Is There a Doctor in the House? #ChabadPhD

Is There a Doctor in the House? The Little Known Story of the Chabad PhD
By Dovi Seldowitz

When comparing and contrasting Chabad to other Chasidic groups it is fairly common to note their different attitudes towards general society. Other Chasidic groups are often described as “insular” and resistant to modernity, Chabad, on the other hand, is deemed open, welcoming and willing to utilize technology for the advancement of Jewish ideals. But looking deeper, Chabad has not only a different attitude towards the outside world, its community includes different types of Chasidim not found in other groups. Among the unique kinds of Chasidim in Chabad is the rather surprising “Chasid PhD.”

The idea of Chasid with a PhD is somewhat counter intuitive; the general Chasidic community and the world of academia are two realms not often bridged; the exception usually being some researcher wishes to study Chasidism and is compelled to spend time in or around the Chasidic community as part of their fieldwork. But in Chabad, mostly due to its intensive outreach, specifically its outreach on universities and college campuses, a significant number of men and women who have earned their doctorates have become a part of the Chabad community. And while the majority of Chabad PhDs joined the community as adults, a few Chabad PhDs were in fact Chasidim their entire lives. A number of these Chabad PhDs enjoyed a personal connection with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was known to have encouraged the PhDs with regards to their work in their respective disciplines, while the younger PhDs have earned their degrees (or joined the movement) after the Rebbe’s passing

Perhaps the most well-known Chabad PhDs are Rabbi Dr. Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Rabbi Dr. Nissan Mindel and Dr. Herman (“Yirmiyahu”) Branover. In the Chabad community these three men are well-regarded for their various contributions to the community and have somewhat become “household names.” Immanuel Schochet (PhD in philosophy) authored and translated a number of works for Chabad. Some of his best known works are The Great Maggid, a biography of the Maggid of Mezritch (Rabbi Dovber ben Avraham, teacher and rebbe to the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi), the translation of the Baal Shem Tov’s ethical will (Tzava’at Harivash) and Mystical Concepts in Chassidism.[1] Nissan Mindel (PhD in philosophy, Semitic languages) is noted for serving on the Rebbe’s secretariat but is also highly regarded for his translation of the Tanya, the classic book of Chabad philosophy by Rabbi Schneur Zalman. He also is noted for writing a biography on Rabbi Schneur Zalman, his translation and editing of the previous Rebbe’s memoirs as well as for a number of books and magazines for children which he either authored and edited. Herman Branover (PhD in physics, a pioneer in the field of magnetohydrodynamics) is mostly known for his personal connection with the Rebbe and his work assisting Russian Jews who had migrated to Israel; Branover was also instrumental in the publication of the B’or Hatorah journal (geared specifically toward religious scientists and academics) and organizing the B’or Hatorah conferences.[2]

A number Chabad PhDs have become somewhat known in the Chabad community due to the popularity of stories about their personal connection with the Rebbe;[3] these include Drs. Velvl Greene (biology and epidemiology), Irving (“Yitzchak”) Block (philosophy), Jack (“Yaacov”) Hanoka (physics) and Avraham Michael Hasofer (mathematics) among others. Several Chabad PhDs used Chabad as a subject for their thesis and/or for subsequent academic treatment; included in this group are Drs. Nissan Mindel, Naftali Loewenthal, Kate (“Miriam”) Loewenthal (married to Naftali), Malcolm (“Menachem”) Kovaks, Yaacov Lefcoe among others.[4]

The Chasid PhD certainly plays an important role in the Chabad community but it can be expected to evolve over time. The Chasid-PhDs have been around for some time now and soon one might be able to clearly distinguish between the “first generation” of ChabadPhDs, who earned their degrees during the the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s, from the “second generation” of men and women in the Chabad community, who have earned their PhDs from the mid-90s on. Understanding where these men and women came from and their impact on Chabad will  certainly assist one to gain a finer and more comprehensive understanding of the societal makeup of the Chabad community.

In memory of Rabbi Dr. Akiva (Bernard) Greenberg, a Chasid and professor of sociology.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Eli Rubin and Yaakov Ort, “Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet, 77,” Chabad.org, July 28, 2013.

[2] See, Dovid Margolin, “Torah and Science Conference: Putting the Universe in Perspective,” Chabad.org, December 12, 2013.

[3] See, Chaim Miller, Turning Judaism Outward: A Biography of the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Kol Menachem, 2014, page 226; Joseph Telushkin, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, HarperCollins, 2014; Yocheved Miriam Russo, “The Rebbe and the rocket scientist,” Jerusalem Post, January 10, 2007; Dovid Zaklikowski, “Chasidic Scientist, Solar Energy Pioneer, Passes Away: Yaacov (Jack) Hanoka, 75,” Chabad.org, May 11, 2011.

[4] See for example, Nissan Mindel, “Sefer Liqqutei Amarim (Tanya),” PhD diss., Columbia University, 1962; Naftali Loewenthal, Communicating the infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School, University of Chicago Press, 1990; Kate Loewenthal, “Marriage and religious commitment; the case of Chabad Chasidic women,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 5, no. 1-2 (1988): 8-10; Malcolm Kovacs, “The Dynamics of Commitment’: The Process of Resocialization of Ba’alei Teshuvah, Jewish Students in Pursuit of Their Identity at the Rabbinical College of America (Lubavitch),” PhD diss., Union Graduate School, 1977; Yaacov Lefcoe, “Project for a Judaism-inspired Transpersonal Psychology,” PhD diss., York University, Toronto, 2011.

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