Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Yeshiva University’s long-time rosh yeshiva, was a direct descendant of Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, the Vilna Gaon’s leading disciple, who founded the renowned Volozhin Yeshiva. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s famous grandfather, Rav Chaim Brisker, also served as one of Volozhin’s roshei yeshiva.
It was natural, then, that when Rabbi Soloveitchik once visited a kosher New York slaughterhouse that he oversaw, one of the shochtim – an alumnus of a pre-war Novhardok yeshiva – asked him why mussar study was prohibited in Volozhin. Indeed, it was even regarded as bittul Torah.
Rabbi Soloveitchik replied (as heard from a shochet present at the time), “You can ask a better question: Why was Chassidus study prohibited? Mussar served to improve the yiras Shomayim and spiritual character of the yeshiva bachur. But Chassidus created a spiritual revolution that elevated Jews of all levels from the gaon shebag’onim to the simplest Jew.”
This astute insight highlights a crucial distinction between the approach of Chassidism, on the one hand – from its founder, the Baal Shem Tov, and continuing through his disciples and successors – and that of many other Torah leaders, on the other hand.
The Baal Shem Tov sought the material and spiritual benefit of all Jews. Often he strove to aid Jews materially even before working to elevate them spiritually because an improved material life allows one’s spiritual life to thrive.
Besides teaching profound mystical insights to his 60 great disciples, the Baal Shem Tov devoted great efforts to teaching Jews of all levels, even the most ordinary, emphasizing the boundless intrinsic value of every Jewish soul.
To act in this manner has been a guiding principle of all seven leaders of Chabad-Lubavitch, and it was what the Rebbe of this generation taught his followers, particularly his shluchim. Since every Jew is valuable and a significant part of Klal Yisroel, it is insufficient to concentrate on any one segment of the Jewish people – for example, potential Torah scholars. We certainly need rabbanim and roshei yeshiva, but it is crucial to also work on elevating every Jew, strengthening every Jew’s sense of Jewish identity and pride, urging observance of even one mitzvah at a time, and teaching Jews to do more.
Ensuring that a college student marries Jewish, or eats kosher, for example, can be more important than yeshiva students producing more chiddushei Torah (without minimizing the latter’s value).
A Chabad shliach may teach Chassidus to observant Jews to deepen their perspective and inspire them to permeate their service of Hashem with deeper devotion. But a shliach usually devotes most of his time to working with Jews who aren’t yet observant or just starting to take baby steps in their Yiddishkeit for he feels responsibility towards all Jews in his community.
Eighty years after the Rebbe Rayatz arrived in America and 70 years after our Rebbe became the default leader of Lubavitch, we witness the impressive results of this approach. Thousands of Torah-observant Jews have been attracted by teachings of Chabad Chassidus and have become full members of Chabad-Lubavitch, while many tens of thousands of previously non-observant Jews have become fully Torah-observant and parents of children educated in yeshivos and Torah schools. Most are Chabad, but many joined other streams of Torah-observant Jewry after their “spark” was ignited by Chabad shluchim and campaigns.
Besides the multitudes that have become fully observant, many more – perhaps hundreds of thousands – have been influenced to incorporate some Jewish observance into their lives and pass it on to their children. More Jews remain to be attracted, but “it is not your obligation to complete the task, yet you are not free to desist from it” (Avos 2:16). Every one of us has to do his part to bring the speedy revelation of Moshiach – may it happen now!