There is a story I heard from the shliach of Lexington, MA, Rabbi Bukiet. I am not too clear on the details, so if someone knows them, let me know.
There was one Shabbos when a chossid of the Frierdiker Rebbe and the Rebbe (who was “just” FR’s son-in-law at the time) found themselves together in a shull in France or in Germany. They were the only Lubavitchers in the shull. After everyone finished davening and proceeded to kiddush, the chossid and the Rebbe remained davening. Then the chossid finished and went to make the kiddush for himself, leaving the Rebbe standing alone, his face covered with a talles.
After a while, the Rebbe finished and joined the table. He made the kiddush for himself and sat opposite the chossid. Now, this chossid was an alter chossid of the Frierdiker Rebbe who was in France (or Germany) fund-raising. The Rebbe was dressed meticulously, as it says in Russian, “from a needle”. I am not talking about meticulously for a Russian (that doesn’t take much) — meticulously for a French (or a German). Looking at the chossid, it was not clear whether he put his pants that day right way or backwards, where they belonged or on his head. The typical chassidish shleperdic look, in other words.
The Rebbe looked for a long time at the chossid and then proceeded to give a long vort on the parsha, drawing from mystical sources and going higher and higher in his explanations. Now, the chossid was a simple guy, a simple oived; he was there to collect money, and he was happy to be at the kiddush table on Shabbos, and also happy to listen to the son-in-law of the Rebbe, even if he didn’t understand a word.
Suddenly the Rebbe changed the subject. He said: in Pirkey Avos, second chapter it says:
איזוהי דרך ישרה שיבור לו האדם
כל שהיא תפארת לעושיה ותפארת לו מן האדם
(Rebbi Yehudah HaNassi said: Which is the proper course that a man should choose for himself? That which is an honor to him and elicits honor from his fellow men.)Now, said the Rebbe, the language of this Mishna is unclear. It starts with “Rebbi oimer”, implying that there is a disagreement between Rebbi Yehudah HaNassi and the majority of the Sages. It is as if the rest of the Sages are saying: what does it matter to “elicit honor from his fellow men”?
A lot of people, continued the Rebbe, think the same way nowadays. We have our path. We have our Yiddishkeit. If others are interested, let them come and observe. Let them learn what they can. But we shall not adapt to them, will not make our ways “understandable” and acceptable to them. And it seems that this approach makes sense. Why should we change who we are for them?
Ober der Rebbe zogt! (“But the Rebbe says...!”)
These are not the times, concluded the Rebbe, to have the philosophy of “this is our way… let whoever is interested come, but if not, not…”. We have to make Yiddishkeit presentable and understandable for the rest of the world. On all levels.
In my humble opinion, this could mean many things. It could mean bringing down the ideas of Yiddishkeit from deepest to simplest to people far from Judaism. It could mean making Judaism presentable and desirable. It could mean bringing yourself to the level of someone you are trying to influence and getting interested in something which otherwise would never interest you. Not pretending to be interested, but really being interested.
Sometimes it also means simply behaving like a mentch, with basic civility. “Which is the proper course that a man should choose for himself? That which is an honor to him and elicits honor from his fellow men.”