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Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk: Resolving Conflicts

 Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk was one of the great disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch. He was born to his father, Rebbe Moshe, who was a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov. He was orphaned at an early age and grew up in the home of the Maggid of Mezritch. The Maggid even took him with him when he would travel to the Ba’al Shem Tov. When the Maggid passed away and according to his will, Rebbe Menachem Mendel became the leader of the chasidim in White Russia and Lithuania. In an attempt to calm the rift and accusations against Chassidut within the Jewish communities, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk traveled together with the Alter Rebbe in order to meet the Vilna Gaon. The Vilna Gaon, however, pressured by his family, evaded the meeting and exited the city until Rebbe Menachem Mendel and the Alter Rebbe had left. In 5537 (1777), Rebbe Menachem Mendel made aliyah together with 300 of his chasidim. This was a very significant number of people to make aliyah as a group in that era. They first settled in Peki’in, then moved to Tzfat and finally to Tiberias. Rebbe Menachem Mendel conducted himself and his court externally like it was a royal house. Rebbe Yaakov Yosef of Polonne said that Rebbe Menachem Mendel conceals his deep lowliness specifically in what could be misinterpreted as grandeur. Rebbe Menachem Mendel would sign his letters with the subscript, “the truly lowly.” Despite his youth, the disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov admired him and Rebbe Pinchas of Kuritz even called him “the king of Israel.” Rebbe Menachem Mendel died on the first of Iyar, 5548 (1788) and was buried in the ancient cemetery of Tiberias, in the section of the students of the Ba’al Shem Tov. His student, Rebbe Elazar Zusman, collected his Torah teachings into the book, Pri Ha’aretz.

In 5537 (1777) the holy Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk decided to make aliyah to the Land of Israel.  He was troubled, however, about leaving his flock of chasidim in the midst of the great dispute between the chasidim and those opposed to Chasidut (called mitnagdim). He decided that before his journey to the Land of Israel, he would journey to Vilna, home of the Vilna Gaon, who was the leader of the mitnagdim. He wished to clear up many of the false rumors that had been spread about Chasidut and to open the door to peace for the Jewish people. Rabbi Menachem Mendel journeyed to Vilna with his friend and disciple, Rabbi Shneur Zalman (the Alter Rebbe of Chabad). They stayed at the home of Rabbi Shmuel, the chief of the Jewish court in Vilna. Rabbi Shmuel received them cordially. He was pleased with the purpose of their mission. He too wanted to finally end the raging dispute.

The Vilna Gaon, however, did not want to meet with Rabbi Menachem Mendel and the Alter Rebbe. He did not want to enter into a debate with them about chasidut and said that it is forbidden to debate with chasidim. Rebbe Menachem Mendel and the Alter Rebbe went to the Vilna Gaon’s home twice, but they were not able to enter his study, for he closed the door to them. The Torah scholars of Vilna went to the Gaon and said, “Our Rabbi, behold their famous rabbi has come to debate your honor. Surely he will be defeated and then peace will come to Israel.” The Vilna Gaon did not heed their words. When they persevered, he left the city and did not return until the two chasidic giants had left Vilna.

Later, Rabbi Menachem Mendel sent the Alter Rebbe together with Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk to Shklov [Shklow] to engage in dialogue with the mitnagdim. There, as well, they did not succeed. Originally, the mitnagdim had promised them that if they would lose the debate, they would accept their words and would not do anything to harm them. Later, however, they changed their minds and their promise. When the mitnagdim lost the debate, they did not keep their word and responded harshly, even locking Rabbi Menachem Mendel and the Alter Rebbe in a dark cellar to punish them. Later, with the kindness of Heaven, they were able to escape.

When Rabbi Menachem Mendel and the Alter Rebbe saw that there was no hope to make peace with them, they stopped speaking with them. They put their trust in God that He would not abandon the chasidim and would protect them.

The mission of Rabbi Menachem Mendel and the Alter Rebbe was difficult and disappointing. All of their attempts to achieve some sort of dialogue with the head of the mitnagdim—the Vilna Ga’on, who was also a man of truth capable of admitting his mistake if he would be convinced—came to naught. Nevertheless, they tried time and again to reach out and explain. Only when all their attempts had failed did they give up their mission.

Even from the Land of Israel, Rabbi Menachem Mendel continued to send letters to the rabbis of the mitnagdim. According to a certain version of the failed meeting, Rabbi Menachem Mendel said that he regrets not having broken the Vilna Gaon’s door down so that he could have seen him for just a moment…

What is the source of the strength that motivated the two rabbis to keep trying, even when it was clear there was no chance for a true and open dialogue? Let us contemplate this with the help of the letter written by the Alter Rebbe called Katonti.[1] This is the letter that the Alter Rebbe sent to his chasidim following his release from prison. In the letter, he warns his chasidim “with an awesome warning” not to look down upon the mitnagdim, God forbid. Instead, the Alter Rebbe instructed his followers to “just lower their spirits and hearts with the attribute of ‘truth to Jacob.’” Rabbi Menachem Mendel would sign all of his letters with the words “the truly lowly” to describe himself.  In his rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s footsteps, the Alter Rebbe warns his disciples to be “truly lowly”—not as a tactic, not just for show, but for real! The lowly person does not break if he has a door slammed in his face. He knows that every person is free to choose between good and bad and that all his efforts cannot force someone else to do as he wishes.

Lowliness, however, is just one part of the story. The beginning of the Alter Rebbe’s letter discusses the approach to closeness to God that a person merits, such as the miracle that the Alter Rebbe, and the entire Chasidic movement, merited. From the lowliness that should arouse this closeness to God, the tzaddik demands closeness and “a soft response that defuses anger” toward his sworn enemies, who wanted him to die.

Regarding our story about Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, the question can be posed in all its intensity. The Alter Rebbe demands of his followers “to lower their spirits and hearts in the attribute of the truth of Jacob, before every person, with lowliness of spirit, a soft response that defuses anger, and a meek spirit. And nevertheless and perhaps God will open their hearts to their brothers, like the reflection of a face to a face in water.” How can all these efforts be made for the opposing camp, when it is nearly impossible to touch its heart? The constant aspiration and cleaving to any hope that perhaps the other side will choose good come from a true, powerful will for closeness with the other, from a place of unconditional love. This is the inner dimension of all the Alter Rebbe’s guidance: lowliness of spirit and a soft response.

A Continuum of Hope

The loving motivation for bridging the gap is reminiscent of two similar chasidic approaches to conflict: One is the service of giving the benefit of the doubt to every person by assuming the role of the “defending angel,” for which Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was famous. The second is the Azamra approach of Rabbi Nachman of Breslev,[2] which urges us to find even one small point of good in our opponents. In both these approaches, as in the Alter Rebbe’s approach that “perhaps God will open their hearts,” there is a wish and desire that the other side will ultimately choose the good.

These three approaches create a continuum of past, present, and future: The Berditchever’s “defending angel” approach refers to the past and finds a revolutionary explanation for what seems like evil on the superficial plane. Rebbe Nachman’s “good point” approach focuses on the present. We pray and are sure in the present that the good point will ultimately overcome the evil. The Alter Rebbe’s unremitting hope, even when faced with the most hardened of hearts, puts its trust in the future, when the tide will shift, and the opposition will come to embrace goodness and kindness.

Each of these three points by itself is limited and lacking because it relates to only one side of the conflict that has arisen between friends. But together, they express complete love for one’s fellow.

Submission, Separation, and Sweetening

To understand the importance of this three-pronged approach, we will parallel it to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s explanation that every process consists of submission, separation, and sweetening:

Giving a person the benefit of the doubt (the defending angel approach) requires submission. To act in this manner and defend that person’s actions, I must invest effort to let go of my superficial view of reality.

Searching for a good point in my opponent constitutes an act of separation, particularly between the all-encompassing negativity and a single point of light, or goodness in his character and/or his actions.

When I simply hope for a return to goodness, I am in effect paradoxically trying to control a person who has free will and needs to choose the good himself. This typifies an act of sweetening. We do not always merit reaching or implementing this stage, just as Rabbi Menachem Mendel and the Alter Rebbe did not succeed in attaining a state of sweetening in their attempts to reach out to the Vilna Gaon.

Nevertheless, the opposition to Chasidut did eventually diminish in the following generations and their hope for love and respect between the sides was ultimately fulfilled.

[1]. Printed in the Tanya, Iggeret Hakodesh, ch. 2.

[2]. Likkutei Moharan 1, 282.

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