A little bit of light will dispel a great deal of darkness

By Rabbi Yosef Landa

I am gratified by the outpouring of support which was directed to my colleagues and myself since the appearance of the extremely offensive commentary by Rabbi Bruce Warshal of South Florida in the St. Louis Jewish Light of March 21, 2007. I am thankful to the many people who have written to the editor expressing their dismay and outrage at the Warshal piece, and at the Light’s decision to publish it — a misguided decision that compromised truthfulness, fairness and responsibility for the sake of crass sensationalism.

Particularly heartwarming is the fact that those expressions of support came from a virtual cross-section of the community, including Jews from every background and religious persuasion. The passionate response which Warshal’s gratuitous attack elicited, highlighted in most dramatic fashion, the wide range of Jews who are touched by Chabad’s hallmark — an embracing and accepting attitude towards all Jews. I must thank Warshal for that.

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I am also thankful to the lay leadership of the Jewish Light for having the good sense to remove the divisive piece from the Light ‘s website. That is a small but very welcome step toward rectifying the grave injustice that was done to the Chabad movement and to the St. Louis Jewish community as a whole.

To anyone familiar with Chabad, Warshal’s claims are completely outlandish. He makes the unverified and unsupported “assumption” that an anonymous flyer which was handed to him by an unknown individual at a subway station in New York represents “the official doctrine of Chabad”. He then proceeds to smear the entire Chabad movement with the contents of that flyer. His disrespectful and insulting references to the revered Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, the great lover of all Jews, are more than just offensive. They are obscene.

Chabad, with its open and welcoming philosophy, occasionally attracts some “strange birds”, who may be few in number, but who can draw considerable attention to themselves. These mavericks make unauthorized use of the organization’s name and, as in this case, its central address “770 Eastern Parkway” to mislead the public. Unfortunately, there’s very little legal recourse that Chabad has to effectively put a stop to this. But time and again, Chabad officials have disavowed any association with such publications and pronouncements. This has been stated loudly and clearly. If Warshal hasn’t heard it, perhaps it is because he has chosen to plug his ears…

As to the “official doctrine” of Chabad, there’s really no mystery about it. I invite you to explore Chabad’s website, Chabad.org. The content on this website is shared by the websites of thousands of local Chabad centers around the world, including our own ShowMeChabad.com. You will find a huge collection of meaningful and engaging Jewish material, including some on the Jewish concept of Moshiach, but you will not find the ideas espoused in those unauthorized pamphlets. The same is true for Chabad’s publishing house, Kehot Publications, and its website kehotonline.com.

If you are looking for the Chabad doctrine, you can pay a visit to any of the hundreds of Chabad centers in Jewish communities and college campuses in this country. Speak to the colorful variety of Jews who attend their community holiday events or talk to the parents and students of their schools and camps who hail from every affiliation and non-affiliation. You can speak to the thousands of dedicated and highly motivated men and women who are the Rebbe’s emissaries to even the most far-flung Jewish communities in the world.

The Chabad doctrine, which is at the core of the Rebbe’s teachings, is that every single Jewish person, whatever spiritual place he or she might occupy, is equally endowed with an enduring Jewish Spark, a yiddishe neshomo, which transcends all of the differences of background, affiliation or level of observance. It is this principle of unconditional Ahavat Yisrael which motivates Chabad’s outreach efforts and which makes Chabad so universally popular. Perhaps it is precisely the popularity of Chabad that Warshal finds so intolerable.

I had the privilege, while in yeshiva, to listen to the Rebbe for many hundreds of hours as he delivered his public talks and discourses, and I continue to study his voluminous writings. I cannot recall a single instance when the Rebbe applied an appendage to the word “Jew”. To him the labels Reform Jew, Orthodox Jew, Conservative Jew etc. were all non-existent and terribly unhelpful. There are only Jews — all children of our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and our matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. This is the doctrine of Chabad.

Warshal goes on to extend his attack to all of Chassidism and to the important Chassidic concept of a Rebbe, which he misunderstands and misrepresents — even going so far as to arrogantly assert that “this is not Judaism”. Evidently, his religious pluralism and open-ended tolerance of every mishegas in the world, comes to an abrupt end when it comes to Chassidism — the 300 year-old Jewish revival movement that has illuminated and inspired the lives of millions of the most learned and pious of our people. Does anybody in their right mind believe that the towering giants of Chassidism like Rabbi Israel Baal ShemTov, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev etc. — themselves Chassidic Rebbes — need Bruce Warshal to authenticate the Jewishness of their beliefs?!

Essentially, the notion of a Rebbe can be traced back to our first leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher Moses, who declared “I stand between G-d and you… to relate to you the word of G-d” (Deuteronomy, Ch. 5). Of course it is correct that every Jew has a direct connection to G-d. But it is also true that we occasionally require assistance from someone who is more spiritually attuned, to help us navigate our daily struggles and to more fully access the goodness and holiness of the divine spark inherent within us. That is why a Jew needs a Rebbe.

Warshal asks “why do liberal Jews build Chabad Houses?” If you ask them, they’ll likely tell you that they feel religiously starved, uninspired and bereft of even the most elementary Jewish information. They are disillusioned with Jewish leaders who are hopelessly caught in Warshal’s brand of divisive denominationalism. Their Chabad shliach’s passionate concern for them as a Jew, and his or her appreciation for their every Mitzvah, for their every piece of Torah, is for them a delightful breath of Jewish fresh air.

That might also explain how even as we prepare to mark the Rebbe’s thirteenth Yahrtzeit, the growth in the number of Chabad centers around the world and the influence of the Rebbe’s teachings, has never been greater. That is the most powerful testament to an authentic Jewish leader.

Finally, a word to the friends and supporters of Chabad in our community. Warshal’s nasty and divisive article cannot deter us in our quest to bring the Rebbe’s message to the Jews of our community. We can take courage from the age-old Jewish adage “a little bit of light will dispel a great deal of darkness”. It is an indisputable and stubborn reality — when light and truth encounter darkness and falsehood, without fail the light and truth will always prevail.

Rabbi Yosef Landa is regional director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis.