When One of America’s Leading Non-Hasidic Rabbis Praised the Lubavitcher Rebbe

July 28 2021

In 1942, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik—who a year before had succeeded his father as one of the chief Talmud instructors at Yeshiva University—delivered a speech at a large communal dinner celebrating the educational institutions of the Lubavitch Ḥasidim. The speech, delivered in Yiddish to an audience made up primarily of Lubavitchers, was an encomium to their leader, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn. Besides their first name, the two sages shared much else: both were born in the Russian empire (in what is now Belarus) to distinguished rabbinic dynasties, both became revered figures in American Orthodoxy, and both spent much of their lives trying to root the religious traditions they had inherited on new soil—aiming to adapt to modernity without sacrificing the integrity of Judaism as they understood it. At the same time, they represented opposite poles: Soloveitchik was an exemplar of study-focused, cerebral, non-ḥasidic “Lithuanian” Judaism, while Schneersohn led one of the world’s largest ḥasidic movements.

The speech, newly republished through the efforts of Menachem Butler alongside an original translation by Yossel Hoizman, has at its heart a comparison of Schneersohn to Ḥanina ben Dosa, a talmudic sage and miracle-worker who lived in the latter part of the 1st century CE. Although Soloveitchik makes no reference to the contemporaneous events in Europe, both he and his audience would have been well aware of them, if not of their horrific extent:

Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa was known for defying laws of nature. The [talmudic tractate of] Ta’anit tells how Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa told his daughter: “He who endowed oil with the ability to burn will endow vinegar with the ability to burn,” and the vinegar indeed caught fire. . . . The [Talmud in the same passage] states: “Each of the goats of Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa brought back a bear on its horns.” . . .

However, we find yet another tale regarding Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa, albeit not in the Tractate Ta’anit, where all the other stories about him are recorded, but rather in Midrash Kohelet, [the oldest rabbinic commentary on Ecclesiastes]. Apparently, in the meantime some great upheaval had transpired, and Ḥanina ben Dosa, who was world-renowned for defying the rules of nature, arrived in a vicinity where they, seemingly, knew little of his legacy.

The midrash relates that once Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa arrived at a deserted place, and noticed a certain stone. He polished and buffed it and exclaimed “I take it upon myself to bring this to Jerusalem.” He sought to hire workers to carry it but could not find any. God dispatched five angels in a human form; Ḥanina asked them, “Would you bring this for me?” and they responded, “Gladly, provided that you will also assist us with your hand and your finger.” He places his hand and finger under the stone along with them, and they instantly found themselves standing in Jerusalem.

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Read more at Torah Musings

More about: American Jewry, Chabad, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Orthodoxy, Talmud, Yeshiva University

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy