No Holds Barred: Did the Lubavitcher Rebbe con the world?

In new Schneerson biography, authors put forward wacky theory that rebbe 'fell' into Chabad leadership after failing as an engineer.

June 1, 2010 09:10
Shmuley Boteach

Shmuley Boteach 58. (photo credit: d)

My review of Samuel Heilman’s and Menachem Friedman’s new biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson was recently published. In it, I reject as bizarre their central thesis that the rebbe fell into the leadership of the Chabad movement almost by default because he had failed as an electrical engineer.

It’s kind of a wacky theory when you think about it, and I have spent the past while wondering why Heilman and Friedman – respected academics both – wrote it. Of all the things to insinuate about the leading Jewish spiritual authority of the 20th century – that he was bored by Judaism?

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To be sure, like all great men, the rebbe has his critics. I have heard sworn enemies of the rebbe tell me he was a crazed fanatic who believed he was the messiah and convinced his army of drones of the same – a cult leader who abused his charisma for nefarious purposes. But here two great academics argue precisely the opposite, that the rebbe was a bit of a con who was prepared to give up his chosen modern European wardrobe of tailored suits and white Stetson hat for the drab black attire of a hassidic rebbe because he couldn’t make a living as a secular professional. Is it believable that the man who almost single-handedly reversed the tide of Jewish assimilation merely pretended to be interested in Judaism?

IT’S KIND of insulting when you think about it. Not for the rebbe, but for the rest of us. According to Heilman and Friedman, world Jewry was essentially duped. The rebbe’s hundreds of thousands of followers, and the millions more who have been touched by Chabad, were conned by a failed engineer. It would be akin to an author writing a book about Nelson Mandela that suggested that African rights bored the great leader for most of his life, but when he discovered he couldn’t make a living as an attorney, he reluctantly decided to spend 27 years in a jail cell because he had no other career prospects.

Except that in the rebbe’s case, the allegation is even more preposterous because the authors cannot account for how such a charlatan became one of the greatest Torah sages of the 20th century, publishing more than 100 books.

Albert Einstein discovered relativity as an utterly unknown Swiss patent clerk. Yet no one suggests that because he worked at a dead-end job and did not teach at a university there was no way he could be serious about physics. But Heilman and Friedman are convinced that since the rebbe studied to be an engineer there was no way he was equally passionate about his Judaism. What gives?

I HAVE my own theory about the authors’ theory. Here goes. Two hundred years ago, when Jews first embraced the Enlightenment, they believed they had discarded Judaism forever. The smartest, most educated Jews rejected Judaism as a primitive and superstitious relic. No doubt even these intellectuals would hold on to some semblance of their Judaism, perhaps harmless rituals like lighting Friday night candles or enjoying Yiddish theater. But the rest of Judaism’s primal husk that had for so long “stifled” Jewish creativity, cutting Jews off from the mainstream, would be forever discarded.

Of course, secular intellectuals accepted that there would still be some weak-minded, illiterate Jews who would cling to the old superstitions. Distinguished by their long, unkempt beards and long black coats, they would remain on the fringes of Jewish life, in their self-imposed ghettos. So long as they knew their place, their existence was not threatening. But the new face of Judaism would be the urbane, well-groomed and clean-shaven intellectual who was properly cynical about faith.

Everything went according to plan for nearly 200 years. Great minds like Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein became the most famous Jews in the world. Both were strongly attached to their Jewish identities while ridiculing Judaism as a collection of fairy tales and myths.

But then something changed. One of the religious Neanderthals dared to rear his head publicly. Unsatisfied with seeing Judaism shunted to the sidelines, he dreamed of global Jewish renaissance and began to put it into practice. He refused to accept that secular Jews were any more sophisticated than the religiously observant.

On the contrary, possessed of a formidable mind and extensive secular training himself, he demonstrated the considerable intellectual and moral shortcomings of modern secularism. He sent his emissaries to the world’s most important cities and leading universities and, after first being seen as oddities, they began to win a following. Within a few decades they had become the Jewish mainstream.

The rebbe obliterated the unspoken agreement that religious Jews should remain locked in their broken neighborhood hovels while secular Jews became the grand ambassadors of the faith. He refused to be locked into a holy box. He thought the unthinkable – that secular Jews would eventually reject their rejection of Judaism and begin to embrace Jewish observance all over again. In so doing, he brought about the greatest Jewish spiritual revolution of all time, and by the time he died he had almost single-handedly reversed the tide of two centuries of assimilation.
Is that man a threat to the old order, or what?

SO WHAT do you do when 200 years of Jewish acculturation has been turned on its head by a single man? Easy. You claim that notwithstanding his long black coat, white beard and black hat, he too wanted to discard it all and become yet another secular Jewish intellectual. Unfortunately, he just wasn’t gifted enough to be part of the secular, professional elite. So he was forced to go back to the Jewish boondocks and hang out with his backward clan, all the while wishing that he could have stayed in Paris and Berlin. But, wink, wink, he knew all along where the real action was, and envied those who were lucky enough to succeed in it.

The writer, founder of This World: The Values Network, has just published Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.

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