WISDOM FOR THE MASSES
Growing up in an environment that was less than approving of Chabad Chassidus, I heard many and varied complaints and accusations against the movement, especially in its current incarnation. One of the common arguments, which I found less than compelling even in my most rabid phase, would be to cite the early Kabbalistic prohibition against the study of Jewish mysticism before the age of forty, and even then only if one was on a high spiritual level. Having learned Nefesh HaChayim of Reb Chaim of Volozhin as well as other works based on the teachings of the Vilna Gaon and chronicles of his life, in addition to the writings of the Maharal, the idea that higher levels of Divine Wisdom can be revealed to lower generations since they need more potent medicine to arouse them to love and fear of G-d, seemed not only legitimate but quite sensible.
If anything, in my later studies, I found the strong opposition from other Chassidic masters, who were concerned about the intellectualizing of matters of faith, far more persuasive. History had shown that those who related to G-d through simple faith were far more ready to sacrifice everything, including their lives, for that faith. It was the philosophers and intellectuals who were far more likely to jump ship. Later, I discovered that the Rebbe responded in a letter that recent history in Russia had more than refuted this argument and allayed this concern as Chabad Chassidim displayed a degree of personal sacrifice far beyond anything that came before, particularly those immersed more deeply in the study of Chassidus. However, the letter only addresses the fallacy in the factual conclusion of that argument but doesn't resolve the paradox. How do studying deeper and more intellectually rigorous esoteric ideas lead to greater readiness to sacrifice one's life and do more for G-d?
Over the years the Rebbe did and said many things in public that provided much material for those looking to criticize. One of those that seemed tailor made was when the word got out that the Rebbe had called for girls to learn more. This included gaining a broader and deeper knowledge of Chassidus as well as learning those parts of the Oral Torah traditionally considered off limits for the fairer gender. The way that the Rebbe framed the issue was that since the main concern regarding teaching Torah to women is the fact that intellectual development enhances the negative capacity for, and tendency of, rationalizing as a means to get out from under one’s obligations, nowadays women are getting the intellectual stimulation anyway but from secular sources. As such, they would be better off exerting their minds over a difficult passage in the Talmud or commentaries, which are holy, rather than secular disciplines which are unholy.
This pronouncement was greeted with universal shock. Those communities that work actively to minimize the exposure of their female progeny to any aspects of the Oral Torah, reacted with utter derision, with their more hostile elements proclaiming that this was proof that Chabad of today was headed in the wrong direction. Even those who provide a broader education for girls, teaching a wide range of Torah commentaries, as well as ethical and philosophical works, responded with strong negativity. As one very thoughtful educator told me, it was not simply an issue of whether the study of the Oral Torah is permitted or not. The far greater challenge in educating religious young women is finding the correct balance between feeding their minds and not corrupting their natural propensity for simple faith in G-d and His Torah. This is especially crucial since the wider world is actively working to denigrate the traditional role of the Jewish woman, since it is seen as more supportive and subservient in nature. Simply put, intellectual prowess and humility before G-d and man do not often go together.
WOMAN OF WISDOM
Throughout the year following the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, on the 22nd of Shevat 5748/1988, and at this time of the year in later years, the Rebbe spoke about the need to learn life lessons from the life of the departed. Oddly enough, one of the most notable characteristics of the Rebbetzin was that she was so intensely private that very little was known about her life. From the bit of anecdotal material that we do have, what emerges is a portrait of a woman who was exceptionally intelligent, learned and well educated, possessed of a great deal of wisdom, while imbued with Chassidic self-nullification that manifested in the form of extreme personal sacrifice and avoidance of any and all public attention, along with a genuine concern for others.
Since Jews are naturally compassionate, one would expect that even the most hate-filled opponent of Chassidus would consider such a tragedy off limits for digging up reasons to be critical. However, the fact that the Rebbe kept going on about it in terms of its impact on the divine service of every person in the generation was seen by those who did not see themselves as followers of “the leader of the generation” as a bit over the top. Never before in Jewish history, including Chassidic history, had any leader made such a huge deal over the passing of any woman, even the most righteous biblical figures, which made the whole thing seem entirely out of proportion.
At that time, I witnessed something that really shook my view of the world. As an outside observer, the one thing we all knew for certain was that no matter what the Rebbe said, the Chassidim accepted and followed unquestioningly. I was living in Eretz Yisrael then, at the height of the political war that split the main religious party, with Lubavitch being the main issue of contention between the Chassidic groups and the yeshiva world. This split was felt at all levels of Israeli religious society and arguments and debates broke out in every shul and on every corner. Encountering one such heated exchange between a group of yeshiva men and their Lubavitcher counterparts, which was conducted in rapid fire Hebrew, I stood off to the side and listened in. The argument ended when it deteriorated to the level that one of the fellows made some snide remarks about how Chabad Chassidim are very involved with mourning their Rebbetzin and the Lubavitchers reacted angrily and stormed off.
I well understood why they would find the comment offensive, as it was meant to be, but it was equally obvious to me that they not only had no adequate response, they were actually embarrassed by the whole thing. This was an eye opener for me. Seeing the groups go their separate ways, I sort of trailed along with the group of Chassidim to hear what they would say amongst themselves. One of the Chassidim tried to explain to the others, through some convoluted reasoning, that the Rebbe was first and foremost a Chassid of his father-in-law, and as such was not mourning the person who was his wife but the mystical connection to his Rebbe... Not only were they uncomfortable with what their Rebbe was doing and saying, they felt the need to come up with some abstruse Chassidic bromide to ease their discomfiture, born of a lack of understanding.
In my later queries into how the current incarnation of Chabad Chassidus could be seen as consistent with, and a direct continuation of, its hallowed historic tradition, I discovered that there were many things that the Rebbe said and did that made his Chassidim uncomfortable. In fact, one Chassid reassured me (with a few others nearby sagely nodding their heads approvingly) that no real changes were made in the Chabad educational system for girls in response to the aforementioned call of the Rebbe except for a few token tweaks. Clearly, he (they) thought that it was a good idea to not get carried away and take the Rebbe too literally, and that this bit of information would make the world of Chabad more attractive to me.
WISDOM OF HUMILITY
A key foundational principle of the mystical tradition of Torah is the fact that all of existence is part of a larger cosmic “Divine plan,” which culminates with the events associated with the “future time”; the coming of Moshiach, the resurrection of the dead and the seventh millennium. And it is through Torah and Mitzvos as well as other aspects of the divine service of the Jew that all this is accomplished. In the early Kabbalistic literature, our mission in exile is described in varied and often colorful terms of “raising up the shechina from the dust” or “reconnecting the final hei [of G-d's four letter name] with the first three letters.” Another anthropomorphic imagery that is used to describe what we are trying to accomplish is the “reconstruction of [malchus] the feminine aspect [of the divine].”
To explain all of the above in great detail is beyond the purview of a brief article, but Chabad Chassidus gives us the tools to understand the larger plan as well as what we can and must do to bring that plan to fruition. If in earlier generations, this was true in a more general sense, in our generation we have been given far more information with greater detail and specificity. In fact, you just have to “open your eyes” to see that everything that happened, is happening and will continue to happen, is all part of the plan. Even things like spiritual descents, which come from being “lower” and more “distant” from G-d, are actually part of bringing us closer to the ultimate revelation than ever before.
In most relationships, unity is more readily achieved when one half of the relationship does the thinking for both. When both halves of a relationship each have a mind of their own, they tend to drift apart as grown children do from their parents. That is why in the secular world, the more educated are less likely to marry, less likely to stay married, less likely to have children, and almost never have more than one child. These trends are far more pronounced with highly educated women. That is the bad news.
The good news is that when two people with minds of their own realize the need to connect with the other and create a unity that transcends each one's individual ideas and feelings, that unity is much more powerful than that between one dominant party and one submissive party. So, each of these types of relationship has an advantage that the other lacks. A relationship between “equals” is much more intense and brings the two closer, but there is always the danger of drifting apart. An “unequal” relationship where one is entirely submissive to the other tends to be more permanent but less passionate. Having the best of both seems close to impossible.
On the first Friday of creation, in the Garden of Eden, the first woman decided to think for herself and partake from the fruit of the tree that promises the ability to “know good and evil,” not just being told by an overprotective husband not to even touch the tree, and decided to share her new knowledge with her husband. At Mount Sinai, the Jews had learned the lesson about the dangers of independent thinking and recognized the need for a leader to whom they could submit and follow without question. When their leader didn't return when he said he would, they [i.e. the men; the women did not participate] created one that would not think independently, but simply be a mindless conduit for the word of G-d, a calf of gold.
We have been working to correct the spiritual impact and devastation of these past events for thousands of years. Chassidus provides us with the means to resolve the tension between independent thought and being totally submissive to and completely one with G-d's Oneness. Since it is the wisdom of the inner secrets of the Torah that reveals the G-dly reality and shows the person his own nothingness, it grows the mind while bringing the person to ever greater levels of self-nullification and submission to the Divine Will. Although it is true that we represent the feminine aspect in relation to G-d, but until recently this has only been the work of the Jewish male with the actual females raised in such a manner that independent thinking was not developed or encouraged.
WISDOM AND HUMILITY
It says in the HaYom Yom of Rosh Chodesh Av, “The unique quality of Moshiach is that he will be humble. Though he will be the ultimate in greatness, as he will teach Torah to the Patriarchs and to Moshe Rabbeinu, still he will be the ultimate in humility and self-nullification, as he will also teach the simple folk.”
Moshiach is the embodiment of the completion of this process – the ultimate greatness in matters of the mind and the ultimate greatness in self-nullification – which is accomplished by our generation, the final one of exile and the first of Redemption. The ultimate expression of that would be women who learn Torah and Chassidus and their learning spurs them to greater commitment to the traditionally submissive roles of wife, mother and homemaker. The indication that we moved into the final stage before the Redemption was when the wife of the leader of this generation, who embodied that synthesis of wisdom and humility, moved on to the next stage of existence indicating that this phase was completed.
Similarly, in the address to the Shluchim (Chayei Sarah 5752) the Rebbe explained that the final preparations for Moshiach require us to use our faculties for independent thought in carrying out the shlichus while being totally nullified to the “sender,” and to channel that specifically into studying the subject of Moshiach and Redemption, as this leads to actually experiencing that reality of “all will know Me” and “on that day G-d will be One and His name will be One,” immediately, NOW!