‘The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson” by Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman (Princeton University Press) fills a considerable void in the biography of one of the towering religious figures of the 20th century. But on reading it, one wonders whether the object of the biography is the same Lubavitcher Rebbe the world came to know and admire for pioneering Jewish outreach in the modern age and for being arguably the figure most responsible for the global resurgence in Jewish affiliation.
Full disclosure: I consider myself a student and chasid of the rebbe, and thus cannot be completely objective of what is essentially a critical biography of a man whom I revere as a spiritual guide and teacher.
Heilman and Friedman’s central thesis is that Menachem Schneerson, son of a renowned rabbinic scholar and scion of a distinguished chasidic family, was never completely engaged by his chasidic upbringing, preferring instead the modernizing and secularizing influences that made such significant inroads among young Jewish intellectuals in early 20th-century Russia and Europe. The rebbe’s dream was to live the life of a bourgeois European intellectual and become an engineer, they contend. He yearned not for the chasidic study halls of Warsaw or Lubavitch but for the intellectual cafes of Berlin and Paris. As such, he chose, according to the authors, to trim his beard, wear modern suits, and distance himself from the chasidic community in Paris, where he and his wife, the daughter of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe (whose place Menachem Schneerson would eventually fill), lived after their marriage.
The rebbe’s ultimate career goal, the authors maintain, was to be a successful engineer. However, after fleeing Hitler to the United States and the court in Brooklyn of his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, he gradually accepted the undeniable facts that he was a forty-something immigrant with little English and less chance of making significant inroads as a successful secular professional. Hence, after his father-in-law passed away in July 1950, he reluctantly accepted that a career as a chasidic rebbe would have to do.
I don’t buy it.
I watched the rebbe lead Lubavitch since I was 9 years old. It was a herculean undertaking with responsibilities that would boggle the mind. It meant keeping up with and responding to sacks of personal letters each week, overseeing a global empire of thousands of Chabad synagogues, schools, teaching colleges, orphanages, and drug rehabilitation centers, most of which the rebbe, through his emissaries, built. Each week he met in the middle of the night with individuals privately to discuss their most personal issues, giving a weekly (and sometimes twice weekly) public oration that lasted, on average, for four hours through which the rebbe gave masterful scholarly discourses without a single written note. Well into his 80s he stood on his feet every Sunday for hours giving thousands of visitors a dollar for tzedakah in order to meet them face to face and inspire them to do good acts.
Are we really to believe that a man who utterly transformed the face of Judaism worldwide and who, by the authors’ own admission, changed Chabad from a small chasidic group which had been decimated by Hitler into a global powerhouse of Jewish outreach, achieved all these things by reluctantly choosing this life because he couldn’t be an engineer?
Heilman and Friedman explain how the rebbe, rather than his older brother-in-law, Shmaryahu Gurary, unexpectedly ended up as leader of Chabad. In an early chapter they explain that the rebbe, who was largely an unknown quantity to the chasidim, won them over through his wide-ranging scholarship of the great Jewish texts in general and Chabad chasidism in particular. But the authors make no effort to explain how the rebbe acquired this encyclopedic knowledge or went on to publish more than 106 scholarly volumes of his writings.
Indeed, this omission constitutes the book’s fatal flaw. Any biography of the rebbe is necessarily a study in scholarship and leadership. But the authors offer little insight in explaining how a man who never attended formal yeshiva ended up with what I believe to be a photographic memory of Judaism’s vast works that would later mesmerize the educated masses that came to hear him.
Aside from insisting that the rebbe’s messianic agenda largely spurred Chabad’s global growth, the book does not deal with how the rebbe created what is arguably the most influential movement in modern Jewish history.
The authors insist that from his earliest years as leader the Rebbe was already promoting his own messianic pretensions. In his inaugural chasidic oration on Jan. 17, 1951, he spoke of how the seventh shepherd (he was preceded by six Chabad leaders) is the one most responsible for bringing God’s presence down to earth. The authors cite other allusions from the rebbe’s public orations as well that suggest messianic parallels to himself.
But I was personally present on Oct. 20, 1984, when the Rebbe sharply rebuked Rabbi Sholom Dovber Wolpo, who had written a book asserting that the rebbe was the Messiah, ordering that the book never see the light of day. Beyond that, I contend that most great leaders believe they are anointed for some great redemptive purpose, from politicians to religious figures, and the rebbe was no exception.
Surely the authors don’t deny that Messianism is central to Judaism and surely the rebbe’s global effectiveness made him as much a possible candidate as anyone else during his lifetime. What the rebbe never did was declare himself the Messiah, which is why the authors must comb through hundreds of speeches to force allusions.
I cannot help but harbor the belief that the authors started with a particular agenda — that the rebbe portrayed himself as obsessed with Jewish observance when, in his younger years, he was himself not all that passionate — and then rummaged through a mountain of arbitrary facts to support their thesis. The book’s central premise is built on the assumption that an authentic chasidic life and secular intellectual engagement are incompatible.
None of this means that Heilman and Friedman’s biography is without merit. On the contrary, I welcome their humanizing portrait of the rebbe. I was edified to discover many of the facts of the rebbe’s sojourn in Berlin and Paris and how he integrated himself into intellectual European life. This forward-looking embrace of modernity would later constitute the principal reason for Chabad’s unprecedented success, a unique synthesis of uncompromising Jewish adherence matched with a passion to utilize all modern means by which to propagate a Jewish message.
Whereas other chasidic groups — most notably Satmar — dismissed the modern, secular world as utterly devoid of redeeming merit, the rebbe saw its unqualified Godly potential. To be sure, there are misguided members of Chabad who almost deify the rebbe and raise him to a level of perfection. But people like me followed the rebbe because of his thorough understanding of, and engagement with, the modern world.
Fortunately, Heilman and Friedman attempt to separate fact from fiction in the rebbe’s life, countering some of his followers’ attempts at hagiography of their leader as miracle-worker or Messiah. Most striking to me was the rebbe’s devotion and humanity, seeking to inspire children and making himself available to people like me when we came to him with our shattered hearts.
He was a man of great humility, utterly lacking in materialistic impulse or personal gain. Perhaps the most powerful rabbi in the world, able to influence Israeli elections from across the Atlantic, he spent the last years of his life living, literally, in his tiny office, and never in 40 years of leadership did he take a vacation or a day off from his work.
Does that mean he was perfect? Of course not. But it might explain why, as the authors seem to miss, he did not advertise his Jewish devotion and scholarship in his formative years, dressing down and seeking to be under the radar, until, by virtue of the very public role that he took on as the global leader of Chabad, his sharp talents came into public focus. In that sense I am grateful to the authors for a profoundly human biography that will hopefully spur a whole new literature on the rebbe as man rather than angel and as person rather than saint.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, is author of 23 books, including his newest work, “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life,” which is being published this month by Basic Books. www.shmuley.com.
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