Philip Wexler. Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe's Transformative Paradigm for the World. New York: Herder & Herder, 2019. 300 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8245-5038-7.
Reviewed by Wojciech Tworek (University of Wroclaw)
Published on H-Judaic (February, 2020)
Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Jagiellonian University)
Social Vision seeks to establish a new perspective in the study of the legacy of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the Rebbe, 1902-94) by converging his mystical teachings and boots-on-the-ground leadership into a sociomystical paradigm. The book argues that Chabad represents the real-life example of Weberian “inner-worldly mysticism.” Chabad is a mystical theology put into practice; a social paradigm for the reenchantment and resacralization of the capitalist society governed by the Protestant ethic. In its boldest claim, the book argues that Schneerson’s vision was not formed for the internal use of the Hasidic, or even the general Jewish community. His was a universal vision, in which “the Hasidic ethos [would] become the new foundation for a sacralized global society, providing an entirely new paradigm for individual life and communal life, for social institutions and for political norms” (p. 25).
Having presented Hasidic ethos as an alternative to the Protestant ethic in the first chapter, the book proceeds to analyze the Rebbe’s sociomystical vision in its context. The second chapter focuses on America, where Schneerson established himself as the seventh leader of Chabad. The book presents Schneerson’s teachings as a response to denominational fragmentation, consumptionism, and other problems of American Jewish community. Particularly interesting is the observation that Schneerson conflated America’s self-proclaimed role as “an exporter of charity and justice on a global scale” with the Chabad call to transform the world into God’s dwelling place (p. 60).
The third chapter zooms in on the Hasidic fellowship, shown here as the model society in which the mystical Hasidic ethos is put in practice. The sense of love and unity protects members of the Hasidic fellowship from alienation and empowers them to engage in the wider society. The model practice in which Hasidim perform this nonhierarchical unity is a farbrengen (Hasidic gathering), which is subsequently reenacted around the world with the use of modern media.
Chapter 4 concerns Schneerson’s main social principle: the principle of reciprocity. The book presents this principle as Schneerson’s major intervention, which allows for escaping the Buridan’s ass dilemma of capitalism versus socialism. Grounded in Chabad’s belief in the divine presence in every created being, the principle of reciprocity enables a society in which the dialectic between the self and community is undone. The collective does not oppress the individual and vice versa, but instead the collective and the individual enrich one another.
Chapters 5 and 6 explore Schneerson’s engagement in the resacralization of American society. Chapter 5 focuses on Schneerson’s support for public education and his campaign to introduce “a moment of silence,” celebrated by the book as a model example for resacralization of the public sphere without religious coercion. Chapter 6 embarks on exploring Schneerson’s thoughts on the nature of justice and on the rehabilitation of an individual, society, and the cosmos. The mystical theology of Chabad, the book argues, prompted not only Schneerson’s interest in prison reform but also his support for renewable energy and for harnessing the sciences for the reenchantment of the world.
Wexler’s project is daring, and, indeed, much needed in light of Chabad’s continuous growth and tangible impact on the Jewish community. One of the undeniable assets of Social Vision is its fresh reading of Chabad sources within the broader sociological discourse. Wexler and his co-authors engage the concepts of modernity, dis- and reenchantment, and secularism and postsecularity through the lenses of Chabad mystical teachings. The result is an engaging study in which religion, mysticism, and political and social philosophy intersect. The book, written in polished prose, not overburdened with jargon, and with an accessible price, will certainly find readers in and beyond academia. However, while the book pursues new methods and demonstrates a broad grasp of multilingual primary sources, it also reveals a tendency to harmonize many diverse sources into a cohesive sociological theory and to blur the boundary between appraisal and apology.
For Social Vision is not a dispassionate analysis. It is an engaged exposition of a social paradigm that may become “a new beginning for our broken society” (p. xviii); a society that will surpass the dichotomy between capitalist alienation and socialist oppression. The book casts the Rebbe’s teachings as tools for social change that can overcome and cure the current malaises of American society: the broken judicial system, gun violence, and the looming environmental disaster. The effort to show the universality of the Rebbe’s vision, however, prompts the authors to smoothen out the pronounced particularism of Chabad mysticism; the desire to show its uniqueness leads them at times to disregard the context in which it operated.
Let me focus on two examples. In their effort to give the Rebbe’s social vision a universal appeal, the authors argue that it includes women and non-Jews. The claim concerning women’s inclusion is particularly problematic in light of the fact that Social Vision construes the farbrengen as the central practice of the reenchanted mystical society. The farbrengen was shaped in the Lubavitch yeshiva as a male-only performance of the bond between the Hasidim and the tsadik. Women have been excluded from this practice by default, and the book does not provide any evidence to the contrary. The references to Ellen Koskoff’s depictions of farbrengens, in which women would fill the women’s section of the Chabad synagogue, only confirm that they were inconsequential to the performance of the farbrengen.
The argument about the inclusion of the gentiles also appears forced. The Rebbe is presented as a continuator of the inclusive tendency in the Hasidic thought initiated by the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady. This suggestion is not only problematic in the light of Shneur Zalman’s Tanya, which iterates the psychological and ontological differences between Jews and non-Jews. More importantly, Shneur Zalman’s musings about the limited inclusion of non-Jews apply specifically to the messianic times. When Menachem Mendel Schneerson picks up Shneur Zalman’s ideas, his messianic campaign is in full force. Social Vision, however, regards the messianic fervor espoused by the Rebbe as peripheral at best. Meanwhile, Schneerson’s conviction that the world was on the brink of redemption is pivotal for his social vision and his most pronounced gesture of inclusion toward non-Jews: the Noahide campaign. Highlighting the Rebbe’s messianism would also allow for setting Chabad in the context of other messianic, millenarian, or apocalyptic movements in America and beyond, and their views on society at the brink of the end of times.
Schneerson’s legacy deserves thorough research, and Wexler and his co-authors certainly deserve praise for switching the focus to his social vision. Social Vision offers numerous thought-provoking insights into the Rebbe’s teachings, combining sociology with political philosophy and the phenomenology of religious experience. The book’s methodological interventions, however, remain entangled in the book’s apologetic argument. In this respect, Social Vision belongs to a broader trend in the study of Chabad in which the dichotomy between partisan and impartial, confessional and academic collapses, a trend that I outlined elsewhere on the example of the Rebbe’s biographies. The book’s effort to advance Chabad mystical teachings as tools for social transformation places Social Vision on the shelf with the growing literature of Jewish renewal. Social Vision has a potential to become an important voice of the renewal discourse, as it skillfully recasts somewhat esoteric Hasidic teachings as accessible and relevant for an ordinary reader. The question remains, however, whether it teaches us more about the Rebbe’s legacy or about its usability for the American Jewish community of the second decade of the twenty-first century.
. See Ilia Lurie, Milkhamot lyubavits’: hasidut habad be-rusyah ha-tsarit (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2018).
. Wojciech Tworek, “Beyond Hagiography with Footnotes: Writing Biographies of the Habad Rebbe in the Post-Schneerson Era,” AJS Review 43, no. 2 (2019): 1-27.
Wojciech Tworek is assistant professor in the Taube Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław. His book Eternity Now (SUNY 2019) explores the teachings of Shneur Zalman of Liady, the founding rebbe of Chabad.
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Wojciech Tworek. Review of Wexler, Philip, Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe's Transformative Paradigm for the World.
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