Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson addresses a Brooklyn audience in 1987. Photo by Mordecai Baron via Wikimedia Commons
Several new books are seizing upon the upcoming 20th anniversary of the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to point out how much the late Jewish leader’s teachings have bearing upon the events of today. Not following the trend of previous works, which subjected the unprecedented growth in the Chabad- Lubavitch movement — either from 1951, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson assumed leadership of the Chasidic group as its seventh Rebbe, or from his passing in 1994 — to a kind of scholarly fascination with its uniqueness, these new volumes instead see in the Rebbe a model of leadership and conduct that can be emulated by all.
What emerges is a distinctly human portrait of a brilliant rabbi who silenced his inner conflicts to grasp the reins of an obscure Chasidic sect and propel it into the living rooms of Jewish (and non-Jewish) families around the globe. And whereas collections of secondhand stories of miraculous healings have left readers awestruck at supposed superhuman qualities attributed to the Rebbe, this most recent crop of literature is more likely than not to leave readers determined to change their lives for the better.
No one knows how the Rebbe, for instance, would have reacted to last week’s kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers by suspected Palestinian terrorists, but Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who has spent the last five years researching the life of the Jewish leader, nevertheless ventures a guess.
“I don’t know if I could come up with any innovative insight,” says the 66-year-old author of more than 16 books on Judaism and Jewish subjects. “Other than prayer and support for the actions of the Israeli army, on the issues where there’s been terrorist attacks, the Rebbe’s attitude would be to not be cowed by it. … You just keep building ahead. You don’t stop.”
The release last week of Telushkin’s latest book, “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History” (Harper Collins), comes alongside commemorations of 20 years since the Rebbe’s passing on June 12, 1994 (the third day of the month of Tammuz in the Hebrew calendar). He’s been crisscrossing the country to talk about the book and the lessons he’s gleaned from chronicling, in his words, “how a man took over a relatively small movement in 1951 located in one neighborhood in Brooklyn and turned it into a worldwide movement.”
Just five years after the Rebbe assumed leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement — the two parts of the Chasidic group’s name alternately refer to the intellectual underpinnings of its teachings and the town in Russia that housed its leaders until the early part of the 20th century — tragedy struck a small enclave of its adherents in Israel, when Palestinian terrorists murdered five students and their teacher in Kfar Chabad. The Rebbe’s response came in a cryptic telegram from New York several days later: “By your continued building will you be comforted.”
The inhabitants of the village took inspiration from those words and built a vocational school for underprivileged children.
Looking at the current events in Israel, Telushkin — who on Tuesday night spoke alongside CBS News correspondent Dan Raviv at an event at George Washington University sponsored by the American Friends of Lubavitch, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Washington Jewish Week and the Jewish Community Relations Council — says the Rebbe would probably now, as back then, seek to build something from the ashes of tragedy.
“We as Jews shouldn’t allow any act to destroy us,” explains Telushkin, who although not an adherent of Chabad is descended from a Chabad family. “Chabad, unlike most other movements, has not focused many efforts on commemoration of the Holocaust, because the Rebbe intuitively understood that in the generations following [World War II], strengthening Jewish unity will come from the joy of” Jewish actions, such as laying tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles, visiting the sick and giving charity.
“He cared very much emotionally, he himself lost family members in the Holocaust, including his brother,” continues Telushkin. “But that’s not where he wanted to put his focus.”
An American journey
Born in 1902 in Nikolayev, Russia, Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the oldest of three boys born to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Chana Schneerson. His father, a Kabbalist and descendant of the third Chabad Rebbe, would move the family to Yekatrinoslav (present day Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine), where he took a position as chief rabbi.
In his early years, as chronicled by Telushkin and Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, the Talmudic scholar whose “My Rebbe” (Maggid Books) hit store shelves in May, the Rebbe exhibited an extraordinary grasp of Jewish texts and the more secular fields of mathematics and astronomy. He would go on, especially after marrying the daughter of the then-Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, to straddle both the religious and secular worlds, composing detailed notes and commentaries on obscure concepts in Talmudic exegesis and Jewish mysticism and attending university classes in Berlin — where he was an acquaintance of a young Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik — and Paris.
That scholarship, further developed in the public talks he would give for more than 40 years in New York, would emerge, writes Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb in the latest issue of Jewish Action, as “a vital source of education and inspiration for all Jews, irrespective of one’s background.”
Consistently one step ahead of the advancing Nazi powers, the future Rebbe and his wife escaped to Vichy-controlled France, secured papers to the United States and boarded a ship in Lisbon, Portugal for London and then New York. It was there, in 1941, that he was reunited with his father-in-law, who had arrived in the U.S. a year prior.
In 1950, the previous Rebbe passed away, leaving the movement without a leader. Although his son-in-law originally resisted attempts to draft him as a successor, he overcame his original misgivings and formally became the movement’s leader exactly one year later. A recent account, mentioned in Telushkin’s book, credits the influence of the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, who reportedly told her husband, “If you don’t become Rebbe, 30 years of my father’s life will have gone to waste.”
In the ensuing four decades, the Rebbe would dispatch emissaries — known as shluchim, the institution continues today, with the ranks of these couples increasing at a greater pace after the Rebbe’s passing in 1994 — around the globe, receive dignitaries and thousands of visitors from near and far for one-on-one meetings at his Brooklyn office and launch a series of campaigns designed to increase Jewish awareness and push the role of Jewish life from the private to the public sphere. Under his guidance and in ways that sometimes sparked the ire of the wider Jewish community, public Chanukah menorah lightings became commonplace; he also famously called on many occasions for a moment of silence in public schools to emphasize what he called the duty of society to inculcate moral values in its children.
“Rabbi Schneerson’s written works fill multiple library shelves, and his spoken words have been eternalized in audio and video recordings and in many print volumes,” writes Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, who will address an event sponsored by Chabad centers in the greater Baltimore area alongside syndicated radio host Dennis Prager on Sunday, June 29, at Johns Hopkins University’s Shriver Hall. “His care and concern for every Jew — indeed for every human being — were his essential personal characteristics.”
Speaking from his office in Brooklyn, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky says that the real takeaway 20 years after the Rebbe’s passing is not really that thousands of young couples have taken up permanent residence in the farthest corners of the globe to strengthen Jewish life, but what exactly is animating them to do so. The newest crop of shluchim, he points out, likely never met the Rebbe.
“Even if they can’t see the Rebbe, the Rebbe’s [teachings], his [talks], his letters, they’re so full of truth and direction,” says Krinsky, who began working for the Rebbe as a press liaison in 1957 and today effectively runs the Chabad-Lubavitch movement as chairman of its educational and social service arms.
Krinsky will address an event at the Round House Theater in Bethesda sponsored by the Chabad-Lubavitch centers of Montgomery County on Monday, June 23.
“I don’t think anybody can explain” why a young rabbi and his wife, maybe with one or two children, would move to an unfamiliar community, continues Krinsky. “Can you explain life?”
For authors such as Telushkin and Steinsaltz — Rabbi Chaim Miller’s “Turning Judaism Outward: A Biography of the Rebbe” (Kol Menachem) also hit store shelves this month — the span of the Rebbe’s leadership can be boiled down to essential precepts. According to Telushkin, who devotes the entire third part of his more than 580-page book to what he calls the “seven virtues” taught by the Rebbe, chief among these precepts is believing in the innate value of the individual and focusing more on areas of agreement with others than on disagreement.
“That’s what so drew me,” says Telushkin, who tells of one time when his father, who was for a long time the Chabad movement’s accountant, had just days earlier emerged from a coma and received a telephone call from the Rebbe’s office asking an accounting question.
“I realized that the Rebbe, sitting there in Brooklyn concerned with macro matters affecting the destiny of the Jewish people, nevertheless took time to ask a question. It reminded my father that he was still needed,”
explains Telushkin. “It’s widely known that the Talmud says that every life is of infinite value. Most people give lip service to that teaching, but the Rebbe seems to have had an unnatural ability to give that focus.”
That, coupled with a tendency not to mention publicly the names of those with whom he disagreed, preferring instead to question viewpoints as opposed to specific people, as well as a way of appreciating “people for what they were doing rather than for what they weren’t doing,” reveals, says Telushkin, a way of life that has the power to animate others.
“That becomes the basis for a wonderful nonjudgmental love,” concludes Telushkin. “The Rebbe was modeling behavior for people. … [For] people to come out as a result of this book as more loving people, as more committed to Jewish study and to leading Jewish lives and to practice the love that cuts across denominational and religious lines … I’m convinced the Rebbe wanted to see happen.”
Area events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing include those sponsored by the Chabad centers of Northern Virginia on June 22 (for more information, call 703-426-1980), the Chabad-Lubavitch centers of Montgomery County on June 23 (for more information, call 301-887-3250) and the Chabad centers of the Greater Baltimore area on June 29 (for more information, call 410-647-7273).