The full interview by Baila Olidort of Naftali Loewenthal is a long 8000 words, read the full interview here. Below are some excerpts. Here we have another baby-boomer who dropped out- lived in the woods- came back via Chasidut- chose between Breslov and Chabad- and became a teacher of Hasidism. Note also that he had the chance to learn with Rav Futerfas.
Naftali Loewenthal caught my interest about twenty years ago when his book, Communicating the Infinite, was issued by Chicago University Press. The Chabad Chasid, a Ph.D in Jewish history who wrote his dissertation on the second Chabad Rebbe at University College London, lectures on topics such as Hasidism and Modernity, Gender in Orthodoxy, Science in Chassidic Thought in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at UCL.
With his own interests in art, poetry and music, Naftali explored Chabad Chasidism as a young scholar in search of sustaining truths. A father of eleven children, Naftali is widely appreciated as a teacher of Chabad Chasidism—its texts and its applied ideals and values. Naftali lives in London with his wife Kate-Miriam, who holds an emeritus Chair of Psychology at London University and currently lectures at New York University in London.
Naftali Loewenthal: I come from a mixture of Yekkish (German) Jews who were very much under the Hirschian influence—my father’s family, and Chasidic Jews on my mother’s side.
After school I began studying psychology at University College London—the first Godless university in England, set up on agnostic and humanistic principles.
But I dropped out in my first year there because I didn’t want the falseness of academia. I decided I wanted to be a writer. This was around 1967. I was in my early 20s. My wife and I were living a very solitary life in the mountains above Bethesda, North Wales.
How did you get interested in Chassidism?
Well, in my first year at UCL, I took a course with Professor Yossi Weiss.
Weiss was fascinated by Rabbi Nachman of Braslav, so that sparked my own interest in Braslav and I began to learn Likkutei Moharan. Later when I was spending a semester studying at Hebrew U, I met Rabbi Gedaliah Koenig, a prominent Braslav teacher, and studied with him three times a week in his home in Mea Shearim. At that time also, my family in Jerusalem would often take me to the tisch of the Beis Yisroel, the Gerer Rebbe.
At that time, did you meet any other significant Chabad Chassidim?
Well, a very important figure in London Lubavitch at that time was the legendary Reb Mendel Futerfas. During my Summer vacation of 1969, for a period of a few weeks, I would meet with him early in the morning and we would study Likkutei Torah and sometimes Tanya. His approach was not overtly to try to make me a Lubavitcher, it was to help me become a Chasid. He felt that everyone has to be a Chasid, because if you’re not a Chasid, then who is your Rebbe?
You yourself are your own Rebbe—and mechanically you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, because you don’t have any outer objective reality to measure yourself by, you are your own Rebbe.
So everyone has a Rebbe—either the Rebbe is their own ego, or they have a Rebbe of some kind. From Reb Mendel I understood that you need a Rebbe—that was an important step for me.
Reb Mendel is still referred to today as a model Chasid. He sat in Soviet prisons for almost a decade.
Yes, and he once said to me, “a lot of people were very unhappy in lager [prison camp].”
That was the statement—I felt this was an incredibly significant point of reality in terms of what life is about, what being a human being is—broader even than being a Jew. In my juvenile mind—to “live” was what I wanted to do, and I saw Reb Mendel as a person who was living. He described his nine years in lager as “a long farbrengen without mashke”—that was his experience of it.
Another wonderful figure in London at that time was Rabbi Meir Gurkow. He was very old, and found it hard to walk all the way to Lubavitch House. So he would daven in a little shtiebl next door to where he lived. Well, it just happened, by Divine Providence, that this was the shtiebl where we davened before we began going to Lubavitch. On Shabbos at Shalosh Se’udos he would give a drosho, which I now know was probably from Likkutei Torah. I didn’t understand a word, but it was somehow radiant!
At this time… our second daughter was born, at which point I spent the time in Jerusalem which I mentioned earlier, and got involved with Braslav.
When I returned to England I actually began collecting money for Braslav, for a building complex, a Shikun, which Reb Gedalia wanted to build in Safed.
How do you reconcile the need to assert individuality, with the lifestyle of a Chasid?
It is a challenge, I would say it is called pnimius, inwardness. A pnimiusdig Chasid is totally an individual and at the same time totally attuned and connected to the Rebbe. His individuality is expressed in his or her unique perspective on the world.
When you consider the corpus of Chabad Chasidut, you find that you are dealing with something that is bli gvul, or infinite. Communicating or integrating such content means that you are attempting to fit the infinite into our finite, individual personalities. And that will express itself in distinctly individualistic ways in each person.
In that way, no two Chasidim are the same—they are each their own charismatic guide and character, and each will understand the same Chasidic discourse in very different ways. Over the years, working closely with Rabbis Lew, Zvi Telsner and Faivish Vogel, the individualistic side of Chabad Chasidic thought was strongly emphasized. Each of those three people would look at a topic or a problem in a somewhat different way. Rabbi Vogel, for example, can embrace modernistic and individualistic perspectives while at the same time sensing the purist, traditionalist dimension.
The idea of individualism in Chasidism is very important to me—it’s part of the lecture course I give, and the book I am currently writing. I see it in the values and the inwardness of a Chasid, of the way he might bare his own private experience after a few hours of contemplative prayer, and allows others access to that, often in a farbrengen that follows, on a Shabbat afternoon.
What he chooses to share, his discovery from his contemplative prayer experience will be very different from his fellow Chasid. I’ve seen this many times where some of the Chasidic greats spent time in contemplative prayer, and would then come down to “farbreng,” and you could feel the “richness” of the exploration..
When did you meet the Rebbe for the first time?
After two years of writing long letters in Hebrew to the Rebbe, in the Summer of 1973 I went to Crown Heights for the first time for a month. My question to the Rebbe in yechidus –[private audience] was, should I go working on my Ph.D, or should I do a smicha –rabbinical ordination—at Jews College, or should I go into business.
The yechidus with him lasted nine minutes, and when I came out, I remember thinking that the Rebbe lets you see as much of yourself as you can bear.
The ego is a monster—the Rebbe holds up a mirror to you, so you see your own coarseness but not too much of it, because otherwise you’d turn to stone, it would have a paralyzing effect. Yet at the same time, I felt the Rebbe activates a kind of detonator, releasing your own potential.
The Rebbe advised me to go on with my Ph.D.
You are now working on another with a curious title.
Yes, I’m calling it Hippy in the Mikva: The Chabad Paradigm in a World of Change.
After I completed the book, I began changing the ways I thought about Chabad. I began thinking of a more general and universal way of expressing what Chabad is really about. I thought in terms of “drawing the infinite into the finite.” In a way, that is a more general way to describe “communication.” But an essential aspect of that process concerns the borders of the finite. That’s where I began to think of deconstruction as the paradigm—the see the borders that there are between, for example, the individual and the divine, between the individual soul and body, between the Jew and the community, and then to deconstruct those borders—to find a way to open those borders without being destructive.
That’s the great challenge which the Chasidic movement as a whole from the Baal Shem Tov, and Chabad in particular, is emphasizing in its communication of Chasidic thought.
And the Mitteler Rebbe did this—he communicated Chasidut to the widest reach, in terms of the society he was facing. Of course, our Rebbe took all this further in a most remarkable way. But in the process there are some barriers that have to be lifted, or made porous, and in that process there might be danger, or someone might think there is danger. Hence the controversial nature of Chasidism in its early years, and Chabad today, which continues the early deconstructive essence of Chasidism.
You are a mentor to so many people. What do you tell them about how to understand the idea of Divine Providence in evaluating their own lives, mistakes, bad choices they’ve made, and believing that none of it is coincidental?
I believe that you’ve got to see the world as a chess game which G-d sets up for you. Whatever moves you made in the past are all part of the situation as it is now, and the spotlight is on you. You are the master of your own destiny—and it is not a matter of regretting the past or fears of the future.
As the Rebbe said in a Maamar of Purim, 1957, the point is to come to a place beyond ordinary rational knowledge where you are able to act in the right way, whether avoiding bad or doing good, because you are operating from your own essence. Of course, you are guided by the Torah and the Code of Jewish Law. But your knowledge of the halachah is a channel for that which is beyond knowledge, the essence. That essence is the Yechidah, the innermost part of the soul, the point at which the individual joins with Yachid, the Infinite Divine. Full interview Here.