Students Remember Their Master, the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Two biographies of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who passed away 20 years ago this week, were written by his most prodigious followers.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews watch a bonfire in Jerusalem on Lag Ba'omer, May 21, 2011.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews watch a bonfire in Jerusalem on Lag Ba'omer, May 21, 2011.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

“My Rebbe,” by Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Maggid Publishers, 250 pages, $24.95

“Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History,” by Joseph Telushkin, HarperWave, 640 pages, $30

It has been two decades since the death of one of the 20th century’s greatest Jewish leaders, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson – known, simply, as the rebbe. As Jewish communities worldwide – Chabad and non-Chabad alike – remember the rebbe, two biographies have emerged, written by two of his most prodigious students: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

Steinsaltz’s “My Rebbe” offers a fascinating study of rabbinic leadership, its roots, its psyche and inevitable solitude, with Steinsaltz’s usual mix of scholarship and mysticism along with a good dose of psychology, too.

An Israeli-born Talmud scholar, prolific writer and 1988 recipient of the Israel Prize, Steinsaltz offers a reflective portrait, in which one encounters a brilliant yeshiva student in czarist Russia: Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) who, through marriage to his cousin, Chaya Mushka Schneerson, became the son-in-law of and successor to the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson.

One is introduced to the Schneerson family and to the rich heritage of Lubavitch Hasidism, to a unique relationship between a young man and his father-in-law, and to the inside of a Hasidic court as World War II encroached on Europe.

Steinsaltz is especially captivated by those early, prewar years – by the family’s travels across Poland and Russia, and encounters with Russian authorities, and later Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s era of quiet study in Berlin and Paris, where he and his wife spent their first married years as students: He studied mathematics and engineering, and she took courses in architecture, during a period he later described as his happiest.

Steinsaltz mentions the Schneersons’ circle of acquaintances in Berlin, some of whom would remain friends with the rebbe for decades afterward: Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Yeshayahu Leibowitz – and one can’t help but imagine these future giants of Jewish thought as young students, gathering in a simple Berlin flat and arguing loudly over modernity and religion. One is struck by the figure of a Renaissance man who would participate in discussions on Platonic philosophy or the structure of the Egyptian pyramids with the same ease with which he debated Talmudic tractates or the pages of Chabad’s fundamental text, the Tanya.

Steinsaltz’s tribute is permeated above all by the pain of loneliness. The rebbe “was friendly with everyone, but close to no one,” he writes. From early childhood, Schneerson’s only emotional ties were with his parents, his brothers, and later his wife and father-in-law. That solitude only intensified as he became more of a public figure.

In 1951, a year after the death of the sixth rebbe – and after much beseeching from his fellow Hasidim – Schneerson finally agreed to take his father-in-law’s place.

“Not many people write about the rebbe’s loneliness,” Steinsaltz told me on a recent June afternoon, over lunch in New York. “But I felt it was an essential part of him, I felt compelled to write about it. Because the power to make decisions, to stand on a peak, is lonely by definition. What happens when you are, for people, the last ‘address’? The last before God, like Moses on the mountaintop? And if one has no answer – what does it make a person feel?”

During his more than four decades as Chabad’s leader, Schneerson barely slept, remaining day and night in his study at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, where he received visitors, studied and dealt with correspondence, with his only reprieve a brief teatime or dinner with his wife.

Mastermind of outreach

Joseph Telushkin’s 644-page biography places a stronger emphasis on that next, and much more public, chapter of the rebbe’s life – as a leader in his prime, the man whom political figures clamored to meet, who was determined to reach every Jew around the world and to bring the coming of the messiah ever closer.

In chapters organized by character virtues and subjects, rather than chronology, Telushkin offers an admiring view of the mastermind of Jewish outreach campaigns that exceeded all others in both scope and effectiveness, with a discipline that is almost military, as the name of one campaign, “Army of God,” suggests.

The rebbe’s trademarks have undoubtedly outlived him – from “mitzvah tanks” parked in front of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and burrowing deep in the Sinai Desert during the Yom Kippur War, to videos of farbrengen – crowded gatherings where stories are told and Hasidic melodies sung. Chabad teenagers still approach strangers in the street with a simple “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” offering tefillin to men and Sabbath candles to women.

Then there were the late-night office hours, where one might find a U.S. senator waiting in line behind a local yeshiva student for a one-on-one yechidus (a private meeting) encounter with the rebbe.

“You saw the rebbe when the rest of the world was asleep,” Telushkin muses. “Part of the mystique of encountering the rebbe was the lateness of the hour.”

As the years went by and demand for yechidusen grew, the rebbe stopped holding such meetings and began distributing dollars. Hundreds would line up to receive a mere moment in the presence of the rebbe, who would hand out a blessing along with a single dollar, intended for charity.

The rebbe had no patience for idleness or even exhaustion. Both Steinsaltz and Telushkin highlight this. Steinsaltz reminisces about a letter he wrote the rebbe, asking for advice on how to juggle three full-time jobs. The rebbe responded typically: “Continue to do all these things and to do more things and work even harder.” The approach was unforgiving: He was determined to change human nature itself, to stretch one life to its full, sleepless capacity. “Judaism is not about thinking, it’s about doing,” Schneerson would often say.

He believed, avidly, that the Jewish people were obligated to bring more light into the world, by spreading the word of God, and that this is what would quicken the arrival of messianic redemption. Indeed, it was with this belief that he transformed Chabad into a booming movement, a systematic network that spans the world and is still growing.

Telushkin also devotes a chapter to the rebbe’s belief in the power of words. He held journalists responsible for reporting the truth, because they could reach readers whom no Chabad emissary might reach. He would comment that creative power lies in optimism and positive language, refusing, for example, to use the Hebrew term beit holim (literally, house of the ill) for “hospital,” instead using the curious phrase beit refuah (house of healing); in his words, a sinner was no “sinner,” but rather “not a tzaddik [righteous person]”; and something bad was simply described as “the opposite of good.”

In one of Telushkin’s most compelling anecdotes, a man comes to Schneerson, lamenting the fact that his children are assimilated, insisting he had done his best to raise them as good Jews, and then with a sigh repeating the Yiddish phrase, “S’iz shver tzu zein a Yid” (It’s hard to be a Jew). The rebbe replies: “Then that is the message your children hear, and that is the impression of Judaism they have. There is another Yiddish saying. ‘S’iz gut tzu zein a Yid.’ Switch your refrain and you will notice a difference in your children’s appreciation for their heritage. It is good to be a Jew.”

‘There must be a girl’

While Steinsaltz spends less time on the rebbe’s controversial political policies and opinions, Telushkin dives right in, defending each of his rulings on halakha (traditional Jewish law) with long explanations These include a defense of why the rebbe ruled that there are cases in which it is best for a Diaspora Jew not to move to Israel, that public demonstrations for Soviet Jewry were too attention-grabbing and thus more harmful than helpful for Russian Jews, and that Israel should not concede territories under any circumstances.

Questions on women’s issues also came with their own interesting conclusions: The rebbe allowed women to dance with the Torah in particular modern Orthodox synagogues where he felt it would be beneficial, although this went against common ultra-Orthodox practice; he insisted that all children’s educational materials include pictures of girls as well as of boys on the cover (“There must be a girl!” he would write in Hebrew on any magazine that lacked a girl’s picture). Most important, it was at the rebbe’s insistence that Chabad’s international emissaries are sent to communities as married couples.

As the director of girls’ education for the movement during his first years in Crown Heights, while his father-in-law led Chabad, the rebbe established the Lubavitch Women’s Organization. He felt that the shlicha (female emissary) – i.e., the wife of the rabbi who is sent to a location – was just as crucial as the man, and that women be equally active in outreach and education.

At times, Telushkin’s descriptions of Schneerson come off as two-dimensional, and his defense of the rebbe’s rulings seem forced – although he is describing a man who was himself anything but defensive or apologetic about his decisions.

And this fearlessness in faith was what the rebbe perhaps most epitomized. While other Orthodox groups isolated themselves further from the secular world, Chabad looked outward; from a young age its members were taught to give of themselves and thus shield themselves from negative influences. The rebbe rallied for fearlessness of and courage in dealing with the outside world, coupled with confidence in one’s own faith and decisions as well. For every legendary question-and-answer session with Schneerson at 770 Eastern Parkway, there is also the story of the visitor who would leave confused: The rebbe would remain quiet at times, insisting that the individual had the capacity to decide for himself what to do.

Both Steinsaltz and Telushkin describe Schneerson’s determination to hasten the messiah’s arrival as the only hope for a dark and broken world. Both rabbis also explain the rebbe’s meditative silence, in response to followers proclaiming him to be the messiah, as a sign of the leader’s great humility; both also state clearly that the rebbe did indeed die, and that the messianic stream of Chabad that believes in his return as the messiah is an extreme one. But just what Schneerson himself thought about that key question is far from clear, both in documented history and in these narratives – and thus we will probably never know the answer.

Telushkin’s excessively protective attitude toward the rebbe may be an indirect response to Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman’s controversial 2010 biography, “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson,” in which the young Schneerson is depicted as an alienated man who only returned to Hasidic piety after seeing the horrors of the war and the need for messianic redemption. Steinsaltz’s descriptions of Schneerson’s brilliant mind and deep loneliness seem to faintly echo some of Heilman and Friedman’s understandings of the rebbe, acknowledging his very human doubts and uncertainties while still revering the leader for his greatness.

Dwelling as a reader on the life and memory of the rebbe by way of both Steinsaltz’s and Telushkin’s tributes has been a surprisingly inspiring experience. The idea of reading yet another rabbinic biography seemed unnatural and tedious to me, at this point: I had read so many as a child and teenager – stories of suffering saints of peerless intelligence and bottomless hearts – wondering if I could even attempt to emulate them. (And their wives, even, those rebbetzins portrayed as perpetually waiting by the samovar with a glass of tea and biscuits -- was this someone I could ever imagine myself becoming?)

But perhaps there is value in hagiography. There is value in reading about simple acts of kindness and wisdom, even apocryphal ones: Adults need fairy tales of sorts, too. People of the Book that we are, obsessed with storytelling and its power over the imagination, one can find it humbling to encounter these examples of rabbinic wisdom and ironic one-liners. It is the stories of greats like the Lubavitcher rebbe that may make us more sensitive, more compassionate, better humans and better leaders, too. And perhaps it is right here where leadership begins, in the stories that inspire one to finally muster up the courage to walk up to a stranger and ask, kindly, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”

Avital Chizhik, a frequent contributor to Haaretz English Edition, is a writer living in New York.

Schneerson, in Paris, circa 1937.

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