The memory of the Lubavitcher rebbe, who died 14 years ago this month, is becoming increasingly shrouded in the mists of time. Who he was seems of interest to mostly two groups, Chabad and those who monitor Chabad messianism. For the rest of the Jewish world, the rebbe’s legacy, while important, is not a priority. He lived, he did great good, he died. Time to move on. As far as the non-Jewish world is concerned, it has barely even heard of him.
What a pity.
Not for the rebbe, who in the more than 40 years during which he gradually became the most influential Jewish religious personality of the ‘0th century showed no hint of ego, but for the rest of the world, which is witnessing a gradual hardening of religion that the rebbe did so much to soften.
It is generally agreed that religion plays a vital role in society by imparting values and calling on people to live for a cause higher than themselves. Without religion we would all be a little more selfish and a lot more materialistic. So why do we live in so secular an age where in large parts of the globe, like Europe, religion has become irrelevant? And why is the once indomitable religious right here in America rapidly losing its political muscle?
Because religion has too often shown sharp teeth, has too frequently displayed an ugly face, and has failed to produce people whose behavior is predictably better than the general population’s. Which is not to say that there aren’t many religious people who are righteous, moral, and good. It is to say that there are many who are not.
The truth of any belief-system is tested in its effectiveness. Communism looks better than democracy on paper, but in practice produces poverty and tyranny. Whether it’s the rabbinical saying that "action is what counts," or Jesus’ saying that "by their fruit you shall know them," a religion is tested by its ability to inspire righteous action.
Few of us believers in the West would ever fly a plane into a building. But some might tell a gay man that he has no place in church or synagogue. Some might spread malicious gossip about a friend, even though it is expressly condemned in the Bible. And some might often be less than honest in their business dealings, even though the ancient Rabbis declared that the very first we are asked as our souls ascend to heaven after death is whether we were commercially honest.
And here is where the Lubavitcher rebbe revolutionized all religious faith. For the first time in memory a world religious figure gazed upon mankind and saw not a sea of sinners but an ocean of possibility. While the confessional of many our Christian brothers begins, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned," the rebbe’s formula was, "Join me, my child, in the performance of one good deed." From his perch atop a broken neighborhood in Brooklyn, the rebbe proclaimed the essence of faith as the call to perform a single mitzvah with its untold power of spreading love and light. Ronald Reagan called upon Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down a single tyrannical wall that had been built over a generation. But the rebbe called on religion to tear down the walls of condemnation and the towers of damnation that had been built over millennia.
The rebbe replaced religious judgment with an impassioned humanity. His message became a mantra: give charity, pray daily, practice hospitality, and love every stranger as oneself.
He practiced what he preached.
A Catholic gay man I know wrote the rebbe a letter disagreeing with the Bible’s views on homosexuality. Never expecting his letter to even reach the rebbe, he was blown away when he received a five-page response in which he was treated as being infinitely beloved of God.
Where some religions condemn abortions, the rebbe sought to cultivate a love of children. Many of us remember the enormous public gatherings where the rebbe, a world-renowned scholar, would spend hours teaching children, or the warm smiles he would give our own children when, on Sundays, he would give thousands of kids a dollar for charity. We can only imagine the anguish this great man felt when God withheld giving him offspring. But that seemed to only increase his empathy as he adopted the world’s children as his own.
When a man wrote to the rebbe about an argument he had with his wife over home improvements, the rebbe wrote back, "The true greatness of a man is to fulfill his mission in life by acting in a way that is favorable to the members of his family and the people that are around him." Incredible. A world religious figure telling a man that he would find "true greatness" not by how piously he behaved in the synagogue but in how lovingly he treated his wife in the kitchen.
What is the rebbe’s legacy? Simply this. He gave faith back its heart. In inventing global religious outreach, which has now been copied by nearly every other world religion, he shattered forever the religious inclination to judge, marginalize, and send away.
Once, when I was 16, I was standing on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem giving out Sabbath candles to non-religious women when an American mother in a tank top ran from me. I told her that I could not recall giving her offense. She then related that she had just come from a neighborhood in Jerusalem where a man with a beard spat on her for showing cleavage. I responded that my rebbe had taught me that in a place where there is darkness it is best to light a candle.
Islam is a great world religion. What it lacks most is a rebbe courageous enough to buck the trend of religious judgment, enjoining believers to motivate and encourage instead. The same is true of evangelical Christianity, which, while producing adherents of unparalleled generosity and kindness, often sees its teachings spilling over into diatribes against the immorality of a godless culture. Evangelicals too need a rebbe to teach them to bless to extend the daylight rather than curse the darkness.
Most of all, it is we Jews who ought to rediscover the legacy of the Lubavitcher rebbe. With the deep divide between religious and secular in Israel and the chasm that separates Orthodoxy from Reform in this country, we need to remember a leader who taught us that religion places as much faith in man as it does in God and that the principal means by which we come closer to God is by loving His children.
About once a month I travel to the tomb of the rebbe. I never tire of reading the awesome words of his headstone. "Here lies Ohr Olam — a light of the world." My God. To be a mere mortal and to burn so brightly that one becomes a light of the world. If only, if only.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of ‘0 books, most recently "The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him" (St. Martin’s Press). He lives in Englewood.