Gershom Scholem studying Zohar in a sukkah, Israel, 1925.
Here’s a story that probably nobody knows. I heard it firsthand from one of the two people involved, both of whom have since passed away.
Gershom Scholem (1897–1982) was the famed professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Despite his broad knowledge of Kabbalah, he was not a particularly Torah-observant man. He studied Judaism as an academic pursuit, not a way of life.
Sometime during the 1970s, Professor Scholem was visited by his Australian nephew, David Scholem. A few years ago, David shared with me the details of their conversation.
David had recently become religious, a move that surprised some members of his family. The Scholems were known for embracing Marxism, Enlightenment, Assimilationism and other secular Germanic philosophies. In fact, Gershom himself, with his ardent Zionism and love of Jewish texts, was somewhat of a black sheep in that mix. But he certainly was not a black hat. And here was his brother’s son, yarmulke proudly perched on his head and tzitzit dangling for all to see. How could it be?
Professor Scholem was curious to know what turned an educated young man towards tradition.
David’s answer was straightforward: “I discovered the Book of Tanya. I found Chabad.”
No further explanation was necessary. David was one of thousands of Jews the world over who rediscovered their Judaism after being touched by Chabad, the Chassidic school of Judaism that teaches joyous spirituality, unconditional love, and passionate devotion to the Torah. Anyone who studies Tanya, the masterpiece of Chabad philosophy, will find it hard not to be taken by its profound soulful message. David certainly was.
This intrigued the professor. He was familiar with Chabad’s mysticism, but he marveled at Chabad’s dynamism.
The professor asked his nephew, “What is Chabad’s secret?”
David thought for a moment, and replied, “They have a general.”
Ah. The Rebbe. This must be what sets Chabad apart from all other movements. They have a general, a spiritual leader, a visionary. The Rebbe is Chabad’s secret.
The Professor sat up in his chair. Then he gave a piercing look and corrected his nephew, “No. It’s not that they have a general. It’s that he has an army.”
He was referring to the shluchim – the Rebbe’s emissaries, men and women whom the Rebbe sent to every corner of the world to revive Jewish souls and help them reconnect to their source. The Rebbe is indeed the visionary, but a visionary needs people to give life to the vision. They, said the professor, are Chabad’s secret.