Rabbis Write Up the Rebbe (INTERVIEW)
Two well-known contemporary rabbis. Two prolific authors. Two personal journeys. One Rebbe.
Rabbis Joseph Telushkin and Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz have come out with new volumes on “the Rebbe,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 20 years after the death of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement’s seventh and final leader. To these authors, Schneerson was no ordinary biographical subject—in fact, according to the subtitle of one of their books, he is “the most influential rabbi in modern history.”
Telushkin’s father, Shlomo, worked as an accountant for both the seventh Rebbe and his predecessor. When he was left paralyzed and disoriented by a stroke, Shlomo got two phone calls each day from the Rebbe. One day, the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, conveyed an accounting question from the Rebbe for Shlomo to answer—and he answered successfully, despite being ill.
“I was very profoundly moved because I realized what happened was, the Rebbe was sitting there in Brooklyn, dealing with all these major issues, and he could empathize with the situation of my father, who suddenly had his whole life turned upside down and probably was feeling quite irrelevant, and the Rebbe was sort of bringing him back into the world,” Joseph Telushkin toldJNS.org.
That story, also included in the introduction of Telushkin’s “Rebbe” (published by HarperCollins), is emblematic of the anecdotes infused throughout the 640-page book, providing a comprehensive history of the Rebbe’s hallmark focus on the individual—from heads of state to the everyman. Released June 10, the biography is the result of a five-year process in which Telushkin conducted hundreds of his own interviews and received unprecedented access to other interviews from Jewish Educational Media, Chabad’s video archive and multimedia arm.
“It was not easy to write a biography because the Rebbe was very unrevealing, didn’t talk about himself much, and didn’t leave behind many documents about himself, so I had to construct a biography to a large extent on people’s interactions with him,” said Telushkin, a renowned lecturer and the author of “Jewish Literacy,” which his website calls the most widely selling book on Judaism of the past two decades.
Three nights a week, starting at 8 p.m. and lasting until the early hours of the morning, the Rebbe would hold one-on-one meetings called yechidusen (singular, yechidus). While Telushkin details many yechidusen, he devotes special sections to the Rebbe’s meetings with philosopher Yitzchak Block; Yehuda Avner, an adviser to four Israeli prime ministers; novelist Harvey Swados; and Chana Sharfstein, who came to consider the Rebbe as a father figure after the murder of her own father when she was a teenager.
“I realized, this is a very unusual phenomenon, of a man who led a worldwide movement, and yet who always was able to remain very focused on the individual,” Telushkin said. “Obviously that’s at the heart of Judaism, because every human being is created in God’s image. We all acknowledge that, but people are not always so careful in carrying it out.”
Telushkin, who has written more than 15 books, said he did not begin working on “Rebbe” with the 20th anniversary of the Schneerson’s death in mind, and did not believe the project would take five years until realizing that “there was an inordinate amount of material to assimilate.” Another realization Telushkin said he had during his research was that the Rebbe “is probably the most well-known rabbinic figure since Maimonides, who lived 800 years ago.”
That is why Telushkin made what he called a “seemingly audacious claim” in the book’s subtitle, which identifies the Rebbe as “the most influential rabbi in modern history.” There are few other rabbinic figures—if any—whose names would be recognized like the Rebbe’s by large percentages of Jewish audiences in the world’s largest Jewish communities, explained Telushkin.
Who else might be in the running for “most well-known rabbi”? Telushkin suggested the religious Zionist Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (“Rav Kook”)—but said that in the U.S., outside of the Orthodox world, “if you cite Rav Kook you have to introduce him.” The Reform movement’s Rabbi Stephen S. Wise might be the most famous U.S. rabbi of the first half of the 20th century, and there are two prominent synagogues named for him, yet “the percentage of American Jews who know much about him is small,” Telushkin said.
While Telushkin opted for “Rebbe,” he said Steinsaltz had the right to use the title “My Rebbe” (published by Maggid Books) because of his personal relationship with Schneerson.
Steinsaltz writes in the preface, “I enjoyed a warm and close relationship with the Rebbe. He and I had long, private, one-to-one meetings, in which we discussed global Jewish questions. While this book reflects my own feelings, it is also a concerted effort to create an honest and objective work, one that strives to portray the man and his dreams.”
Like Telushkin, Steinsaltz—who has written 60 books and is perhaps best known for his translation of the entire Talmud from the Aramaic language to modern Hebrew—did not specifically write his book for the Rebbe’s 20th yahrzeit. He told JNS.org that “My Rebbe,” released May 1, took “many years” to complete and that it was “almost by chance” that it came out now.
“It was, emotionally and intellectually, a very hard job,” Steinsaltz said.
An alternate title to the 250-page book, he said, could have been “Father, Teacher, King”—the roles any rebbe plays in the lives of his followers.
“The Rebbe was what basically a rebbe is, a focal point in which you try to adjust yourself,” said Steinsaltz. “In that sense, he has a unique position… the notion of a rebbe is that you accept that person as your guide.”
Writing on the topic of miracles, Steinsaltz explains that the Rebbe performed what might be considered modern-day miracles through his ability to perceive things others could not. He told JNS.org that while biblical-era miracles were impressive, they “didn’t change much.” The Jews crossed the Read Sea with Moses, and a few days later they had enough chutzpah to complain about him, Steinsaltz noted—but those who met the Rebbe often truly internalized the encounters and changed their behavior.
“With some people it wasn’t a miracle,” he said. “With some people a deep and lasting connection was just an exchange of looks [with the Rebbe].”
Writing “Rebbe” was personally transformative for Telushkin. For instance, the Rebbe, due to his emphasis on using optimistic language, would refer to a hospital in Hebrew as “beit refuah,” meaning house of healing, rather than the widely used “beit cholim,” meaning house of the sick. Telushkin, likewise, said he now refrains from using the word “deadline” for a project because it connotes death; he now uses “due date,” which ironically connotes exactly the opposite—birth.
This principle of “optimism and careful choosing of words” is among the Rebbe’s “seven virtues” that make up Part Three of Telushkin’s book. Another one of those virtues that has influenced Telushkin is “anything worth doing is worth doing now.” He said that in the past he would often put off an unpleasant phone call he had to make for days, but now he tries to “be much better about taking care of things, both negative and positive things, and trying to do it now.”
While the Rebbe’s legacy is certain to be a topic of debate amid the 20th anniversary of his death, he actually left “marching orders” rather than a legacy, Steinsaltz writes in “My Rebbe.” Many Jews have “all kinds of books that are theoretical books to rely on, or to refer to, but that is not always something that makes people move in the same direction,” Steinsaltz told JNS.org.
When the Rebbe became ill in the years before his death, people started to wonder about the continuity of the Chabad movement—but all doubts have been put to rest and then some, and according to Telushkin, that is to Schneerson’s credit.
“Instead [of Chabad being weakened], during the last 20 years, Chabad has tripled in size, it’s now in 80 countries, there are Chabad houses in 48 of 50 American states,” Telushkin said. “It has had this extraordinary vitality. The true test of leadership is what happens when a leader dies, and here’s an example of a when a leader died, the movement has been growing even stronger.”