Prof. Dr. Norton Mezvinsky - Nursi, Schneerson and Ginzburg from Barla Platformu on Vimeo.
Prof. Dr. Norton Mezvinsky, Connecticut University, USA
NURSI, SCHNEERSON AND GINZBURG
Nursi’s concern about secularism, western influences and Christianity within the context of his Islamic thought, as well as his interest in Turkey, have been and are continuing to be analyzed by numerous scholars and commentators. Nursi understandably devoted little attention to Jews and/or Judaism, most likely because of the small number of Jews in this world. In a paper that I delivered at a previous conference here in Istanbul I noted that Nursi did make a few critical remarks about Jews, but he did not discuss them in detail.
My presentation today will most likely be a diversion from other contributions at this conference. It is part of a larger study of mine that concentrates upon a traditional, Orthodox Judaic worldview and consideration of the non-Jew. In my presentation I shall attempt to compare and contrast this Judaic world view and consideration of the non-Jew to parts of Nursi’s worldview. I admit that, in addition to my desire to impart information and make a few hopefully interesting comments, I have an ulterior motive in mind. I know that the Nur movement has had a limited inter-faith dialogue with a few Jews. To cite but one example, I myself have spoken and discussed at a previous Nur conference and have personally discussed many religious and political issues with Faris Kaya and others in your group. I want, if possible, to promote more inter-faith dialogue between members of your movement and Jews of varying persuasions, both those Jews who are knowledgeable about Islam and those who know too little about Islam, Muslims and Nursi. Such dialogue, I believe, would be constructive.
In my today’s comparison to Nursi, I shall concentrate upon the views of two Orthodox and mystical oriented rabbis, Menahem Mendel Schneerson and Yitzhak Ginsburg. Their views are similar to one another in some respects and dissimilar in other respects. Within Judaism, as within Islam, there exist numerous theological and philosophical formulations that may revolve around a like essence but still contain differences. Schneerson and Ginzburg represent two traditionally significant approaches within Judaism. Schneerson and Ginzburg incidentally are not themselves candidates for inter-faith dialogue. Schneerson died in 1994, and Ginsburg has an extreme personality, most likely unsuitable for inter-faith dialogue with the Nur people. The views of these two rabbis, nevertheless, reflect significant aspects of the Orthodox, traditional Judaic approach and as such would thus provide some fascinating issues and topics for inter-faith dialogue.
I further suggest it is important for followers of Schneerson and Ginzburg to meet and discuss with you. These Jews need to meet more Muslims and to learn more about Islam. I say this as a friend and as an active, albeit critical, member of a Schneerson-oriented congregation in New York.
Menahem Mendel Schneerson, who lived between 1902 and 1994, was the seventh and seemingly last “Rebbe” of the Chabad Lubavitch dynasty. (The term “Rebbe” is one of honor and love for rabbi. In regard to Schneerson, the term meant teacher of the highest order but also meant much more than that.) Born and raised in Russia and Latvia, he went to universities in Berlin and Paris, studied philosophy, mathematics and engineering, became fascinated with science and technology and gained sophistication in Western culture. He arrived in the United States in 1941 and settled in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, where his father-in-law, Yosef Yitzhuk Schneerson, was the reigning sixth Lubavitch rabbi. When his father-in-law died in 1950, Menahem assumed the leadership of the Lubavitch Orthodox group.
Menahem Mendel Schneerson was a radical messianic visionary. He emphasized that the messianic age had arrived and that the Messiah was here “behind the wall,” to be oncovered by Torah (Bible) study and vigorous piety of Jews. The “Rebbe” prompted an ultra-Orthodox and conservative political agenda. Mostly living as a recluse in the Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern parkway in Brooklyn, he emphasized mysteries and secrets in his teachings, which mostly consisted of recorded lengthy and not so lengthy sermons, letters, writings in diaries and notebooks and comments upon the Torah (Bible), the Passover pamphlet, (the Hagaddah) and the Book of Tanya (the complex and deep foundational treatise of the Lubavitch movement written by Schneur Zalman of Ladi, the first Lubavitch Rabbi, who lived between 1745 and 1812.) Menahem Mendel Schneerson was contemplative person who became a theological and philosophical giant. He built his Hasidic (mystical) sect-called Chabad-into an international movement; he developed a network of thousands of Schlachim (emissaries)-Chabad rabbis mostly young-who spread across the world in order to find and influence Jews to study Torah and to follow Torah dictates. The Rebbe built a vibrant movement that has penetrated virtually every corner of the world where a Jew might be found. (One of these Chabad rabbis is stationed, for example, here in Istanbul and another Chabad rabbi is in the Turkish part of Cyprus.) This movement has grown and has become even more vibrant after the Rebbe’s death.
Schneerson, the Rebbe, was a lover of all Jews regardless of their piety or lack of it, although he was an inflexible opponent of modern movements within Judaism. He distinguished between movements and individuals
A major disagreement exists as to whether the Rebbe and his followers considered and still consider him to be the Messiah. Within the Lubavitch grouping this is a complicated and touchy subject. Some Chabad Lubavitch members openly and publicly state that the Rebbe is the Messiah, whose soul rose to heaven ad who will return to earth. Others in the grouping do not actually say this, remain ambiguous about such a designation and say the concept of the Messiah cannot yet be fully understood by most people. The Rebbe himself, while alive, would neither confirm nor deny that he was the Messiah. Be that as it may, Menahem Mendel Schnnerson was clearly the single, most influential Hassidic (mystical) rabbi and philosopher of the twentieth century.
Although not intellectually equal to Schneerson, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg became a leading Lubavitch Hassidic rabbi after Schneerson’s death. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Ginzburg moved to the state of Israel in 1965, studied with Chabad Hassidim at a Hassidic Yeshiva (religious school) until June of 1967. Shortly thereafter he traveled to New York City to study for three months with Rabbi Schneerson. He then returned to Israel, developed a following of students and moved to a religious school where he taught and expounded his views. He is a highly popular lecturer throughout Israel in Lubavitch Chabad and right-wing circles. He serves as the president of the Old Yosef Chai (Joseph Still loves) Yeshiva. He also has headed an Institute for Advanced Studies of the Talmud and of Rabbinic Literature. Some of Ginzburg’s students occupy important educational and political positions in Israel.
The Nursi worldview is far different in many respects from that of Scheerson’s or Ginzburg’s. Nursi believed that Islam was the true religion that would overcome obstacles and spread throughout the world. Nursi believed that God had promised that, as Yvonne Haddad has observed, “…the sword of Islam will spread from the oceans of the East to the oceans of the West.”1 Nursi, Haddad explained further, added “Thus the role of the individual is to actualize the supremacy of Islam, to become its embodiment, to live in total dependence on the infinite source of comfort and compassion. For “Tawakkul” is a dynamic interplay of total dependence and surrender to one who is mightier than the combined forces of evil and oppression; it is dwelling in the absolute assurance of the ultimate vindication of Islam to be manifest in history. God fulfills his promise.”2
Nursi emphasized that European and indeed other Western attempts to defeat or to halt the march of Islam would fail. Nursi specified that Christianity, a major concern of his, would finally yield to the truth of Islam: “Christianity will lay down its armaments and surrender to Islam either by extinction or through purification. Christianity had been ripped apart several times before it ended in Protestantism. Protestantism has been divided until it approached Tawhid, divine unity It is once again getting set for another rupture. It will either be extinguished and disappear, yantahi amruha or it will encounter the truths of Islam which encompass the foundations and principles of true Christianity and surrender. The Prophet made reference to this great mystery when he said, “Jesus will return and will be one of my ummah and act according to my Shariah,”3
Nursi, moreover asserted: “Europe and America are pregnant with Islam. Just as the Ottomans were pregnant with Europe and gave birth to a European state, so Europe and America one day will give birth to an Islamic state.”4
In line with his world view Nursi wanted, as Sukran Vahide has explained, to “lay the foundations for a genuine renewal and reconstruction of the Muslim world and the reestablishment of Islamic civilization.”5 At the same time Nursi wanted a jihad not only to save Muslims but also “to attract large numbers of people (non-Muslims) in the West to the true religion of Islam.”6 Vahide added: “Nursi realized that this would be achieved only by renewal, repair and reconstruction at the most basic level which necessitated gradual change and embraced the whole society.”7 Nursi believed that proselytizing for Islam was necessary. All people could and would in time accept Islam, become Muslims and be equally close to God.
The world view of traditional Judaism generally and of Schneerson and Ginzburg specifically is different from that of Nursi. Conversion is allowed in traditional Judaism but is not promoted or advocated. Conversion to Judaism is also often fraught with controversy. (There is, for example, currently a major controversy in the state of Israel over the issue of conversion to Judaism.) There is no concept in traditional Judaism (or in Reform Judaism) that all or any non-Jews should, or necessarily will, convert to Judaism. Within traditional Judaism the coming of the Messiah and the pending messianic age are important concepts, but what the timing, process and total impact of these concepts will be is unclear. Some commentaries hint that after the coming of the Messiah (i.e. the first coming by definition) Judaism will be fully accepted by all people as the one, true religion. Many other commentaries, those of Maimonides being the most important, assert that all people will become more spiritual and closer to God after the coming of the Messiah but not all people will become Jews and fully embrace Judaism. Neither Schneerson nor Ginzburg has indicated that from their respective perspective the arrival of the Messiah will be followed by the massive conversion to Judaism by all non-Jews even though conflict may become a thing of the past.
Traditional Judaism, beginning in the post-biblical literature, promotes the idea that the Divine choice of the Jewish people is a “cosmic act that grants superiority to the Jews. 8 In medieval times, this concept was developed in The Kuzari, the essay written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevy (1075-1141) in which he argues that the Jewish people stand above nature, since it was imbued with the Divine essence that prepared it to receive the Torah. This perspective was developed extensively in the kabbalistic literature, in which the Jews were presented not merely as distinct from the other products of Creation, but as a part of Divinity itself.9 Within the dualistic approach of the Kabbalah, with its distinction between sanctity and impurity, the non-Jew was often presented as part of the “other side”10 The dualistic concept of the distinction between the Divine soul of the Jews and the animal like soul of the Gentiles became a prominent element at much Hassidic discourse, and particularly in the case of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Ladi, the founder of the Lubavitcher (Chabad) sect of Hassidism. He posited that the soul of the gentile originates in the three shells of impurity. Even if Gentiles commit a good act, they do so for negative motives, such as the expectation of some personal benefit. By contrast, the Jewish soul is divine, and hence its status is superior to any created being.11
Schneerson followed and added o the above differentiation between Jews and non-Jews. Although not totally unique in his differentiation, Schneerson was a deeper, more philosophical thinker than most others and therefore influenced Jewish Orthodoxy beyond the perimeters of his Lubavitch Chabad group.
I wish to be careful in making this point. Schneerson did not view non-Jews negatively in a general sense. He often advocated that they were-as were Jews-children of God and that God wanted them to follow the Noahide laws for all human beings, which are found in the Bible, just as Jews should follow the commandments from God for them specifically, which are also found in the bible and explained correctly by authoritative sages and commentators. Schneerson nevertheless taught that Jews were the closest and most loved by God and were therefore actually superior to non-Jews. Chabad Lubavitch rabbis attempt to cover this concept by calling it complex. Actually, however, it is not complex. I shall hare present only a few examples, taken directly from Schneerson’s writings and speeches. Elliot Wolfson in his scholarly book, Open Secrets, observed the following after close scrutiny of Schneerson sources: “In consonance with the viewpoint affirmed by the author of the Book of Tanya, the aforementioned major Lubavitch source, there is a qualitative difference between the soul of the Jew and the soul of all other ethnicities; the latter possess an animal soul (nefesh ha-bahamit in Hebrew) which is located in the left chamber of the heart, whereas the former is endowed with the divine soul (nefesh ha-elohit), the spark that emanates from the light of the infinite (God) and is located in the brain as well as in the right chamber of the heart.”12
Schneerson repeated and added substantively to what Zalman had written in the Book of Tanya about the difference between the Jew and the non-Jew: “The difference between a Jewish and non-Jewish person stems from the common expression: Let us differentiate between totally different species…The body of a Jewish person is of a totally different quality from the body of al nations of the world…an even greater difference exists in regard to the soul. Two contrary types of soul exist. A non-Jewish soul comes from the three Satanic spheres, while the Jewish soul stems from holiness… A Jew was not created as a means for some other purpose; he himself is the purpose, since the substance of divine emanations was created to serve the Jews.”13
Given the emphasis here upon the alleged difference between the Jew and the non-Jew the matter of conversion becomes complicated and difficult to understand. Judaism certainly accepts conversion, which is to be pursued only by the person desiring it. A person desiring conversion and undergoing a correct conversion process is regarded in every way as good a Jew as one born of a Jewish mother. The Kabbalistic or mystical idea, accepted by Schneerson, is that the successful convert came into this world with a Jewish soul in need of adjustment and that the completed conversion process provided that necessary adjustment.
Yitzhak Ginzburg has continued to expand and develop some of the theological approaches discussed above. He still argues that the Jewish people are a supreme, chosen people with a Divine spark, who stand above nature. The Jew, according to Ginzburg, forms part of the Kabbalistic (or mystical) world of “emanation,” which is the uppermost of the four worlds in the mystical Kabbalah. (The four worlds are action, formation, creation and emanation). The Gentile is created, but the Jew is part of Divinity itself. These perspectives are not of a complex construction presented at length in the article, “Between Israel and the Nations,” which appears in the book, The Dominion of Israel, a collection of his articles.14 Israel Ariel (Leibowitz) later elaborated Ginzburg’s ideas in his book, His Pride Is In Israel, which is based upon Ginzburg’s teaching in classes.15
In his writings Ginsburg gives prominence to Halachic (Jewish religious law) and Kabbalistic (mystical) approaches that emphasize the distinction between Jew and non-Jew (Gentile) imposing a clear separation and hierarchy in this respect. He claims that while the Jews are the Chosen people and were created in God’s image, the Gentiles do not have this status, and are effectively considered subhuman. Accordingly, for example, the commandment “You shall not murder” does not apply to the killing of a Gentile, since “you shall not murder” relates to the murder of a human, while for him the Gentiles do not constitute humans.16 Similarly, Ginzburg stated that, on the theoretical level, if a Jew requires a liver transplant to survive, it would be permissible to seize a Gentile and take their liver forcefully.17 From this point only a small further step is required to actively encourage and support the killing of non-Jews, as Ginzburg did in the case of Baruch Goldstein.
Ginzburg’s theological approach should not be seen merely as a continuation of certain Jewish perceptions that were popular in medieval times regarding the profound distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Rather, it centers on the presentation of a Jewish dominion that constitutes an innovative and far-reaching mutation of these perceptions. A key principle in his thought is the affinity between the unique and supernatural character of the Jews and the theocratic order he proposes. To support this claim, I will first present the argument presented by Gershon Weiler that there can be no such thing as a Jewish theocracy. Weiler claims that a central traditional approach in Judaism regarding the relations between religion and state, as formulated in particular by Don Yitzhak Abrabanel, argues that if the world includes two legal systems, one for the Gentiles and one for the Jews, then any mundane Jewish regime established according to the Gentile model will inevitably be defective, since the Jews are subject to different laws of nature than those applying to the Gentiles. Accordingly, the only worthy political condition for the Jews is that their redemption will come in the days of Messiah when God will rule over them directly, without human intermediaries liable to deviate from His path. A human regime is intended, by its very nature, to ensure compliance through the imposition of sanctions. This need for political organization shows that humans have deviated from the Divine plan. If theocracy means Divine rule, then it follows that human government is inherently illegitimate. Therefore, Abrabanel continues, the Jews must not do anything to advance their political independence; this is God’s function alone. If special laws of nature apply to the Jews, and if Israel differs from the other nations, then Israel should be ruled directly by god, unlike the other nations, which may install a mundane regime. Thus, there is a no place in Judaism for theocratic messianic activism.18
Ginzburg accepts the starting premise of this approach, but rejects its conclusion. He certainly accepts the idea of Divine election, with its sharp separation between the Jews and the Gentiles on the basis of laws of nature, so that the Jews are superior to all the other nations. However, he rejects the approach that mandates messianic passivity and the expectation that Divine dominion will descend to Earth by miraculous means. In its place, Ginzburg adopts an activist interpretation of the traditional approach, arguing that agitation in the mundane world will also lead to agitation in the upper world; mundane activity can cause its own completion through the miraculous and perfect intervention of God. Thus, Ginzburg presents an innovative religious perspective combining two Halachic approaches, one of which mandates messianic activism, while the other retains the concept of the unique status of the Jewish people in accordance with the laws of nature.
There is more detail to the Ginzburg approach. But, alas, I am sure that I have already provided more than enough for you to digest from one presentation. The differences between Nursi and Schneerson and Ginzburg are clear. I have spoken more about Schneerson and Ginzburg not only because I have studied their views intensively but also because those of you in this audience obviously know much about Nursi but, before my presentation, probably knew little or nothing about Schneerson and Ginzburg. Schneerson’s and Ginzburg’s views are in some ways dissimilar. Schneerson is more philosophical; Ginzburg is more extreme. Neither person’s position represents the totality of Judaic theology or philosophy. Indeed, the views and ideas of numerous Judaic theologians and philosophers stand in clear opposition to the views and ideas of Schneerson and Ginzburg. That said, I repeat and underline that Schneerson and Ginzburg with their ideas have significantly influenced the Jewish, Orthodox, religious Right.
And finally, remembering what I stated at the beginning of my presentation, you might ask how I expect members of the Nur movement to conduct inter-faith dialogue with followers of Schneerson and Ginzburg. My concluding answer to this question is twofold: 1) The contrast in views should be interesting, if not fascinating. In inter-faith dialogue some focus upon the dissimilarities and differences should within the context of tolerance provide additional insights to all individuals who are involved. The purpose and approach here should be to discuss and at times to disagree cordially for the purpose of gaining knowledge of the other’s views. 2) Actual contact in discussions between individuals with different and sometimes opposing views can, if directed and conducted correctly, possibly produce some positive personal results. While continuing to disagree on some issues with one another, individuals on different sides can get to know one another and to gain more understanding of how to get along and to deal with one another peacefully. Having gotten to know some of you in this movement, discussing on a regular basis (and often disagreeing vigorously but in a friendly manner) with devout followers of Schneerson’s philosophy and sometimes talking (and then almost always disagreeing) with those who accept what Ginzburg preaches, I am convinced that what I suggest here, even though it may be difficult for some of you to accept, is possible.
I conclude by emphasizing that beyond what I have just stated, I believe it vital that more Jews-not just followers of Schneerson and Ginzburg-get to know more about Muslims like you in this movement and Islam and that you get to know more about Jews and Judaism in its various formulations. Progress along these lines could create better personal relations and might contribute to peaceful resolution of some conflict in this part of the world. Thank you so much for your attention.
1. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Ghurbah as Paradigm for Muslim Life: A Risali-i-Nur Worldview,” in Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi, ed., Islam at the Crossroads: On the Life and Thought of Bedwizzaman Said Nursi (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2003), p. 249.
2. Nursi, “al-luma” at (Istanbul, 1994), p.42 as quoted in Haddad, “Ghurbah,” p.249
3. Nursi, Kulliyat Ras a’il al-Nur: al-Maktubat (Istanbul, 1992), p.602, as quoted in Haddat, “Ghurbah,” p.250.
4. As quoted in Sukran Vahide, The Author of the Risale-I Nur, Bedruazzaman Said Nursi, 2nd edition (Istanbul, 1992), p.100.
5. Sukran Vahide, “Said Nursi’s Interpretation of Jihad,” in Abu-Rabi, ed., On the Life and Thought of Bedruazzaman Said Nursi, p.111.
7. Ibid., p.112
8. See Ephraim Auerbach, The Sages: their Concepts and Beliefs (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1979), p.649-692; and Yaakov Blidstein, “The Political Dimension of the Concept of the Choice of the Jewish People in the Literature of the Sages,” in Shmuel Almog and Michael Hed (eds.), The Concept of Election among the Jews and Other Nations (Jerusalem: Shazar Center, 2001), p.99-120 (in Hebrew).
9. David Novak, The Election of Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.215-218.
10. Moshe Halamish, “Some Aspects of the Question Regarding the Kabbalist’s Attitude toward the non-Jews,” in Moshe Halamish and Assa Kasher (eds.), Israeli Philosophy (Tel-Aviv; Papyrus, 5743-1983), p.49-71 (in Hebrew).
11. See Moshe Halamish, The Theoretical Approach of R. Schneur Zalman of Ladi and its Relationship to Kabbalism and Early Hassidism, thesis in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of doctor of philosophy at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 5736-1975, p.165 (in Hebrew). See also: Yoram Jacobson, “The Visceral Soul in the Thought of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Ladi,” in Mesuot, Michael Oron and Amos Goldreich (eds.), (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 5744-1984), p.224-242 (in Hebrew).
12. Eliot Wolfson, Open Secret: Post Messianic, Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendal Schneerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), p.45.
13. Likutei Sichos, volume two (Brooklyn: Kehot Publication Society, 1974), p.603.
14. Yitzhak Ginzburg, The Dominion of Israel (Rehovot: Gal Eini, 5759-1999), 213-218 (in Hebrew).
15. Israel Ariel (Leibowitz), His Pride Is In Israel (Rehovot: Gal Eini, 5760-2000) (in Hebrew).
16. A debate broke out when Ginzburg was quoted in the media in Israel claiming that the commandment, “You shall not murder,” does not apply to the killing of Arabs. Yoel Bin-Nun, a leader of Gush Emunim, strongly attacked this statement. The journal, Nikudah, reported at length on the dispute See Nikudah 131 (1989), p.14-15 (in Hebrew), the following issue continued the examination of the Halachic aspects of this dispute. 17. Jewish Week, April 12, 1996, p.12,31.