To the editors:
Florence Levinsohn ("A Special Connection with God," September 2), misses the essence of Judaism. Judaism is a religion of redemption in this world. The Western idea of heaven as a "construct of poets and philosophers" goes back to the Platonic idea of this world being an inferior imitation of the ideal world of forms, and, having been adopted by Christianity, is one of the major differences between it and normative, that is, Orthodox Judaism.
In traditional Judaism, heaven occurs on earth, when people live in a godly manner, observing the 613 biblical mitzvot (commandments). The Lubavitchers share this with all Orthodox, and some Conservative and Reform Jews. The customs Levinsohn tries mightily to label bizarre (though she clearly has trouble doing so) are the vehicles for making the world holy and bringing God down to earth.
On a personal note, I am greatly indebted to the Lubavitcher organization. I have spent many Shabboses at the Lubavitch Chabad House in Evanston, and have met many Lubavitchers. They have been unfailingly friendly and in no way have I been proselytized. Through such Lubavitcher efforts as the Menorah and the Sukkah in the Daley Center Plaza, as well as their classes and outreach programs, Jewish teaching and real-life experience of Jewish living is there for those who want it. Again, unlike Christianity, Judaism requires more than a leap of faith. It requires learning how to observe the commandments on a day-to-day basis, in daily experience. The Lubavitchers provide an example, among others. While I am not an adherent of Lubavitch, for several reasons, I would not have become observant without them, and I would like to recommend and praise their programs.
Florence Levinsohn replies:
I'm terribly sorry that Ms. Oder believes I missed the essence of Judaism by using what I assumed would be understood as a metaphor when I wrote of the keys to heaven. Interestingly, however, since I, like Ms. Oder, thought that Jews did not have a concept of an actual heaven, I was surprised to learn after the article was published that Hasidim (including the Lubavitchers) do, indeed, believe in an afterlife. As Chaya Penansky explains, "There are no new souls on earth. We are all reincarnations. That is because there is not enough time in one lifetime to do all the mitzvahs, so God puts us back on earth to give us another chance." That concept places the Hasidic Jews among most of the world's people, especially ancient peoples. Perhaps Ms. Oder didn't spend quite enough time among her Lubavitch friends.