A Chabad Standard: Scholarship, Publishing and Community Interest

A Chabad Standard: Scholarship, Publishing and Community Interest

By Dovi Seldowitz

Chasidic culture is often conceived as one filled with romanticized portraits of saintly men, impoverished Chasidim and the miracles they’ve experienced. Chabad, however, is known as the more cerebral group; the very name of the movement refers to intellectual traits. And while Chabad also celebrates storytelling, it is very much secondary to its scholarly and intellectual tradition. The Chabad movement has set a high standard among Orthodox communities in publishing scholarly works; Chabad also can attest to high community interest and involvement in advancing scholarship at a range of levels.

As compared with other Chasidic movements, Chabad’s approach to scholarship includes some fairly unique elements; its focus on critical historiography and publication history, and publishing scholarly journals with contributions from local students and community members. The corpus of Chabad works available today would not be readily available today if not for the work of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who insisted on publishing all manuscripts of earlier Chabad rebbes in a professional manner, producing well-made and aesthetically pleasing literary works.[1]

Chabad’s awareness of the need to preserve and study its own history has developed beyond the hagiographical tendencies commonplace in religious movements. It would be understandable for any movement, Chasidic or not, to focus on storytelling incorporating moral lessons over critical history. And yet, Chabad has published works in the spirit of critical academic scholarship. Examples of such works include the books and articles by the late Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshine (1947-2014),[2] as well as the volumes put forth by Chabad librarians on the history of the Chabad movement in Russia, Israel and the United States.[3]

Storytelling and narrative are popular topics of study for sociologists and other social scientists,[4] although these forms of social history have to be interpreted by the researcher leading earlier sociologists to entirely reject the analysis of narratives as it would lead to inconclusive assessments of the subject matter.[5] But while storytelling and narrative is common to all groups, it is not common for a group to exert considerable effort in a critical self-assessment. Critical scholarship is popular in Chabad, not only among the movement’s deep thinkers but even among the laity. Chabad communities worldwide have published scholarly journals consisting of the contributions of community members and local yeshiva students. Consistent with Chabad’s “bottom up” approach, the quality of the journal content varies greatly, reflecting the real interests taken up by the members of that particular Chabad community.

What is so unique about Chabad scholarship? It is both professional and amateur, geared to scholars as well as community driven, it focuses on a range of religious and historiographic topics. Chabad writings are also aimed at being accessible to the public, with a wealth of material found in print and online. Chabad certainly lives up to its name as the intellectual Chasidic group, where scholarship and publishing are central features of the movement’s legacy.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Don Seeman, “Publishing Godliness: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Other Revolution,” Jewish Review of Books, July 16, 2014.

[2] See, Israel Bartal, “True Knowledge and Wisdom: On Orthodox Historiography,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry: Volume 10, (1994): 178-192.

[3] See, “New Volume on Chabad History Published,” Lubavitch.com, September 21, 2010.

[4] See for example, Francesca Polletta, Pang Ching Bobby Chen, Beth Gharrity Gardner and Alice Motes, “The sociology of storytelling.” Annual Review of Sociology 37 (2011): 109-130.

[5] See, Patricia Ewick and Susan S. Silbey, “Subversive stories and hegemonic tales: Toward a sociology of narrative.” Law and Society Review (1995): 197-226.

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