Commentary Magazine

The Rebbe, Twenty Years After

“The Jews are better today because of him.” With this assurance, Joseph Telushkin concludes his new study of Menachem M. Schneerson, the seventh rebbe of Chabad, the Hasidic movement established in the Russian town of Lubavitch at the end of the 18th century—and which continues to flourish 20 years after his death. Although I am by temperament more skeptical than Telushkin, I have been brought to a similar conclusion. Genuine leadership is always in short supply and never more challenging than in modern times. The man who became known as “the Rebbe” did wonders with Jews, who are notoriously difficult to lead.

My first encounter with Chabad came indirectly one day in the 1970s during a conversation with one of my Montreal Jewish neighbors about the annual Combined Jewish Appeal that was then in full swing. I was astonished when he said he contributed most of his philanthropy to Chabad. Why would this trendy young man who drove a BMW and was decidedly not a Sabbath observer support a movement associated with the kind of mystical and ultra-Orthodox Judaism for which I had the least patience? He said that, as a businessman, he wanted to put his money to work “where it went farthest.” Having looked into what various institutions did with their resources, he concluded that meant Chabad.

At roughly the same time, as part of a course on American Yiddish literature that I was then teaching at McGill University, I organized a class trip to New York City that would travel by bus on Friday and spend Sunday touring historical landmarks of Yiddish culture on the Lower East Side. The problem was how to organize over Saturday, which the Department of Jewish Studies observed as the Sabbath. A student with Chabad connections offered to have all the students put up in Chabad homes in Crown Heights. This would provide secure, pleasant accommodations and exposure to Yiddish where it was spoken. The students’ subsequent evaluations unanimously, enthusiastically, and somewhat disconcertingly declared the Sabbath stay with Chabad families the most valuable part of the trip. I had tried to breathe life into the remnants of an almost vanished secular Yiddish culture whereas they had experienced Yiddishkayt—Jewishness—in full bloom.

Such experiences kept multiplying. Before her wedding, I accompanied my daughter to a new Chabad-based ritual bath, or mikveh, near Boston. The daughter of our son in New York attended Chabad nursery school in New York, and our son in Los Angeles briefly attended a Chabad synagogue there. I learned of Chabad couples who ran drug-rehabilitation clinics and provided pastoral care for prison inmates. The network of Chabad institutions I visited during a trip to Russia included a kosher vegetarian restaurant that underplayed its Jewish auspices and used a large television to draw in local youth; Jewish schools that were incrementally upgrading their facilities; and a group home for Jewish children, some of whose still living parents were too damaged to raise them, that had been spontaneously organized by a Chabad couple already supervising several other local projects. It had become hard to imagine—and in the former Soviet Union impossible to conceive of—Jewish life without the initiatives of Chabad.

Through all this I never once thought of Menachem Mendel Schneerson. When shluchim—Chabad’s young emissaries—spoke to me of their projects, they invoked “the Rebbe” no more than we mention the CEO of a company whose brand we trust. Thus, quite unlike Dorothy’s discovery of the deceiver behind the wizardly effects of Oz, only gradually and mostly after his death did I recognize the man behind these efforts. All those schools and outposts and myriad initiatives and even the rising Jewish birthrate of Chabad families had been generated by Schneerson’s “campaigns.” He fostered a culture of independence that required every Chabad effort to stand on its own, but the people staffing those efforts had unquestionably been propelled by their inspirational guide.

So it was not surprising that some of his followers saw him as a messianic figure, if not the messiah himself. In 2001, in this magazine, the respected Jewish historian David Berger documented emerging claims that the man now universally known as the Rebbe was the long-awaited messiah. Berger’s academic interest in the phenomenon was sharpened by his anxieties as a believing Jew that sectors of the Chabad community were spreading this belief, and by concern that the rest of Orthodox Jewry was apparently indifferent to the heresy.

Two new and complementary biographies1 seem designed to lay such anxieties to rest, one by playing down the intimations of transcendence and the other by trying to get at their core. Joseph Telushkin’s earthbound study introduces “the most influential rabbi in modern history” by documenting the incremental process through which his influence was acquired. Unabashedly partisan in his admiration, Telushkin quotes the kind of hagiographic testimonials Hasidim traditionally trade when speaking of their rabbis, except that among Schneerson’s admirers are heads of state, military leaders, writers, intellectuals, and people who were and are not otherwise his followers. From Telushkin, a polymathic rabbi who has written highly regarded and well-read works on prayer and Jewish belief as well as mystery novels, we learn of the Rebbe’s effect on adherents and admirers through their own accounts of one-on-one meetings with him.

For his part, Adin Steinsaltz, the prodigious translator-editor of the Talmud and a charismatic figure in his own right, speaks from within the Lubavitch movement to sustain his Rebbe’s aura of sanctity starting with the Hasidic teaching that “life as we see it is not all there is.” Both books subordinate the private man to the public figure.

Nothing Testifies as powerfully to the status of Menachem Mendel Schneerson in the Chabad movement as the fact that on his account his predecessor became known as the Frierdiker, or previous rebbe, although it was to this predecessor that he owed his position and inspiration. The sixth Lubavitch Rebbe, whose name was Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, had only daughters. Since succession in Hasidic movements is not strictly hereditary, he paid special attention to finding them husbands who might credibly succeed him. He arranged an excellent rabbinic match for the eldest but apparently recognized the more exceptional qualities of his relative Menachem Mendel, son of the chief rabbi of Yekaterinoslav (Dniepropetrovsk), to whom he introduced his second daughter, Chaya Mushka. In 1927, when Yosef Schneerson secured his own release and that of his immediate family from the Soviet Union, he persuaded the Communist authorities also to release Menachem Mendel—though he could not secure the release of the young man’s parents. So when the couple was married, Yosef Yitzchak assumed responsibility for his son-in-law and in some way filled in for the father the son was never to see again.

“Chabad” is a Hebrew acronym combining the words for wisdom, insight, and knowledge. Realizing that a modern leader would have to be better armed than his predecessors to confront the modern world, the Frierdiker Rebbe supported his son-in-law’s desire to include formal university studies in acquisition of “knowledge.” Menachem Mendel Schneerson studied philosophy in Berlin and, later, engineering in Paris, becoming proficient in several languages and disciplines. During his university years, he befriended Joseph Soloveitchik, who would become his non-Hasidic counterpart as the leading figure of Jewish Orthodoxy in America; their intense encounter with Western culture undoubtedly enabled both men to engage confidently with non-Jewish ideas and society. Yet Menachem Mendel’s knowledge of the world and his practical intelligence may have derived less from exposure to secular learning in Europe than from experience of its two totalitarian movements—Communism as implemented in the Soviet Union and Nazism, from which he and his wife fled as it overran France in 1941.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson arrived in New York in 1941. Not long after the death of his father-in-law in 1950, he was acknowledged as the new rebbe. Interestingly, he dismissed the classic European formula to “be a Jew at home and a man in the street”—which he felt bespoke a lack of confidence in the local population—and instead sought to “take Judaism out into the world.” While assimilating Jews spearheaded challenges to public displays of Christianity and other Orthodox leaders circled the wagons against secularism, Schneerson encouraged the practice of religion in the public square through demonstrative lighting of Chanukah menorahs. He sent Chabad youngsters out to invite Jewish men to resume the practice of putting on phylacteries and Jewish women to light Sabbath candles.

His commitment to Israel’s place in the world was as bold as his program for American Jewry. Among Israelis who came to consult with him, politicians and military experts were surprised by his detailed knowledge of their country’s local affairs and international situation on strategic and diplomatic fronts. His trust in America contrasted sharply with his distrust of Israel’s self-declared enemies. He opposed giving back lands that Israel had retaken and won in 1967, less on account of God’s promise to Abraham—“For all the land that you see I give to you and your descendants forever” (Genesis 13:15)—than for the way he knew a smaller and more vulnerable target would invite greater appetite for Israel’s conquest.

 The most illuminating feature of Telushkin’s book is his account of Schneerson’s realpolitik, which was neither cynical nor defensive but tempered with hard-won knowledge of political realities. On the principle of pikuach nefesh, translated by Telushkin as “the saving of endangered lives,” Schneerson favored preemptive attacks over diplomatic attempts at gaining international sympathy for Israel, and he repeatedly pointed up the delusional fallacy of what others called “territorial compromise for peace.”

Some considered it strange that a religious leader who spoke so passionately about Israel never visited the country. The Frierdiker Rebbe had inspired the founding of the Lubavitch town Kfar Chabad in Israel in 1949; surely the Russian Jews who settled there would have rejoiced in such a visit, and Israelis at large would have welcomed his tangible show of support. Here one may turn for guidance to Steinsaltz, who writes from inside the movement to illuminate what it means to have a “spiritual mission.” He defines ruach hakodesh as the holy spirit within a person that connects him to a reality beyond our world and gives those with special aptitude and training “the ability to know things in the present or the future.” Much as Schneerson might have wanted to fly in for a visit to the terrestrial Israel that he respected and loved as a sovereign state, he experienced the land of Israel as a pivotal feature of God’s plan for the Jewish people. How then, being very much part of that plan, could he go there and leave?

The question of why he did not visit Israel was once put to him with characteristic bluntness by Geulah Cohen, a fiery right-wing member of the Israeli Knesset. He replied that he would be in Israel “one minute before the messiah comes.” Steinsaltz interprets this to mean that Schneerson loved the entire Jewish people and wished to be returned to the land only at the time of ultimate redemption, as Exodus has it, “with our young and with our old.” Perhaps he remained in America because he believed it was where he could function most effectively for the entire Jewish people. Though he did not join those religious Zionists who saw the political state as the beginning of redemption—atchalta de’geulah—his identification with Israel prompted him to explain the relation of Jews to the Almighty through the metaphor of the soldier who goes to war. As opposed to earlier Jewish paradigms of the obedient child or dutiful slave, the soldier “has a loving and emotional relationship with the leader,” according to Steinsaltz. “Mirroring the son’s love and willing devotion to the father, he is supremely loyal and capable of enormous self-sacrifice.” The definition of meaningful Jewish life as soldiering correlates with the life of Israelis who must soldier as part of their birthright.

Writing as a disciple, Steinsaltz devotes the latter part of his book to his teacher’s connection with the Divine and tries to guide readers through what is for many an unfamiliar terrain of miracles, souls after death, and belief in the world beyond. I will not venture into what remains for me terra incognita except to say that Schneerson could not have accomplished what he did without the strength he derived from that added stratum of human experience. Whatever messianic potential he felt in himself and ignited in his followers, only the confidence drawn from their Chabad ancestry and the Jewish traditions behind their movement can help to account for their collective achievement. This part of Steinsaltz’s book is constructed haphazardly, as if to avoid touching the third rail, which is the Jews’ yet-unrealized messianic expectation, but it puts us on notice that there is only so much of the man’s inner life we can ever hope to know.

The Chabad movement was not without its friction, and its culture of decentralized responsibility suggests that there will be more of it in years to come. Tensions between the Rebbe and the family of his brother-in-law flared after the death of the Frierdiker Rebbe and led to a breach that had to be adjudicated in the local courts. Since Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s passing, a minority that identifies him as the messiah threatens to split the movement, which at its core tries to tamp down this claim while nurturing Chabad’s vibrant faith. Meanwhile what came to be known as “the Rebbe’s army” inspires other Jewish organizations worldwide to become equally effective.

The recent canonization of two former popes is a healthy reminder that Judaism lacks the symbols and structures of supreme human authority, as a result of hard-won experience. Kingship was suspect, prophets were reluctant, rabbis from earliest times had to compete for influence. It remains the case that leaders in every branch of Jewish life must gain and maintain their authority by evidence of worth. Obviously qualified as he was for leadership, Menachem Mendel Schneerson had first to win his right to lead Chabad, and if he then exceeded the expectations Jews had of their religious leaders, it is worth studying how and why his method worked. He harnessed American freedoms not to free Jews from the perceived limitations of their national religion but to demonstrate the power and attractiveness of the Jewish way of life. His welcoming confidence inspired confidence in the way of life he was offering and the faith tradition he embodied.


1 Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, by Joseph Telushkin (HarperWave, 640 pages); My Rebbe, by Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz (Maggid Books, 224 pages). 

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).

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