Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Lubavitcher Rebbe on Secular University

The following is a translation of some comments by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt"l, by Rabbi Yehoishofot Oliver in his post, College Corrupts the Soul at A Chassidishe Farbrengen. Click on that link for the full post. I followed that up with some clarifications by Menashe regarding the Rebbe's position on college for different individuals' situations:

Learning in college is not merely a matter of learning facts. It means to be exposed to certain circles and activities that are antithetical to the values and faith of the believer. It would be like taking someone from a warm environment and casting him into cold water—“shock treatment”—several times a day. How long would he be able to survive?

In addition to this, the studies in university are set up to be at an age in which one’s personality is not yet sufficiently developed, usually before the age of thirty, and the exposure [to negative influences] then is more dangerous.

*From a private audience with the Rebbe in 5715 (1955), printed in Dem Rebben’s Kinder p. 211.

It must be pointed out, although in fact it should be self-evident, that all the above is completely unrelated to the issue of learning in college, university, or the like, where the prohibition is severe, and the danger great—and it is known that exposing oneself to danger is even worse than violating a prohibition. The entire atmosphere and weltanschauung of the environment in these institutions nowadays is permeated with the denial of Divine Providence, the notion that no entity or force can interfere with natural law, so much so that this is accepted as axiomatic and thus not even requiring proof, and as the foundation of all the studies, which need not even be explicitly mentioned.

In most of these institutions heresy and idolatrous religions are studied, and so on.

In the vast majority of these institutions there are no boundaries of shame and modesty, to the extent that they belittle and mock those who maintain such boundaries. On the contrary, the more immoral one is, the more highly he is regarded. The appalling situation in the campuses, dormitories, promenades, and so on, is infamous. One should not elaborate concerning shocking phenomena in general, and certainly not when it has reached the awful extent that it has in this case.

As for the famous claim that he or she will not be damaged and will overcome the test, and so on, the simple answer to this is also well-known. Even a perfectly righteous person, on the last day of his on-hundred-and-twentieth year on the earth [i.e., immediately before his passing], begins his day, before all his other prayers, by pleading before G–d: “Do not bring us to a test.” This matter deserves further elaboration, but now is not the occasion to elaborate upon this.

*Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 15, pp. 43-44.
[1] See Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, 2:2, “G–d commanded us not to read ... and not to think ... so that we not come to ask concerning the method of worshiping it ... ” See there further, and ibid. 2:3.
[2] In the morning blessings (Berachos 60b). Cf. Sanhedrin 107a.

Interestingly, Menashe spoke to Rabbi Levi Schapiro, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Beis Menachem of Manalapan, NJ, and he reported the following clarifications to me:
[That the Rebbe] was first and foremost concerned that a chosid (or any Yid for that matter) should not attempt to put himself into the situation of having to go to University at all. If he truly must, then he should take proper precautions. First and foremost, getting married. This would go far towards at least weakening the yetzer hara while at school. I was surprised to hear that the Rebbe generally allowed his married chasidim to attend with the proper precautions such as commuting, as opposed to living on campus, taking an appropriate course of study (not learning liberal arts lishma) and choosing a more appropriate school (Touro and YU vs. secular university).

-Dixie Yid

(Picture of a UC Berkley Library courtesy of

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Crawling Axe said...

You don’t have a chossid of the Rebbe to know that you shouldn’t take liberal arts. It’s just common sense.

Shorty said...

Having done not only a Bachelor in Science I can vouch for the dangers, as I admit, i fell into that trap. Having left home without really a strong sense of my own Jewish identity, or how to live a Jewish life, i went into an environment where there were no other Jews around. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of Jewish people I have met along the way during my seven year university "career". I remember one girl taking me to Rosh Hashannah services. It was in the basement of a Church, because there was no synagogue. It was my very first Rosh Hashannah away from home, so I was happy to find this. I remember it feeling entirely wierd. There were pictures of priests on the wall. I will leave it at that.

Eventually I dropped most of my Jewish "responsibilities" except fasting on Yom Kipper and keeping Passover, and even that was only eating Matzah, as "supplies" were limited.

Eventually, I was more non Jewish than Jewish. Only because I didn't want to feel like the outsider or the wierdo. But i knew in my heart, I was still different, and i still felt like the wierdo.

Crawling Axe said...

Shorty where did you go to school that it didn’t have Chabad (in the school or nearby)? Cairo? Alabama?

Menashe said...

I was by a farbrengen this shabbos and the mashpia told a story of how a bochur came to the Rebbe for reshus to go to college. The Rebbe asked him "What do you have against the Rebbe[referring to his father in law] that you want to drag him and the Shechina to sheol hatachton?"

Anonymous said...

The Rebbe himself attended the University of Berlin for several semesters in 1931-33 (that's where he met R. Yosef Ber Soloveitchik). Later, he moved to Paris, where he studied mechanics and electrical engineering. He graduated in July 1937 and received a license to practice as an electrical engineer. In November 1937, he enrolled at the Sorbonne, where he studied mathematics until the war broke out in 1939. None of this seems to have detracted from his holiness.

Menashe said...

The Rebbe also put on 4 pairs of Tefillin. The Rebbe is not common. I don't think that's a good argument.

Shorty said...

I didn't really think of how to look for a Jewish community. I grew up with "mixed messages" about how to keep a Jewish home, so that when I left, I left my Jewish identity as well.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

Yeah! Anonymous' point! What does that mean "the Rebbe is not common, and that's a good argument?! The "Rebbe" was the son of the Lubavitcher Rebbe! I don't know what the story was with them, but to me he seemed like a great modernizer; he went to a number of Universities in Berlin and Paris, dressed in way that back then, was equivalent to wearing a tee shirt and jeans today, and mixed general and secular ideas into his chassidic discourses!

He might have said "well, back then Universities weren't so bad, but today it's terrible". Now, it could be that's true in some respects, but not in the respects to which he mentioned; back then the Universities were a bastion for anti-religiosity. "It meant to be exposed to certain circles and activities that are antithetical to the values and faith of the believer" in Germany more than anywhere else. There were whole divisions there for bible-criticism and the like. Universities in America today are unrecognizably more religious than then.

And again, like I mentioned about the clothing; the "Rebbe" seemingly dressed as he did to "look different, less Russian, and to fit in", today (after the style has changed) his followers wear the same look like him! If they wanted to be like him they would be iconoclastic and individualistic in not just dress, but actions and ideologies as well!

Admittedly, from a Jewish perspective someone like Shorty would have been advised not to attend a college that was so sparsely populated with Jews. But like Crawling Axe said, a shortage of Jews has become uncommon in many Universities today, and anyway, someone who is doubtful of their religion will find an outlet for it even if they're sitting in the midst of 770. But to allow someone who is strong in their ideologies to attend University only with "the proper precautions such as commuting, taking an appropriate course of study and choosing a more appropriate school (Touro and YU)", seems to me to be somewhat hypocritical, illogical, and of course, antithetical to the teachings of those like the Rambam, Rav Hirsch and Rav Soloveichik expressed long before the Rebbe.

Crawling Axe said...

One time a bochur asked the Rebbe how come the Rebbe went to University but doesn’t recommend it to others. The Rebbe answered: “If I jumped from Eiffel tower and survived, would you try the same?”

(In fact, what about all the stories of Baal Shem Tov crossing Dniestr on a handkerchief?)

The Rebbe was not a “modernizer”. He was a fundamentalist, just like his father-in-law. The Rebbe, however, made it is his goal in life to bring Mashiach by creating (and teaching others how to create) a dwelling place for Hashem in this world — which included sometimes getting more chummy with the world than has traditionally been done.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

"The Rebbe was not a “modernizer”. He was a fundamentalist",

"..[he] made it is his goal in life to bring Mashiach by creating..a dwelling place for Hashem in this world, which included sometimes getting more chummy with the world"

I don't know man, studying math at the Sorbonne AFTER having already obtained a license to practice as an electrical engineer at ESTP seems to me to be a little more than "getting chummy with the world". Anyway, if a job in engeneering was all he wanted what was he doing in University of Berlin in the first place, where he seemingly chose to receive no academic credit (wikipedia)?

And keep in mind; nobody knew the war was comming, and he didn't know his father would die, or that his brother wouldn't take over instead of him. Perhaps he wanted to stay in France as an engeneer?

The way I see it, the Rebbe became far more "theologically involved" in America than he ever planned to be in Europe. He took on a very different outlook when he become Rebbe, which is natural for a position of such religious expectation and posibility. No?

Crawling Axe said...

Why are you talking about what the Rebbe himself did? If you want to know what the Rebbe thought you should do, you should ask him — i.e., see what he said to others in a similar situation (or in general regarding to the situation). For example, the Rebbe never visited Israel. Does this mean he didn’t want others to visit? As mentioned before, the Rebbe wore four pair of tefillin.

Some things that the Rebbe did were meant to be imitated (e.g., minhogim). Others were not. We can argue to which category a particular behavior belongs — but when the Rebbe’s expressed his opinion, it seems obvious what his opinion was.

As a few side points, first of all, being an engineer does not contradict an idea of being a fundamentalist. Second, the Rebbe went to the University only because the Previous Rebbe told him to. Third, everyone’s situation is different, and as mentioned, there are different circumstances permitting one to go to college (e.g., after yeshiva and getting married, not living on campus, only for the purpose of obtaining a specific profession, not for liberal education, etc.).

Menashe said...

I echo CA's sentiments. With all due respect, it's a bit silly to try to make the arugment that what the Rebbe intended was different than what he plainly said in private and in public over the course of forty years. The Rebbe is an example [at least in this regard, when to do so is to contradict his own teachings]for no one other than the Rebbe. He took as his example no one but his Rebbe and his predecessors of course.

As great as the gedolim of TIDE nnd Torah UMadda were, they really have no bearing on the Rebbe's hashkafa and horaos. Even proponents of these movements would consider the Rebbe AT LEAST an equal to the two individuals mentioned.

I would argue that the Rambam would completely disagree with them as well so using him as proof is even more inappropriate. But that is for another discussion.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

I ended up writing about this issue on my blog, though none of the points mentioned here are followed up or addressed.

Anonymous said...

You can get a first hand account of the life of the Rebbe while in Berlin - from people who were with him at the time!

Anonymous said...

For a honest student, looking to learn about the life of the [future] Chabad Lubavitch Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson while living in Berlin Germany and Paris France in the late 1920’s & 1930’s – the most natural place to begin would be to ask the people who were with him at that time. While browsing the net, I was able to come up with this (it’s a drop in the bucket).

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver said...

Thanks for posting the link, DixieYid.

The Rebbe studied secular wisdom in order to use secular knowledge to fight secularism through using the wood for the ax to chop the tree (see Tanya ch. 31), and also to have a parnasa at a time when having it was a matter of pikuach nefesh mammosh.

Those who jump to the conclusion that the Rebbe was "modern" ch"v clearly have very little knowledge of who the Rebbe is and what he taught. This leads to them to define the Rebbe in their own coarse terms, which really makes a statement about their inability to comprehend the idea of, as Chassidus puts it, being in the world and above the world at the same time, an ability that true gedolei Yisroel have in particular. See the end of Tanya ch. 8 where it speaks about the Rambam and Ramban using secular knowledge "la'avodas Hashem uletoroso."