Did you know that in the entire Bible, only one birthday is mentioned and it is that of Pharaoh? And did you know that according to some scientists, by accepting Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it is impossible to prove or disprove that the sun is the gravitational center of our solar system? In his new book, REBBE, best-selling author Joseph Telushkin reveals many surprising and sometimes shocking details as he chronicles the life and teachings of the charismatic Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, popularly referred to as the “Rebbe” by his followers and admirers worldwide.
In a span of 92 years, the Rebbe traveled from his birthplace, Nikolayev, Ukraine, studied in the cosmopolitan cities of Berlin and Paris earning degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, and finally settled down in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. It was there that he reluctantly donned the mantel as the Seventh Lubavitcher Rabbi and humbly assumed the title of the Rebbe.
Prior to his ‘coronation’ he had already attained the stature of a spiritual magnet to whom world leaders and ordinary people alike gravitated into his sphere of influence. More than a biography, this book strings together historic events, personal insights, and private moments that bring the reader to yichudusim (private moments of consultation) with the Rebbe.
Known worldwide for his sage advice, one cannot help but wonder how the Rebbe could advise a distraught son seeking the best way to help his ailing father to, “Take your father to the poolroom” and on another occasion asking a follower on his birthday, “How come you don’t have a birthday cake?”
In his portrayal of the Rebbe, Telushkin successfully depicts him not only as a man of faith but as a man who has faith in mankind. He had a fervent belief in the coming of the Moshiach (Messiah) and although there are those who regarded him as the Messiah, the Rebbe disavowed and discouraged such a notion.
The Rebbe was as comfortable speaking to world leaders as he was to his neighbor down the street. Prior to Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s meeting with President Jimmy Carter in 1977, Begin met with the Rebbe in his office at 770 Eastern Parkway where they discussed matters relating to his important upcoming meeting with Carter, concerning Carter’s less than friendly policy towards Israel. On another occasion, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met with the Rebbe to discuss Israel’s security concerns.
President Ronald Reagan was an admirer of the Rebbe and in recognition of the Rebbe’s 80th birthday, he proclaimed April 4, 1982 a ‘National Day of Reflection.’ The Rebbe was posthumously given the Congressional Gold Medal by unanimous consent of both houses of Congress for, “outstanding and enduring contributions toward world education, morality, and acts of charity.” Those words were uttered by President Bill Clinton at the award ceremony.
Although the Rebbe was well versed in the physical sciences of physics, chemistry, and math he found no contradictions between science and religion as he regarded both as a function of faith. He even invoked Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to clarify his views concerning Ptolemaic, Copernican, and Biblical versions of the relative motion of the Sun and Earth. Using deductive reasoning he found no contradiction between the Darwinian theory of evolution and the Biblical account of creation. And most surprisingly, even as an ardent Zionist, he never visited Israel. Telushkin adroitly explains the enigmatic nature of some of the Rebbe’s positions.
While he was a very private man, his door was open to the world. He passionately embraced Jewish law, tradition, and theology – and this impelled him to tirelessly attempt to ignite the holy spark he believed resided in the soul of every human being. In spite of never having children of his own, he begot a family of thousands of shluchim (emissaries) whom he dispersed throughout the world to teach the importance of performing acts of loving kindness.
Some regarded the Rebbe as a workaholic because he often conducted meetings beginning at 8:00 PM in the evening and lasting to the break of dawn. On Shabbat he conducted hours long farbrengens (a joyous gathering) at which time he offered words of spiritual guidance and inspiration to followers and admirers to the accompaniment of Chasidic nigunim (melodies usually without words). In spite of the crushing demands of his schedule, he found time on a daily basis to share quiet moments over a cup of tea with his beloved wife Chaya Mushka.
Although Telushkin acknowledged that he admired the Rebbe greatly, his admiration did not lead him to agree with all of his views. Some areas of disagreement were issues pertaining to: prayer in public schools; Israel’s territorial compromises; demonstrations supporting Soviet Jewry; permanently moving to Israel (making aliyah); the efficacy of studying at a university: and the pitfalls of failing to earn a degree once enrolled in college.
As an innovator, the Rebbe instituted Chabad Houses on college campuses, public lighting of Menorahs on Chanukah, and later in life – when age began to diminish his physical strength – he distributed dollar bills to be used for charity. Although the Rebbe personally did not condone women carrying the Torah during the Hakafot processional service on the holiday of Shimini Atzeret – Simchat Torah, he did not disapprove of the practice for some Orthodox congregations.
Telushkin explains that the derivation of the name of the movement, ‘Chabad’ is an acronym for Chochma, Bina, and Da’at which means Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge, respectively. He recognized that the Rebbe possessed all three of those attributes, fused with the uncanny ability to use them effectively. Telushkin believed that the Rebbe saw the spark of goodness in every soul, each one with the potential to burn brightly in the service of G-d and thereby help light a path leading to the betterment of all mankind.
REBBE: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History. Joseph Telushkin, New York: HarperCollins, 2014. 588 pp.