Leading up to the 20-year mark since the passing of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, tens of thousands of students ages 20 and up have begun a six-session Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) course this month on the Rebbe’s teachings under the aegis of Chabad-Lubavitch centers around the world.

Titled “Paradigm Shift: Transformational Life Teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” the course took more than 18 months to create, and builds on the work and advice of 40 different scholars.

Here, course co-editors Rabbi Naftali Silberberg and Rabbi Mordechai Dinerman discuss their effort to try to encapsulate and convey the Rebbe’s all-encompassing perspective on living a purposeful life to adults around the world.

What are the three most important ideas you hope students take away from the course?

Silberberg: That the world is a beautiful garden, a wonderful place. That no matter my current state, I am exactly where G‑d planned for me to be. And that I matter—infinitely so.

Dinerman: First of all, when we endeavor, as the Rebbe so often did, to view life in a positive way, we are not merely choosing a subjective way of processing the world around us; we are actually getting in touch with a deeper reality—the truth. G‑d, the epitome of goodness, vests Himself into each detail of existence. We therefore have the ability to “open our eyes” and discover an overwhelming amount of good that is revealed and perceivable.

Secondly, people often think of the soul as something buried deep below our consciousness. The Rebbe taught that our soul is a core of perfection that is always expressing itself, and that it is a major player in our everyday lives. This empowers us to define ourselves and other people by this core of perfection.

And third, Torah does not speak about an alternative world, and it is much more than a spiritual guide and a code of religious conduct. Instead, once we understand that Torah is the blueprint of the universe, we understand that Torah is the key to the best life, and that if we desire to know how to interact with the world and to uncover what the world is all about, we need to look to Torah for guidance.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg
Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

How did you select the topics from the vast corpus of the Rebbe’s teachings?

Silberberg: After interviewing tens of scholars, we sat down and distilled the information, and the themes pretty much emerged on their own.

Dinerman: I should first point out that the course consists of many more ideas. Each lesson is a tapestry of multiple ideas and concepts woven together by a common underlying theme.

Indeed, one of the goals of this course is for participants to be able to connect the dots—to appreciate the Rebbe’s teachings not only as separate, stand-alone elements, but as pieces of larger puzzles, of his core foundational ideas. Thus, even one who is familiar with many of the Rebbe’s teachings will gain from this course by discovering the common threads between the pieces, which allow broader ideas to shine, larger than the sum of their parts.

In terms of content selection: We interviewed nearly 40 experts on the Rebbe and his teachings. We focused our attention on the themes and ideas that came up most often during these interviews. From these, we chose topics that we thought would have the most relevance to the daily lives of all Jews, and for that matter, all of humanity.

What do you think will be some of the most interesting aspects of the course for most students?

Silberberg: They will have a better appreciation for the Rebbe and everything he stands for. They will also better understand how Chabad’s activism and outreach efforts flow from a unique and empowering worldview that the Rebbe championed, the real “secret” behind Chabad’s success.

Dinerman: I see two major points of impact in this course.

First, participants acquainted with Chabad and the work of the shluchim and shluchos will feel like a light was suddenly switched on for them—one that dispels confusion and mystery. Many of the particularities of Chabad will be understood profoundly, and this is not usually possible in a setting other than rigorous study.

You cannot really understand Chabad’s global and communal accomplishments without studying the Rebbe, and you cannot study the Rebbe without a tremendous focus on his scholarly teachings. This is because the Rebbe’s activism and initiatives were not just a pragmatic method of ensuring Jewish continuity; rather, they are an expression of deep-seated philosophical understandings about the nature of G‑d, the world, the human being and the Torah. It is these understandings that result in the successful activism of Chabad, and they need to be studied in-depth to understand the unique Chabad approach.

On a more personally applicable level, thousands of people sought the Rebbe’s guidance and advice; still today, many turn to his teachings to find direction and purpose. If individuals seek to improve their lives, a good start would be to study the Rebbe’s teachings.

Often, when we seek to enhance ourselves, we employ a localized approach in which we seek specialized solutions to improve a particular aspect of our lives. These methods, however, do not fundamentally change the way we perceive ourselves, our goals, our values, our friends. They do not alter our very approach to life, which has been formed based on what we were taught, what we read and what we experienced.

But perhaps our very way of understanding life is what’s leading to the issues we are trying to resolve. If we can overhaul our general attitude and approach, the details will subsequently fall into place. Thus, it might be worthwhile to revisit our definitions of life and experience a refreshing paradigm shift. And the Rebbe showed us how the teachings of Torah provide an alternative but stunning way to read the narrative of our lives—refreshing and novel perspectives that are often different from the common perception.

Two major topics addressed in the course are the Rebbe’s innate understanding of human beings and his hopes for humanity. How does the course address these overriding issues?

Dinerman: Within certain circles, there is a tendency to think in terms of (what University of Pennsylvania professor and psychologist Martin Seligman calls) “a-rotten-to-the-core doctrine.” The concept of “Original Sin” is often associated with this view, as is Freud’s philosophy. This leads to cynicism about human nature. When someone does something good, too often, people endeavor to identify an ulterior motive.

The Rebbe taught people to think differently: Our truest and deepest self is a G‑dly entity. Instead of reinterpreting the good as selfish, the Rebbe taught that the selfish was, in a certain sense, good. For example, the Rebbe explained that our selfish longing for material blessing is an expression of our desire to be granted the tools and resources that allow us to implement the Divine plan to make this world a home for G‑d. The Rebbe challenged us to see ourselves from this perspective. Faults, failures and bad habits do not define who we are. Our inherent core of perfection does.

The Rebbe would urge people to engage in additional activities, an extra mitzvah, and never to be complacent with previous accomplishments. As far as I can tell, this did not offend or alienate people. Also, demanding people are usually not very loving and sensitive, but I have heard many people report that the Rebbe certainly was. Further, this love and respect was unconditional and extended to those who showed little enthusiasm for Jewish practice, despite the fact that the Rebbe was extremely passionate about the importance of all Jews adopting a Torah-rich life.

How is this to be explained?

The Rebbe saw the soul and its expression in each of us. When we think about ourselves or others, we often fail to take this part of ourselves into account. But considering that it is who we really are, the Rebbe insisted on seeing people from this perspective. Recognizing the divinity within means recognizing that the core of humankind is perfect. The Rebbe, therefore, related to everyone as holy beings, as perfect beings. That leads to unconditional acceptance and love of everyone.

The Rebbe also wanted us to live from that place of perfection. He wanted us to live who we really are. The Rebbe saw this massive store of energy desiring to be expressed, but being held captive by our natural shortcomings and stumbling blocks. Hence, he didn’t let humanity rest. He seemed to be repeatedly exhorting: “Your accomplishments so far do not capture the true you; if you knew who you were, you would do much more.” Failure to do more means judging yourself externally, overlooking your essential self.

This simultaneous loving acceptance and persistent demanding stem from the same place: recognizing the divinity within and seeing it as the very core of one’s being that finds expression all the time. People do not resent being pushed to do more if it grows out of recognition of who they really are and how they can be truer to themselves. On the contrary, it reaffirms their importance.

When the Rebbe pleaded with us all to take another step, he wanted us to live from the place within that was flawless. He was reminding us of our inherent worth. The more we are able to see ourselves in this light, the more meaningful and productive our lives will be.

What in this course inspired you personally, a lifelong student of the Rebbe’s approach?

Silberberg: It was an opportunity for me to connect the dots. Today, when I study the Rebbe’s teachings or listen to one of his talks, I am much more aware of the larger context, the revolutionary worldview that spawned this individual idea.

As a lifelong student of the Rebbe, I’ve actually been at a disadvantage in a sense, in that I take much of what the Rebbe taught for granted. Working on this course allowed me to understand how so much of what I assume to be “basics” is anything but—and is actually truly trailblazing philosophy.

For more information and to register for the course, go to www.myjli.com or contact your local Chabad center.