“Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World” explores the social ideas and activism of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the Rebbe). It looks at not simply the Rebbe’s attempts to revitalize the Jewish world after the Holocaust but also his work to transform society in areas like education, criminal justice and ecology. The work is co-written by Philip Wexler, Michael Wexler and Eli Rubin.
Rubin, an editor at Chabad.org, is based in Pittsburgh and recently discussed both the book and the Rebbe’s social theories. “Social Vision” is available to preorder on Amazon. It will be published on July 6.
How did you get involved with the book?
I first met Dr. Philip Wexler in 2012 at a conference at the University of Pennsylvania conveyed around the idea of bringing together academic scholars education practitioners with Chasidic scholars with a view to fostering deeper engagment between these communities … especially with an emphasis on Chabad. Scholars have identified Chabad as unique among Chasidic groups, partly because of of its focus on communication and education — making the esoteric available to the broader community without dumbing it down.
The idea of this book started to develop over several years. Philip came from a very different place being a sociologist mainly interested in education, he studied public schools and how they shaped ethnographies of schools. Eventually, somewhere along the road, our two paths met and we got together on this book.
This isn’t a biography of the Rebbe. Why did you focus on his social vision?
I think partly because [a biography has] already been done. We were all much more interested in the ideas of the Rebbe. We wanted to get under the hood. The Rebbe was working within contemporary society, the second half of the 20th century, within the American cultural context. He’s a perceptive analyst of what’s going on in society and has a different way of seeing how society can go.
It’s a scholarly book but we try to tell it in a way that an informed layman can find accessible.
What is the Rebbe’s social vision?
As I perceive it, and as Philip wrote in the book, the Rebbe’s social vision begins with the principle that we should stop seeing the secular and religious realms as inherently in conflict. We need to start seeing the worlds of science and spirituality as being complimentary and as proceeding and progressing together.
The second point is a progressive one. He sees that society, and the world at large, can be much improved through a fusion of the spiritual and scientific, a fusion of the mystical and the social. It’s the mystical or the vertical dimension, the anchor with God, the fact that a person has a fundamental sense of moral responsibility, that forces them to not just be an individual but to interact with all the other human beings in the world and partner with them because they too are moral beings endowed with the same vertical, inherent legitimacy.
His socio-mystical perspective informs unique approaches to many things like education, justice and ecology, and can inform new conversations about how we should be thinking about society and progress, how we should be thinking about religion and society, and how we should be thinking about political polarization, which is an important topic today. He was a fascinating person who led an international movement of Jewish revival after the holocaust. But even if he would have been a professor at a university, who created no movement, his ideas would be worthy of looking at on their own terms.
The second half of the book looks at the Rebbe’s theory of reciprocity. What is that?
Reciprocity is one of the key concepts of the Rebbe’s social vision. Reciprocity means that relations are reciprocal. You give and you receive. Each individual is giving, is contributing to others around him and is receiving from others around him. It’s within that dynamic that you achieve happiness.
For the Rebbe, the end goal is not a static state where everything is just there, just exists, but the constant give and take is part of the desired ideal. It’s within that dynamic mode of interpersonal relationships where each person becomes joyous because they are able to do something for someone else and because they are able to receive from others, there we find the locus of joy, happiness and purpose.
To have a perfect society is to have a society in which you have wholesome relationships. It’s not just relationships between individuals, it’s the constellation of relationships in which each person feels they are part of a greater whole and feel unharmed by being part of that whole.
What would the Rebbe think of society today?
The Rebbe always had a positive view. He came out of the Holocaust and directly confronted the deep pessimism that marked that era. And I think we’re seeing a measure of that pessism again in renewed ways. We still have the trauma of the Holocaust within the Jewish community. We still have the anxiety of the Jewish future which is still rooted in the Holocaust.
The Rebbe had a fundamentally positive view and an uplifting one. He said, “we’ve got to stop telling American Jews that Judaism is difficult, that there’s no future. We’ve got to stop with the pessimism. We’ve got to stop trying to adapt Judaism to America and begin to say ‘Judaism is tremendous.’ We’ve got to take the whole of Judaism and teach people about its power and it will succeed!”
The Rebbe had tremendous faith and optimism in the power of Judaism to survive under any condition. He saw America as an opportunity. I don’t think that opportunity has gone away. The problem is that Judaism becomes weaker when we try to pin it to any single issue beyond the entirety of Judaism. If you pin Judaism only to Israel, or the Holocaust, or conservatism or progressivism, then you have a very weak Judaism. Judaism is a very large thing, a very deep thing. It informs multitudes. It has mysticism. It has law. It has many great ideas. It has many great ways of engaging with it. And it has application and tools for all of the isms of the world.
On the other hand, we’ve all seen how when people reduce Judaism to one thing, and say, “This is the meaning of Judaism and this is the Jewish future,” then as soon as that thing becomes not as compelling to a group of people, that’s when Judaism begins to fail.
So, what I think the Rebbe was saying is, find a part of Judaism that you can embrace and integrate into your life, in a meaningful way, and then you’ll surely find something else and add more. As soon as you say, we want to make Judaism easier for people, so from now on we need to only do this, and the rest of Judaism is no longer meaningful or applicable, well that’s how you weaken people’s relationship to Judaism and prevent them from harnessing its power in their personal lives and for the future good of all humanity. pjc
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@