Toward the end of the life of R. Yosef Yitzchak, sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, he gathered together some of his oldest and most trusted Chasidim and said to them: “We’re looking for someone who will seek out the merits of the Jewish People and advocate on their behalf.”1

It was only after the Rebbe accepted the mantle of Chabad leadership that they fully understood the full scope and significance of that simple statement.

From his first public address, it became clear that the Rebbe sought to make ahavat Yisrael—the unconditional love and acceptance of one’s fellow—the cornerstone of his unceasing effort to heal and revitalize the Jewish People in the aftermath of the horrors of the Holocaust.

R. Yosef Yitzchak saw the need for, and the Rebbe set into motion, a radical new approach to uplift and activate the Jewish People, emphasizing joy over judgment, compassion over condemnation, and empowerment over exclusion.

Toward this end, the Rebbe set out to accomplish nothing less than a full-scale revolution of Jewish values by utilizing the foundations of the Chasidic movement, which sought to illuminate and activate the inner soul of the Jewish people.

A deep belief in the indomitable presence of a redemptive spark within each individual led the Rebbe to constantly strive to acknowledge and amplify whatever point of goodness a person might possess.

This is referred to as limud zechut, finding merit in others. In addition to “judging others favorably,” as the Mishnah demands,2 limud zechut literally means, the “study of another’s merit,” which implies a conscious, concerted, and creative effort to discover the often-hidden merits in others and bring them to the fore.

As we will see from the examples below, a hallmark of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias was his stubborn insistence on always seeing and highlighting the good in others. In this way, he took his place in the illustrious line of great Jewish leaders who sought to uplift and unify the people.

Remember the Ten Percent

A certain vice president of a prominent college was known for generously volunteering his time on behalf of Jewish education, which was one of the Rebbe’s deepest concerns.

Specifically, he used his experience with the local bureaucracy to assist Jewish institutions by preparing the necessary applications for state and federal funding. Over the years he received much satisfaction from seeing numerous schools and institutions awarded necessary funding on account of his efforts.

However, at some point he began noticing a marked drop in his success rate. After looking into matters, he discovered that his applications had not even reached the federal offices. In fact, they were regularly being flagged and disqualified by a Jewish state clerk who deliberately sought petty flaws in every application.

One Sunday afternoon, while receiving a dollar from the Rebbe for charity, he briefly described the situation. In fact, he became so agitated in the course of his retelling that he blurted out: “In the past, when a person stood in the way of benefitting the Jewish People, our leaders would intervene ‘on High’ to make sure they could interfere no longer. This is what I am asking regarding that clerk…”

The Rebbe listened patiently and then responded: “Even if one considers another person to be ninety percent lacking in goodness and merit, one must nevertheless remember that he still maintains ten percent of positive virtue.”3

Here the Rebbe defends a seemingly indefensible individual by claiming that no matter how bad he seems, there is surely a portion of him that is righteous, and it is that innermost reality, his true essence, that we should focus on, connect with, and strive to reveal and activate.

One particular area in which the Rebbe consistently refused to judge other Jews harshly because he would focus on their essence was in relation to their personal level of ritual observance. This willingness to publicly defend those Jews who, for whatever reason, had strayed from the fold of Jewish law set the Rebbe apart from much of the prevailing religious leadership and establishment.

Thankfully, despite the enormous opposition he faced over the years, today there is hardly a segment within the Orthodox Jewish community that has not adopted, to some extent or another, the embracing and non-judgmental attitude he embodied and advocated, transforming inclusivity into the norm.

The next few stories testify to these special qualities embodied and espoused by the Rebbe.

It All Counts

The Rebbe once received a letter from a businessman who, in the course of his travels, had encountered something that upset him. Specifically, he was perturbed by a man in a far-flung community who would come to shul to make the minyan, but then proceed to read his newspaper throughout the prayers. This blatant display of disrespect was simply more than the businessman could bear, and he wrote a letter to the Rebbe in complaint.

The Rebbe replied:4

Everyone, of course, reacts to an experience in a way that is closest to him. Thus, for my part, I make the following observations:

First, I see in [this situation] the [degree of] Jewish attachment that one finds in every Jew. For here is a person who has wandered off to a remote part of the world and has become so far removed, not only geographically, but also mentally, as to have no concept of what prayer is or what a house of G‑d is; yet one finds in him that Jewish spark, or as the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad, expressed it in his Tanya: “The Divine soul, which is truly a part of G‑d.”

This Divine soul seeks expression as best it can, and in the case of this particular Jew, it seeks expression in at least enabling other Jews to pray congregationally; he therefore goes out of his way to help them and at the same time to be counted with them.

The Rebbe’s insight into the essential goodness of the innermost self reveals that the businessman is not an arrogant heretic, mocking G‑d and Jewish tradition; he is a holy Jew in exile, responding to G‑d’s call in whatever way he knows how.

Yom Kippur: Fifteen Minutes of Faith

In another incident told by Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Stockhammer,5 during a private audience with the Rebbe, when he raised the topic of the Rebbe’s unique approach toward outreach, the Rebbe said earnestly:

“If a Jew wakes up in the morning on Yom Kippur, and Heaven forbid, shaves, eats a full meal, gets in his car and drives to synagogue for services (all of which are severe violations of the holiest day on the Jewish calendar), and sits there for all of an hour or two, those hours spent in synagogue carry great value in and of themselves. In the first instance, during that time, he has abstained from further violations of the sacred day, and furthermore, during that time he has absorbed and internalized the sanctity of the day, and even if this does not have an immediate effect on him, it may well impact his descendants and future generations to come…!”

Here we see the Rebbe, while emphasizing the seriousness of the transgression, exemplifying his approach to those who were uninitiated, choosing to highlight and celebrate their spiritual progress, however little, rather than focusing on and condemning them for whatever they were not doing, or doing “wrong.”

Laughing All the Way to the World to Come

Shimon Dzigan was a famous Israeli comedian, known particularly for his humorous, though somewhat satirical, characterizations of traditional Judaism. In the eyes of much of the religious establishment he was less than an ally.

Surprisingly, not long after his passing, the Rebbe mentioned a story from the Talmud during a public gathering:6

“The Talmud (Taanit 22a) relates that there were ‘two jesters’ who ‘were joyous and would bring joy to others,’ and therefore ‘they are meritorious of the World to Come.’ The Talmud doesn’t tell us that they merited the World to Come because of their scholarship and the like; rather, it was simply because ‘they were joyous and brought joy to others.’”

In this seemingly random aside, we see the Rebbe going out of his way to evaluate someone’s life and legacy in a positive light. Furthermore, in this case it was a public figure who was known to sometimes satirize the religious world whom the Rebbe finds such merit in, making it all the more astounding.

Notably, in this story, as in many others, the Rebbe made a point of rooting his limud zechut in classic Jewish sources, perhaps to demonstrate that he was not truly revolutionizing Judaism, but rather returning it to its original ethos.

The above story was not an isolated incident. In fact, the Rebbe took many opportunities to exhibit limud zechut in various polarizing public debates and pronouncements that often pitted him against other leaders of the Chasidic and Orthodox world.

We may learn from this that the Rebbe valued this trait of limud zechut even more than his own public image, as he was willing, time after time, to stand up for Jews under attack at the expense of his own reputation.

Heroes or Heretics

It was 1976. A full flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked by the PLO, landing at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Over the next seven days there were reports of hostages, demands, negotiations, and plans that culminated in a daring 90-minute raid carried out by the IDF on July 4, which successfully freed 102 of the 106 Jewish hostages and killed all of the terrorists.

Following this week-long international rollercoaster there ensued a public uproar heard throughout the halls of the UN as well as throughout various Chasidic and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish courts and communities, as everyone wrestled with the political implications and spiritual significance of the events.

More emotionally charged than the legal debates between various ambassadors and diplomats, however, were the theological critiques of certain rabbis.

As most of the IDF soldiers were secular, these rabbis simply couldn’t see how anything G‑dly or miraculous could manifest through the medium of non-religious Jews.

Into this fray the Rebbe offered his own perspective, which was radically positive, and redemptive.

In a public talk given on August 16, 1976, the Rebbe applauded the courage and selflessness of the IDF, “who flew thousands of miles, putting their lives in danger for the sole purpose of possibly saving the lives of around one hundred Jews.”

Furthermore, he declared the Israeli soldiers to be an instrument for the deliverance of the Jewish People, even stating that a miracle had occurred through them. As a result, according to the Rebbe, they were undoubtedly righteous and “their portion in the World to Come is guaranteed.”

For this loving expression of limud zechut, the Rebbe was vilified. “How could he publicly praise those who deviate regularly from Jewish law?!” Although he would respond to such attacks firmly, the Rebbe refused, on principle, to call out his detractors by name.

Instead, he would seek to understand and explain their position: The rabbi who treated non-observant Jews with contempt, for example, was perhaps born and raised in an unloving home.

It was therefore necessary to re-educate this rabbi who was angry or quick to condemn—not to write him off as a bad leader. No matter the issue or the nature of the debate, the Rebbe seemed virtually incapable of not finding a point of goodness or source of merit within anyone or anything.

How Low Can You Go

In perhaps one of the most radical applications of limud zechut, the following story relates how the Rebbe sought to redeem the memory of even those considered by many as the lowliest of our people—kapos, Jews who served as guards in concentration camps.

In 1964, the Rebbe was visited by well-known author Harvey Swados for an interview.7 As a writer particularly interested in how ideas translate into actions and how leaders interface with the masses, Mr. Swados was predominantly interested in the Rebbe’s views on some of the thornier ethical questions that emerge from the Holocaust, including the reports of self-serving compliance and cooperation with the Germans by certain Jewish communal leaders.

In Mr. Swados’ own words:

“I began by asking his opinion of the causes of the Holocaust that resulted in the extinction of six million European Jews—and of the controversy about the behavior of the German masses and the Jewish leadership, which has tormented the Western World, particularly since the appearance of Hannah Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial.

“His reply made no reference to abstractions, whether theological or philosophical, nor did he remark—as had another Chasidic Rebbe—on the sins the victims must have committed to be punished so terribly by G‑d.8

“He pointed instead to political realities, [and] to the incredible difficulties in maintaining one’s faith under a totalitarian regime. ‘The miracle,’ he said, ‘was that there was any resistance, organization, or leadership at all.’ This was not exactly what I had expected.”

In the Rebbe’s view, the very leaders who betrayed their own people were credited with simply doing the best they could in an unthinkable situation.

It wasn’t surprising that there was treason in the ranks—that was, in fact, understandable given the horrific circumstances.

What was surprising was that anyone at all could rise above such short-sighted temptation, and it was these heroic cases that should be acknowledged and amplified.

The Rebbe continued to push the point, turning the tables and posing nuanced questions to the author about his own socially-conscious work.

“He seemed particularly interested in On the Line, a book in which I had attempted, by means of a series of fictional portraits of auto assembly workers, to demonstrate the impact of their work on their lives.

“‘What conclusions did you come to?’ the Rebbe asked. ‘Did you suggest,’ he persisted, ‘that the unhappy [and exploited] workers, chained to their machines, should revolt?’

“‘Of course not,’ I replied. ‘It would have been unrealistic.’”

The Rebbe was silent.

Suddenly, Harvey realized that he had been led to the very understanding that he was seeking.

In conclusion, the Rebbe then said:

“You could not conscientiously recommend revolution for your unhappy workers in a free country or see it as a practical perspective for their leaders. Then how could one demand it from those who were being crushed and destroyed by the Nazis?”

Case closed. Compassion carries the day.

Amazingly, in this story the tables have been turned.

The same Rebbe who made it his life’s mission to reveal each person’s highest potential manages, through profound empathy and generosity of spirit, to lighten the crushing load of judgment and indictment weighing on individuals who were subjected to the most inhumane circumstances one could imagine.

In this way, the Rebbe was a master of not only recognizing the good that exists within a given person, but also having compassion for the challenges they may have experienced.

In other words, no one was ever without some merit or cause for understanding, even those we normally characterize as the lowest of the low.

This Is All He Has

One final example9 of the Rebbe’s efforts to see others in the best possible light came in his response to an underhanded political maneuver.

The Rebbe had founded an organization to counter attempts by Christian missionaries and fringe religious cults to recruit Jews. He did so anonymously in order to attract support from Orthodox communities outside Chabad-Lubavitch. The Rebbe’s role became known, however, and one of the organization’s leaders removed his name and started his own effort along the same lines, which leached support and donations from the original group.

The original organization’s manager, a non-Lubavitcher Chasid, was appalled by the rival leader’s politically motivated action and confronted him with written evidence in hand, but the rabbi in question flatly denied being involved with forming the newer organization.

Frustrated and disillusioned, the original manager consulted the Rebbe and told him the story. How could this rabbi put politics before principles, he asked the Rebbe in anguish.

The Rebbe responded by citing a Talmudic10 discussion that disqualifies a king or a high priest from serving as a judge when it comes to establishing a leap year. The king has a vested interest in whether a year has twelve or thirteen months, because he pays his soldiers’ wages by the year, which means that the treasury gains when a year has thirteen months.

Similarly, the high priest has a vested interest in this, because he has to immerse in the mikveh five times on Yom Kippur and might be partial to a calendar that places that day in warmer weather.

Such is human nature, the Rebbe said, that we are all prone to subconscious calculation of self-interest, whether we know it or not—even a Jewish king and a high priest!

The Rebbe then reminded the manager that the rabbi he was judging for his conduct had been the leader of a large community and yeshivah in Europe that had been completely wiped out during the Holocaust. Now he was trying to establish a yeshivah in New York for which he was dependent on certain donors who were ideologically opposed to Lubavitch. “This is all he has,” the Rebbe said. “Can you blame him for wanting to ensure the success of his important work and life-legacy at all costs?”

Faced with the account of a rabbinic leader who was engaging in petty politics against him when he should have been modeling integrity, the Rebbe not only put a positive spin on the rabbi’s tactics—he was trying to protect the remnant of his community—but acknowledged the rabbi’s status by citing a Talmudic discussion relating to figures in the most honored positions: a Jewish king and the high priest.

Even in a case that directly impacted him and his work for others in a negative way, the Rebbe refused to make an enemy of any Jew. Even if publicly attacked and slandered, the Rebbe personally responded out of love and hope for unification.