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The Rebbe – the last ‘religious genius’

Outstanding individuals, tzadikim, may have high degree of attainment in their interiority, but have not made a significant advance to Judaism itself, its teachings and structures. Similarly, activists, theologians, academics and people of goodwill may have contributed much to understanding Judaism and evolution of the people, but without the depth of power that comes from spiritual excellence. A “religious genius” combines both aspects, lending authority, power, and hopefully a long-lasting legacy to his transformative contribution to the life of Judaism and the people. Let us then consider the Lubavitcher Rebbe in light of both dimensions.

Spiritual Interiority of “Religious Genius”

We have identified certain key traits in a class of individuals across religions, by means of which we can describe their interior life, approximating “what it feels” like to be a person of that league. Here are some of the key traits:

  1. Love is a central defining element in any portrait of “religious genius.” Love is manifest as altruism, the supreme expression of love offered selflessly in service of the other. A loving heart and presence extends to God, to the fellow person, to the entire world. The more expansive the love, the higher the state of being that is manifested, the greater the expression of “religious genius.” There is no need to elaborate on the profound love and caring the Rebbe had for every Jewish person, anywhere in the world. This is the hallmark of his work. Less well known, perhaps, is how far his love and care extended beyond the Jewish community, leading him to take positions on public issues with an eye to the well-being of others. He is the only Jewish leader, I believe ever, to have undertaken a campaign (not just a teaching in the books) for the moral advancement of all humanity, through the spreading of the seven Noachide commandments.
  2. Expanded awareness of reality — This is one of the features that distinguishes religious genius from ordinary piety and even from many expressions of saintliness. A religious genius lives in more than one plane of existence. He or she is simultaneously present to the physical order of life and to the alternative order, to which he or she is increasingly drawn. The genius of “religious genius” comes from the fact that all actions, engagements, teachings and all expressions of the religious life are experienced from an awareness that transcends the physical plane, even as the individual seeks to transcend his or her sense of limited personal self. The Rebbe lived in constant awareness of such reality. From there, he drew his inspiration, holy spirit and vision. Possibly his most fundamental teaching relates to God’s aspiration to make a home for Himself in the world below (דירה בתחתונים), thereby drawing on that expanded awareness and making it a foundation for the here and now.
  3. The logic of imitation — Awareness of higher or broader reality leads to an inevitable dynamic wherein one seeks to conform the one reality to the standards, vision or perfection of the other. The  pinnacle of genius lies in  intuiting another order of reality, seeking to ground it, transforming oneself and the entire world in a movement of totality and harmony toward that higher perceived reality.  Religious genius is the bridge between two realities, and the primary means of constructing this bridge is imitation. In a more practical sense, the Rebbe lived in constant awareness of the presence of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the previous rebbe. His near-daily visits to the latter’s tombside, and the hours upon hours of prayer and seclusion spent there should be appreciated also in light of conforming to and imitating the higher reality and the person who was representative of it.
  4. Humility — This leads us to the following trait of the “religious genius,” utter humility. Humility may be understood as proper recognition of one’s position in the great scheme of things. Humility is related to decentering of the self, and its reorientation in a larger view. In many traditions, and certainly within Chabad Hasidism, this is understood as ultimately leading to some form of annihilation of the self, bitul ha-yesh. This was an ideal, and I believe a realized ideal, in the Rebbe’s person. His refusal to accept the mantle of leadership for the longest time and the fact that he continued to view his father-in-law as the “leader of our generation” (נשיא דורנו), are expressions of such self-effacement. To be sure, one could be powerful and have strong opinions even from a place of bitul ha-yesh. Such was the Rebbe.
  5. Self-surrender. Self-surrender is closely related to the capacity to serve others, as one’s view of oneself is transformed, and as one increases in loving capacity. Self surrender assumes growing in awareness of that larger presence or reality, of which one is but a part. As awareness shifts, the question of the true author of our actions increasingly comes to the forefront. Is it the self or the greater Self, the Divine, the absolute, that is the true actor. The individual becomes an instrument for higher purposes. Perhaps it will suffice to recall the Rebbe’s inaugural teaching (מאמר). He spoke of the role of the tzadik (righteous person) as being a manifestation of divinity in body, thereby highlighting the sense of the instrumentality of his person and his future work, with God as its true and ultimate author. To be clear, I do not assume that this exempts an evolved religious actor from mistakes and does not make his every word an utterance of truth (for his disciples it surely is). But it does provide an orientation to the internal attitude of the person and how he or she operates as an instrument of a higher order of reality, or at least in quest of such instrumentality.

This is a partial presentation of internal traits of “religious genius,” offering us a window into the interior reality of the person and in our case to that of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Header: Thousands of Jews and visitors from around the world have visited the gravesite of the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his passing, July 5, 2019. (Mark Abramson/Chabad.org via JTA)

Read full article: Alon Goshen-Gottstein