By Yochanan Gordon
“Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World” (Jewish Spiritual Traditions and Contempo), was released early last month. It is a collaboration between author Philip Wexler, executive director of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality and Society, and emeritus Professor of Sociology of Education and Unterberg Chair in Jewish Social and Educational History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Eli Rubin an editor and research writer at Chabad.org; and Michael Wexler, the creator of projects for Fox, ABC, Microsoft, AFLAC, SiriusXM Radio, among others. Yochanan Gordon interviewed Philip Wexler about the project.
Y.G. I’d like you to expound a little on your background and put into context your interest in Chabad, your partnership with Eli Rubin, his involvement in the authorship of this book, and how you came to write this book.
P.W. My interest in Chabad is really part of a more general interest in the relationship between Jewish mysticism and larger questions about social change, and especially about how spiritual or religious ideas can shape the way people live, whether for better or for worse. I’ve had personal contact with Chabad rabbis for over two decades. Rabbi Nechemia Vogel of Rochester is an old friend, and I have conducted research on Chabad during my time at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I’ve been thinking about what sociologists can learn from Chabad for a long time, but I did not want to do it completely from the outside. I wanted to understand Chabad’s own social concepts and ideas, and to do that I needed someone to help me navigate and sift through the massive corpus of texts, writings, and video recordings. Eli Rubin is a young scholar who came on the scene relatively recently, but his knowledge of that corpus and his understanding of my approach have been extremely helpful.
Y.G. What impact have the Rebbe’s teachings had on your life and the direction of your career, and how do you explain the continued interest in the Rebbe’s life and his teachings 25 years after his passing?
P.W. On a simply empirical level, the mark he has made on contemporary Jewish life is far beyond that of any other 20th-century Jewish figure. That alone makes him worthy of study. The interest in his life might be related to common curiosity, especially where there is controversy. But the interest in his ideas and teachings is another matter. The fact that they inspired so successful a social movement only underscores the need to understand what was so different and powerful about his vision. But more than that, I contend that we can better understand the Rebbe now than we could when he was still alive. He was not only an incisive thinker, but a prescient one. Unlike so many others, he understood that modernity and secularization wasn’t the endgame, but a phase in a larger process of historical and cultural transformation.
Y.G. I understand that the purpose of your son Michael’s involvement in this project was in his capacity as a writer. The book itself is an academic book. In fact, people who have seen me reading it have commented that it was too scholarly for them. Does this book become limited in its scope as a result, or is there a way for readers of all backgrounds to appreciate it?
P.W. First I would say to those people, don’t underestimate yourselves! Actually, I think the scholarly frame of the book actually broadens its scope and makes it relevant to more people. This isn’t just a story book about an inspiring rabbi who lived in Brooklyn, but a book about a visionary thinker who had a whole different way of thinking about the world, and especially about relationships between people, communities, and nations. You don’t need to be Jewish, or even religious, to take an interest in that. But for those who do feel intimidated, I would suggest that they start with chapter two, which begins with the Rebbe’s escape from Nazi-occupied Europe.
Y.G. To your knowledge, have there been previous attempts to suggest a global sociological reframing of society based on the works of Chassidism or on the works of any Jewish leader for that matter?
P.W. No, not that I am aware.
Y.G. Because much of our readership is outside of Chabad, I think that it is important for you to lend some insight into what set the Rebbe apart, historically, from many of the great luminaries, leaders, and Jewish visionaries.
P.W. I’ve said a few words about this above, but I will add one more point that relates to his Torah teachings. Everyone recognizes his Torah scholarship, but what is most striking to me is the way that he scrutinizes the entire world through the lens of Torah interpretation. He wasn’t a Torah scholar who also, separately, had opinions about society. Rather, he used his command of classical Torah topics, whether Talmud, Midrash, Kabbalah, Rambam, or Chassidism, to formulate new, sometimes surprising, perspectives on policy debates that are often as relevant now as ever.
Y.G. You mention at the outset about the Weberian Protestant Ethic as the prevailing social paradigm. However, the fact is that much of our society has become extremely secularized. The rise of social justice groups is prevalent and the breaking down of morals is rampant. Does this re-sacralization that you speak of have a chance at breaking those barriers?
P.W. As we point out in the book, what sets the Rebbe apart was that he was not into social justice, but rather socio-mystical justice. In simple language, that means that the Rebbe recognized and called out many of the social injustices that people protest against today, but he also went much further: For the Rebbe, a social injustice is a moral and religious injustice that stems from the perception that some people have no moral value, no Divinely ordained purpose. As we argue in the book, this attitude can be traced back to the Protestant Ethic, according to which some are saved and some are damned. For the Rebbe, by contrast, so long as G-d gives a person life, we must accept that people have an intrinsic value, and we must give them the support they need to fulfill their Divine purpose.
Y.G. There is no question that Judaism and the Torah hold the keys to the transformation of society. However, America was founded upon Christian ideals. It doesn’t seem so simple to suggest a displacement of the Protestant Ethic for a new sociological system spearheaded by the teachings of a chassidic rebbe. Your thoughts?
P.W. I take the long view. Processes of social and cultural change unfold over the course of centuries. Indeed, the Ba’al Shem Tov would likely be astonished by the international impact of his teachings today. What will things look like in another century or more? What’s interesting, though, is the Rebbe’s own attitude to America’s founders and their ideals. As we describe in the book, he actually read America’s national narrative through a Chassidic lens. There is much more to be said about this, but I think there is also a certain spiritual and intellectual resonance between Chassidism and such seminal American thinkers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James. So Chassidism is not fundamentally alien to American culture.
Y.G. In your chapter on education, you raise the “moment of silence” issue. This issue was foisted into the public discourse, again, in the aftermath of the attack on Chabad of Poway, where Rabbi Goldstein passionately made the case in the Rose Garden in front of TV cameras from CNN and other national TV outlets. It seems like people understand the importance of this issue. Are you aware of any progress this has seen since then?
P.W. There may be more awareness, but I think it remains very superficial. What I tried to point out is that for the Rebbe, this was not a narrow issue. He saw the moment of silence as a gateway that could start a much broader conversation about the nature and purpose of education, a conversation that would include parents and students as opposed to just teachers. Irrespective of what school you send your children to, it’s quite possible to fall into the same trap of reducing education into academic success, and of making education entirely impersonal, even soulless. The larger import of the moment of silence, for the Rebbe, is that we need to find more creative solutions to help our children think about the big questions in life. Why am I alive? What is my purpose? Who am I answerable to? As the Rebbe himself said, this should not be seen either as a partisan issue or even as a religious one. It is a human issue.
Y.G. Your analysis of the Chassidic farbrengen is an insight that I never before heard. I was amazed particularly by the way the Rebbe synthesized the aspect of teaching in a format where he sat among the people he was communicating with. In Chassidic parlance this is a fusion of igulim and yosher, or egalitarianism or hierarchy. Is this the ideal format in which to convey information sociologically as well as religiously, and how so?
P.W. In a way, the farbrengen is one of the most obvious features of the Rebbe’s innovative approach to communication and to the transformation of society, and yet it may be the most overlooked. And, yes, sociologically speaking, it is a paradigm of communication that everyone can learn from. In simple terms we could say as follows: if you want to persuade people and enthuse them, you cannot talk down to them. But this doesn’t mean that you also cannot speak with authority. Even an authoritative teacher or leader needs to believe that the students or the listeners have the independent capacity to see and apprehend truth. They need to be given the sense that they are powerful individuals and that their power is enhanced through community building, and that the teacher or leader is simply revealing the tools and capacities that they innately possess and that they must use to attain enlightenment and to transform the world for the better.
Y.G. Another issue that the Rebbe spent a lot of time discussing and advocating for was prison reform. It’s no secret that our president has gone to great lengths to fix what was for years a broken system. The First Step Act, which was passed with strong bipartisan support, has allowed people who were wrongly imprisoned or dealt an unjustly long sentence to be given another consideration. Is this just one step in the direction the Rebbe foresaw for society? Is it at all feasible to anticipate a prison-less world?
P.W. There is, of course, a good reason that this is called the First Step Act, and everyone recognizes that there is much more work to be done. Whether or not I think it is possible to imagine a prison-less world, the Rebbe certainly did. When he was visited by Judge Jack B. Weinstein of the Eastern District in 1989, he expressed his hope that we would soon reach the time when there will be no prisons, only education to prevent people from going astray from the right path. For the Rebbe, education was at the core of all social problems. If we can heal our broken education system, we can heal the whole of society.
Y.G. You mention the Rebbe’s perception of destruction and redemption as one event, similar to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Since this interview will be read on Shabbos, which this year is the 9th of Av, I felt it apropos to add a question on this subject, once it was already addressed in the book. If, in fact, the destruction of the Temple was just the first stage in the construction of something far more Divine, why is the mourning over its destruction such an important part in the course towards the future?
P.W. In Chabad thought in general the Temple embodies the ultimate degree of Divine revelation on this earth. So its destruction is obviously understood as a terrible tragedy. No one emphasized this more than the Rebbe himself. In his last edited discourse he wrote that any Jew who is in touch with the essence of their soul will experience a sense of crushing existential loss over the fact that the Temple is in ruins and the infinite revelation of G-d is not openly manifest on earth. But the point is that the Rebbe never allowed this sense of tragedy to become debilitating. On the contrary, the ache of loss must spur the individual to throw all of their energy into the quest for repair, redemption, and the reconstruction of the Temple. For the Rebbe, that means exposing the ways in which the infinite light is hidden in even the most marginalized corners of the earth.
Y.G. Chazal state that anyone who properly mourns over the loss of the Temple merits to experience its consolation and reconstruction. Can you shed more light on this through your research of the Rebbe’s writings on this topic?
P.W. I must say that issues such as these were not the central focus of my study. But of course, it is impossible to study the Rebbe’s teachings without constantly encountering the dynamic of exile and redemption, and I do discuss this as one of the prisms through which his social project must be understood. Again, I refer you to the Rebbe’s last edited discourse. In continuation to the above, he says that, “Through being crushed over the fact that we are found in exile, we reach the luminary.” In other words, it is precisely through awakening the crushing sense of mourning that we reveal and redeem the essential luminosity of Divinity that would otherwise be concealed and exiled. Mourning is thereby transformed into joy and exile into redemption.
Y.G. Let me turn, with the next question, to Eli Rubin: Can you discuss how you met Professor Wexler and what your experience was like in your capacity as co-author of Social Vision and the impact it had on your knowledge of the Rebbe, which, given your background, I would imagine was already at an advanced stage?
E.R. I was introduced to Professor Wexler in 2012 at a conference held at the University of Pennsylvania that focused on the Rebbe’s philosophy of education. He was interested in creating a new kind of conversation between academic scholars and Chabad scholars, rabbis, shluchim, and shluchos. He felt that Jewish mystical teaching, and Chassidic teachings especially, should be regarded as a branch of knowledge with universal application. Of course, that aligns very well with the Ba’al Shem Tov’s principle of disseminating the wellsprings outward, which Chabad more than any other Chasidic group has promulgated, so I was happy to help him. I would say that as a social analyst, Professor Wexler brings a new conceptual framework, a new set of tools, through which to understand and interpret the Rebbe. It’s like putting on a new set of glasses, where everything that is already familiar to you is now much sharper, enabling you to take notice of the finer details in ways that you didn’t previously. People tend to use the category of philosophy or psychology as a way to frame Chabad teachings, but the frame narrows what you see and understand. Through introducing the frame of sociology, Dr. Wexler has opened up a whole new way of seeing and understanding things that we may already know.
Y.G. Michael, I, too, have the opportunity of working alongside my father, who is the publisher and editor of this newspaper. Unlike you, however, he edits my work and not the other way around. Can you tell our readers a little about yourself, your role as a writer, and what it was like working alongside your father on this project?
M.W. Sure. I am always happy to have my father edit and critique my work, but in the context of this project, it was indeed the other way around. As a scholar, Philip doesn’t always write in “English,” as one of our colleagues is fond of chiding and my job on this project was to pull, as much as possible, his scholarly voice and Eli Rubin’s Chabad orientation somewhere into the middle where it all might be comprehended by an ordinary human being.
As far as my own work, I’m a more popular writer, you might say, although I tend to the mystical genre as well. My last large-scale project was a young-adult fantasy trilogy called The Seems about a boy from this world who lands a job as a “fixer” in an alternative universe where their mission is to help manufacture our world over here. So it’s a way to talk about what lies behind the seams (or seems) of our world in the context of fantasy and fun. Think of it as aspirin crushed in ice cream.
I’ve done a bunch of other wacky projects from writing and directing a radio drama (Vanishing Point) for NPR and XM/Sirius Radio to writing and recording five albums which you can find on iTunes or CD Baby.
Y.G. Michael, if you don’t mind just bringing the discussion full circle and reflecting more on the experience with regards to your involvement in the book and what you’ve learned or how your appreciation for the Rebbe or Chabad has increased as a result.
M.W. This is a wide-ranging and deep question but I’m happy to answer as best as I can. As discussed, working with my father was a thrill. During walks at our small summer house on Keuka Lake we often talked of a cultural “changing of the guard” or “chrysalis” that we both noticed taking place — my father in his work (and life, I suspect), and me as well. Namely, some of the old stanchions of capitalism or materialism or Western culture were breaking down. Perhaps, just this past weekend we saw further evidence of the emptiness that so many Americans, particularly, are experiencing.
I don’t want to try to diagnose the ails of society in one fell swoop but it has something to do, I would propose, with the lack of ultimate fulfillment that comes from a world bent on fame; fortune; a new iPhone; a new TV; becoming VP; and having the best friends, car, house, child, job, and social media posts. If we look in our own lives we can all find ourselves sometimes at the mercy of ego. Once we find what we think will make us happy, it doesn’t, and then we are back on the hamster wheel.
So that’s a long way of saying that something was rotten at the root of society, and we had the chance to explore both this cavity/decay and a possible “filling” for it, namely some of the “new” tenants of one of the oldest salves around—Jewish spirituality/mysticism.
Through the project I found a personal satisfaction in exploring both this “lack” that I felt in my own life and in the culture around me and looking for some answers. Some of the answers came in the form of the Rebbe’s ideas—faith, reciprocity (the notion that by helping others you are not diminishing yourself but enriching yourself), a focus on joy over anxiety, and, paradoxically, the Rebbe’s teaching to focus on living meaningfully trying to figure everything out a little less. I particularly like his line, “If you wait until you find the meaning of life, will there be enough life left to live meaningfully?”
It wasn’t just the ideas, either. It was living them and practicing them and “trying them on” in the company of Eli and my professor Dad. There was one day (upon the publication of the book) that we were all at the lake celebrating. Someone suggested a l’chaim. Eli suggested tefillin and l’chaim. It was really cool. I hadn’t done any of this more “Orthodox” ritualized stuff since I was a kid and my grandfather had “forced” me to go to a yeshiva.
I could go on forever but in the end, there was a process of realizing how “normal” and actually cool the Rebbe was. I think, sometimes, as Jews we tend to look even at our own denominations as aliens. Who are these reformed people? Who are these “black hat” people? Who are these people who move to Israel and never come back? Who am I? Ultimately, we’re all in the same boat and I learned this, in part, through the process of working on this book.