The letters of our thoughts are the ideas present in our mind before they come to realization . . . Thoughts that are, yet not felt . . . The words of the subconscious . . . of the soul . . .


Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Conversations on the Rebbe's Scholarship

The first in a series of inquiries and blog posts on the Rebbe's legacy to the world - this post is an interview conducted with Rabbi Dovid Olidort  from Kehot Publication Society.

Q. Please tell us a little about yourself. What was your involvement with the transcribing
and printing of the Rebbe's teachings and what do you do today in relation to that

A. I arrived in 770 as a student in the central Lubavitch yeshivah from Israel in September 1973.
Already as a young student in the Yeshivah I used to participate in the famous "chazarah" when
Reb Yoel Kahan (the senior chozer), who had memorized the Rebbe’s lengthy discourses
on Shabbat and Yomtov, would review the farbrengens after Shabbat and Yomtov (with the
assistance of some of the Yeshivah boys- also known as chozrim). After the chazarah I used to
transcribe, for myself, the Rebbe's talks right away.
In 1976 I became a member of the newly restructured Va’ad Hanochos Hatmimim, responsible
for publishing the Rebbe's unedited talks (which included both sichot and maamarim
[Maamarim, "discourses", are different from "sichot", talks in both style and content: The style
of the Sichot were ‘free form’, and dealt with all sorts of issues, ranging from an elucidation
of a Rashi or Rambam to an address on a current communal issue that was ion the Rebbe’s
heart. The maamarim on the other hand focused exclusively on subjects of chasidut (chasdic
theology), and were delivered in a particularly structured style (and tone of voice). These took
their cue from and were "based" upon the maamarim of the Rebbes of previous generations]).
Later, in 1978, we divided the work between the members of the Va’ad. I would write most of
the Maamarim (some were written by Reb Yoel Kahan and others), with the help of Reb Sholom
Charitonov (who was also one of the chozrim).

I continued, in this capacity (to transcribe the maamarim) until 1988, when the Rebbe stopped
saying Maamarim.
From 1981-1983 I also was part of the editorial board of Vaad Lehafotzas Sichos, and
participated in the preliminary editing of the sichot that were being prepared for the Rebbe to
review and edit and would then be published in the weekly Likkutei Sichot. (Eventually all of
these were published in the volumes of Likkutei Sichot).
After a break of a few years, I once again joined the editorial board of Vaad Lehafotzas Sichos.
I was part of this editorial body between 1986 and 1992 when the Rebbe suffered a stroke and
stopped editing the sichot.
Currently I am an editor at Kehot Publication Society.

Q Much has been made, as of late, about the Rebbe's personality and history. However,
it seems that the Rebbe's role in Torah study and his scholarship have been largely
ignored. What can you tell us about the Rebbe's scholarship and contribution to Torah

A. The facts speak for themselves:
His profundity, his fields of interest and versatility in methodology were extra-ordinary. Although
he often addressed communal and even universal issues at his farbrengens, the majority of his
talks were dedicated to Divrei Torah which he delivered with great intensity and enthusiasm. It is
impossible for me to describe the breadth and depth of the Rebbe's scholarship and erudition.
As for me personally, I have had the privilege of listening to hundreds of hours of the Rebbe
speaking. From listening to the Rebbe’s oral presentations, transcribing and preparing his Torah
for publication I have learned a tremendous amount in Talmudic, Halachic and Chasidic topics;
a unique reservoir of knowledge.

Q. While your work is known within Chabad circles, you're name has recently shown up
in the discussion of Chabad and the Rebbe in wider circles. Avrum Ehrlich writes in his
book, ''The Messiah of Brooklyn: Understanding Lubavitch Hasidim Past and Present'' -
Chapter 8, p. 80, note 35., about the Rebbes' later years, how he was "told [by you] how
most of Schneerson’s aides and editors adored him and saw him as virtually infallible,
despite their numerous corrections of his failing scholarship." Is this statement true?

A. No. It is Not.
Not only is this statement about "failing scholarship" false - I never made it - but it is
contradicted by the facts. During the 1980’s, for example, the Rebbe delivered Divrei
Torah of the highest claiber. Many of these are available in tape recordings. To be sure,
there were changes in the style of the Rebbe's talks around 1987, when he also stopped
saying "maamarim" and, in general, did not elaborate and extrapolate in the same way that
he would have previously done; the sichot were usually shorter and his presentation of ideas
less verbose (even terse). I may have mentioned this to Ehrlich. He may have misunderstood
me and therefore misconstrued what I said. However his suggestion that I spoke of "failing
scholarship" has no basis in reality.
To set the record completely straight: Ehrlich came to eat at my Yomtov table on Shavuot 1995
with some of his ex-chabad friends. We spoke about all sorts of things. In particular I remember
how he spoke about his dream of creating a kingdom of Judea in the West Bank in Israel... We
spoke about other issues as well, but I never said that which he attributes to me. [Needless to
say there was no note taking or tape recording, as it was Yom Tov].
Furthermore, his book is replete with the symptoms of careless research, note taking and
documenting. His citations and “attributions”, even in this very regard, are confusing and
sometimes contradictory. For example, after saying in the above page that he learned of the
alleged “failing scholarship” from me via “personal communication”, later (on page 165 footnote
25) he attributes the same statement to “interviews with Levine [who is Levine?!] and [me]". Was
it an interview or a personal communication?
Another example of his carelessness: on page 155 he refers to Rabbi Binyamin Klein, one of
the Rebbe's secretaries, as Yaakov Kline.

Q: While researching my article on Sefer Ha'Arachim Chabad, you suggested that
I consult various academics on their use of this Chabad encyclopedia and there
study of the Rebbe's scholarship in general. With this new interest in the academic
study of the Rebbe's thought, is there a particular aspect of the Rebbe's scholarship
that you think ought to be further discussed in the academic forums or in print?

A. I believe there are a few aspects of the Rebbe's contribution to Jewish scholarship that need
to be studied in depth.
First and foremost is his original view of Chasidic teaching as expressing the most sublime
aspect of the divine in every detail of our life experience. My friend Rabbi Faitel Levin of
Melbourne, Australia, wrote one book on this topic titled Heaven On Earth. There is more to be
said about this subject.
Second is the Rebbe's method of analysis of Biblical and Talmudic texts which is extraordinarily
unique. In his approach to Chasidut, the Rebbe summarized and crystallized many of the core
concepts of chasidut, such as the unity of G-d, the centrality of the Torah, the love of a fellow
Jew, and others, in a clear and, in many cases, in an original manner.
In Halachic issues and in his studies of the classic sources, his attention to the ‘micro’, the
minute variations in textual nuance, whilst always returning to the ‘macro’, the solid messages
and the existentially meaningful ideas that affect our appreciation of the ethical and judicial
aspect of Torah, is astounding.
One can say that the Rebbe's works (at least a genuine study of his works) allows the
student to benefit from horizontal view of all the disciplines of Torah in their relationship to
each other, while engaging as well in a deep, vertical approach to each individual topic.

(Image Source Chabad Revisited)

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menachem said...

Perhaps connected, here is the a series of articles in the Beis Moshiach detailing the history of Likutei Sichos and Vaad L’hafotzas Sichos:

part 1
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6
part 7