Giving The Rebbe A Biography
‘The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson’ humanizes the Lubavitcher Rebbe, but is its premise flawed?
05/10/2010 - 20:00
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‘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.


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I truly appreciate this review where Rabbi Boteach expresses his opinion while being able to see the pros of the book as well. I have only one correction to make to Rabbi Boteach. While the Rebbe ZTZ"L did originally oppose Wolpo's book and prevented it's publication, he did ultimately approve of the book. "And He Will Redeem Us" Moshiach in Our Time Concerning the Imminent Redemption and the Revelation of Moshiach Published and Copyright 1994 by: Mendelsohn Press, Inc. Brooklyn, N.Y. ISBN 1-880880-06-7 on page 65
See here for a collection of sources describing the Rebbe's activities during these years.
If one is interested in getting an accurate, truthful account of an event, the best way is to talk with people who were there at the time. Here I found several links to interviews with people who have first hand knowledge and contact with the Lubavitcher Rebbe while he was a student in Paris and Berlin. Very interesting, and you go away with a totally different impression then when reading this book.
the rebbe was asked about the book at least 3 times and each time said no in no uncertain terms, n.o. it was only after the rebbe suffered a stroke (mar 1992) and could not talk any more, wolpo then asked again and decided to ignore the earlier times when the rebbe had clearly said his book should never see the light of day and he went ahead and printed it. lubavitchers have nothing to worry about with this book. it will end up on the trash pile of other ficticious works that claim to be real.
In 1987 the Rebbe screamed at Rabbi Wolpo. But in 1992 the rebbe gave hi blessing and encouraged him to print it. Bside this in many occasions the Rebbe hinted quite clearly or admitted that he is Moshiach. It is also known that the Rebbe while in university was always holding a jewish book in class.
R. Boteach wrote, "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." Did not the Mussar Movement take place in modern Jewish history? Did not the Torah Im Derech Eretz approach take place within modern Jewish history? I would venture to say that these have had a much greater effect on the Jewish world than Chabad. Without Slabodka and the products it produced, where would Torah learning be today? And, indeed, is it not the yeshiva movement that was started by R. Chaim Voloshin that has had and continues to have the greatest effect on Yahadus during the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Chabad loves to regard itself as THE movement. But it is far from that. How great an influence does Chabad have in Lakewood? How great an influence does Chabad have in most vibrant Orthodox communities? I have little patience for this sort of Lubavitch chauvinism. Please R. Boteach, open your eyes and get real! Yitzchok Levine
Lubavitch brought to the modern Jewish world a concrete expression of ahavas Yisroel and mesiras nefesh for another yid that you could only dream about. The Rebbe, the tsaddik yessod Olam that he was dispersed his own community for the spiritual welfare of Klal Isroel. Throughout the world Chabad stands in the forefront of the fight against assimilation and indifference to the kedusha of Torah and mitzvos. Who helps the tens of thousands of Israeli backpackers in Thailand begashmius uverucheniyus or that started the Baal Teshuva movements in places like Paris or in Australia, Shanghai, and list goes on with close to 3500 centres throughout the world. Is it people like you in Lakewood or Bnei Brak. Chabad began the Baal Teshuva movement before the copycats like aish came around (don't get me wrong , I hope we have more organizations like aish around). The bottom line is that in Lakewood and Bnei Brak there is the growing sense that ani veafsi od, you have arrogated to yourself a monopoly over Torah learning, as if there is no one else around. There is more to be said but I will conclude with a simple plea. I urge you to do what Chabad is doing, give of yourself to the Jewish people, before that I suggest you take a deep look at yourself and start to look out of your ghettoes in Lakewood and Bnei Brak
The fact that he was an incredibly driven and capable Hassidic leader from mid-life and on does not contradict the possibility of his having other interests as a younger man. If anything, it makes for a more fascinating portrait. Raban Yochanan ben Zakai was a businessman until age 40, whereupon he studied for the rabbinate and eventually became chief rabbi, leading the Jews through and beyond the Second Temple's destruction.
I am not Jewish. But picking up an old book about this Rebbe for 50 cents is still changing my life. Martin Luther and the printing press changed European history. This Rebbe is already bigger than that changing my far away nation of New Zealand. The ultimate accolade for a dead Messiah is that long after he is dead and buried people take time to attack him. Shalom
As a one time Chabad adherent, I know where Rabbi Boteach comes from in his categorical rejection of any perceived imperfection in the Rebbe's life story. This same attitude is shared by the average Lubavitcher in Crown Heights. Unfortunately, they are blissfully ignorant of the Rebbe's younger years, the story of which is obliterated in mystery and unsubstantiated legend. The story told in this and other biographies is based on review of actual university archives. Does this lessen the impact the Rebbe had on the Jewish world? Not at all. The fact is that many of our great leaders had their moments of spiritual crisis: Abraham underwent 10 divine tests, and Moses was raised as an Egyptian prince and spent years as a shepherd for a Midianite pagan high priest. They survived their crises and emerged with their character even stronger than ever, and this enabled them to change the world around them. I believe that the Rebbe's dabbling with modern culture enabled him to return to the Hassidic world with a character strength and perspective that could not be acquired living the sheltered life in yeshiva. The rest, of course, was history.
I challlenge the sources that Heilman and Feidman claim to have when they discuss the Rebbe's stay in Germany and France. There are many, many authentic, real people who were there at the same time as the Rebbe, and never have they portraited the Rebbe in a manner that these two have. Bars and coffee lounges? Oh please. How gullable do they think people are?
I was initially excited to hear that there is a biography written about an amazing man by a non Chabad person. However after reading rabbi boteach's review I won't bother with this nonsense. I am a born Lubavitcher (nine generations in fact, which makes me somewhat unique), and it would have been refreshing to read a real biography about a man (not a messiah) who single handedly gave the post-holocaust world a reason to live as a Jew. The rebbe found in his heart a place for every man, woman, and child. He cared deeply about events that affect world Jewish issues more so than anyone. (in fact I posit that if he were alive today we wouldn't be in such bad shape.) But returning to the bio, anyone who knew the rebbe from the forties before he accepted the mantle of leadership, knew that he was not dabbling in engineering but was the previous rebbe's deputy. He started merkoz, Kehot and wrote the hayom yom ( a daily guide read by thousands daily), edited the Chabad hagada, privately wrote the now publicized , cryptic essays that have taken scholars years to unravel etc... To paint the rebbe as a Parisian philosopher hanging out in smoke filled bars and cafes, is so Hollywood and frankly nauseating. But that's not the point; the rebbe taught that whenever someone undertakes a task, there should be a goal. In writing a book, it is every writers wish to have impact. One hillman set out to achieve deludes me. Thank you JM
try reading the book and making up your own mind. Maybe Boteach got it wrong
Boteach got it correct. This book is shoddy scholarship. Ignores the Rebbe's awesome contribution to Jewish learning. It another example of Heilman's hostility to Haridie Jews and Friedman who testified against Chabad in the case over the Lubavitch Library. He supported B. Gurary who stole classic books to be sold for money. Clearly they have an agenda.
The Rebbe was a highly unique, wonderfully accepting and unequivocally committed to each and every Jew. It was with his blessings and guidance that shlichim were sent throughout the globe with this message. To write a book that may is some way, chas v'shalom, cast doubt on the very far reaching and lasting message is a very sad situation.

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