The Rebbe, From A Personal Angle


Calling someone “larger than life” risks raising that person from the realm of the human to that of myth. Yet that epithet may be an understatement for someone as personally charismatic and globally influential as Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh leader of the Lubavitch (or Chabad) chasidic movement.

Rabbi Schneerson was (and still is) widely referred to as simply “the Rebbe,” but he was anything but simple. Over the course of his leadership from 1951 to his death in 1994, he succeeded, against the odds in assimilationist America, in both enlivening and enlarging the religious community whose European presence was nearly annihilated in the Holocaust. His counsel was sought out by government leaders across the political spectrum in the United States, Israel and elsewhere. He was beloved by his followers, but he also courted controversy.

During his lifetime and even afterward, at least some (and perhaps many, depending on whom you speak to) of Rabbi Schneerson’s followers fervently believed that he would help bring, or himself prove to be, the Messiah who would redeem and transform the world. Since his passing, there has been no successor to the Rebbe as the Lubavitch leader, and it’s unlikely that there will be one anytime soon.

This month, as the 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s death approaches, two new books, each by a noted rabbi, seek to put his legacy in perspective. Given the Rebbe’s outsized reputation, that would seem a daunting task. Perhaps that is why both books take a personal approach in portraying the life and character of this commanding figure.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History” (Harper Wave), is a well-known Orthodox rabbi in New York and a prolific writer of such widely read books as “The Book of Jewish Ethics” and “Jewish Literacy.” Although Rabbi Telushkin is not a follower of Lubavitch, he has close ties to the movement through his father, who was Schneerson’s personal accountant for decades. The celebrated Talmud scholar and author Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is a follower of Lubavitch, as suggested by the title for his book, “My Rebbe” (Sheffa Foundation Maggid Books).

Both authors clearly admire the Rebbe, their reverence evident even when they question or disagree with any of his views or actions. Given their common subject (as well as many common interview and archival sources), there is also an inevitable overlap between the two books, with a number of similar anecdotes and quotes appearing in both volumes. But because each book presents a slightly different slant, with divergent emphases, they also complement one another. (Readers interested in a less reverential approach might also turn to “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson” by Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, an in-depth study of the Rebbe’s life and continuing impact that ruffled feathers when it appeared in 2010; neither Telushkin nor Steinsaltz mention it in their books.)

As both new books show, Rabbi Schneerson’s life story was in itself a journey through the Jewish history of the 20th century. He was born into a well-known Lubavitch family in Russia in 1902, and from an early age intently pursued religious studies. Still, while in his 20s and 30s he also trained and worked as a scientist and engineer, living in Berlin and Paris before finding safe passage to New York at the outbreak of World War II. Only then did he begin his ascent to Lubavitch leadership, accepting the role of Rebbe in 1951 after the death of his father-in-law, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. And in that reinvention of his life, he found his life mission.

He was as inspiring as he was pragmatic. He mobilized at first hundreds and then thousands of enthusiastic young members in the Lubavitch community to participate in “Mitzvah campaigns” to encourage Jewish women to light Sabbath candles and Jewish men to don tefillin. Many of these youths subsequently volunteered as “shluchim” — emissaries — who would uproot themselves to settle in diverse locales around the world with the mission of deepening observance among Jews wherever they went.

Perhaps the most visible symbol of the Rebbe’s impact in this country is the presence every winter of giant Chanukah menorahs erected in public spaces, including a “National Menorah” on the White House grounds; the impetus to celebrate the holiday candle-lighting proudly in public, as well as the distinctive angular design of the menorah itself, came directly from Rabbi Schneerson.

Many hailed the Rebbe’s innovative outreach programs. Many others did not. The Chanukah menorahs spurred lawsuits on the grounds of separation of church and state, and the mitzvah campaigns struck many secular Jews as annoying or intrusive. Nor were his political opinions always popular or welcome: In regard to Israel, he vigorously opposed any negotiations that would trade land for peace, including the Camp David Accords. In a seeming paradox, however, during the 1960s and 1970s he advised against active demonstrations to help free Soviet Jewry, advising “quiet diplomacy” instead. In addition, unlike the majority of the Jewish community, he supported the notion of daily prayer in public schools; to him, it represented a way to instill from early on an awareness of God.

And then there was the messianic message that played so large a role in the Rebbe’s theology.

Telushkin’s “Rebbe,” is, at 617 pages, the more comprehensive — and longer — of the two new books. Though it is billed as a biography, it put me in mind of a collage, with each chapter focusing on a different aspect of the various religious concerns, personal qualities, management skills and philosophical and spiritual wisdom that made Rabbi Schneerson so distinctive. If you want just “the facts” of the rabbi’s life, skip to the 60-page year-by-year chronological account that appears almost as an afterthought at the very end of the book. For a vivid, panoramic view of Rabbi Schneerson — in each of his many roles as dynamic spiritual leader, inspiring teacher, and even motivating life coach and management guru — read the preceding 450 pages.

Telushkin’s Rebbe is a man in constant motion, a non-stop whirlwind of faith-driven energy and action possessed of a spiritual calm at the center. By all accounts, the Rebbe’s daily work and prayer schedule left virtually no time for sleep. His piety was remarkable: He would devote hours each week to private prayer at the tomb of his father-in-law and predecessor, invoking guidance and inspiration. He also made himself unusually accessible to the public. For most of his decades of leadership the Rebbe set aside two or three evenings each week to meet with anyone who cared to wait outside his personal office at Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn; those personal office hours would start at 8 p.m. and often extend until dawn.

Rabbi Telushkin recounts numerous accounts of such meetings, as remembered by a broad range of people of all ages and occupations who patiently sat and waited for the Rebbe. These tales illustrate the depth of the Rebbe’s capacity for human connection as well as the breadth of his knowledge and curiosity, and the chapters that contain them are among the book’s highlights. Almost all these stories begin with descriptions of the Rebbe’s intensely focused blue-eyed gaze and his uncanny ability to quickly distill, and then resolve with an incisive comment, whatever issue troubled his visitor, from marital decisions to job opportunities to religious vocation.

These are cherished reminiscences, entertaining, instructive, often moving. Very rarely in these tales does the Rebbe’s advice turn out wrong — an indication of the Rebbe’s keen insight, to be sure. But to my mind the tales also suggest the psychological concept known as “confirmation bias,” in which we selectively notice and remember information and incidents that confirm our preconceptions and beliefs. Be that as it may, Rabbi Schneerson’s people and management skills yielded extraordinary results; I don’t doubt that Dale Carnegie or management expert Peter Drucker could have taken lessons from him.

To his credit, Rabbi Telushkin does not shy away from a range of opinions voiced by the Rebbe that sound dissonant and worse to our contemporary ears. Rabbi Schneerson’s literal interpretation of the Bible led him to reject Darwin and the theory of evolution. His similarly literal reading of the Talmud also led him to maintain that the sun revolves around the earth. Further troubling, especially given Rabbi Schneerson’s own erudition and education (not to mention the large number of Chabad houses on campuses across the country), was his general opposition to his followers’ attending college or receiving university degrees. The reason: exposure to and immersion in secular life during the impressionable years of adolescence and young adulthood could lure the observant away from traditional belief and practice.

The Rebbe’s complexities abounded. But for him, faith and Torah trumped everything.

Rabbi Steinsaltz’s volume, “My Rebbe,” at 223 pages, has the feel of a meditative memoir. In assessing the important role Schneerson played in his own life, as mentor and model, Jerusalem-based Rabbi Steinsaltz also takes care to place the Rebbe within the traditions of Lubavitch tradition and theology. He also presents the Rebbe’s life story with great empathy, starting with the ways in which the upheavals of history catapulted him from a hoped-for career in science in Europe to a new life in America within the Chabad movement, and extending to the personal anguish felt by the Rebbe and his wife at their childlessness. He also discusses the rivalries within the Schneerson family that bubbled over into a public scandal in the 1980s, when Schneerson’s nephew was prosecuted for stealing valuable rare books and manuscripts from the Lubavitch library collection. There is as much family grief here as in a story from Genesis.

He summarizes with precision the Rebbe’s spiritual — and life — mission. “It was the Rebbe’s absolutely unsparing commitment to bring redemption to the world through actions,” Rabbi Steinsaltz writes. “For the Rebbe, bringing the Mashiach was not a mystical or kabbalistic maneuver; it was supremely practical … bringing the Mashiach would depend entirely on wholehearted Torah study and observance of mitzvoth. Toward this end, he organized the mitzvah campaigns so that his Chasidim could bring his message to Jews everywhere.” At the same time, Rabbi Steinsaltz continues, the Rebbe viewed the tragedies of 20th-century history as “presaging a major event.”

So: Did the Lubavitch community view the Rebbe as the Messiah? Did the Rebbe himself?

Rabbi Telushkin believes this is a “non-issue” because the question misunderstands the traditional chasidic concept of there existing, in every generation, a potential candidate for Messiah. “It is this sense of ‘Messiah’ that many of the Lubavitchers intended” when they spoke of the Rebbe as the Messiah, Telushkin writes — as a potential Messiah, not the actual one.

Steinsaltz voices his view this way: “The acceptance of the Rebbe as the Mashiach of his time was almost universal among the Lubavitchers of the late twentieth century … it was simply an article of faith. … While he never said so outright, I think that the Rebbe considered it possible that he might be tapped to become the Mashiach — and that he could bring the Redemption. … However, he never made the claim outright and tried to quash all speculation.” Now, two decades after the Rebbe’s death, there still remain those who continue to believe that the Rebbe will be resurrected and revealed as the Messiah.

In the sense that the Rebbe’s influence and example remain so vivid, then “yes, it can be said that the Rebbe is still here,” Rabbi Steinsaltz concludes.

Certainly the fullness of the Rebbe’s personality is present in these well-drawn portraits by Rabbis Telushkin and Steinsaltz.