Here’s To The Crazy Ones

A look at the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s vision for Jewish growth in Twentieth Century America.

Judaism in the Age of Madison Ave.

In 1951 the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the leader of the Chabad movement.

At the time, there were only a handful of Lubavitcher Chasidim in the United States, a cluster of Russian refugees, Polish survivors and a few American Jews drawn to the movement in the ‘40s.

At the time of the Rebbe’s ascension to the title, those standing in the movement’s main synagogue found room to spare.

But, as someone present in those early years once told me, “if you closed your eyes, you could tell the Rebbe was speaking to a much larger audience than those just gathered in the room.”

The Rebbe was keenly aware of American Jewry. When the world at large saw trends of assimilation and secularization, the Rebbe saw the untapped American energy as a powerful resource for catalyzing a powerful change in Jewish identity.

In the 1940's the Rebbe helped develop Talks and Tales, a monthly children magazine.

As Michel Schwartz, the artist tasked with designing some of magazine’s regular features, would later recall:

[T]he Rebbe asked me to create a true to life character about whom adventure stories could be written. This time he suggested that the format and look should be “like Dick Tracy!”
I created the cartoon, but with the passage of time, totally forgot what it was like. I only remembered vividly that the Rebbe had wanted something to “look like Dick Tracy.” I kept hearing his words, “Ess zul oys’zehn vee Dick Tracy.”

In 1951, the Rebbe laid out his vision for Chabad in America in a uniquely American manner:

“The Talmud says that “When you come to a city, do as its custom.” Here in America it is customary to “make a statement”” the Rebbe said. “. . . I guess this means we should follow the local custom.”

So the Rebbe issued a “statement”:

The three loves — love of G-d, love of Torah and love of one’s fellow — are one. One cannot differentiate between them, for they are of a single essence… And since they are of a single essence, each one embodies all three.

Thus he continued: “When there is love of G-d but not love of Torah and love of Israel, this means that the love of G-d is also lacking. On the other hand, when there is love of a fellow Jew, this will eventually bring also a love of Torah and a love of G-d…”

The Rebbe had given his movement a mission and a slogan to follow.

Think Different

In the last discourse delivered by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Josef Isaac Schneersohn, there is a paragraph that discusses the role of ‘foolishness’ in divine service.

The Talmud tells us that a person does not sin, unless a spirit of folly enters him or her. That means that, as Jews, our natural ‘resting’ state is one of connection to the Creator. It is only through an outside force, through a moment of folly, that we can fall prey to deeds that, on a superficial level, can separate us from our source.

There is a different role of foolishness as well. One where instead of falling prey to the follies of this world — to the dissonance, disconnection and distractions that inundate us — instead we subvert them.

The Talmud relates Rabbi Yehudah the son of Rabbi Ilai, would juggle sprigs of myrtle at a wedding. There were some who felt that the sage was embarrassing himself — betraying the dignity that a scholar should normally have.

Upon his passing, it became clear that the folly of Rabbi Yehuda was something truly great. His foolishness, his path in life, was something that underscored a truly deep connection with the Creator.

When we uncouple ourselves from our conscious inhibitions to Jewish expression and growth, when we — like Rabbi Yehuda the son of Rabbi Ilai — throw those doubts to the wind and truly live the joys of Judaism, we accomplish something truly profound:

We subvert the follies of this world and use them as a impetus and conduit to Jewish expression. This is a ‘foolishness’ that transcends understanding.

The Rebbe speaks at 10 Shevat gathering, 5714–1954. From the JEM archive.

The Rebbe saw America. He understood the mind of American Jews and made conscious decision. At a time when people were looking to hide — either from active Jewish identification or from the world at large — The Rebbe decided to take America on at large.

He subverted the American penchant for sound-bites and bold statements, for comic-books and detective stories, using these desires to lay out a bold path: Through love of our fellow, the Torah and the Creator, Jews had the agency to turn America — and the world at large — to a vessel for divine revelation.

Take Judaism to the streets, to the public domain. Judaism is something should express itself in everything we do . . . From Madison Ave to the wilds of the Internet.

We have to be the crazy ones. The ones who change the world.