In the early 1990s, Prof. Menachem Friedman, a leading researcher of ultra-Orthodox society in Israel, decided to write a comprehensive study on Chabad Hassidism that would include a biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Friedman labored for almost a decade and traced every detail of the Rebbe's past, but in the end decided not to publish his book. Among other places, he searched through the archives of universities in Paris and Berlin to understand what precisely the Rebbe studied there during the 1920s and 1930s. His search yielded information about the so-called "King Messiah" that differs considerably from that publicized by his followers.
Friedman also uncovered interesting information about the Schneerson family: In order to preserve the family's distinguished lineage, there were many marriages within the family; these often led to the birth of mentally and physically handicapped children. The Rebbe himself had a mentally ill brother, Dov Ber, who was murdered by the Nazis in the Ukrainian hospital where he was hospitalized, and his memory has been obliterated from the history of Chabad Hassidism. Another brother of the Rebbe's, Aryeh Leib, turned secular, but Chabad followers tend to portray him as a very pious and righteous man.
The Hassidimim relate that Rabbi Menachem Mendel studied at the University of Berlin, but only after lengthy research was the Rebbe's name found in a list of people auditing classes at the university. It turns out that during his six years in Berlin (1926-1932), the Rebbe studied philosophy and mathematics for a semester and a half.
A similar search in Paris revealed the legend that the Rebbe had studied medicine and engineering at the Sorbonne was also far from the truth. In fact, he studied electrical engineering at Ecole Speciale des Travaux Publics, du Batiment et de l'Industrie (ESTP). As the younger son-in-law of the previous Rebbe, he was not the designated successor, and was allowed therefore to acquire a "secular" profession like electrical engineering.
Despite the considerable effort invested, Friedman has yet to publish the book. "There were all kinds of excuses I told myself," he says, "such as, I have more pressing and important studies to work on, but the truth is that I didn't feel sure enough to publish the book. The Hassidim blocked access to several of their important archives, and I felt that without those archives, the work wouldn't be accurate. I had excellent material and I felt that I had indeed found the story of this life, and still I was concerned."
Instead of a book, Friedman published a lengthy article analyzing the messianism of the Rebbe, who was perceived by some as the Messiah starting from the early 1980s. According to Friedman, the messianic idea started back in the tenure of his father-in-law, the Admor (rabbi and leader) Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok, known by the Hebrew acronym, Riyatz. The Riyatz was convinced that his era was a messianic era because all the Lithuanian rabbis fled Russia during the period of the Communist revolution, and the Orthodox Jewish community in Russia was left under the control of Chabad, which became the leader of Orthodox Jewry in Russia.
But then Stalin started cracking down on Chabad activities, and the Riyatz was forced to flee, first to Poland and later on, with the Nazi invasion, to the United States. "He had to explain to himself the failure of his predictions, and therefore explained that everything that was happening in Europe was essentially intended to serve as a warning to American Jews to repent to be saved from a similar danger. He himself was saved to be a kind of prophet like Jonah, who warns them of the danger and brings them to repent," says Friedman.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe stayed in France at the start of the Second World War. He was saved thanks to an American visa he obtained through the concerted efforts of Chabad members in the U.S. When he arrived in the U.S., he was not in line to become the Admor. The "natural" candidate was his older brother-in-law, Shmaryahu Gourarie, who had the added advantage of a son - the Rebbe was childless. According to one version Friedman heard, the Rebbe himself was afraid to bring children into this world because of the "precedent" of his brother; according to a rumor among Chabad Hassidim, the Rebbe had a child who died young.
By the time of the Riyatz's death in 1950, things had changed, and he decided to make his young son-in-law, who turned out to be much more talented and charismatic than his older brother-in-law, the leader of the movement to bring people back to religion and "win over hearts" that he had begun to nurture. In addition, the fact that Gourarie had an heir was transformed from an asset to an impediment, because the son renounced religion and became a secular computer businessman, Barry Gourarie (later on, he even demanded the vast Chabad library for himself, in a scandal that created a storm within the movement for years). Friedman spoke at length with Gourarie and heard fascinating details from him about what goes on behind the scenes in the Chabad movement.
Schneerson was named the Admor, but not before there was a sharp clash between the two camps in the year following the Riyatz's death. Even after his selection, the widow of the previous rabbi did not accept the choice and "did not allow the Rebbe to set foot in her house and also did not agree to give him the Riyatz's shtreimel [fur hat]. That is how the custom began of the Rebbe wearing a fedora instead of a shtreimel." Retroactively, as happens with the Hassidim, Schneerson's perceived shortcoming in his childlessness was actually seen as proof of his being the messiah: "An entire doctrine was conceived, which the Rebbe developed already in his first speech as the Admor, around the fact that he is the seventh Admor of Chabad," relates Friedman. Because the number seven has mystical significance, the idea that it was not coincidental that he had no heir began to circulate - he was the seventh and last Admor and redemption would come through him anyway.
To mark Friedman's 70th birthday, Bar-Ilan University will be hosting an international conference in his honor in another two weeks.
He began to research the ultra-Orthodox world completely by chance: "I was taking a seminar with Prof. Shmuel Eisenstadt (the sage of Israeli sociologists - Y.S.), and every student had to write a paper on one of the parties in Israel. Because I worked hard to earn a living, I arrived late when the topics were assigned and Eisenstadt's assistant informed me that 'all the parties had already been taken.' In the end she said: 'Well, there is one party left that doesn't interest anyone.' It was Agudat Yisrael."
Out of that paper, Friedman created a new discipline, the study of modern ultra-Orthodox society from the end of the 19th century to the contemporary era.
Friedman was familiar with the ultra-Orthodox since his childhood. He grew up in Bnei Brak and his parents were both raised in hassidic homes and left them as young adults. In the wake of the Holocaust and the absorption crises he experienced in Israel, his father started moving back to the hassidic world he had left. "I think the encounter with modernity was so traumatic for him that he just went back to his father's house, to the shtibel [small synagogue], to Hassidism. He grew a beard again and went back to wearing a capote [caftan], which prompted very heated arguments with my mother, and he also sent me to an ultra-Orthodox Talmud Torah," recalls Friedman.
As far back as the 1980s, Friedman was the first to coin the term hevrat halomdim (society of the learners) as the primary characteristic of ultra-Orthodox society in Israel, a society where in an unnatural way, most of the men do not work, but learn. He was the one who long ago predicted its collapse, based on the assumption that a time would come when Israeli society would be unwilling, or unable, to finance an entire sector in which most of the men are unemployed by choice.
Ostensibly, Friedman erred in his analysis: Members of the ultra-Orthodox community suffered in recent years from the burden of cuts in child allowances, so many entered the labor market. Meanwhile, the community is not showing any signs of collapse. Moreover, in addition to the graph showing a decline in their economic situation, there is a graph showing the community's growing political power, which enables the ultra-Orthodox political parties to continue to force Israeli society to finance the "society of learners." But Friedman stands by his forecast and even argues that the stability of Israeli society at large is threatened.
A secular child in every family
Friedman says, "True, there is some entry into the labor market, but opposite this, there are two difficult questions: First, is the degree of economic crisis not more intense than the pace of entry into the labor market? Second, the requirements demanded by the labor market today are much stricter, and whoever did not learn any general knowledge until he became an adult will have a hard time closing the gap. I don't see Israelis being able to withstand the sight of Jews starving for bread, even if they are ultra-Orthodox. So the society will be tempted to continue supporting them, at least on a basic level, and then two things will happen: Many in the middle class will be fed up by the situation and they will leave the country, so the ones who stay will be in an even worse financial situation."
Friedman believes the financial collapse will also alter the religious character of ultra-Orthodox society. The mere necessity of entering the labor market will make the ultra-Orthodox increasingly resemble the religious Zionists: less separatism, and with a much higher percentage of people becoming nonreligious, something like "a secular child in every family." This fact will compel them to also change their perception of secularism, because it will become a widespread phenomenon in their midst. He speaks of the model of Eastern European Jewry in the wake of the crisis caused by the Enlightenment, when many families split up into ultra-Orthodox, Zionist and completely secular groups.
Other experts on ultra-Orthodox society present the American model as proof that the ultra-Orthodox's entry into the labor market need not alter the religious character of society - they will be able to maintain a model where a clear line is drawn between being a part of the labor market and maintaining cultural isolationism. Friedman responds, "whoever reviews the American ultra-Orthodox model in depth sees that it, too, is split, mainly between Lithuanians and Hassidim. The Lithuanians did in fact enter the prestigious job market, but they also acquire a high level of general knowledge during their high school years, something that I still don't see happening in Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy. The Hassidim for the most part live in dire poverty, similar to the Israeli ultra-Orthodox."
Given his pessimistic forecasts, Friedman suggests making the entry of the ultra-Orthodox into the job market a key goal for the ultra-Orthodox sector, including totally waiving the demand to do military service, even in the framework of the compromise in the Tal Law. "If we concede to them completely on military service, many of them will leave the yeshivas and enter the labor force. I'm aware of the intense inequality in this proposal, but it is preferable to the existing situation," he says.
Friedman himself sat on the Tal Commission and presented this suggestion to its members, but he says, "Judge Tal told me that his colleagues, the High Court of Justice judges, would for the sake of the principle of equality not let such a proposal pass. Unfortunately, it is possible that he is correct. At the time, I felt that the security situation allowed for the transformation of the entire IDF into a small, professional army. But the Second Lebanon War proved we still need a large people's army, and in the current situation I don't see who will concede in a sweeping and official way to the ultra-Orthodox on the need to do military service."
He concludes with a sigh, "political correctness, not just in this area, has become the curse of this generation. People cling to the slogans of 'correctness' even if they know that in the long term it will lead to greater damage and perhaps endanger their own world."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now