looked in the Torah and created the world.’” Op. cit., vol. 3 (Lahak, 1995), 134: “Time itself is a new creation, brought into being from nothing. For just as space is a new entity that did not exist previously, so too time is a new entity that did not exist before it was created. As is well known, time and space are bound up with one another.” Op. cit., vol. 23 (Lahak, 2002), 176: “‘G‑d looked in the Torah and created the world’ and ‘made everything good in its correct time’ [Kohelet Rabbah 3:11] specifically. Accordingly, every time has its portion in the Torah.”
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, Inyanah Shel Torat ha-Chassidut, in Rabbi Yoel Kahan et al (eds.), Sefer ha-Arachim Chabad, vol. 1 (Kehot Publication Society, 1970), 758. The translation is modified from the one published as On the Essence of Chassidus (Kehot Publication Society, 1986).
See the relevant discussion in Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, Torat Menachem—Hitvaaduyot 5752, vol. 2 (Lahak, 1994), 242–244, and the elaboration of this discussion in Eli Rubin, On the Eternal Unfolding of the Transcendent Torah: Torah Hermeneutics in the Thought of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.
For one iteration of this idea, see Torat Menachem—Hitvaaduyot 5743, vol. 2 (Lahak, 1993), 629: “At every moment that a Jew exists, the purpose of his existence and being in that moment is ‘to serve my master.’ . . . Therefore, when at a specific moment you hear or see a particular thing, in order to justify your existence in that moment, you must use what you see and hear in that moment to serve G‑d.”
See for example Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, Sichot Kodesh 5724 (Brooklyn, 1986), 17, where he cites a halachic ruling in the Jerusalem Talmud to demonstrate that “this is the power of the Torah . . . that it doesn’t only have control over things in the present and in the future, but also has control over the past.”
See Torat Menachem, ibid., footnotes 52 and 55, where G‑d and the Torah are described as being “on a plane beyond time,” this being an elaboration of the statement of Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch that for G‑d “past and future are one.” The Rebbe continues to explain that the concept of “past and future” (which also includes “cause and effect”) being one is ultimately “beyond every concept and boundary of existence.”
For one of the many different iterations of this concept in the Rebbe’s talks, see Sichot Kodesh 5713 (Brooklyn, 1985), 194. Criticizing those who wish to adapt Judaism to conform to modern concerns, the Rebbe cites the aforementioned Zohar and other classical texts, and then continues: “All things that exist must be in the Torah, because if it is not in the Torah, it would not exist in the world. . . . Even things that apparently have no connection to Torah, completely worldly things, are also in the Torah. . . . Moreover, the main point of Torah is to refine the world. . . . Therefore, in all things that transpire, we must look in the Torah [to see] how to conduct oneself . . .”
See for example Sichot Kodesh 5715 (Brooklyn, 1985), 357: “The Torah contains both aspects, time and beyond time.”
The complex interplay of eternity and time has always been central to Chabad thought, with particular bearing on the function of mitzvot and the advent of the messianic age. See Eli Rubin, The Idealistic Realism of Jewish Messianism, and the relevant discussion and citations in Elliot R. Wolfson, “Eternal Duration and Temporal Compresence: The Influence of Ḥabad on Joseph B. Soloveitchik,” in Michael Zank and Ingrid Anderson (eds.), The Value of the Particular: Lessons from Judaism and the Modern Jewish Experience (Brill, 2015), 212–234.
For a particularly interesting iteration of this idea, see Sichot Kodesh 5722 (Brooklyn, 1985), where the Rebbe explains that if the advent of the messianic age were to have been hastened ahead of its allocated time, several generations of exile would have been skipped, and various facets of the Torah, “which can be revealed only over the span of many generations,” would never have been fully disclosed.
See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 4 (Kehot Publication Society, 1968/2006), 1094, where the Rebbe cites the midrashic tradition that the Ten Commandments were simultaneously transmitted in all seventy languages of the world, explaining that “in order that no one should think that Judaism’s universal message is tangential,” the voice of G‑d echoed so that all the peoples of the earth could understand it.
See the relevant discussion in Torat Menachem—Hitvaaduyot 5745, vol. 3 (Lahak, 1986), 1709–1711.
For an interesting application of this principle, see Likkutei Sichot, vol. 23 (Kehot Publication Society, 1983/2000), 33–41, where the Rebbe discusses the medical instructions that Maimonides included in his code, not all of which are effective in the present era.
For one extensive discussion of these points, see Torat Menachem—Hitvaaduyot 5743, vol. 2 (Lahak, 1993), 628, 636–643, and sources cited there. Videos of key segments of this talk, with English subtitles, are viewable here and here.
See Sefer ha-Maamarim Melukat, vol. 2 (Lahak, 2002), 359: “Via the possibility to choose the actions of the wicked, it is recognizable that the actions of the righteous are of their own free will.” For a lengthier discussion of this concept, with specific reference to Judaism in the modern age, see Eli Rubin, Emancipation, Multiculturalism and the Perpetual Passover: Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson’s Vision of Modern Progress as Religious Opportunity.
See Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Their Wars 8:10–10:11.
Ibid. 9:1.
Ibid. 10:11.
For some of the Rebbe’s many iterations of this point, see the relevant discussions in Likkutei Sichot, vol. 4, 1094; op. cit., vol. 20, 140–141; Torat Menachem—Hitvaaduyot 5743, vol. 2, 899–903. For some of the ways in which the Rebbe applied this point, see Eli Rubin, Universal Responsibility: Faith, Education and Humanity and The Holocaust: Facing Evil with Faith, in Scholar, Visionary and Leader: A chronological overview of the Rebbe’s life and ideas.
See Inyanah Shel Torat ha-Chassidut, 771: “All [external] revelations [of G‑d], even the most sublime, are defined by the constraints of light and revelation. The existence of evil—the opposite of light—stands in opposition to them. Consequently, they are unable to transform it into good. . . . But the essence of divine being is formless to the ultimate degree, absolutely abstracted from any form, so that it is impossible for something to stand in opposition to it. And consequently, [the essence of divine being] can change and transform it [evil] to good.” See also above, note 8.
For some aspects of the link between faith and openmindedness, and of the roots of the Rebbe’s approach in the teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founding rebbe of Chabad, see Eli Rubin, Can You Square the Circle of Faith? How to preserve an open mind and a unified core of cohesive meaning.
See sources cited above, note 15.
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Efraim R. Brooklyn, NY September 1, 2015

The Rebbetzin's sage comment The Rebbe's wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka OBM, also echoed similarly in an anecdote (not surprising, as the Rebbe had shared much of his work and wisdom with her). I cite from the "L'chaim weekly" publication (can't recall the number issue at present):

A young bride-to-be from a distinguished chasidic family could not be convinced by her grandfather to uphold a little-practiced custom, that was not the vogue, at her wedding. Her grandfather had asked the Rebbetzin to speak with the bride.

When the young woman protested that none of her friends had acted in accordance with the custom and that she would be looked upon as being different, the Rebbetzin responded, "It's very modern to be different." Reply

arthur yanoff June 15, 2015

Torah and zer modern veldt a difficult tension that the Rebbe comprehends beyond the transitory. Torah exists beyond the scope of a mere fragment. as it is said," heaven and earth know boundaries, but Torah goes on forever." that our heating systems have changed from a fireplace to central heating has not altered the roots of Torah. Torah is as consistent with central heat as it is with a fireplace. Reply