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Inside Chabad’s Vision for American Judaism

The following is a transcript of Episode 80 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. And welcome to Identity/Crisis: a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer president of Shalom Hartman Institute North America. And we’re recording on Sunday, December 5th, which is particularly relevant because as of the time of this recording, it’s still Hanukkah. Though by the time you hear the show, Hanukah will just have ended. And there are some important Hanukkah tie-ins to today’s conversation.

So one of the most interesting phenomena of modern Jewish life is to witness the different evolutions in Jewish culture and practice between Israeli and North American Jewish communities.

And Hanukkah is actually one of our best witnesses. My Hartman colleagues in our other podcast For Heaven’s Sake discussed that this past week, the ways in which American Jews subtly evolve the meaning of Hanukkah over time towards a message of religious freedom while Zionist Israelis leaned more into the military victory and the importance of national pride in the face of cultural and political threats.

In the meantime, over on Twitter, scholars, and pundits fight for weeks about the quote-unquote original meaning of Hanukkah. And those issues, whether it’s a political holiday or a holiday of religious freedom are usually the terms of the debate.

You can also argue the question inside the North American Jewish community itself and the internal debate about whether we have molded Hanukkah too much to look like Christmas, and to use it as a trigger for the ways we should and shouldn’t be assimilating is a kind of an evergreen question.

But lost in all of this I realized this week is that I think that the singular most important transformation that Hanukkah has gone undergone in the past half-century was largely the doing of a single individual. Put simply I think, much of what we see and identify as the Hanukkah celebrations of our time, especially in the American public square is due to the leadership of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic sect – we should probably start referring to as a denomination of American Judaism and perhaps the fastest growing one – pioneered the practice of gigantic, but real Hanukiot in American public squares. It did so in opposition to the dominant ethos of American Judaism. There is an amazing exchange of letters between the Rebbe and the head of the Reform movement and others and against the American Jewish concern that advocating for our religion in the public square would intern validate the right of Christians to do the same. And then, in the long run, we, as Jews would lose. But if you look around today, Chabad won this argument definitively from the White House to whatever neighborhood you’re in.

I’d argue that much of the Jewish performance of Hanukkah in public and the insistence that we get to celebrate and define our Jewishness in public at this time of year is because Chabad took a counter-cultural lead and won in the marketplace of ideas and identities. And just to hear the idiom with which the Rebbe talked about this as a distinctly American and patriotic idea, this is the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s letter to the Jewish community of Teaneck in 1981.

When he says, to celebrate Hanukkah and to put our menorahs in public is fully is, “fully keeping with the American national slogan E Pluribus Unum. And the fact that American culture has been enriched by the thriving, ethnic cultures, which contributed very much, each in its own way to American life, both materially and spiritually. In other words, for Jews to be really Jews in public was the most American thing we could do.”

I’m totally fascinated by this. And I’m fascinated by Chabad in general, which I think is a window into the evolution of American Judaism over the last couple of generations and maybe will help us understand a little bit about where we’re going. To unpack this to talk a little bit about Hanukkah in America and a lot about Chabad in America, I’m excited to be in conversation today with Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone who directs social media for and is the founder of Tech Tribe, a kind of organizing principle for Jews in the tech world. Mordechai, thanks for being on the show this morning.

Mordechai: Thank you very much.

Yehuda: Happy Hanukkah, have a good hodesh. All of that.

So, you gave a Ted talk in 2018, where you use the famous Hasidic from, I think, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe that we need to be lamplighters. People who go around and carry our lamps in the world and bring light to wherever it happens to be missing.

It strikes me that, maybe this is unfair, but I’d love to hear your sense, it strikes me that the biggest time of year for Chabad is Hanukkah time. It’s like the High Holidays in a Reform movement. You’re going to get one time a year and it’s going to be on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, but for Chabad it’s Hanukkah.

Tell me a little bit about the particular relationship between Chabad and Hanukkah. Whether what I’m seeing is totally absurd or whether it actually captures a piece of the ethos of what you think Chabad is trying to do?

Mordechai: Well, I wouldn’t say exactly it’s the High Holidays in the sense that from the Hasidic point of view. Every day is the High Holidays. Every day has its own special revelation of godliness coming to the world, its own chance to make a difference. The question is only how do you tap into the specific meanings of that day and use the potential for that day to do something new and innovative.

So Hanukkah, because it is a holiday that is really about pirsumei nisa, about pirsum hanes, taking and broadcasting and sharing godliness in this world and then the miraculousness that is life, is existence. Since that is the message of these eight days, it is a time that we are particularly focused on taking that message and spreading it forth.

Yehuda: All right. So it’s like the perfect storm especially for a movement that wants to bring a message about God and Judaism into the world. Why do you suppose though it kind of took off in America? According to Jonathan Sarna, it really only starts in 1974. The Liberty Bell is like the first major public menorah lighting. And now it’s not like someone will say how come Chabad is the only one who gets to light the national menorah? And you’re like, there is a national menorah. Chabad brought about the national menorah.

It’s kind of become so much part of our ethos to assume that there is going to be a public menorah lighting everywhere. And that’s only in the span of 40 years. So how come you think that works so effectively?

Mordechai: Right. So I would say that from the Chabad point of view and if you look at kind of Jewish sources, Hanukkah was always a big deal. You look at the Rambam in particular, he speaks about the importance of Hanukkah from a kind of a religious point of view and even points out, and this is in the halakha, in the Jewish law itself, that if a person only has enough money for kiddush wine, which is the Shabbos, the foundation of the week or Hanukkah candles, the money spent is on Hanukkah candles as opposed to kiddush wine.

Taking a step back from a reality when Jews were forced to choose between those two, which is something relatively foreign to us, thank God, but it shows the importance of Hanukkah as a holiday.

And within Hasidic communities in general, those communities that studied Kabbalah and have a special focus on that. For Sephardic communities, Hasidic communities, Hanukkah was always a big deal. That said, I think the Rebbe understood American Judaism in a way, perhaps better than American Jewish leadership that at the time, and kind of saw towards a time now where everything is very intersectional.

So as in the past where you were a Jew at home in American in the streets, to kind of paraphrase that concept,  the Rebbe saw at the time when a person would be Jewish in the streets and American in the streets and every other form of identity they have and share that with pride. So therefore Hanukkah has the potential to be able to, because it’s all about sharing and then tapping into who you are and what you are and sharing that pride with the world, it’s particularly apropos in the American scene.

Yehuda: I’m curious. I know you’re not a historian, but I’m curious. It happened to happen around the eighties and nineties. And I’m just wondering if you have any particular insights – the eighties and nineties, and even the last ten, twenty years about what motivates –  I understand what motivates Chabad to want to do this.

I’m curious when you see American politicians eager to light the Hanukkah candles at the Chabad menorah at any particular time or enthusiastic crowds. The Rebbe even says I believe that many people return to Judaism because of being able to see the menorahs in public. I guess I’m just curious, kind of anecdotally, why do you think that happens?

What has happened in our own ethos in the last twenty or thirty years that’s made this so popular?

Mordechai: I’ll just share a personal story conveyed to me by a friend of ours. They have a son who learns in a prestigious private school, not a Jewish school. And one that I guess could be called nominally Christian in terms of its ideology. And there is a very large menorah right outside of where the school happens to be.

And so she told us how her son when he leaves school and there are all of the non-Jewish things going on in the private school over there. He comes outside and he’s able to see this massive menorah. Right in the center of the area and it’s a moment of pride for him and a chance for him to look and be able to see how Judaism is something that isn’t just something inside of you, something hidden like a jug of oil, but really something that can broadcast and speak to the public.

And there’s a chance in a way for people to take their Jewish identities, whatever they may be in terms of another particular expression, and see how they can really shine light into the darkness and take that public stance and share it publicly.

Yehuda: So one of the things that Chabad has come under criticism for is that the Rebbe was consistent in his writings, “we are not in the proselytizing business.” I think most Chabad rabbis I’ve talked to will say the same thing, but it kind of looks like it is, right? That it’s not merely about spreading Yiddishkeit, spreading Jewishness, but trying to get people to behave Jewishly in a particular way.

Can you talk about that dynamic a little bit? Whether the Chabad is really trying to get everybody in the world to be Chabad. That it’s much more of an evangelical or proselytizing business than you and the movement would claim it would be.

How do you think about that dynamic?

Mordechai: I mean, ultimately I would say not even tongue in those people might want to check their privilege in the sense that often I hear that complaint voice for people who are really engaged Jews, no matter what their particular modality of Jewish expression may be. These are people who have gone to Jewish schools, taken part in Jewish study, go to synagogue.

Maybe it’s only a certain amount of times a year, whatever it is, but they have formed and chosen the Jewish identities and they have access to the privilege to be able to express their Judaism the way they want. I would say this is for them as well. I want them to take part. But ultimately they aren’t the target audience, the people that this speaks to the most, the people that are in the most need are the people that don’t have access to the Jewish background, that Jewish education, that chance and ability to be able to get it.

Meaning, if you have a menorah at home and you want to make it a private event, that’s your right and your privilege. But if you don’t have a menorah at all, then the fact that this is now available to you as a place to come together, a place to express your Judaism, a place to get the tools you need to bring the menorah home and whatever it is, and take that home with you, this is making that accessible to those people.

I mean, Hanukkah, as far as last I checked is not just a Chabad holiday it is a universal Jewish holiday. And one that all of us choose to practice as we see fit. And I think most of the Jews actually do a full Hanukkah, you know, not just in the simplest sense, but in the way, that’s mehadrin min hamehadrin.

They do it in the best way possible where they light all eight candles. If you look in halakha speaks about various ways of doing it. It’s the one holiday in which we all are the super mehadrin in how we go about doing it. Which is you to exercise it and practice it in the fullest way possible.

And so for those people who don’t have access, this is why it’s there, for it to be able to give them the tools they need to be able to celebrate it.

Yehuda: I like that point. And I think that’s really interesting. I think you’re probably right, descriptively, that the people who are frustrated are people who have a very coherent sense of what they’re going to do with their Jewish life in practice and not necessarily the target audience. But I want to come back to that because I have a theory as to where that comes from. We can come back to that.

But you said something interesting in the answer to the previous question, which is, to become Jewish, whatever that practice may be. But how agnostic are you really about what success would look like?

Because the end goal is not really just, “Hey, take this Hanukkah menorah home and light it.” Or the end goal is not just, “Great. I got another person to put on tefillin outside of Penn station.” You actually want something to happen, presumably, with respect to that individual and their life choices and their family choices.

And I suspect it’s not that agnostic. Like, “great if they become a reform Jew, it’s a victory for Chabad.” Can you talk through a little bit of the dynamics of what you’re hoping will happen in terms of Jewish life and practice through the process of this kind of outreach?

Mordechai: I would say actually that is the end goal. A lot of this is tied into the Hasidic understanding of what a mitzvah is that if you look into Hasidic sources and the way it speaks about the accomplishment of a mitzvah – I get a little Kabbalistic here. I’m assuming your audience can handle it.

Yehuda: They can handle it.

Mordechai: So that when a person does a mitzvah, ultimately it creates a kesher, a connection between the nivrah and the borah, between the created entity and the creator. And this is kind of hidden in the word mitzvah itself, which is connected to the Aramaic word tzafta, which means a bond, a connection.

And what you’re doing is you’re creating a tzafta b’hibbur. You’re creating a connection, a bond between yourself and God. And when you create that connection, even if it’s only a one-time act, I put on tefillin now and tomorrow I don’t, or whatever it is. I light the menorah now and tomorrow will be whatever it is. That one-time connection is a connection with something infinite.

When you connect with something transcendent and you bring that revelation into the world, that is an infinite connection that continues on. And this is kind of an idea that it speaks about karkafta d’lo manach tefillin, a head that never put tefillin before. That when a person puts on tefillin one time and has this eternal kind of long-tail effect on the person himself self. All mitzvos we do are a chance to be able to create this eternal bond with the creator. And therefore the fact that right now I can help a Jew do a mitzvah, that is a world to itself. Do I want every Jew to do more?

Yeah. I want myself to do more because I want myself to do more and I want to grow as a Jew. And I believe that part of Judaism is the idea of growing and changing, challenging yourself and taking on more and exploring more. That’s something I would like every Jew to do. But ultimately when I hand that Jew a menorah, I don’t have some sort of ulterior motive that I want to transform them and expect them to show up in a black hat tomorrow.

If I give someone a menorah today and they come with a black hat and a beard tomorrow. Like slow your roll. Like, dude let’s do this in a healthy way. It really is about that one-time mitzvah so I don’t think there is this agenda in the sense that giving somebody the chance to take part right now has some sort of long-term goal.

There’s a sense of joy that I have. It’s something I’m passionate about. I want to share it with you. And when you do this one thing, this is the world, this is an entire world.

Yehuda: Yeah. I mean, it would seem intuitive that if you want someone to wear a black hat, you wouldn’t give them a menorah. You’d give them a black hat. Right? I guess what’s interesting about what you’re saying, I never thought about it this way, but it kind of makes sense to me now, you don’t use the language of identity.

You haven’t used the language of identity at all. And it seems like the American Jewish community uses the language of identity all the time. What kind of Jew are you? What is that? What is it? I can actually displace the question of what you believe or how you behave through describing an adjective about you.

And you’re basically saying I don’t really care about your identity as a Jew, I care about you doing an express set of activities. This one or that one, right? Build a sukkah. Put on tefillin. Light a menorah. Light Shabbos candles, et cetera. And that in and of itself is considered the telos. That’s the end goal. And what you look like in terms of your identity, that might be a totally different conversation.

Does that distinction make sense?

Mordechai: I would say, identity, our identity is the same. We’re Jewish. The ways in which we express that may take on slightly different forms, but ultimately the Judaism that we share, myself, the person, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moshe himself, we’re all equally Jewish. That Judaism isn’t different between us.

And therefore, it’s not a question of identity per se, because identity is already there and every one of us is the same amount of level. The question is our ability to be able to take part in, do one more thing so to speak.

Yehuda: Let me ask a little bit of a political question that emerges as a result of that. So let’s say that the whole enterprise is getting Jews to do more Jewish things. Mitzvot. Another way to describe mitzvot is more Jewish things. If that’s the sole objective, then in theory, Chabad could be interlaced and interwoven really powerfully with the rest of the Jewish communal infrastructure.

And oftentimes it’s not. In fact, oftentimes it stands apart from, or it’s in conflict with, and one of the most prominent places where this happens is in the context of the college campus. And I would guess that the Chabad shlichim, the Chabad emissaries on college campuses don’t view their work as competitive.

They’re there to help foster and promote doing various Jewish activities, but it winds up creating essentially two different industries. There’s Hillel and there’s Chabad. In theory, if the whole business is about getting more Jews to do Jewish things, it doesn’t seem to me that those have to be in such contradistinction to one another.

So why does it seem to be that the rise of Chabad is creating so much tension with the existing Jewish ecosystem, which is also in some sense about getting Jews to do more Jewish things with other Jews?

Mordechai: Yeah, I mean, I would say I’m a little surprised to hear this in the sense that I do know Chabad rabbis on campus who work very well with the Hillel colleagues.

Yehuda: Yeah, yeah yeah.

Mordechai: When you have that kind of competition, I guess you’d have to look at a local level and see the dynamics between the parties involved and what’s going on.

But ultimately, when you have the “more Jews doing more Jewish things,” the more Judaism wins. And if the presence of both options as it exists as it were, and the students choose one over the other, then ultimately they’re choosing to do more Jewish stuff as a whole.

It’s a net positive for everybody. I could say from a personal point of view that we host a big Shabbat meal at a tech conference every year. I don’t need to go into any details. There was an organization that we’d worked with that said, “this year we’re going to do our own thing.”

I think they were worried they’d be upset. But I said, listen, it’s more Shabbat. People don’t lose in this more Shabbat. So therefore I don’t think, it should be viewed as a contradiction at all. I think Chabad is part of the Jewish infrastructure at this point in time.

I believe from the Israeli point of view, that’s definitely the case where you have Israelis – I remember years ago there was an earthquake in New Zealand and the Israeli embassy in New Zealand tweeted that if you need help, go to Chabad. And I’ve seen other similar cases like that take place as well.

That’s half of world Jewry right there. Chabad is part of the ecosystem. And I think from America on my campus, for sure it is as well. When people choose not to view it that way, then I think that’d be their own subjectivity and their bias playing in because it’s definitely there and definitely available for people to tap into.

Yehuda: Yeah. I mean the biggest ecosystem piece, especially as it relates to Israel was when and the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs funded initiatives towards Jewish education in North America wound up giving I think a third of their funding to Chabad on campus. So, that’s signaling, a third to Hillel, a third to Chabad.

It’s signaling “this is the infrastructure as it is.” I’m curious, this is maybe a small question, but whether you think that one of the things that we may see in the next ten to twenty years is Chabad shlichim simply going into those jobs. Like if my goal is to promote Jewishness on a college campus, instead of setting up shop and all of the complexity of raising my own funds and doing everything I needed to do, which I assume is quite difficult, why not just apply for the job to be the executive director of the Hillel. And then essentially do the work inside the house.

Mordechai: Right. There definitely have been cases like that as well, historically. I believe Rabbi Wolf is a Chabad rabbi in Sydney today, he had his start at the Hillel somewhere in the Upper Midwest, I don’t remember where exactly. It might’ve been in Canada. But in any event, he had to start as a Hillel rabbi and that possibly, definitely exists. I would like to take a step back.

I think one of the reasons why people kind of look at this competition is because for whatever reason, due to the myopia of American Jewry, historically, there’s this idea that Chabad was this little upstart thing that came out of nowhere and suddenly became big. And the reality is historically speaking, it’s always been big. If you look at the history of Jewry in Russia, during the times of the czar.

Chabad was one of the major players on the scene for Russian Jewry. When you had various rabbinical conventions to deal with Antisemitic degrees so the Chabad rabbis were incredibly active in that and took a leading role. So Chabad has always been kind of a big deal in that sense.

I think today, as Chabad continues to grow, we’re always going to do Judaism the way we see it, the way we understand it, the way the Rabbis set forth and set the tone and set the message. And then from that point of view, if Hillel has its own agenda, it may not be possible for a Chabad rabbi to become the head of a particular branch of Hillel because Hillel’s going to do what Hillel does and Chabad is going to do what Chabad does.

But the idea that the two can’t exist together is misunderstanding the reality that they can, do, and should work together to make Judaism more available to everyone.

Yehuda: I think one of the other big obstacles that gets in the way, is that a lot of what is imagined as hostility towards Chabad is actually envy. I see this a lot in the organized Jewish communities of why is it that Chabad can do X and get this kind of crowd and we can’t do it. As opposed to saying, how do we imitate it?

I’ve been frustrated for a decade now, why hasn’t non-Orthodox Judaism, the Conservative movement, Reform movement sent young families to live near college campuses, invite people for Shabbos dinner. If you know that it’s a model that works, why not imitate it? And there are all sorts of rational reasons they get deployed as to why it can’t happen.

But I think it winds up generating this sense of envy of they’re somehow better at this than us. And therefore they must be doing something wrong. I have to figure out like underneath the surface, what’s actually going on there. Do you experience that?

Mordechai: I would say ultimately it’s about success. It’s not just the model itself. I think that is tremendous, it’s successful, but it is kind of the passion and drive that the shulchim have, which I don’t know if it is possible for others that that kind of drive can exist.

Yehuda: Yeah, talk about that more. Because that’s the thing, right? Somebody just told me recently a story where they said they went to the commute into Penn station and the same guy standing outside of Penn station every day, trying to get people to put on tefillin. And he asked him after a year, how many people put on tefillin?

And he said, seven. But it didn’t phase him. Didn’t make him any less excited every single time he asked people to put on tefillin. And so there’s something there around driving, around passion. Can you unpack that at all? Like, what’s going on?

Mordechai: There actually is a Hanukkah emphasis as well. The New York Times used to have a section of people who write in and show local stories. So in the early nineties, someone wrote in that you know I think he lived in Brighton Beach or somewhere in south Brooklyn. The doorbell rang. “Excuse me are you Jewish? We’d like to give you a Hanukkah menorah? The person said, “it’s my religion, not your business. Please go away.” Whatever it is.

And then the person says, “okay, thank you very much.” And then it goes to the next door and since the intercom is still on the lady writing in was able to hear that the boy ran the next bell and was unfazed.

He continued on, even though she just yelled at him. I think, listen, when you really love someone, love the person, you’re out there to do it for them. No matter what. And that’s our relationship, so to speak, even when it’s difficult and it’s trying, because the love is there, the action continues.

And in that sense, we’re just crazy about Jews that we’re really willing and ready to be able to go out there and continue, and it can be difficult and it can be dispiriting. You know, my son, who was 11 decided he wanted to get a Mitzvah Tank for his class this year. Those aren’t familiar with what these tanks are, these RVs are taken and converted and they drive all around New York City.

I think it’s part of the Hanukkah celebration in New York without a doubt to hear the parades and hear them going by. And so he’s 11 years old and officially has to be 12 in the Yeshiva, but he convinced the principal to let them do it. Part of it is that he and his friends pre-raised about having the necessary money.

He launched a Go Fund Me. He took over my Twitter account with my permission and send out videos. And he ended up, he and his classmates ended up bringing in like $4,000 to be able to get this Mitzvah Tank. And there were times when, you know, the first days were dispirited, he came back and we only met one person, whatever it is.

And I said, you know, one person is a whole world. It’s not that one person isn’t something. If you meet that one person, that one person’s everything. You did everything right now. And beyond that fact that you’re there, you’re on the street, people see, you will see you acting properly and asking them in a nice way and acting respectfully and being excited about what you do that can influence people as well, even if you never hear about it.

But the fact that they saw you doing what you’re doing has a tremendous effect.

Yehuda: So you mentioned your Twitter account, right? Which I know is a big part of your job. I spent some time on social media, too. Not nearly with the kind of reach that you have. I’ve also, as I mentioned before, your Ted talk, which I think people should definitely watch, you’re a believer that, once this is the public square, then it’s your job to bring light to the public square, regardless of what it looks like or where it is.

But at the same time, it’s also kind of a sewer. I mean, it’s a bad place. We know the ways in which social media has resulted in deep amounts of disinformation and in a tremendous amount of abuse that’s leveled at people. I’m just curious, how do you stay in it? How do you maintain your fortitude?

And what do you think about the critiques that say that it’s not about bringing light to this space? It’s actually the whole space in general that has done something so deeply corrosive to our public discourse that participating in it is a form of enabling it.

Mordechai: Right. So, let’s say in terms of how I’m able to do it so to speak. I made the decision, when I first got on Twitter, I’d come in and blogging previously, and I was kind of engaged, like kind of blogging it back and forth and debate with people and things like that. And very early on, my wife looked at me and said, you don’t seem very happy when you’re looking at your phone and going on Twitter.

I decided, why am I here? I’m here to share what I’m passionate about to connect to Jews, specifically, from my personal account, using tech and digital media, from the collaboratory account that I helped run. And I’m here to share light and to share goodness and connect to people.

And if that’s what my focus is, and those are the people I’m going to engage in and that’s where my focus is going to be, then the other stuff becomes background noise. I don’t have to respond to everybody just because someone says something obnoxious or whatever it is. So there’s a mute button for a reason.

And I focus on connecting to the people that I want to connect to. In that sense particularly on Hanukkah, Twitter is an incredibly powerful and profound tool for enabling Jewish action. Just the first night of Hanukkah, somebody tweeted that they just moved to Brooklyn and they didn’t have a menorah yet.

And so I said where are you? And actually, technically it was Crown Heights, but it was just the other side. The side of where Bestide starts. So the person says I’m in Bestide and these are Brooklyn neighborhoods for those who don’t know. So I said, let me get you a menorah.

And under an hour I was able to get my wife was driving around with my son. She picked him up from the mitzva tank and he made a detour and took the menorah and were able to give it to this person. And the person was able to tweet a picture of the menorah kindled. And that wouldn’t have happened without Twitter. A Jew within a stone’s throw of 770, within a stone’s throw of Chabad headquarters and everything going on over there, felt isolated as a Jew. And it felt like there’s no access to Hanukkah at all. And here with one tweet, we were able to get them a menorah it’s and it’s pretty amazing

Yehuda: In other words, as you see it, I can’t control the variables of how destructive these media can be. All it can do is effectively control the variables of what I have to say on the media and whether I can actually do something good in the world.

Mordechai: Even more than that. Really Twitter exists for Jews to light the menorah and for non-Jews to share positive things and for us to do something positive. If people choose to corrupt that and use it for a negative purpose then they’re corrupting what is really potential. There’s a midrash that says that why was gold created?

Because people lust after gold, start wars over gold, can make idols out of gold. Even when it’s not an idol it’s still an idol. Gold, the midrash says is created for the Bais Hamikdash in Jerusalem. It was made for the Temple in Jerusalem. And technology, the way I’ve been describing it is there for the same purposes as well.

That God created everything for a purpose and gave us the ability to create these technologies. And therefore, if they exist, they’re there for us to use them for something positive, to be constructive, and to really reveal the essential oneness that we all have. So Twitter as this big public platform has the ability to be corrupted just like gold can be used for negative reasons but ultimately exists to allow us to be able to do something positive with it.

And if we’re not taking advantage of that opportunity, then the platform will still exist. It’s not going to go away. We’re just going to be losing out on the ability to be able to use it for the purpose of which was created, which is to spread goodness in the world.

Yehuda: One of the most obvious ways in which social media has become a destructive force, and it is particular to us as Jews, is around the rise of Antisemitism. There are some pretty clear connections between the ways that people were able to identify others around the world. A lot of neo-Nazis living in their mother’s basement actually could become community through the existence of these platforms.

And we’ve seen a rise in public Antisemitism. I’m curious how you and how Chabad think about this rise of Antisemitism in America and to what extent it influences or affects at all the strategy of public proud Judaism. Does it amplify that strategy? Does it require any sort of inundations and I know you’re living in it because one of the places where there’s been the most, in the New York area, the most significant rise of Antisemitism has been in Brooklyn?

So I’m curious how you and your community are thinking about this.

Mordechai: In terms of the internet, this is not a new thing. I’ve found an article in 1996 that said, what if we built the information superhighway – that was the term and it was just used for Antisemitism, racism, whatever. So this has always been an issue.

I think ultimately the way we confront Antisemitism and it’s real and it’s serious. And in terms of actual security needs, those need to be paramount as well terms of whatever’s necessary. That said the question is how we choose to view this?

I think too often in America Jewry kind of makes that in and of itself an expression of their Jewish identity. That my Jewish identity is dealing with Antisemitism. And the reality is that our Jewish identities have to be much deeper and much more profound, much more transcendent, than the negativity that we face and. And the negativity will not go away.

But the question is our option. The ability to either become nispol from it, to use a Hasidic term, to become affected by it and become kind of negatively impacted or our chance to transcend it, to engage in the positive, to engage in the good, to show our Jewish pride, even more, and in an even stronger sense.

And that pushes any negativity to the background. I once had this Twitter interaction where somebody was saying a bunch of Antisemitic things. And, in my mentions, saying all the single negative stuff. So I said at one point, you know, you don’t seem to be familiar with very many Jews.

So the person said, well, I don’t like speaking to Jews and other awful people, you know, why would I want to talk to them? So I said you just spent half an hour debating with a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn. You know, so if you don’t like speaking to us, you could see the door and leave. And the person stopped responding at that point in time.

I mean the negativity exists, but it’s our decision to engage with it or not. And then when we broadcast our Jewish pride and who we are and what we do, I think that helps, shape the discourse in a much more profound way.

Yehuda: But it also has a different effect, which is the more that you show up as publicly Jewish and visibly Jewish in public. The fact of other people wanting to do harm to Jews – it kind of has this weird effect that it reinforces that you need to keep showing up publicly as Jews.

Like there’s one strategy, which would say at the rise of Antisemitism, Jews should go underground, be less visible, be less obvious. But I guess from the Chabad worldview that makes no sense. Like, okay, so they’re showing up publicly and criticizing us as Jews. We’re going to keep showing up publicly and we may not win. We may not defeat Antisemitism. We may be in fact wounded by it, but it actually doesn’t alter the mission statement, so to speak.

Mordechai: I mean, I wouldn’t say we don’t win. I think that’s antithetical to the approach, the worldview that we have. When you hide, then you’re ultimately getting caught in their game, so to speak, that’s what they want. There’s an exchange of letters between the Rebbe and Elie Wiesel

Obviously, the Rebbe had a profound impact on his life in various ways. So at one point, the Rebbe told him that by writing a series of books about the Holocaust, Night, and the sequels and showing that he was able to use the destruction the Nazis wanted to put upon him to try it against them.

The Rebbe told him ultimately, by not choosing to be able to not move on because you can’t move on, especially with something like that. But to continue to grow as a Jew. And I think this was in the context of not even wanting to have children and not having a family, then ultimately the Nazis are winning to a certain degree that they wanted to destroy you and they have. They scarred you.

But if you can grow from that and you could take those wounds with you, but if you can grow from that and continue to do then you are really truly defeating it. Ultimately, we’re not going to hide from the negativity out there. But it’ll continue to exist no matter what, it’ll continue to fester.

It doesn’t go away when we’re quiet. But when we are proud of who we are and we showed the world, number one, we’re doing what we need to do. And I think that builds allies as well in the sense that when people see Jews publicly doing Jewish things and they have those conversations and they’re aware that this person’s Jewish and it suddenly becomes home.

You know, someone says something Antisemitic at a workplace everyone’s kind of quiet and the one Jew who was in the corner is kind of you know, whatever about it, they might not even realize he’s Jewish, but if the person, comes with a kippah on I’m just making up examples over here. But people realize he’s Jewish that people realize that this is affecting someone they know and love as well.

So I think ultimately everyone wins.

Yehuda: So listen Hanukkah is over by the time that people will have heard this show. We got a lot of perspective from you about what it is that Chabad does and why and what the particular unique tie-in is. Looking forward over the next couple of weeks, next couple of months, it’s a complicated time for Americans in general, still with a pandemic still with tremendous American political divisiveness.

I’ll let you finish with a closing message that you’d love to give to people after, Hanukkah is over, once the menorah is taken down about what are its dominant ideas that continue to animate our lives Jewishly as we look forward.

Mordechai: So famously when it comes to the story of Hanukkah, the miracle or one of the miracles is the finding that what’s called a small jar of oil. It was able to light the menorah and be able to add light and that small jar of oil represents the spark of Judaism that exists with each and every one of us.

So within each and every one of us, there is a godly soul. A divine power flickers within us. And if we tap into it and we share it we are able to not just bring light into the world and kindle that one flame, but able to actually increase its light. The message of Hanukkah is mosif v’holech that you are adding, continuing to have them. You start with one candle the first day and you end up with eight candles on the eighth day.

And the reality is that after that point in time, then the light to the menorah transcends the eight candles. That if you look at the world that we live in a cycle of seven. Now the week is seven days long.  Creation is seven days long and that represents the natural order. The eighth light the eighth day represents that which is transcended and above and beyond the cycle of time.

So when we tap into that potential that exists within each and every one of us, we could take light and help it shine and bring it out there to the farthest possible reaches, and therefore the message from Hanukkah is to go to all eight, to transcend your limitations, to take that small amount that you have to continue to grow and continue to do amazing, things and always take one step more.

So, I guess it’s the kind of key message which goes to this holiday is that we have the ability to really bring new lights into the world and to make sure that we go out and do it

Yehuda: Well, thanks all for listening to our show this week.  Special thanks to my guest, Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone. Identity/Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by So-called.

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at

We’d love to know what you think about the show. You can rate and review us on iTunes to help more people find the show. And you can also write to us [email protected]. You can subscribe to our show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week, a belated happy Hanukkah. And thanks for listening.


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