The author of a book about “Ten Vital Jewish Issues” invites the Rebbe’s input and in this letter in answer, the Rebbe shares, interestingly, what he considers the most vital Jewish issue. The letter, written originally in English, is from the archives of the Rebbe’s trusted secretary Rabbi Nissan Mindel.
By the Grace of G-d
3rd of Teves, 5729
New York, N.Y. 10024
Greeting and Blessing:
I duly received your letter and subsequently your three volumes …….. Many thanks for them and I trust that you will send also any future publications, books or articles etc., and thanks in anticipation.
It is customary among Jews, who are characterized as “People of the Book,” that one is usually eager to examine a new book. However, not having had the opportunity as yet to read your books, I have certainly considered their titles and thumbed through them. The one that caught my eye was about the ten vital Jewish issues. And since it is also characteristic of a Jew to make a personal observation in regard to everything that comes his way, I trust that you will not take it amiss if I will take the liberty of making a personal observation in regard to a very vital Jewish issue, which, regretfully, I did not find among the vital issues dealt with in your volume.
In my opinion, the most vital Jewish issue is a true understanding of what Judaism is. The Jewish religion is not simply a religion like others, or a philosophy, but primarily a way of life. It is a religion which embraces and regulates each minute of the Jew’s daily life, as our Sages of blessed memory, in their usual way of expressing the most profound concepts in a few chosen words, know Him in all your ways: “This is a small Parsha on which all the weighty aspects of the Torah depend.” (Ber. 63a).
Incidentally, the importance of this concept is also greatly emphasized by the Rambam, who is also known for choosing carefully his words, and his succinct writing. Although this theme is dealt with by him in scattered places in his writings, he dedicates to it a whole chapter, namely chapter five, of his “Eight Chapters”, constituting his introduction to the tractate Ovos. Moreover, he dedicates, in addition, much more than a single chapter to the same subject, in his Hilchos Deos.
The immediate consequences of the concept of “Know Him in all your ways,” is that since most of the time a person’s life is connected with some actual activity , in one form or another, it is clear that the essential thing in man’s life is the deed and action.
Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in recent generations to limit the scope and influence of Yiddishkeit to certain periods of the year, so much so that some Jews relegate it to three days in the years, while some who consider themselves mahadrim extend it also to such days when yizkor is said, and still others who consider themselves even greater mahadrim extend their religious expression to some additional occasions, while those who are simply “fanatical” dedicate a few minutes a day to prayer. This tendency is based on a desire to be “like all the nations” where there is a separation between religion and the daily life, as two distinct provinces that should not intrude upon each other.
Needless to say that when the essence of a thing is removed from the thing, the thing no longer remains what it is. Similarly, when the very essence of Yiddishkeit, namely, that it is a way of life and not merely a matter of faith or a means of emotional outlet and the like, is removed from Yiddishkeit, it can no longer be considered Yiddishkeit. The same is true in regard to the claim by some people that Yiddishkeit was relevant at certain periods in our past history, but it is no longer relevant in the present so-called enlightened and modern times.
A further general point in this connection is the following: There was a time when some misguided quarters used the excuse – though quite invalid – that Jewish youth, the future of our people, was not prepared to accept traditional Judaism in all its uncompromising totality. Consequently, some compromises were necessary if Judaism was not to be completely rejected and lost. But this argument, especially in recent times, and in our own United States, has been proven completely fallacious. For we see that youth in general and Jewish youth in particular, are not scared to face a challenge, or difficulties. On the contrary, if they suspect that they are considered and treated as weaklings, or immature, or otherwise unprepared or unwilling to face challenges, this is the surest way of antagonizing them and losing their confidence.
I am well aware of the argument that such faith in Jewish youth may be well founded among those who believe in G-d and His omnipotence, but it is too optimistic and not realistic nowadays. Again, this argument could have had some base a century or two ago, when the movement which initiated concession and compromise in Jewish religious practices first began. But since that time, over the period of three or four generations, we have seen that the movement which was founded on compromise, far from saving Judaism, has been most detrimental to it. For the children and grandchildren of the founders and leaders of that movement, have either returned to the true Jewish tradition, or have followed the logical road of compromise, which leads from one to another, until they disappeared from the Jewish scene. For if one may bargain and compromise in matters of Judaism, then why not strike a greater bargain, and a still grated bargain, until there is nothing left to bargain about.
To the extent that I have heard of your official position, I suppose I ought to be very cautious in my expressions and deal with the subject as briefly as possible. However, inasmuch as I have the utmost faith in our fellow Jews, who are described in the Torah as G-d’s children, I have taken the liberty to address to you these lines, in the hope that they will not be left up in the air, or on paper. Since the essential thing is the deed, as emphasized above, I trust you will not be afraid to face up to your own challenge, and do your utmost to stimulate a return to our Source and to our tradition, to the fullest extent of your influence.
Thus as already mentioned, I regard this as the cardinal issue in Jewish life, namely that our Jewish youth, the future of our American Jewry, should be confronted with this vital challenge: that Judaism is a way of life, a religion of action, requiring total commitment, in accordance with the Shulcha Aruch. It is the duty of every Jew in a position of leadership or influence, to constantly emphasize this, and not be afraid if one or two others will ask, Why is this day different from yesterday and the day before?
Once this vital issue is properly handled, many other issues, which are not quite as vital, but still vital enough, would find their solutions as a matter of course.
I am also certain that everyone who takes up this vital issue can accomplish a great deal and considerably more than may appear to one at first glance, and with much fewer obstacles in the way than anticipated.
May G-d grant that each and every one of us should be duly inspired by the message of Chanukah, which we have just celebrated. The various rules connected with the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah lights, such as increasing their number from day to day, putting them at the entrance towards the outside, and lighting them when the sun had set and there is darkness outside, are deeply significant and instructive of our obligation to spread the light of the Torah and mitzvos in a growing measure, and illuminating the darkness all around, all of which need no elaboration to you.
Hoping to hear good news from you in all above, and
With esteem and blessing,