Book Review: ‘Rebbe’ by Joseph Telushkin and ‘My Rebbe’ by Adin Steinsaltz

Menachem Schneerson transformed a small sect into a world Jewish movement—but was he also the Messiah?


June 13, 2014 5:54 p.m. ET

‘Are you Jewish?” If you’ve lived in a large American city in the past 30 years and look the part, chances are that a young Hasidic man has approached you with this question. Men who answer “yes” are given a quick tutorial in donning tefillin, ritual objects worn by Jewish men during prayer; women receive Sabbath candles with instructions to recite ancient blessings. It all seems suspiciously cultlike, but these bearded enthusiasts aren’t out to convert anyone. They are emissaries of Chabad (also known as Lubavitch), a religious movement whose goal is to expose more Jews to Judaism—unconditionally.

By Joseph Telushkin

My Rebbe
By Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz
Shefa/Maggid, 246 pages, $24.95

RebbeSchneerson speaks to his followers in Brooklyn in January 1992 about the everlasting nature of the soul on the fourth anniversary of his wife’s death.Corbis Images

Their approach has succeeded in a secular age when hundreds of other Jewish organizations have failed. A recent Pew study of American Jews showed a dramatic attenuation of communal ties, and other religions have also seen declining institutional involvement, but Chabad has built thriving outposts from Anchorage to Zimbabwe, touched the lives of millions, and become ubiquitous almost to the point of comedy. On a recent trip to Australia, I discovered that the building adjacent to my hotel in Melbourne was an exact replica of 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad’s legendary Brooklyn headquarters. Two excellent new biographies of Chabad’s great 20th-century leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-94), help explain how one man turned a decimated sect into a world-wide presence.

Hasidism is a religious revival movement inspired by the spiritual crises that followed the 1648 massacres of tens of thousands of Jews in Ukraine. Led by charismatic leaders called rebbes (a variant of a Hebrew word for “teacher”) who elevated seeking God through sincere action like prayer and deeds of kindness above studying Torah. Hasidism flourished in Eastern Europe, with various dynastic courts gaining ardent followers.

In the 1780s, a rebbe named Shneur Zalman in the Belarusian town of Lubavitch founded a new Hasidic group called Chabad (a Hebrew acronym for wisdom, understanding and knowledge), distinguished for its intellectual rigor. He also began his own dynasty; leadership descended within the family through followers’ consensus. It is this mantle that Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a direct descendant of Shneur Zalman, reluctantly assumed after the death of his father-in-law Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth rebbe, in 1950. (The tangled Schneerson family tree would put the Windsors to shame.) After a year of power struggles with a brother-in-law who badly wanted the job—and whose son was later sued by Chabad for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of rare books—Schneerson became the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1951.

By all accounts, Schneerson, born in 1902 and raised in Ukraine, was gifted with extraordinary intelligence and empathy. He never studied in a yeshiva but learned Torah and Talmud with his father and reportedly committed all 63 tractates of the Talmud to memory; his close relationship with his father-in-law, whom he first met in 1923 and who was later imprisoned and exiled by the Soviets, defined his spiritual life. As a young man he studied physics, calculus and philosophy at the University of Berlin. Just before the Nazi takeover, Schneerson and his wife moved to Paris, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering. This served him well when the couple escaped to New York in 1941, where he found a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, supervising work on battleship electrical systems. Most Lubavitchers were murdered in the Holocaust; at Chabad’s new Crown Heights headquarters, people had to be pulled off the street to provide the quorum of 10 Jewish men for prayers. The new Rebbe’s worldliness—he spoke seven languages and could read more than 10—prepared him to lead not just a small sect but a movement that could reach millions.

Those who admire young Mormons who commit to two-year missions ought to be awed by Chabad shluchim (emissaries), young married couples barely in their 20s who are sent to far-flung places to build Jewish communities and serve the needs of Jewish travelers—not for two years but for their entire lives, raising their children abroad. As pre-eminent Israeli Torah scholar Adin Steinsaltz details in “My Rebbe,” this practice began with the fifth rebbe at the turn of the 20th century, who sent shluchim to outlying regions of the Russian empire. But Schneerson vastly expanded the program. Shluchim are recruited for their intelligence and ingenuity, serve voluntarily, receive no salary (they must raise funds to support themselves), and devote their lives to bringing Judaism to places where resources like kosher food or synagogues are often nonexistent.

The Rebbe insisted on maintaining shluchim in challenging circumstances. In “Rebbe,” American rabbi and author Joseph Telushkin describes a 1982 incident where the Israeli government planned to evacuate the Tunisian Jewish community after the Palestine Liberation Organization established a headquarters in Tunis. The Rebbe, citing his own intelligence sources, insisted the threat wasn’t credible. The Israelis backed down, and Chabad, along with the city’s native Jewish community, remains in Tunis today. Such persistence isn’t without risk: In 2008, shluchim in Mumbai were targeted, tortured and murdered during citywide terrorist attacks, an incident that goes unmentioned in these books. It is worth noting that this atrocity did not lead to any pullback—8,000 shluchimcurrently serve around the world.

Both of these biographies depict the Rebbe’s management style. One of the Rebbe’s principles, for instance, was his religiously motivated insistence on never waiting to get things done. As Mr. Telushkin recounts, in 1978 a Jewish chaplain for South African prisons visited the Rebbe and lamented that Jewish prisoners, many of whom were dissidents, had permission to observe Passover but not Hanukkah. The Rebbe suggested that the chaplain approach the director of prisons. When the chaplain noted that Hanukkah would begin the following evening, the Rebbe told him to call the director at home, even though it was after midnight in Johannesburg, so that “he would be impressed by the matter’s urgency.” The director was indeed impressed, and prisoners received Hanukkah candles the following night.

The Rebbe also held private meetings all through the night and often until dawn. Petitioners from students to senators felt the urgency of the hour as they arrived for appointments at, say, 2 a.m. Mr. Steinsaltz vividly describes the profound, almost supernatural attention that people felt they received during these encounters. “Many people who stood in the Rebbe’s presence came away feeling that they had been branded, as a being that is marked by fire and set aside; so it was with me,” he writes.

Spreading himself too thin was never the Rebbe’s concern; he responded to those who complained of being overwhelmed with “I’m also tired. So what?” The Rebbe slept no more than a few hours nightly and ate only dark chocolate while at work, which was nearly always. During the day he prayed, often at his father-in-law’s grave, prepared religious discourses (later collected in over 200 volumes), edited Chabad publications, and handled correspondence from around the world. He and his wife were childless, which greatly pained them, but they had daily tea together. According to Mr. Steinsaltz, the Rebbe once remarked that this ritual was “as important to him as putting on tefillin.” Despite running a global organization, he rarely left Crown Heights.

The Rebbe never traveled to Israel. Nonetheless, he consulted with Israeli prime ministers and generals, who sometimes regretted ignoring his advice. In 1969, he wrote a detailed letter to Gen. Ariel Sharon pointing out vulnerabilities in a particular defensive line—which was attacked by Egypt in 1973 exactly as the Rebbe had warned. Congressmen made the Rebbe’s office into a regular campaign stop. In 1982, the Rebbe met Nevada Sen. Jacob Hecht and told him to make Soviet Jewry his priority. Later, when President Reagan owed Hecht a favor, Hecht convinced Reagan to pressure Mikhail Gorbachev for Jewish emigration.

But the Rebbe’s influence stemmed less from realpolitik than insight. Shirley Chisholm, the Brooklyn representative who was the first black woman in Congress, told the Rebbe of her dismay at being relegated to the agriculture committee. The Rebbe suggested: “You can use the gift God’s given you to feed hungry people.” Chisholm would go on to spearhead children’s food-stamp programs that still feed millions.

These two books, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s death, take very different approaches to their subject. Mr. Steinsaltz, writing from a deeply religious perspective, vividly describes Chabad’s history and the Rebbe’s achievements, interspersing biographical facts with musings on spirituality that can be quite moving. “My Rebbe” gives a rich sense of Hasidic history and ideas, as well as the Rebbe’s spiritual impact. Mr. Telushkin’s book is more journalistic, and a more accessible choice for the non-Jewish or nonreligious reader. It will appeal to those curious about the Rebbe’s influence on public life, and Mr. Telushkin is particularly strong on the Rebbe’s impact on Soviet Jewry, Israel-Diaspora relations and American politics. He includes many revealing anecdotes, along with the Rebbe’s thoughts on subjects ranging from evolution to baseball. (Mr. Telushkin also provides a timeline appendix that could be a book in itself.)

Both authors exhibit a frank admiration for the Rebbe, even when addressing his movement’s flaws. Not everyone appreciates Chabad’s assertiveness: Native Jewish communities in places where shluchim are sent don’t always welcome Chabad’s incursions, and after the Rebbe’s death a narrow slice of Lubavitchers who regarded him as a messianic figure gave the movement its own extremist fringe. Yet as Mr. Telushkin explains, the Rebbe repeatedly denied he was the Messiah. In 1965, he ordered an elderly Lubavitcher who had scattered messianic fliers around Tel Aviv to collect and destroy every flier. Mr. Telushkin relates that when an emissary presented the Rebbe with a letter addressing him as “King Messiah,” the Rebbe threw “it down in frustration, and wrote on it, ‘Tell him that when the Moshiach comes, I will give him the letter.’ ” When a journalist asked point-blank if he were the Messiah, the Rebbe answered: “I am not.” Still, Mr. Steinsaltz admits that, like other Lubavitchers, “while he was alive, I believed that he could be [the Messiah]. That is, I believed in the potential of his candidacy.”

To be fair, Lubavitchers who saw their Rebbe as the Messiah were influenced by his own mission: For the Rebbe, the entire goal of human life was to bring about the world’s redemption, and he interpreted the atrocities the Jews had suffered in the 20th century as the birthpangs of a messianic age. What comes through in his countless public talks, Mr. Telushkin writes, “is his passion and insistence that world redemption via the Messiah must happen soon and that people must do everything in their power to influence it to happen. He would speak about this time and again, often with tears and barely suppressed sobs.” Yet he would appoint no heir to take his place.

Judaism has many traditions regarding a future Messiah; none of them allow the Messiah to die, which the Rebbe did in 1994. This did not stop some Lubavitchers from believing, in grief-related denial, that their deceased leader would somehow return and redeem the world—a belief that sparked a schism within the Chabad movement. Here Mr. Steinsaltz’s book is particularly helpful, describing a concept of life after death that includes a person’s legacy in the here and now. The Rebbe, he writes, “implanted his spirit in so many people that . . . his insights and his singular passionate desire to change the world continue.” Mr. Telushkin and Mr. Steinsaltz both respectfully dismiss Chabad’s messianic margin today as, in Mr. Telushkin’s term, a “nonissue.”

These two books, while mesmerizing, are not objective works of criticism. Mr. Steinsaltz is a Lubavitcher Hasid who had a close relationship with the Rebbe: His book opens not with a catchy anecdote but with a discussion of eschatology. While this may alienate skeptics, Mr. Steinsaltz sensitively examines the Rebbe’s spiritual gifts, particularly his track record of “miracles.” In one example, Mr. Steinsaltz recounts how Jean Sulzberger of the New York Times publishing family approached the Rebbe, concerned that she felt distanced from God. The Rebbe told her to see a doctor. She did and discovered she had cancer. “One may describe this as a miracle,” Mr. Steinsaltz writes, “or one could say that this story reflects the Rebbe’s deep understanding of human nature.”

Mr. Telushkin’s father was the Rebbe’s personal accountant and friend. But he, too, is under the Rebbe’s sway—and movingly so. The Rebbe, the author relates, once called Mr. Telushkin’s hospitalized father to bother him with an accounting question. To the author, it seemed intrusive, but his father was enlivened and cheered. It was a calculated gesture typical of the Rebbe’s “moral imagination,” honoring each individual’s need to feel needed.

For all his immense achievements, the Rebbe’s power ultimately came from a simple message that anyone can appreciate. As Mr. Telushkin puts it: “Love your fellow, and not just those who agree with you.”

—Ms. Horn’s most recent novel is “A Guide for the Perplexed.”

June 21, 2014 | 14 Comments »

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  1. yamit82 Said:

    Hmm… just like Gophers.

    No more like a Big O’l Rattlesnake waiting to bite you on the ankle and drag you into my den !!!!!!!!!! But wait !!!! haven’t I done already. at lest once or twice !!!!!!

  2. M Devolin Said:

    I’ve always wondered why Rabbi Schneerson–if he was such a sage about Torah and Halacha–never did aliya nor was very outspoken (as was Rabbi Kahane) about other Jews accomplishing aliya.

    Many have asked this question and I have heard a myriad of EXCUSES (None Torah Based) why he had never made aliyah. He never even visited Israel in his lifetime.

    Before 1948 when Israel declared Independence he and his movement were anti Ziononists just like all the other Ultra’s.

    The Religious Jew by rabbi kahane

    The “religious” Jew? Nay, say rather the Orthodox practitioner of Jewish ritual whose sojourn in an exile two millenia old has corrupted and and perverted the most basic of real Jewish values. Bearded and piously
    payotic, or cleanshaven and woolly-skullcapped, they join with all the others in the ecumenical worship of the Golden Calf of our times: The Golden Exile.

    And so they invent all kinds of rationales, all cloaked in a tallit that is all blue. “Israel is also Exile…” “This is not the beginning of the redemption, merely the footsteps of the Messiah…

    What matter that the rabbis decree that “a man shall rather live in the Land of Israel in a city with a majority of heathens rather than in the Exile in a city with a majority of Jews.” What matter that the rabbis proclaim that
    “one who lives outside of Israel worships idols in purity…?” What matter that they intone that one who lives outside the land “is as one who has no G-d”? One knows how to explain away rabbinical injunctions when the spirit so desires…

    The Torah also makes clear that serving to protect and defend the people of Israel is equated with loyalty to G-d.

    Any Jew who refuses to support and defend other Jews and the Jewish nation has in essence removed themselves from the Jewish people and are no longer worthy of respect or deference and must be rendered harmless to all other Jews. They are no better than the Spies Moses sent and brought back depressing negative reports. They were responsible for 40 years of wandering in the desert till their generation died out.

    Some say we still are suffering from the sin of those spies. Lastly the only Jews who will survive are those who make aliyah.

    “All human existence should be founded upon the striving for man’s end. The Jewish conception of this idea, similar to the classical philosophical notion, rests in the formation of a political entity that seeks purpose as part and parcel of its national life. Judaism is the blueprint for this idea. The Torah is the divine guide to the individual as well as to the nation. There can be no Jewish life by definition without this knowledge. The secularist cannot call the state he wishes to create a Jewish state nor can the religious call their existence outside of the political entity Jewish. They are both wrong and they have both missed the fundamental idea of Torah Judaism. They have failed to heed the words of the Torah, of the Sages and of the Rambam. They have failed to realize first, that an end must exist, and second, that the end must be met, within the confines of human existence, at all costs. Our Sages understood what the Rambam so clearly articulated in his work. They understood that the need for unified Jewish thought within the autonomous Jewish polity was the essence of Torah and was the only method of achieving that which G-d has chosen.”

    The reason for the Land is its existence as place, not just any place, but the place in which revelation is to be actualized.

    A Jew who dwells in the Land ultimately is a reference to the Jew that not only subsists in Eretz Israel, but lives according to the statues defining life in the Land. Therefore, even one who transgresses is afforded forgiveness within the scope of the law of the Jewish polity. It is the system of law that gives definition to habitation in the Land and as a consequence, meaning to the Land. The halakha relating to this issue is the following.

    Mishne Torah, Sefer Shoftim, The Laws of Kings and Their Wars, Chapter 5, Halakha 11.

    The Sages said: The transgressions of one who dwells in Eretz Yisrael are forgiven, as it says: The inhabitant shall not say, ‘I am sick.’ The people who dwell there shall be forgiven for their transgressions. [Isaiah 33:24]

    Even one who walks four cubits there will merit the World to Come and one who is buried there receives atonement as though the place in which he is were an altar of atonement, as it says: His land will atone for his people. [D’varim 32:43] [In contrast, the prophet, Amos [Amos 7:17], used the expression] You shall die in an impure land — a prophecy of retribution.

    There is no comparison between [the merit of] a person who lives in Eretz Yisrael and one brought there after death [for burial]. Nevertheless, great Sages would bring their dead there. Take an example from our Fathers, Ya’akov and Yosef, the righteous.

    Mishne Torah, Sefer Shoftim, The Laws of Kings and Their Wars, Chapter 5, Halakha 12.

    At all times, a person should dwell in Eretz Yisrael, even in a city whose population is primarily of worshippers of idols, rather than dwell in the Diaspora in a city whose population is primarily Jewish.

    In that all who leave [the land] for the Diaspora is as though he worships idols, as it is says: They have driven me out today from dwelling in the heritage of G-d, saying, ‘Go serve other gods.’ [Shmuel I 26:19] Similarly, [Ezekiel’s (13:9) prophecies of] retribution state: They shall not come to the Land of Israel.

    Just as it is forbidden to leave the Land for the Diaspora, so it is forbidden to leave Bavel for other lands, as it is written: They shall be brought to Bavel and there they shall be [until I take notice of them . . . and restore them to this place, i.e. the Land of Israel]. [Jeremiah 27:22]5

    Source Halakha 12:

    Talmud Bavli, Ketuvot, 110b, Our Rabbis taught: One should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are idolaters, but let no one live outside the Land, in a town most of whose inhabitants are Israelites; for whoever lives in the Land of Israel may be considered to have a G-d, but whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who has no G-d. For it is said in Scripture, To give you the Land of Canaan, to be your G-d. [Vayikra 25:38] Has he, then, who does not live in the Land, have no G-d? But [this is what the text intended] to tell you, that whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who worships idols. Similarly it was said in Scripture in [the story of] David, For they have driven me out this day that I should not cleave to the inheritance of the L-rd, saying: Go, serve other gods. [Shmuel I 26:9] Now, whoever said to David, ‘Serve other gods’? But [the text intended] to tell you that whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who worships idols. [Tosafot,’Avoda Zara, 5]

    The Jew living outside the Land, constitutes the worshipping of idols because doing so denies the foundations of the Torah, i.e., the enactment of the Torah, and the living by the statutes of the Law. The project of enacting the Torah can only be legally accomplished in the Land as defined by the Law. The goal of Jewish practice is a single idea that can be dissected into three interrelated and independent subsections. The single idea is to know G-d, that is, to love G-d since the limits of human knowledge subject man’s knowing of G-d to the loving of Him. Subsection one of the idea deals with individual development; subsection two, with national development; and subsection three impacts upon universal development of mankind. Each subsection is dependent on the precepts of the Law, for it is the Law that elucidates these subsections and places definitional perimeters of their understanding. Development of self begins with adherence to all commandments which, in turn, lead to the national responsibility and finally its universal ramifications. Again, it is the participation in the project and what that participation says about the belief in the endeavor itself that is so central. There is such a notion in Jewish law because the foundation of Jewish practice is founded upon the creation of an autonomous Jewish political entity in the Land of Israel. At certain points in Jewish study the simplicity of this idea is overwhelming.

  3. I know some are going to get angry with me for saying this, but I’ve always wondered why Rabbi Schneerson–if he was such a sage about Torah and Halacha–never did aliya nor was very outspoken (as was Rabbi Kahane) about other Jews accomplishing aliya. Of course, I’m not Jewish and I’m not read up on Rabbi Schneerson, but this has always made me wonder, especially if I look in askance at Rabbi Kahane’s life. Perhaps someone here can give me a bit of knowledge on this subject.

  4. honeybee Said:

    Of to the flea market

    Hear you awl got lots of Gophers in your neck of the woods or prairie.

    Don’t fall in any holes or pits.

  5. yamit82 Said:

    Why would I do that?

    Cause the desert is full of holes. Did you ever see the movie “Holes”, you would love it. Of to the flea market tomorrow. Guess you’re already tomorrow. Adios yawl

  6. I think Rabbi Telushkin is a lifelong friend, and a collaborator on some books, with Dennis Prager, one of my favorite radio talk show hosts. Check Dennis’ website for time and station, or to pick up a computer stream.