A Human Portrait of the Rebbe (REVIEW)
Turning Judaism Outward: A biography of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, by Chaim Miller (New York: Kol Menachem Press, 2014).
For the benefit of the uninitiated, the term Rebbe is used to apply to the head of a Chassidic sect (in contrast to the term Rabbi or Rav, who is usually an ordained leader of a Jewish community). A Rebbe is regarded as the direct link between his Chassidim and the Almighty. Each Rebbe is the ultimate authority of his own followers and there is intense rivalry between the different sects, which vie with each other in their adoration and respect for their own specific Rebbe.
Of all the Rebbes in recent history, Menachen Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbe of Lubavitch/Chabad was exceptional. He led a small Hassidic movement back from near extinction in the Gulags of Siberia and the Nazi killing fields. He transformed it into the most successful outreach movement in Judaism since the days of Hillel.
The big question is whether it is possible to be objective about him and about his achievements?
A biography is supposed to describe its subject – his limitations and mistakes as well as successes and qualities. But great spiritual leaders are rarely good material for interesting biographies because their true personal feelings are usually hidden from view. They rarely write the sort of memoirs politicians do to whitewash their records. There are no revealing diaries that betray their innermost secrets.
The result is that religious leaders usually get hagiographies. The very term describes how we write about holy men in order to ensure that their uplifting messages get accorded the respect and awe they hope for and their followers seem to need. Hence we often hear a lot about the miracles they achieve but never about when they fail. So when we read about great rabbis it is usually through a veil of devotion, devoid of blemishes in a holy record.
When Rabbi Natan Kaminetzky wrote “The Making of a Gadol” and suggested that some of the giants of Lithuanian Rabbinic authority actually read books of Russian literature and philosophy contra the current ban on such activity in Charedi society, he was lambasted, hounded, and bullied, and the book was banned.
Chaim Miller has painted as broad and as honest a picture of the Rebbe as is possible. Perhaps the most important contribution of his book is to set the Rebbe in the context of Chabad tradition going back to its founders. The Rebbe remained intensely loyal to his predecessors and to the dismay of some of his admirers refused to depart from a fundamentalist approach to Judaism. And yet beyond the ideology he was able to break the mold and mental constraints that have limited the impact of almost all the other Chassidic dynasties. Within Judaism he positioned his movement both within and without the Charedi world.
Chabad as a movement went furthest in bridging the gap between the mystical Hassidic world of mysticism and the Lithuanian mastery of scholarship and intellectual discipline. It was also the primary Chassidic movement within Russia. This had the advantage of shielding it more than others from the depredations of Nazism, but it also meant that it suffered most under Communism for a very long period. It was almost entirely due to Chabad that Jewish life was sustained altogether in the Soviet Union. The incredible life and death commitment of Chabad in Russia of course long pre-dated the Rebbe. And interestingly, he was strongly opposed to the public demonstrations of the Soviet Jewry campaigns. But his major contribution to the wider community really began in the United States.
From an early age he was marked as exceptional. He combined intellectual achievement with deep spirituality and religious devotion. Although he came from Lubavitch aristocracy he was a junior Son in Law of the sixth Rebbe and had no expectation of leadership. So he prepared himself to earn a living by studying engineering, first in Berlin then in Paris. All the time, however, he was deepening his already profound mastery of Jewish sources. Both would stand him in good stead.
As his family was caught in a pincer between the Russians and the Germans, the sixth Rebbe fled – finally and almost miraculously ending up in the United States. By this time, with his father in law ailing, Menahem Mendel began to get more involved in Chabad affairs and soon emerged as the favored candidate to succeed his father in law after his death in 1950. There was some tension between him and his older brother in law. He hesitated and prevaricated but finally took over in 1951.
Here was a man with a grand, universal vision. Unlike most leaders he had no interest in personal gain or aggrandizement. Neither was he interested in travel. He lived within his brownstone Brooklyn world and his father in law’s mausoleum in Queens. He soon established himself as a powerful, humane, and brilliant leader. People began to flock to him for his sensitive and perceptive advice and guidance. His soft but piercing eyes engaged everyone he met, and his ability to focus on whoever he was speaking to was overwhelming.
The zeitgeist of the U.S. had a profound impact on him. He adopted American methods of publicity and public relations to achieve his mission and combined this with the discipline and devotion that came from the Russian campaigns. He did not hold back from public displays of overt orthodox Judaism even in a society that separated State from Religion. And he was able to instill a universal character of openness, bonhomie, and altruism amongst his followers.
There were three broad goals. To build up the movement organizationally through movements that involved, youth, women, and emissaries, using publications and every means available to spread his ideology; to reach out to Jews anywhere and everywhere and offer them a path into intense Jewish life regardless of background or affiliation; and to extend his influence into the wheels of power wherever there were Jewish communities – even to the point of having a lobby in Washington.
It was inevitable in such a broad and dramatic campaign that there would be set backs. Some of those he encouraged in outreach went beyond his comfort zone like Shlomo Carlebach. Some of his followers who had to go out and create their own little empires used financial methods that bordered on the illegal. As in any large movement there were crooks and manipulators.
His “Army of God” succeed because of the authority of the Commander in Chief and because everyone had to adhere to the rules of uniform, style, and content he laid down. His writings became the new Oral Law for his movement and this was what enabled his representatives to keep the faith no matter where.
Perhaps his most controversial influence was felt in Israel where he encouraged his followers to integrate into Israeli society. But he was profoundly opposed to making any territorial concessions and campaigned strongly against any modifications of the traditional definition of Jewish identity.
It is a matter of debate as to whether his refusal to name a successor was intentional or not. His catchy campaign “We Want Messiah Now” led some to think he would be the Messiah himself. When he died some thought he would return for a “Second Coming.” But the organizational framework he established held firm and has expanded as perhaps the only example of a successful religious franchise. Certainly the influence of Chabad continues to grow and that is his legacy.
It has now been twenty years since his death and a range of new biographies has hit the bookshelves. Those by Adin Steinsaltz and Joseph Telushkin have been widely reviewed. There have been more critical and less adulatory works such as “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson” by Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman. None of them actually gets into the mind of the man. But for a well-researched inside picture that gives one a deeper insight into the ideology, background, and achievements of the Rebbe (despite minor quibbles over errors and inaccuracies of dates) I heartily recommend Chaim Miller’s to you as the most worthwhile.