Editor’s note: Eliezer Steinman was a leading figure in Israeli literary circles in the ’50s. His contact with the Rebbe began when he was researching his famed Be’er haChassidut series, a many-volume work on the history and philosophy of Chassidism. At the time, the chassidim he approached refused to aid him in his research, because of his extremely secularist and anti-religious stance; the Rebbe, however, instructed a Lubavitcher chassid who lived in Jerusalem to open his library to him and assist him in every way. It was through this chassid that the Rebbe began his many years’ correspondence with Mr. Steinman, in the course of which the latter changed his entire outlook, publicly retracting his earlier writings and becoming a believing, practicing Jew. What follows is an excerpt of a letter from the Rebbe to Mr. Steinman, dated Shevat 26, 5716 (February 8, 1956):
… Thank you for your consideration in sending me your recent works… Regarding the series Be’er haChassidut, I have the following comments…
When writing about concepts and schools of thought in Torah, which is a living teaching and a teaching of life, particularly about that part of Torah which has a distinct emotional-experiential side, and especially if one is writing for a readership to whom these concepts are new and even alien to their world, it is not enough for the author to read the said Torah works, study them in-depth and transmit their gist; rather, he must immerse himself to the greatest possible extent in the spirit of Torah and in the experience of the founders and leaders of these schools. This is doubly so if the author’s aim is to derive practical conclusions relating to contemporary life.
I don’t know you personally, but I hope you will not take it amiss if I allow myself to suggest that in order to achieve your stated aim, as you yourself express it in your introduction to Be’er haChassidut, you ought to adopt and internalize the way of life you describe in your books, that is, life according to the Torah in thought and practice, as expounded upon in your books’ sources, the works of Chassidut. Sincerity and good faith is not enough; although they are of foremost importance, in no way do they suffice.
Perhaps you suspect that I am saying all this only to influence a Jew to become fully observant of the Torah and the mitzvot, and the standards of chassidic teaching. Indeed, I confess, our sages’ words, “A person is not suspected of something unless there is some truth in the suspicion,” do apply in this case. However, the “some truth” of my ulterior motive does not in any way detract from the utility, indeed necessity, of what I have said, to your aim of transmitting the teachings of Chassidut in the medium of your writing, in a manner that is optimally true to their essence.
Perhaps you also wonder at my hope to influence, with a mere letter, a writer and thinker whose way of life is doubtless founded upon a philosophy that is interwoven in the threads of his soul—to the point that I expect that the receipt of this letter will influence changes not only in his thinking but in his behavior as well.
My reasoning, however, is that I am not suggesting anything that is new or my own, but an ages-old idea, which is, at the same time, also pristinely new and recreates worlds every day—namely, the Torah and its mitzvot. And one who believes in a person and his infinite potential—for the Jewish soul, to quote the author of the Tanya, is “literally a part of G-d above” Who is infinite—also believes that in a single turn and in a single moment, each and every man can attain the deepest heights, regardless of where he stood a moment earlier. The impetus might be nothing more than the smallest matter and the smallest spark, since it serves only to unleash the infinite treasures that lie in the soul of the listener or reader.
With esteem and blessing
. Published in Igrot Kodesh, vol. XII, pp. 313-315.
. I.e., chassidic teaching.
. Talmud, Moed Katan 18b.
. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Chassidism.
. Tanya, ch. 2.