Sunday, November 13, 2005

Interview with Stephanie Wellen Levine

by Steven I. Weiss

In your paper, you critically considered whether and how Lubavitch may be successful or unsuccessful in achieving some of its goals.

How much do you think that was done by the other presentations at the conference, and what do you think that says about the tone of academia's approach to Lubavitch?

Keep in mind that I, more than anyone else at the conference, focussed on individual, rank and file Lubavitchers. In many other cases, people were looking at the Rebbe himself. I think there may have been a skittishness about criticizing Rabbi Schneerson as an individual–his own scholarship, his own philosophy. It's very possible that in, say, ten years, more scholars will move in that direction. Also, my research (originally for my book, Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey among Hasidic Girls), was an emotional, deeply personal experience for me. My research methods were founded on relationships and personal connection. My criticism of the community stems largely from its failure to embrace people who transcend certain boundaries: those who could never thrive in the traditional married-with-children lifestyle, those whose artistic vision reaches beyond Lubavitch strictures, those who lose faith, etc. I feel compelled to share their stories–and to encourage Lubavitchers to treat them with more respect and compassion–because I care about them as people. This sort of emotional involvement is rare in academia. Most academic projects are more dispassionate–and people may feel less compelled to criticize when they aren't emotionally involved with their subject. Also keep in mind that some of the presenters were Lubavitchers themselves. They may not have wanted to criticize their own group publicly.

As the individual who's done the most research of the lay population of Lubavitch, how much do you think the other scholarly presentations represented thought and practice as Lubavitchers themselves see them?

I think it really varied. Some were quite detached and theoretical. They didn't misrepresent the group; they simply dealt with themes and issues that wouldn't come up in most Lubavitchers' minds as they go about their lives. This is not necessarily bad; it's just something to consider.

As part of the single-sex environment that you detailed, how much do many of the esoteric aspects of Lubavitch, and phenomena such as post-death messianism, cross the fence from the male side to the female side?

As for the esoteric aspects, girls and women certainly study the Tanya–and thus have a strong grounding in esoteric mystical thought. Still, the boys' education on these matters is more intense. As for post-death messianism, the girls seem to run the same gamut as everyone else on the Rebbe/Moshiach controversy. But they weren't as politically involved as the boys. I'm told the boys would frequently get into intense arguments about the issue, while the girls rarely spoke about the controversy. I'd say the girls who were most passionate about the subject were the strong meshichists, the unequivocal believers that Schneerson will be the Messiah. They rarely argued with their peers who disagreed, but many of them loved to share their own views.

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