The story of a legend

A new biography reveals how the Lubavitcher Rebbe came to wield such great influence.

Followers of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson pray at his grave at the Old Montefiore Cemetery in the Queens section of New York city. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Followers of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson pray at his grave at the Old Montefiore Cemetery in the Queens section of New York city.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, was, inarguably, the most well known rabbi since Moses Maimonides (Rambam),” writes Joseph Telushkin in Rebbe, his timely new biography of this towering figure. Last week was the Rebbe’s 20th yahrzeit, and readers of this excellent book will learn about his legacy and why it has endured.
Telushkin divides the book into thematic categories such as, among others, the Rebbe’s leadership, the “seven virtues” of Judaism, and controversies that surrounded Schneerson. This effective strategy places the emphasis less on chronology and more on the man’s character, the substance of his mission and the totality of his contribution to the world.
The Rebbe was a Torah genius whose brilliance also extended to many fields of secular learning, including politics and war, medicine, science and technology, and social and family dynamics, but as the book shows, intellectual greatness was never the whole story. Schneerson was a model of excellence in human communication, whether inspiring the masses or discussing intimate concerns with individuals.
Political and religious leaders, both Chabad and non-Chabad, Jewish and non-Jewish, frequently met or corresponded with him, seeking advice, and they found he had important things to tell them, no matter how small or great the problem.
His insights, often surprising and subtle, always conveyed the message that Jews must love and care for each other.
A young Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau told the Rebbe that his main interest was kiruv (outreach) “with lost Jews who were far from Judaism.” The Rebbe immediately corrected him, saying, “We cannot label anyone as being far. Who are we to determine who is far and who is near? They are all close to God.”
For the Rebbe, every step a person took, every mitzva a person performed, had value in and of itself.
The Rebbe wanted to reach every Jew, no matter their Jewish background and education, and bring them closer to religion and relationship with God. Although he was born in Russia and educated in Paris and Berlin, once he assumed the leadership of the Lubavitcher dynasty, he never strayed far from his home in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
This in no way hindered him from pursuing his global mission: “One must go to a place where nothing is known of godliness, nothing is known of Judaism, nothing is even known of the Hebrew alphabet, and while there put one’s own self aside and ensure that the other calls out to God,” Telushkin quotes him as saying.
His influence spread across the spectrum of modern Jews – from those who had been religious all their lives, to ba’alei teshuva (those who became observant later on), to secular people who would often say, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” The Rebbe, famous for saying, “A Jew is a Jew,” always downplayed Jewish factionalism.
His reach was as wide as it was because, in part, he became personally important to some of the most effective spokesmen for Judaism in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, including Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
Schneerson was also known for his unbending opposition to the policy of trading “land for peace” in Israel, and he stuck to his guns, even when it was not popular.
The book has an abundance of anecdotes, short and long, that reveal a master communicator who spoke to individuals in their own language with highly original metaphors crafted to make sophisticated ideas readily understandable.
Notwithstanding his inclusive embrace of all Jews, Schneerson did not admire or support the theology of non-Orthodox movements in Judaism. His firmness on the subject remains a sticking point for people seeking innovative forms of Jewish life that are more liberal with respect to, for instance, gender equality, but at the level of one-on-one relationships, the Lubavitcher Hassidim are extraordinary for their welcoming response to individuals and readiness to help Jews discover traditional Judaism – a vital part of the Rebbe’s legacy.
His sensational success is manifest in his having created a community imbued with the capacity to spread his message faithfully, not only through explicit teaching of Torah and modeling of mitzvot, but equally through hessed (acts of kindness) and generosity in service to others. His program to send representatives, or shluchim, wherever Jewish resources were limited was unprecedented in the scope of its ambition.
Chabad’s institutions are now so widely dispersed that it has been said that wherever there is Coca-Cola, there’s a Chabad house.
In fact, his outreach played a big part in my own life. I grew up in a small town in Georgia where the only Jews were members of my extended family. Until I was in my late 50s, I had never met an Orthodox Jew. My life began to change when a young Chabad couple arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee, where I lived at the time.
Having dinner in their succa, where delicious food and gracious company were enhanced by enthusiastic songs of the season, was mind-blowing.
Although I am not actively affiliated with Chabad, I continue to be grateful for the Rebbe’s army. In a mere two years, they gave me a rich identification with Judaism I’d never had before.
Many people will be particularly interested in learning what the author has to say about two areas of controversy. The first is the perception among the broader public that most or all members of Chabad believe that the Rebbe was the Messiah. Through an examination of Maimonides’s definitions of the Messiah, Telushkin effectively neutralizes the taint of false-messiah fanaticism that has plagued Judaism – especially the hassidic world – from time to time.
Of even greater interest to me is Telushkin’s presentation of the Rebbe’s position on Torah and science. Many highly trained scientists, as well as educated lay people, discussed the subject with him, and he always insisted that scientific knowledge was a poor match for Torah study in every domain – that the former was uncertain, but the latter absolute.
Unfortunately Telushkin expresses no criticism of the Rebbe for holding such archaic ideas. In contrast to the Rebbe’s biblical literalism, physicist Gerald Schroeder, zoologist Rabbi Natan Slifkin, and Rabbi Matis Weinberg, among others, have dealt brilliantly with conflicts and correspondences between sophisticated current understandings of biological and physical science and equally sophisticated Torah interpretation.
Telushkin, who has authored 15 nonfiction books and four works of fiction, says that immersion in the life of this extraordinary man deeply affected him. “I am a happier and more spiritual person as a result of writing this book – and I would like to believe more generous and less judgmental of others,” he writes in the preface. I felt some of that myself simply from reading this book, my dispute in one particular area notwithstanding.