After those days . . . no longer shall a man instruct his fellow . . . for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest.

Jeremiah 31:32–33

The human psyche is home to two contrasting impulses: a striving for freedom, and a propensity for submission to authority. The aim of this essay is to examine the manner in which these two drives are regarded in classical Jewish sources and, in particular, the teachings and philosophy of Chabad Chassidism. To this end, we will discuss the reaction of two Chabad chassidic leaders to two “liberation” movements occurring in their times: a) the founder of Chabad Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), and his involvement in the Napoleonic wars; b) the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and what he said and did in face of the “Youth Revolution” of the Sixties.

Freedom and liberty are axiomatic to Judaism. The prophet Ezekiel describes the liberation from Egypt as the “birth” of the Jewish people; the event is celebrated to this day as zeman cheiruteinu, “the time of our liberation,” which is one of the three traditional names for the festival of Passover. The Jew is commanded to “remember the day that you went out of Egypt, every day of your life” (Deuteronomy 16:3). According to the Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loewe of Prague, 1512?–1609), the purpose of the Exodus was not merely the liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery, but the creation of a new type of person, the Free Man. Because of the Exodus, the Jew, even if subsequently conquered and oppressed, remains inherently free.

This centrality of the Exodus to Judaism is most strongly emphasized by the fact, noted by many of the biblical commentaries, that when G‑d appears to the Children of Israel on Mount Sinai, He does not say, “I am the L‑rd your G‑d, creator of the heavens and the earth.” He says, “I am the L‑rd your G‑d who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” That event, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai—occurring seven weeks after the Exodus—is regarded by the sages of the Talmud as a further step in the attainment of true freedom: “There is no free person,” says Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, in the sixth chapter of Ethics of the Fathers, “save one who is occupied in the Torah.”

Indeed, the image of Moses standing before Pharaoh and demanding, “Let my people go!” has inspired numerous liberation movements in the 33 centuries since, including the American revolution of 1776 and the abolitionist movement in America in the mid-19th century. This defining moment in Jewish history became a paradigm of freedom for peoples as diverse as British colonists objecting to “taxation without representation” and African slaves yearning for the most basic of human freedoms.

If the whole of Jewish history is the outgrowth of the liberation from Egypt, it is also the movement toward a higher liberty—toward the geulah ha-amitit veha-sheleimah, “the true and complete redemption” of the messianic age, which is seen as the completion of the process, begun at the Exodus, of the liberation of the human soul.

Chassidic teaching explains that the quest for freedom is the essence of Judaism because it is as a free being that man reveals his synonymy with the divine. In this, it follows Maimonides’ famous statement that there are only two free beings: G‑d and man. G‑d is unique and distinct “in the heavens” because only He is free (the angels, in contrast, are called “holy animals” because, like terrestrial beasts, their every act is dictated by the nature imparted to them by their Creator); man is unique and distinct among all corporeal creations, because he alone possesses free choice. In creating man and “breathing into his nostrils” a soul that is “literally a part” of Himself, G‑d created the single creature with a potential for freedom—a potential that is, in essence, divine. It is this potential that drives the human being to constantly challenge and surmount the limits imposed on him, including even the limits of its own nature. The purpose of the Exodus and the giving of the Torah is to provide man with the tools for the actualization of this potential—a process which attains its ultimate realization in the messianic redemption.

Submission to the “Yoke of the Kingship of Heaven”

But this vision of Judaism as a liberation movement is contrasted by another, no less axiomatic principle of Judaism: the Jew’s utter and unequivocal submission to the authority of G‑d.

Twice a day the Jew recites the Shema, declaring, “Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is one”; the purpose of this declaration, says the Talmud, is kabbalat ol malchut shamayim—to “accept the yoke of the kingship of Heaven,” for one cannot begin one’s day as a Jew without this acceptance. The very stuff and substance of Judaism are the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, and there can be no such thing as a mitzvah—“commandment”—without acknowledgement of its Commander and absolute obedience to His will. This is the idea behind the thousands of Talmudic and Midrashic references, and references in the text of our prayers, to G‑d as “King”, “King of the Universe”, “King of All Kings”, “Master of the World,” and the like.

We mentioned how the image of Moses, representing a clan of powerless slaves and confronting the ruler of the mightiest nation on earth to boldly demand, “Let my people go,” has become a paradigm of the quest for freedom. But a closer examination of that scene shows it to be something quite different than commonly perceived. Simply stated, Moses is being quoted out of context. What Moses actually says to Pharaoh is: “So said the G‑d of the Hebrews . . . Let My people go, so that they may serve Me.” G‑d, for His part, is clear about His purpose in taking the Jews out of Egypt from the very start. When He first appears to Moses in the burning bush, He says: “This is the sign that I have sent you: when you take this people out of Egypt, you will serve G‑d on this mountain.” And later, in the desert: “For the Children of Israel are My servants; they are My servants, who I have taken out of the land of Egypt: they cannot be sold into slavery.” (This last statement, incidentally, is the basis for the Maharal’s above-quoted assertion that, following the Exodus, the Jewish people will never again be slaves to any mortal power.)

In Human Nature

We have noted that Judaism paradoxically—often in the very breadth—defines itself both as liberator of the human soul and as a covenant of submission to a Higher Authority. Let us also acknowledge that these two impulses reside side by side in the human psyche.

Man’s striving for freedom requires no proof or documentation. We need not look further than the “Velvet Revolution” in Eastern Europe twenty years ago. But the human impulse for submission to authority is no less apparent. We see it in the simple fact that billions of people accept as a matter of course the authority of parents, teachers, government, and religious leaders to dictate matters pertaining to every area of their lives. We see it in the phenomena of patriotism, hero-worship and cultism. We see it in the survival, and even blossoming, of religious observance, long after its political braces have been dismantled. Man, it seems, has a deep-seated need to be part of something greater than himself, to negate his own will and ego in face of a will and ego greater than his own. Chabad Chassidism has a name for this ideal, which it regards as a great virtue: bittul (“self-abnegation”).

The human soul, it might be said, is both rebellious and submissive. It is left to education, conditioning and environment to emphasize and cultivate—or alternately, to de‑emphasize and suppress—either of these tendencies.

Since both these impulses are fundamental to Judaism’s vision of human potential, and since the cultivation of one presumably will mean the suppression of the other, the question arises: which should be given priority over the other? Or, to otherwise state the question: in what sort of environment would the Torah prefer to see the Jew—as a member of a free society, or as the subject of an authoritarian regime?

The Holy Side of Tyranny

This dilemma is very beautifully illustrated by an anecdote told of the mashpia (chassidic teacher and mentor) Rabbi Dovid Kievman, also known as “Reb Dovid Horodoker.” It is said that Reb Dovid wept when Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in the Russian Revolution of 1917. “Why do you shed tears over the fall of a tyrant?” he was asked. “I weep,” replied the chassid, “because a mashal (metaphor) in chassidic teaching is gone.”

(The metaphor, or mashal, is an elementary tool of chassidic teaching. The premise is that to truly understand something, one must experience it, or something like it, oneself. This is even more so when one seeks to understand spiritual realities: to make palpable the ethereal to the human mind, one must first find the corresponding model in human experience. Chassidic teaching thus makes extensive use of metaphors in its endeavor to explain the nature of G‑d’s relationship with the created reality, and the essence and purpose of creation.)

We have already mentioned the extensive use of the metaphor of “kingship” in the Talmud and Midrash; this is further expanded on in chassidic teaching. The chassidic masters point out that while the Torah employs a variety of models in speaking of our relationship with G‑d—that of a child to his father, a beloved to her lover, a disciple to his master, a flock to its shepherd, among others—and that while these models each express another facet of the bond between man and G‑d, there is a dimension to the relationship that can be expressed only by the model of a subject’s relationship to his king.

So when the czar was overthrown, a teacher of Chassidism wept. To live as a subject of the czar was, in many ways, a great hindrance to living as a Jew. But Reb Dovid was thinking of the deeper, more basic implications of authoritarianism: not of the blatant ways that a tyrant’s authority intruded upon one’s life, but in the particular mindset and psychological makeup it cultivated in a person. How, agonized this mashpia, will a kingless generation possibly understand the utter surrender of self that the king-subject relationship epitomized? How will they comprehend the awe accorded one whose rule is absolute and incontestable? What model would they have for a “king”—a figure who transcends the personal to embody the soul of a nation? Never mind that most kings of history were unworthy metaphors of divine sovereignty; central to our relationship with G‑d is something that only one who has been subject to a king can truly appreciate.

But what about man’s potential for freedom? While monarchical rule certainly made submission to authority a tangible reality in the lives of its subjects, it also suppressed their quest for freedom—a quest which, we have claimed, is part and parcel of the soul’s formation in “the image of G‑d,” and which impels man toward the state of freedom that is the end goal of creation.

And yet, there is another face to freedom as well. All too often, personal freedom translates into selfishness, anarchy and violence; into the exploitation of the few and the weak by the many and the strong; into the abandonment of giving and altruistic relationships (marriage, family, community) for an egomaniacal lust for power, wealth and corporeal pleasure. Instead of freeing himself, the human being enslaves himself to the most base and animalistic elements of his nature. Set free from the bonds of authority, the worst in man is often the first to assert itself.

Chassidic teaching sees this, too, as a factor of how deeply rooted the quest for freedom is in the soul. There is a kabbalistic rule: the higher a thing is, the lower it falls. Precisely because it is an expression of the very essence of the soul’s synonymy with the divine, the drive for freedom is susceptible to the most devastating of corruptions.

Hence the dilemma. Presuming that he can in some way influence world events and the nature of the society in which we live, which should the Jew prefer: Should he prefer an authoritarian society which breeds the type of mind and personality that more readily submits to “the yoke of Heaven” and minimizes the dangers of freedom gone amok, but which suppresses the most divine of human potentials? or should he prefer a free society, in which a state of kabbalat ol is far more difficult to achieve and he is far more vulnerable to the pitfalls of freedom, yet which nurtures that part of himself with the potential for deepest identification with his Creator?

Napoleon and the Czar

In the first two decades of the 19th century, this issue was embodied by two massive armies slaughtering each other on the battlefields of Europe. On one side stood Napoleon, heir of the French Revolution, espousing the ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” and promising emancipation to the oppressed peoples of the continent. Against him stood the monarchs of Europe, claiming a divine right to rule, casting themselves as defenders of the family, institutionalized religion, law and order—indeed, of civilization itself—and warning of the havoc the apostasy of freedom had wreaked in France.

The leaders of European Jewry were likewise divided. There were rabbis and chassidic rebbes who eagerly awaited liberation by Napoleon’s armies. No longer would the Jewish people be locked into ghettos and deprived of their means of earning a livelihood; no longer would the state be allied with a religion hostile to the Jewish faith. Liberated from the persecution and poverty that had characterized Jewish life on European soil for a dozen centuries, the Jewish people would be free to deepen and intensify their bond with G‑d in ways previously unimaginable. Indeed, there were those—such as the chassidic masters Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin; Rabbi Israel, the Maggid of Kozhnitz; Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev; and Rabbi Mendel of Rimanov—who believed that a French victory would ready the world for the coming of Moshiach and the final redemption.

But there were other voices in the Jewish community as well, voices that prophesied the exchange of material poverty for spiritual woe. Yes, the ghetto walls would fall; yes, the financial centers, professional alliances and universities of Europe would open their doors to the Jew. But at what price! The demise of the shtetl would mean the destruction of the spiritual center of Jewish life, the breakdown of the Jewish family and community, and the compromising of the Jews’ commitment to Torah. Yes, Napoleon would free the Jewish body, but he would all but destroy the Jewish soul.

A major force in the Jewish opposition to Napoleon was Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidism. In a letter to one of his loyal followers, Rabbi Moshe Maizlish of Vilna, he wrote:

If B[ona]p[arte] will be victorious, Jewish wealth will increase, and the prestige of the Jewish people will be raised; but their hearts will disintegrate and be distanced from their Father in Heaven. But if A[lexander] will be victorious, although Israel’s poverty will increase and their prestige will be lowered, their hearts will be joined, bound and unified with their Father in Heaven. (Igrot Kodesh Admur HaZaken, letter #64)

Rabbi Schneur Zalman did more than warn against the dangers of freedom; he rallied all his forces—both physical and spiritual—to halt Napoleon’s “emancipation” of Europe. There was even a chassidic spy—the same Moshe Maizlish to whom the above letter is addressed—who, at Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s behest, worked as an interpreter for the French high command and relayed their battle plans to the czar’s generals. On the spiritual plane, Rabbi Schneur Zalman interceded on high to effect Napoleon’s downfall. Chassidim tell of a contest that took place on the morning of Rosh Hashanah between Rabbi Schneur Zalman and the Maggid of Kozhnitz to decide the outcome of Napoleon’s war against Russia. According to kabbalistic tradition, the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah effects G‑d’s coronation as king of the universe and the divine involvement in human affairs for the coming year; each of these two rebbes therefore endeavored to be the first to sound the shofar in the fateful year of 5573 (1812–1813), and thereby influence the outcome of the war. The Maggid of Kozhnitz arose well before dawn, immersed in the mikvah, began his prayers at the earliest permissible hour, prayed speedily, and sounded the shofar; but Rabbi Schneur Zalman departed from common practice and sounded the shofar at the crack of dawn, before the morning prayers. “The Litvak (Lithuanian, as Rabbi Schneur Zalman was affectionately called by his colleagues) has bested us,” said Rabbi Israel of Kozhnitz to his disciples.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman gave his very life to the effort. As Napoleon’s armies neared his hometown of Liadi in the late summer of 1812, he fled his home; though confident of Napoleon’s eventual defeat, he refused to live under his rule for even a single moment. He died many miles from home in December of that year, weakened by the tribulations of his flight and the harsh Russian winter. His role in the defeat of Napoleon was recognized by Alexander I, who awarded him and his descendants the title and privileges of a “Citizen Honored for Posterity.”

Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s fears were borne out by the events of the next two centuries. When emancipation did come to European Jewry, it came as a gradual process, and traditional Judaism had by then developed an array of intellectual and moral responses (most notably, the chassidic and mussar movements). Still, the spiritual toll of freedom was high: traditional Jewish life was all but wiped out in France and Germany by the upheavals spearheaded by the French Revolution, and while it persevered in Eastern Europe until the eve of the Holocaust, many fell prey to the winds of anti-religious “enlightenment” blowing from the west. We can only imagine what the toll might have been had Napoleon conquered the continent in the early years of the nineteenth century.

The Rebbe and the Sixties

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (henceforth, “the Rebbe”), who assumed the leadership of Chabad Chassidim in 1950, was a direct descendent of Rabbi Schneur Zalman. A cohesive line of development runs through the seven generations of Chabad teachings, from Rabbi Schneur Zalman to the Rebbe; only in very rare occasions do we find a rebbe disagreeing with a predecessor. Yet certain aspects of the Rebbe’s approach to freedom and authoritarianism seem a radical departure from that of Rabbi Schneur Zalman.

A case in point is the Rebbe’s attitude to the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. The early years of that decade saw the emergence of what was subsequently termed the “youth culture.” In increasing numbers, the younger generation was rebelling against the authority of their elders and rejecting the values and way of life into which they had been raised.

Parents, educators and religious leaders were horrified. But the Rebbe saw this as essentially a positive development. At a farbrengen (chassidic gathering) with his chassidim on Purim of 1963, the Rebbe said:

Our generation has been granted opportunities that have never been granted before. There has come about a tremendous awakening for what is being called “a return to the source.” That name, however, implies that one must journey a great and long distance to reach this source, when in truth, every individual, whether righteous or iniquitous, possesses a soul that is a “part of G‑d above.” So he need not journey anywhere to reach the source, which resides in his own mind and heart; he need only remove the covering that conceals it. But since he does not know the means by which to remove the covering, he goes around proclaiming his hunger and thirst.

We must therefore fulfill the mitzvah to “love your fellow as yourself.” We must go to this hungering and thirsting person and explain to him what it is that he hungers for, and what it is that he thirsts for: for the word of G‑d.

Similar statements and letters followed. A close examination of the Rebbe’s words shows that he is not merely exploiting the prevailing spirit of nonconformity to sell his own brand of “religion,” but that he sees this as a truly spiritual moment, a time of “awakening.” In the Rebbe’s eyes, it was a quest for freedom in its truest sense—freedom to seek a higher purpose to life, freedom to transcend an ego-encumbered self to discover a truer, more altruistic self within. Much of it may be misguided and destructive, as rootless and unfocused revolutions are wont to be. But it can be directed toward its true, divine objective.

The Rebbe’s followers began showing up in college campuses around the country. Drop-in centers were opened for students, and “Encounter with Chabad” weekends were held, introducing young men and women to the spiritual world of Torah and Chassidism. After decades, and even generations, of assimilation, young Jews were doing teshuvah—returning to their source and reclaiming their heritage.

The Time Factor

There is a sichah (talk) delivered by the Rebbe at a farbrengen in November 1991, which sheds light on the Rebbe’s apparent divergence from Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s approach to authoritarianism and liberty.

In this talk, the Rebbe discussed Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s opposition to Napoleon because of the threat to Judaism posed by the French Revolution and the Emancipation. Yet today, the Rebbe continued, France (which is certainly no less liberated, and no less libertine, than it was in Napoleon’s day) is home to one of the greatest success stories of the teshuvah phenomenon. Today, said the Rebbe, we are witnessing how an environment of freedom nourishes, rather than destroys, spiritual growth and deeper connection with G‑d.

Why this difference? Why was freedom harmful to spirituality two hundred years ago, and a boon to spirituality today? Because, said the Rebbe, we are now on the threshold of the messianic age.

To better understand what the Rebbe is saying, we must first appreciate that, according to chassidic teaching, many of life’s issues—including questions of right and wrong, and even good and evil—are, in truth, issues of context and timing rather than intrinsic positivity or negativity.

A case in point is the first sin of history, Adam and Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge, which the Torah describes as being responsible for everything wrong in our world from death to menstrual cramps. Yet, if Adam and Eve had waited three hours, until nightfall of that fateful Friday and the onset of Shabbat, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge would have been permitted to them! Eating from the Tree of Knowledge was not, in and of itself, an undesirable action (what can be bad about greater knowledge?), but a premature action, a phase in the unfolding of the divine plan for creation whose time had not yet come.

Another example is Korach’s rebellion against Moses. Korach is treated in the harshest way in the biblical narrative, and described in the harshest terms in the Talmudic and Midrashic literature. But all he seems to be seeking is spiritual empowerment for the ordinary man, the right to relate to G‑d directly, independently of a spiritual hierarchy. “The entire community is holy,” Korach challenges Moses, “and G‑d is amongst them; why do you raise yourself above the community of G‑d?” (Numbers 16:3). He sounds like the Baal Shem Tov!

What was undesirable in Korach’s campaign? Does not the prophet Jeremiah describe the messianic age as a time when “no longer shall a man instruct his fellow . . . for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest”? But precisely that, says the Rebbe is one of his talks, was Korach’s sin: he was preempting history. His vision was a positive vision, a holy vision, but the context was wrong, destructive, and thus evil.

(This concept is best understood in light of the kabbalistic doctrine of evil as concealment. As presented in numerous chassidic discourses, this thesis argues that G‑d is the essence of good, and all that flows from Him is therefore good in essence. This means that there is nothing that is intrinsically evil: there are only negative forms of essentially positive forces, like a healing medicine that is administered in the wrong dosage or in the wrong manner.)

To return to the Rebbe’s sichah on “the refinement of France” (as he refers to it there). In that talk, the Rebbe quotes the Midrashic dictum, “When you come to a city, do as their custom” (Exodus Rabbah 47:5). To the Rebbe, this meant: You are not here to fight the world, but to mold it, develop it and sublimate it. Each era and society has its “customs,” its unique zeitgeist and cultural milieu that is to be exploited to serve your Creator and your mission in life. If you live under the hegemony of a czar, canalize the submission to authority in which this indoctrinates you to feed your commitment to the supernal King of all kings. If you live in a world profaned by an “everything goes” freedom, recast it as a G‑dly freedom—as the facilitator of the uninhibited expression of the “image of G‑d” that is your truest self. And the very fact that we live in such a world, claims the Rebbe, indicates that we stand at the threshold of the age of absolute freedom.

We have spoken of the contradiction between kabbalat ol, “acceptance of the yoke of Heaven,” and giving expression to the spirit of freedom that is our most divine quality. But is this ultimately a contradiction? Imagine a person whose soul is truly and utterly free to express its deepest desires. What would such a person want? Would there be any conflict between what he wants and his soul’s utter commitment to the divine will?

The Midrash describes a world: “A fig tree shall cry out: Do not pick my fruit! Today is Shabbat!” That is the world of Moshiach—a world in which individual desire and obedience to G‑d’s law are in full harmony.

That is not the world we know. In the world we inhabit, acting in harmony with the divine will still requires a conquest of self, an overriding authority. But the institutions which presumed to represent such an authority, and to impose a moral or spiritual code upon the community of man, have been overthrown in the last two hundred years. Where does this leave us?

The last frontier is before us—the frontier of self. Who are we, really? What happens when we are freed of all external constraints and authority structures? Is our bond with G‑d something to be enforced upon a resisting self, or is it the ultimate fulfillment of the self’s incessant quest for freedom?

To the Rebbe, such a state of affairs could mean only one thing: the era of Moshiach is upon us.