Jewish life in Eastern Europe during the 1700s was particularly precarious, amid persistent outbursts of extreme violence directed at whole communities.

The Jewish People were still reeling from the shock and destruction left in the wake of the Chmielnicki Massacres, which left over 100,000 Jews dead across the Ukrainian landscape. Additionally, the failed messianic fervor of Shabbetai Tzvi, who eventually converted to Islam, dealt a crushing blow to Jewish spirit and morale from Europe to North Africa all the way to the Middle East.

Internally, the Jewish world was also at odds with itself and coming apart at the seams. The social gap between the educated elite and the unlettered masses was a seemingly unbridgeable chasm, leaving the majority of Jews to feel spiritually unworthy and incompetent, relegating the pursuit of G‑d and Torah to the privileged few. Additionally, the Enlightenment was beginning to impact the lives of young intellectuals throughout Europe, causing many to leave religion and community behind in search of vaguely promised universal truths and individual freedoms. As a result, both the bodies and souls of the Jewish People were nearing total exhaustion and bordering on breakdown.

The great healer, teacher, and lover of the Jewish People known as the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement, publicly appeared on this fraught historical stage in the middle of the 18th century. Functioning as a spiritual first-responder, the Baal Shem Tov sought to gently uplift the beaten and battered Jews of his time, reviving them from their near-pulverized state. In the face of suffering, he spread joy; in the face of power, he spread peace; and in the humble lives of simple Jews, he saw the highest light and the deepest sparks of Divinity. Through a variety of innovative approaches, including songs, storytelling, simple faith, and ecstatic spiritual practices, the Baal Shem Tov aimed at nothing less than a full-scale renewal of the Jewish spirit. To accomplish this he turned Kabbalah (the esoteric teachings and spiritual secrets of Torah) inside-out, sharing with the masses what used to be exclusive to a religious elite, thereby sparking a popular revolution of piety and passion that reverberates to this day.

Let’s fast forward almost 200 years to 1951, less than a decade after the horrors of the Holocaust, and a few short years after masses of Middle Eastern Jews had been expelled from their home countries. This was the moment when the Rebbe assumed leadership. Similar to the times of the Baal Shem Tov, spiritual calamity, confusion, trauma, and displacement were sweeping the Jewish world. The horrors of genocide and forced expulsion were leaving people with profound theological and theodical questions left unanswered. Once again, Jewish spirit and morale were in ruins.

In addition to such geo-political upheaval, internal denominationalism, assimilation, and secularization had further unraveled the fabric of the people. For the most part, religious Jews kept to themselves, as did secular and progressive Jews. Left to its own devices, this socio-spiritual chasm would have continued to grow, possibly stretching the seams of the Jewish People to the point of no return.

Within this divided time, the Rebbe addressed himself first to his immediate followers, but also to the Jewish world as a whole, seeking to restore purpose, passion, cohesion, and confidence to a broken and fragmented people. Toward this end, the Rebbe came up with a daring and risky strategy, which is best summarized by R. Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of England: “To search out every Jew in love, the way they were once hunted down in hate.” This led him to devise various programs to engage and energize the wider Jewish world outside his own circle of followers and the religious community at large. This open-armed approach, sought to existentially expand the tent of holiness to make room for every Jew, no matter their background, level of knowledge, or observance.

From this perspective, it becomes clear that Judaism is not so much a religion as it is a family. You are not a member of a family on account of your behavior. You are a member of a family in an irrevocable way. Even the “wicked son” mentioned in the Haggadah is still part of the family. Of course, it is always unfortunate when family members are estranged—but it doesn’t make them any less family. We all have a seat at the table.

According to Chasidut, every Jewish soul is essentially pure and incorruptible at its core, and nothing can ever sever the eternal bond with the Divine. It is from that inner point of essence that the Rebbe sought to connect and build up each individual whom he encountered.

A Single Point

In 1951, Gershon Kranzler came to interview the newly appointed Rebbe on behalf of the Orthodox Jewish Life to hear what his plans were for the future. Throughout the course of their conversation, in which the Rebbe laid out many of the core principles he would put into practice throughout the next four decades, he directly addressed this topic of reaching out to non-religious Jews based on an inherent soul-connection:

It has always been the belief of Chabad that there is not a single Jew, as far as he may seem or thought himself to have drifted from the center of Yiddishkeit, who does not have some good point, some particular mitzvah that by nature or by inclination he may promote. This spark of good in each soul can and must be utilized for the good.1

Pilot Light

“What do you do?” the Rebbe asked a young man who came to meet with him.

“I’m a student at university,” he responded. “I’m studying for a Master’s degree in education.”

“I, too, attended university many years ago,” the Rebbe replied.

Somewhat surprised, the young man asked, “And what did you study? Theology?”

“No. I studied electrical engineering,” the Rebbe responded with a smile. “But I prefer to turn on the lights in people’s souls.”

Seeing the young man’s confusion and curiosity, the Rebbe explained: “You see, every human being has a soul, a divine spark that burns inside them. Sometimes a person moves away from their inner light—it might even seem that the light of their soul has been snuffed out. But the soul is like a pilot light—it never goes out completely. All it needs is for someone to turn up the flame, to ignite it into a blaze of illumination. This is my goal—to illuminate Jewish life through the soul by brightening and fanning its flame, until it burns bright again…”2

Here we see the Rebbe stating his goal explicitly—to directly address the Jewish soul on its own terms and help rekindle its fire against all odds. In fact, it was this very belief and grounding in the soul of the Jewish People that inspired the Rebbe to reach out and welcome all who crossed his path, whether in person or through one of his many emissaries across the globe.

Plugging In

Drawing a parallel between the times and mission of the Baal Shem Tov and his own, the Rebbe once told a group of visiting Hillel students:3

We can understand what the Baal Shem Tov did through the relationship of an electric powerhouse with a lamp that is connected to it by a wire…. It was the Baal Shem Tov’s mission to explain and proclaim that every Jew, without exception, is connected with “the powerhouse,” and every one of them has a switch in his innermost [depths] that will be found if searched for.

“So [too], every one of us must try to find the switch in the soul of every Jew. One can never know what will make the connection—perhaps one word. But by this, you open up the well or inner fountain of their soul.

The Rebbe boldly insisted that all Jews alive after the Holocaust had the privilege and responsibility to strengthen each other’s soul-expression and connection to G‑d and the Jewish People. We all have something special to offer the world. You don’t have to be a rabbi or a Rebbe to do this holy work. Each of us possesses a unique G‑d-given soul that can refract the infinite light like no other. In the quest to uncover and unleash the power of the soul, one can choose to fixate on the darkness that surrounds it or focus on the inherent light within.

Geology 101

In a separate conversation with a group of students, when asked, “What does a Rebbe do?” the Rebbe replied:4

The Jewish People are like the earth, which contains nature’s treasures hidden underneath. The question is where to dig. Dr. Freud dug in the human soul and found swampy waters and mire. Dr. Adler found rocks. Contemporary psychiatry searches for ills and traumas that must be uprooted. But when a Rebbe digs, he finds gold, silver, and diamonds.

Our methods and maps of reality determine what we seek and find within ourselves and others.

The prevailing values of the day included defining religiosity based on the level of a person’s acquired knowledge and practice; their learning and observance were thus seen to create their connection to G‑d. However, Chasidut in general, and the Rebbe in particular, stressed that it is the soul that is primary. Torah study and mitzvah observance are the spiritual tools and language that help express our internal connection to the Divine and each other. But we each inherently possess this internal connection, and it is always present deep down! There is simply no such thing as a “bad Jew,” contrary to what some may claim. There are just different dimensions of goodness when seen in the right light.

In this spirit, the Rebbe lovingly addressed all Jews on either extreme. To secular Jews he essentially said:You’re not as secular as you think. You have an ancient tradition and an indomitable point of infinite holiness within you that yearns to serve, sing, and soar.

This was exactly the kind of accepting, affirming, and empowering message that those estranged from Jewish life and faith needed to hear. G‑d and Torah were already inside them; they just needed to “turn on the light,” so to speak!

Two Lectures

In January, 1962, a woman wrote to the Rebbe. She had been raised in a “non-believing,” home. Now she had attended two lectures on Torah-true Judaism that touched her deeply and presented her with a dilemma. “In what should I believe?” she asked the Rebbe. “In the path along which I have been raised and educated over many years or in that which I heard from a stranger in the course of two evenings?”

What follows is a freely-translated excerpt of the Rebbe’s reply:5

..Certainly you have heard of the expression “return to roots.” I’m sure that you are also aware that an education does not work in a vacuum, since in each and every individual there are [spiritual dynamics] that are rooted in the soul prior to the onset of the educational process—things that stem from the innermost heart of the soul. Furthermore, no education or conditioning can change these things; they can only suppress them for a longer or shorter period of time. This has been repeatedly demonstrated in the field of education, as well as in medical science, biology, and other fields.

This is the reason why we often see that a single lecture or a short discussion—an “education” of an extremely brief duration—might affect a most basic change in a person. All this person needed was a catalyst that would initiate the removal of whatever has been covering up that which already exists in the inner reaches of his soul.

The above is the answer to your question, “What should I believe?” The very fact that you were so deeply impressed by what you heard in the course of two evenings attests to the truth of what our Sages told us thousands of years ago: “All Jews are believers, the children of believers”;6 it is only that their faith might, at times, be obscured by a layer of foreign elements.

My hope is that these few lines will suffice to shed light on the matter.

The Rebbe sought to instill in all receptive hearts this redemptive belief in the Divine point within every Jew. This helped inspire and initiate the miraculous return of so many to Jewish faith and life in the second half of the 20th century. In many ways this belief was predicated on the viewpoint that a Jew’s faith, spiritual state, and ultimate value in G‑d’s eyes are not something that one must earn as a reward; rather, they must be claimed as an inheritance. The Rebbe’s overwhelming message was: You already belong. You are already holy. You are already loved. Now you too must love, and by loving, help others feel that they also belong.

No Background

George Rohr is a businessman who actively supports many Lubavitch activities. He once shared with the Rebbe that he had organized a Rosh Hashanah service for over 130 Jews “who had no Jewish background.”

“With no background?” the Rebbe repeated, looking at Rohr intently.

Not understanding what the Rebbe was getting at, Rohr said again: “Jews with no background...”

“Go back and tell them,” the Rebbe said, “that they most definitely have a Jewish background! They are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”7

This very point—that even Jews with little to no traditional learning, experience, or observance had a place, not just at the table, but at the head of the table—was a cornerstone of the Rebbe’s curriculum for communal rejuvenation and spiritual renaissance.

Once again we see the Rebbe focusing on the inherent light of the soul rather than on religious behavior or accomplishments as defining a Jew’s essence. Every Jew is an illustrious child of our holy Patriarchs and Matriarchs, with equal access to the spiritual inheritance they bequeathed us. This was the Rebbe’s empowering message to those who felt far from any meaningful Jewish life or identity.

At the same time, the Rebbe was telling the multitudes of religious Jews that they aren’t as separate as they think. All of Israel is bound together—with each other, with G‑d, and with the Torah.

In the Rebbe’s own words, spoken on the eve of his inauguration: “My ‘mission statement’ is to communicate the essential truth that love of G‑d and Torah without love of your fellow Jew is not lasting or true. You cannot fully have one without the other.”

Echoing the Baal Shem Tov, time and again we find examples of the Rebbe reminding the more punctilious among our people of the enduring soul within each and every Jew, regardless of their external life experiences and choices up to that point. In fact, the ideas that we are all G‑d’s children and that no one other than G‑d can judge the state of another’s soul had always been a fundamental principle of Chasidic teaching over the centuries, as we can see from the following stories.

Spiritual Pathologist

R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, once referred to a person in a letter as a “G‑d-fearing man.” When asked why he bestowed such a title upon a person who was known to not be religious, R. Yosef Yitzchak replied:

“When a pathologist is given a blood sample or a particle of body tissue to analyze in his laboratory, he peers at it through his microscope and subjects it to a series of chemical tests and procedures. If he finds so much as the slightest trace of a certain element, or a single cell of a certain organism, he notes it in his report. For though the quantity might be minuscule and hardly worthy of regard, it points to the existence, or the potential for the existence, of much greater quantities in the person.

“I am a spiritual pathologist,” concluded R. Yosef Yitzchak.8

Soul-Maven

R. Monya Moneszon was a Chabad Chasid and successful diamond merchant. During a private audience with R. Shalom DovBer, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe praised several individuals who appeared on the surface to be simple and unremarkable. This surprised R. Monya. When he voiced his surprise, R. Shalom DovBer replied, “They possess special qualities.” “I don’t see it,” said R. Monya, and with that the conversation moved on to other topics.

At a later point in the conversation, R. Shalom DovBer suddenly asked R. Monya whether he had a pouch of diamonds with him. R. Monya took out a pouch and displayed the diamonds, pointing out the incredible quality of one specific stone. The Rebbe remarked, “I don’t see anything special about it.” R. Monya replied, “[For that] one must be a maven.”

R. Shalom DovBer responded pointedly, “When it comes to seeing the special qualities of a Jew’s soul, one must also be a maven.”

Anyone can make a snap judgment based on surface, external markers, such as outwardly expressed learning and religious observance. But a Jew is like a diamond, which can be buried and covered in dirt and sediment on the outside while at the same time shining brilliantly on the inside.

The way you view others determines in large part what you see in them.

Are you focused on the outer coal or on the inner flame that is just waiting to be kindled into a holy fire?

Every Jew a Diamond

One hot Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1991, an elderly woman was patiently waiting her turn in the long line of people from all walks of life who had come to receive the Rebbe’s blessing and a dollar bill to give to tzedakah.

When her turn finally arrived, she could not contain herself and blurted out, “Rebbe! I’ve been standing here for only an hour and I’m already exhausted. You have been standing here for hours and hours, how do you not get tired?”

The Rebbe smiled gently and said, “When you are counting diamonds, you don’t get tired.”9

No matter the external appearance, the Rebbe saw what is buried deep within.

In this way, the Rebbe applied the Talmudic saying, “Know before Whom you stand,” which is generally applied to one’s awareness of G‑d’s presence, to a more interpersonal realm.

By foregrounding the spiritual essence of the one with whom you are interacting, an immediate awe and appreciation for the utter uniqueness of their being is brought into focus. All further interactions then flow from this infinite and loving point.

Based on this spiritual understanding of the nature of the Jewish soul, the Rebbe would continue to offer corrective insight, even to those already “on-board” and engaged in the wider project of Jewish “outreach.” This is because there is a perpetually lurking danger in the holy work of outreach to see oneself as better than or above those whom you are “reaching out to.”

Bringing the Close Closer

A group of representatives from a well-known Jewish outreach organization once visited the Rebbe and sought his blessing for their work in “kiruv rechokim—bringing close those who are far from Judaism.”

The Rebbe’s face grew serious.

“I strongly object to this expression,” he said. “What do we know about who is close or far? Only G‑d can judge these matters.” He paused thoughtfully before continuing, “Besides, no one is ever truly far from G‑d.

“Instead, you should call it kiruv kerovim,” said the Rebbe, his smile returning—“bringing those who are close even closer.”10

Based on the spiritually affirmative model and method of his spiritual ancestor, the Baal Shem Tov, coupled with his undying love and concern for the Jewish soul in a world turned upside-down, the Rebbe turned Judaism inside-out, putting the soul front and center.

From this place, all are holy, each in their own mysterious way. And it is ultimately only when each lamp is lit, when each voice is heard, and when each soul is seen for what it truly is that we will deeply know and understand that All Your people are righteous.11 Only then will we merit to be called a “light unto the nations.”

The Baal Shem Tov and the Rebbe—each in their own day and way—brought that day one hour closer through their unceasing love of G‑d, the Torah, the Jewish People, and the whole world in all of its myriad expressions of ultimate unity.