It’s just a few months shy of fifty years since I first met Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, better known by the affectionate name of Der Alter Rebbe — the Old Rabbi.
By meeting him, I mean reading and studying his writing, as the Alter Rebbe had passed away late in 1812, in the Russian winter, fleeing from Napoleon’s invading army. He was a scholar, the author of a major legal code while in his twenties, and in his mature years, a writer of systematic expositions of Chassidic thought, integrating philosophic and mystical insights into a seamless whole. He was also an influential community leader, consulted by thousands, whose advice, instructions, and blessings changed lives.
The Alter Rebbe came to mind today as I sat down to write, musing on R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.’s sly appreciation of political ambiguity in these pages just three days ago. He quite properly cited FDR as a poster boy for ambiguity, for Roosevelt was a master of it.
The late Jan Karski spoke of the FDR style to a video historian crafting a documentary on America and the Holocaust for PBS. Karski was a Polish diplomat who found his way out of Nazi-occupied Poland to bring news to the Allies of Poland’s plight and of the hidden Nazi genocide machine that was methodically exterminating millions in death camps throughout occupied Poland.
Karski’s powerful tale got him entry to the Oval Office. There, he was moved by FDR’s friendship and he came away exhilarated, believing FDR understood and was going to act to stop the Holocaust horror he had seen first-hand. Someone who knew Roosevelt asked him what the President had actually said, and Karski told him. “When you go back to Poland,” FDR had said to him, “tell them you have a friend in this office.”
“If that is all he said,” said the man, “then he didn’t say very much.”
And whatever else you may say about FDR — and there is a great deal to be said about the man whom Churchill lauded and respected — Roosevelt did not change one war plan in order to disrupt the systematic annihilation of the Jews.
FDR’s political skills brought the United States to bring its decisive industrial and military might into the battle against the totalitarian Axis. Without those skills, history may have been very different. Yet his love of ambivalence allowed him to opt out of responding forcefully and clearly to the supreme moral outrage of the Holocaust.
We all face the challenge to be forceful, clear, and coherent on moral issues. We are called upon to make the hard choices to be courageous rather than popular, to be willing to set our own lives on the line for those moral issues that require nothing less.
Yet at the same time, we cannot escape the responsibility to be practical, and most of all, in the great moral battles. We cannot afford to substitute grand gestures for actual accomplishment. Churchill famously said, “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”
Churchill allied himself with the butcher Stalin because only such a hard-headed alliance could stop the Nazi juggernaut that had already engulfed Europe by the time Stalin was interested in fighting it. Later, stripped of political office, Churchill still galvanized the world to the danger of Soviet post-war expansionism, and helped check it without another world war.
Churchill was an eloquent spokesman for freedom and a man willing to risk political suicide rather than shirk a necessary moral stand. This is extraordinary by itself; that he combined that with a shrewd and savvy practicality is a large part of his enduring and exceptional greatness.
The Alter Rebbe lived this kind of wholeness, which powerfully attracted me to his life and works so many years ago. His role as a legal authority in Jewish law shows his devotion to clarity and specificity. He was defining divine law, morality applied to every aspect of life in ways clear and defined.
At the same time, his spirituality, expressed at length in profoundly meditative books, draws the reader’s attention to the living Source of our words and thoughts, who is always greater than any formulation of which we are capable. He reminds us constantly that without the superrational contribution of the soul, or ideas rapidly show their limitations, and the words become stale and flat.
He brought this understanding to the politics of life. There was much misunderstanding of the Chassidic movement in his day which resulted in controversy. The Alter Rebbe believed in meeting those who had questions directly, trusting that love can overcome misunderstanding if one is has enough courage to apply it.
In that spirit, he came to speak to a small town of well-educated people, many of whom were not then inclined to give him an easy time. One man, who left a record of that day, wanted to confront him with some deep criticisms that he boiled down into a few pointed questions. But when it came time for the Alter Rebbe to speak to the town, after saying a few words about the mystical depth of music, he began to sing a wordless melody that completely changed the atmosphere that had begun as skeptical and a touch hostile. All that melted away in the wordless song — and there was a place for words and the clarity of well-formed ideas.
It is well to consider both the music and the words as divine gifts. Words have great power, not the least their ability to set clear moral lines to guide us to a life of meaning and the felicity that brings. The musical sensibility is equally necessary and perhaps more so. The most indispensable things in life cannot be reduced entirely to words or algorithms. That which makes us free springs from a place beyond the finite, the image of the divine within.
Our own politics needs both these elements working in harmony. We need the clarity of ideas, but peace springs from a wholeness that finite words can never completely capture. Combine the two, and you hear the majestic, musical cadences of Churchill’s speeches, holding high the torch in democracy’s darkest hour.
I see as well the student of the Alter Rebbe lighting a Chanukah menorah on the podium of the Kremlin’s Great Hall where Stalin had once stood. It is an enduring and commanding image.
Embed fierce moral courage in a musical pursuit of ever-greater harmony and we have true leadership. And that is what we need, whether in our families or local communities, or in our states, or in a country as a whole.