Few men are able to shape the world in death as they did in life. To do so is to so subsume your existence to a lofty ideal with such complete thoroughness that your life comes to symbolize the values for which you toiled. In the latter half of the ‘0th century, perhaps only two men can be said to have so completely revitalized their communities that they achieved immortality by becoming the symbol of their nations. They are Martin Luther King Jr., who offered dignity and self-worth to a persecuted people, and the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who offered education and identity to an assimilated nation. Had King not lived, the African-American community might still reel under the brutality of discrimination and racial injustice. Had the Lubavitcher rebbe not lived, the Jewish community would still be hemorrhaging millions of members, ignorant and estranged from the glories of their tradition. The two colossi further share the distinct similarities of having used oratory, scholarship, and religious conviction rather than political office to galvanize vast armies of followers who breathed new life into their moribund communities.
But the principal difference between these giants lies in the fact that King’s renown spread globally to the white community, while the rebbe’s remains largely confined to Jews. This is curious given that King’s work was confined principally to the southern United States while the rebbe’s operations spanned the globe. That the rebbe — the 13th anniversary of whose passing is commemorated this week — is today viewed as a Jewish rather than a world figure and remains unknown to most of the non-Jewish world remains a tragic omission that requires rectification and constitutes the foremost failure of the otherwise astonishing achievements of Chabad. For he was a once-in-a-millennium holy man whose call for moral virtue, spiritual heroics, and acts of lovingkindness was as universal as it was electrifying.
In 199′, just before the rebbe’s 90th birthday, hundreds of his worldwide emissaries gathered in a hall in Brooklyn to discuss how the important milestone should be observed. One rabbi got up and said that every emissary should bring 90 constituents to meet the rebbe. Another suggested that 90 new Jewish day schools be opened over the course of the year.
I was one of the younger rabbis in the room, having just moved to Oxford, England, and I approached the microphone with trepidation. "We should endeavor to have the rebbe awarded the Nobel Peace Prize." My suggestion was greeted enthusiastically by the younger emissaries present and with skepticism by the older guard. Ultimately, no steps were taken to have the rebbe nominated, a missed opportunity if there ever was one, given that few world personalities had more eloquently articulated man’s capacity for ushering in an era of eternal peace than did the rebbe.
To be sure, our people have always erred in believing that Judaism is only for Jews. The universal values that our religion has bequeathed the world have been largely treated as secondary to core Jewish ritual. As such, who would have thought that the teachings of a bearded rabbi in a long black coat could appeal to techies in Silicon Valley or ranchers in Wyoming? And could the foremost spiritual leader of such a tiny people really have broad appeal? And yet, the Dalai Lama, with shaven head and flowing red robes, who is the nominal head of Tibet with only ‘.6 million citizens, was transformed into a global icon by his followers and was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. Mother Teresa, in her simple white habit, won for her faith-inspired humanitarian work in 1979. What the followers of both decided early on was that the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa had a global mission, while the followers of the rebbe concluded that his was a Jewish one.
This was never the case. At every available opportunity the rebbe reached out to non-Jews. Several times a year, when his live addresses were broadcast on national television, he always addressed the mainstream public. Whether the subject was the need for a moment of prayerful silence in public schools, or a call to greater acts of charity, the rebbe made it clear that outreach to the widest possible audience was his intention. Most importantly, he made it a central staple of Chabad outreach to teach the universal code of morality, as embodied in the Bible’s Noahide covenant, to all non-Jews.
When my mother worked in a bank in Miami Beach, a Cuban Catholic co-worker who was childless asked me if she could write to the rebbe for a blessing for children. I told her the rebbe would welcome her letter. A few weeks later, she called me to share how elated she was that she received a warm response from the rebbe. The fact that she later had two children is beside the more relevant point of the rebbe’s love for all of God’s children.
Yet, 13 years after the rebbe’s passing, Chabad and the wider Jewish community’s outreach to non-Jews remains virtually non-existent. Chabad is the single most successful Jewish educational network in the history of the world. But there remain millions of Jews who still have not been impacted by its work and who can only be reached by influencing the mainstream culture in which they live, including their non-Jewish friends and neighbors.
This is a subject that is extremely close to my heart. Three months after the rebbe’s death I was summoned from my station in Oxford to a meeting of the Chabad leadership in London where I was told that I would have to rescind the membership of 5,000 non-Jewish students because too many in Anglo-Jewry complained that their participation diluted the Jewish character of our organization. I was crestfallen and resisted the order, leading ultimately to my official separation from the Chabad movement. And yet, many of the non-Jewish leaders of our organization — most notably Cory Booker who was our president and is today universally regarded as the second most important African-American politician in the United States and who is a brother to me — remain stalwart friends of the Jewish community because of the openness they experienced as students. I have never overcome the pain of that break and remain a man who loves and considers himself Chabad, even as he lives without a community.
I take comfort, however, in knowing that the rebbe belonged not only to Chabad, and not only to Jews, but to humanity at large and all who seek inspiration from giants who teach us to live selflessly, righteously, and lovingly.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach served as rabbi at Oxford from 1988-99 and is the author, most recently of "Shalom in the Home," published by Meredith. His two-volume work about his Oxford years is called "Moses of Oxford." He lives in Englewood.