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Educating the Next Generation of Jews

Educating the Next Generation of Jews

Excerpted from a conversation with Hillel Directors, August 27, 1959



Question: Are you not concerned with assimilation?

Rebbe: That is [Chabad-Lubavitch's] prime interest. Twenty years ago there were reasons for assimilation, to escape, to rescue, etc. Now assimilation is looked down upon by all groups.

Attachment to the Divine

Question: Please state your attitude towards "devekut" (attachment to the divine; ecstasy).

Rebbe: Do you have a specific question in mind?

Question: No. I wanted to hear the Lubavitcher interpretation.

Rebbe: Every human being, because of his connection with G‑d Almighty, has no limitation with respect to his possibilities; because he has not only his own energy but also an open channel to receive additional energy from Above.

To have this channel open is called devekut. You can be a very long distance from the powerhouse; you can become closer and closer to entering the powerhouse itself; and then you can become a part of this Being we call G‑d Almighty. That is the maximum of devekut.

It does not mean that the soul parts from the body, because the body is also G‑d's creation. The soul becomes not only closer and closer, but it becomes lost in divinity. And yet, soon after that he can eat his Sabbath meal and go to his business after the Sabbath ends with the recital of the havdalah service—it is not like nirvana.

In devekut you have no independent existence; you are a part of G‑d, who permeates all your being with His divinity. It is not in hidden form, but functioning in your body just as your heart, leg, etc., are functioning.

It must permeate not only your actions but also your understanding and intelligence. Performing a mitzvah is the action itself—like putting the tefillin on your head. But you can put it on your head and at the time think about business or politics. That is called machshovot zarot—your thoughts are in another world. You can even think about the translation of the prayers you are saying, but it only touches your understanding and goes no deeper.

If you say the blessing with enthusiasm, however, then it not only touches your understanding but your feelings too. If this excitement reaches even deeper – that is if it permeates all the person's faculties – it can bring a person to a stage of ecstasy to the extent that he is oblivious of the environment around him.

A mitzvah can be performed in a limited fashion and no more. But if you perform it to a maximum, it brings you to ecstasy and even the movements of your head and other involuntary movements are under the impact of this mitzvah. Thus the saying of the Baal Shem Tov that every day before his prayer he was afraid that he may not come out of this activity alive.

Kabbalah without Jewish Law

Question: Shabbtai Zvi and his followers used mysticism to break away from Jewish law. Perhaps this may be the reason the Vilna Gaon objected to Hassidic teachings?

Rebbe: As for comparing the movement of Shabbtai Zvi to the Hassidic movement—every movement that is started by a member of the Jewish people has some common point, because it was started by a Jew. Shabbtai Zvi was a scholar not only in kabbalah but also in Jewish law, but after a few years he deviated from the correct path. It became something that not only deviated from, but was just the opposite of Judaism.

Hasidism and Kabbalah are called in the Zohar, the "inner" dimension of Torah. That implies that there must be an "external" dimension too. Thus you cannot dissect the two and discard one of these elements. If you accept one part it is a necessity that you accept the other part too. When someone comes to a conclusion that goes against Jewish law, he is deviating.

Logically, one must come to the conclusion that kabbalah and Hasidism must exist; without them there is something missing. The same is true if you accept kabbalah and negate Jewish Law, you are negating something that is a part of what you are accepting; and you are actually negating the basis upon which you are standing.

The Vilna Gaon did not negate kabbalah, because he had his own group with whom he studied kabbalah. In his opinion, however, it was something not to be learned with a large group, but to be taught to only a select group, as the others are not able to grasp kabbalah and must be satisfied with Jewish law. But even he agreed that there must be a select group that learns kabbalah.

Shabbtai Zvi negated Jewish law. In the time of Shabbtai Zvi there was a group of Catholic priests that translated kabbalah manuscripts and studied kabbalah. But this is not considered Jewish kabbalah as the Catholics did not put on tefillin. It is just like someone in Sorbonne, Brooklyn College, or some other university who can learn kabbalah without putting on tefillin. For the true kabbalah cannot be separated from Jewish law.

The Starting Point

Question: How does one start with students? Should he begin by fostering an enthusiasm for Judaism, or just with asking them to do mitzvot?

Rebbe: We are now in an era when we must approach every individual according to his unique personality. If you can take him with enthusiasm, excitement or devekut, do it that way. You can choose your own approach—but ultimately the main thing is the actual mitzvah. If you estimate that with your congregation or audience the most effective approach is one of enthusiasm and excitement, then choose that way. The mistake is if one begins with this approach and then goes no further: If you begins with promoting actual mitzvot, then you have covered the most essential point; and even if the audience then goes to sleep, you have achieved the essential. But if you begin with devekut or the like and then they go to sleep, they will lack the most important part.

Parent-Child Relationships

Question: I've come across a great number of children who expressed bitterness against their parents. Can you suggest an approach to turn this bitterness into love?

Rebbe: Although there is no general remedy that will apply to each individual, nevertheless there is one common point. In growing up, a child must encounter difficulties and obstacles in his way—the world is changing, his body is changing. He needs someone to serve as a scapegoat.

The only person who has been with him all his life is his parent, and if he has no strength of character to say to himself that he must overcome these obstacles—even if it is connected with the biggest event in his life—then he must find someone to point the finger upon. His road is not an easy one. He must choose his father and mother to blame because he has known his teacher only one or two years and he's experienced these difficulties before that. So if he can point a finger to his mother or father he has a perfect excuse.

Explain to your audience the real reason they choose their parents as the target of their accusations—but do not stress this point too hard. Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow they will be less bitter: Do not expect them to stand up on the first day and "say ashamnu" (confess).

Lubavitch in America

Rebbe: If I remember correctly, when we met last time it was discussed that everyone must always be going from strength (chayil) to strength. As a year has elapsed in between, probably every one of us is more efficient. I would like to hear good news about your achievements.

Question: Chayil also means a soldier of war, is there any connection between a soldier and "going from strength to strength"?

Rebbe: Yes, a soldier (chayal) is forced to war; he must force himself to reach greater heights, even against his will.

Question: Why didn't the Lubavitcher movement choose to go to Israel instead of the U.S.?

Rebbe: It came to the U.S. in 1940 when the English Mandate was in full power.

In addition, if you have a certain amount of energy and it is your intention to use it to a maximum of efficiency, you must apply it where it can be used as such.

Question: Do you mean that there are more Jewish people here that will be helped by your ideals?

Rebbe: There is possibility to help more people in Brooklyn than in Tel Aviv.

Question: Is that why you chose Brooklyn, and not some other city like Chicago?

Rebbe: The real reason is because my father-in-law wanted a place where he could influence a great number of students. And this can be done easier in Brooklyn than in Baltimore or Chicago.

Question: If the Mandate was not in Israel, would he have chosen Israel?

Rebbe: I don't believe so; you do not have the possibilities there that you have in the United States.

Question: Did the entire Lubavitcher movement come to the U.S. at one time, or did they come as individuals?

Rebbe: Lubavitcher congregations were established in the U.S. over 50 years ago. They invited my father-in-law as a political rescue from Poland which was under German occupation. The hassidim in the U.S. intervened through the State Department. They explained to the State Department the advantages of having his leadership here in the U.S., and through the American Embassy in Berlin they were successful in having him leave and come to the United States. But, I believe, that even if there was a choice between two million Jews in the U.S. or the hundred thousand in Israel where they have already established Yeshivahs and Judaism—he would choose the harder field to work with and not the most convenient. There is more challenge here in Brooklyn.

...It has to so with choosing a spot where you have no help or choosing a spot where you can rest 12 or 15 hours a day. . . . My father-in-law always sought something that was difficult to perform, that no one wanted to do voluntarily, and began by doing something revolutionary. In 1940, Orthodoxy in the U.S. was going down, in Israel it was going up, and in Europe it was at the same level more or less. When my father-in-law first heard that the Hassidim were trying to bring him to the U.S., his first thought was that this is a place where his energies can best be applied...

Lubavitch Leadership

Question: How is it that I saw that the leadership of Lubavitch was transmitted through a daughter and not through a son?

Rebbe: You probably referring to the son of the [second Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi DovBer, the] Mitteler Rebbe. He had two sons but they begged the son-in-law to take over the leadership.

Question: It is ideals and not heredity that decides leadership?

Rebbe: Only ideals. Only someone who has the aptitude in a certain direction. If you have a father who all of his life consecrated himself toward certain ideals so that it permeates his very existence it must also permeate his wife and children. If he is permeated by a certain idea, the first subjects to be impressed by it will be his son or daughter…

The reason for the leadership is not because he was his son, but because he has maximum piety, education, and enthusiasm; he received it from his father and his environment and thus has a bigger chance.

The [third Chabad Rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the] Tzemach Tzedek was an orphan from the third year of his life and the [first Chabad Rabbi, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the] Alter Rebbe personally took care of his education. Thus, he had more chance to receive this education than even the sons of the Mitteler Rebbe.

This is the answer that satisfies the intellect...

Rebbe: May you all be inscribed and sealed for a good new year, and next year I will ask you more forcefully about your achievements...

Question: In quality or quantity?

Rebbe: You know that Einstein said that quantity always transfers into quality (mass into energy).

There is an interesting quotation in the Midrash Rabbah that if, at Sinai, there would have been even one Jew missing of the 600,000, G‑d would not have given the Torah. Not a Jew like Moses, but even the Jew who had an idol in his tent—had he been missing, the Torah would not have been given.

Nine Moseses cannot make a quorum for prayer services, even though there would be a tremendous power of quality; but if you have ten in quantity you can say kedushah. Similarly, the Midrash says that in giving the Torah you must have 600,000. That is the best proof that quantity and quality have a transformation from one into the other.

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