Rabbi Levi Shemtov proclaims an Orthodox faith, with its ancient and cherished traditions, in a secular society, with its fleeting trends. That paradox will be illuminated on Sunday, Dec. 13, when Shemtov oversees the celebration of Hanukkah on the Ellipse and the lighting of the national menorah.
The 41-year-old is the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch, serving a growing movement within Hasidic Judaism. He shared with The Examiner by e-mail the source of his beliefs, and thoughts on his faith’s continuation.
Do you consider yourself to be of a specific faith?
I am Jewish, and appreciate the many opportunities it gives me, every day, to serve my Creator in a way which hopefully benefits the world He made. Judaism allows me to find the sacred in what might seem mundane and to elevate even the most basic experiences of life. I also deeply appreciate the survival of my forbears through history and its most daunting difficulties.
Did anyone or any event especially influence your faith or your path in life?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory. A spiritual giant and leader of world Jewry in our generation, he emphatically taught and demonstrated the innate value of each individual, no matter how humble or prominent, and the need for each person to find within their core the power to improve themselves, help others and thus enhance the world. He helped rebuild a decimated post-Holocaust Jewish people into a vibrant, forward-looking force, and showed that hope and positivity can help overcome virtually any obstacle.
Hasidic communities tend to be fairly insular. Why is that, and is it sustainable?
Many, if not most Hasidic communities are indeed insular, as a method of preserving tradition, community cohesion and of staving off outside influence. The method has its merits.
I personally prefer the approach of my own Hasidic community, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which is the largest and fasting growing movement in Judaism today, with over 3,500 active centers in 47 states and over 80 countries.
While we are basically uniform in appearance and religious practice, our communities and spoken languages (other than Hebrew and Yiddish) reflect a literal kaleidoscope of humanity.
As we were taught by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, open and energetic expression together with religious outreach (within our faith — we do not proselytize) can serve as an even more effective antidote to the seduction of modern culture than insularity, in that it reinforces and proves the viability of seemingly anachronistic, even ancient religious conduct in a very modern world, in essence prevailing substantially over that ultimate challenge.
As pluralistic as we’ve become in American society, we still tend to put Christmas and Hanukkah into one happy holiday season. In isolation, what is the most relevant Hanukkah lesson or value for Washington, D.C., 2009?
I believe America’s real beauty lies in the unprecedented opportunity it affords people of all faiths to maintain their distinct heritage within a common nationality. I, for one, cherish and try to live that religious freedom every day. I see the towers and pillars of our unique country in my daily life, and thank the Almighty for the blessings He bestows upon America, as I pray for her security and prosperity.
In my opinion, the most relevant Hanukkah lesson for Washington, D.C., 2009, is that which is expressed in our prayers during the festival itself, referring to the miracles “in those days, in this time.” Every era has its own dark forces which seem to rise and almost smother light. Things can seem so bleak, but goodness prevails. We are in a struggle against evil again today, but as in those days of the Hanukkah story, in these times we again hope and pray (and work to ensure) that the forces of light will prevail once again.
At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?
I believe we need to seek a more healed and perfected world. It can be difficult to endure and even appreciate those we don’t really understand or identify with. But we must never give up. If we were all supposed to be the same, we wouldn’t have been created different. I believe the Almighty takes pleasure in seeing His children respect each other’s differences yet ultimately come together in a common purpose, to bring the world to a greater sense of redemption, harmony and perfection, difficult as it may be.