The Rebbe, Three Views: A Book Roundup
My Rebbe by Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. (Maggid, 250 pp. $24.95)
Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History by Joseph Telushkin. (HarperWave, 640 pp. $29.99)
The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneersonby Samuel C. Heilman and Menachem Friedman. (Princeton University Press, 368 pp. $19.95 paperback)
“The Rebbe’s personal charm was so great that it could be transformative—particularly in his private meetings. There were those who changed their lives after a short meeting. However, this effect was not universal; many continued as they had before.”
Consider that last sentence for a moment. Imagine an author (in this case, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz) who believes it is necessary to point out that a man who met tens of thousands of people did not actually change the life of every single one of them. The compulsion to say so suggests that the author does not quite believe he is writing about a human being.
Worship, if I may put it this way, bedevils writing about the Rebbe. He was an enigmatic figure. Despite voluminous writings and speeches, the Rebbe was intensely private, with no children, a wife who was equally private and no circle of “tell all” advisers eager to peddle unapproved stories of his life. Scattered statements of personal confession rarely go beyond his deeply symbolic role. Combine the mystery with a brilliant intellect, tremendous personal charisma and the position to implement some remarkable organizational coups and you have a biographical subject who threatens to elude even the most skillful pursuers.
Steinsaltz, well known in the world of Jewish scholarship for his own extraordinary attainments, makes the least ardent attempt to reach the man. The closest he gets to a statement that hints at any detraction is “persistent criticism did not deter him.” In other words, even objections expressed about the Rebbe are turned into a merit. And sometimes the reader must simply marvel at the heights of hagiography: “With everybody he encountered, he tried to change their nature into something completely different. They weren’t people anymore, they became something else.” To the extent that I even understand that sentence, and to the extent that it is true, it is more frightening than encouraging.
Steinsaltz does say, unsurprisingly, that the Rebbe was an exceedingly lonely man. When even profound scholars place him so far beyond the reach of normality, such loneliness is inevitable—the higher the mountain, the greater the isolation. To sound a recurring note, Steinsaltz points out that “The acceptance of the Rebbe as the Mashiach of his time was almost universal among the Lubavitchers of the late 20th century.”
Different in style, although similar in import, is Joseph Telushkin’s fluent, anecdotal portrait of the Rebbe. Telushkin, who may be the leading maggid (Jewish storyteller) of our age, has done a vast amount of research and writes out of a deep personal connection (his father was the Rebbe’s accountant). Though not himself a Lubavitch Hasid, Telushkin clearly feels the power of the Rebbe’s legacy and a greater responsibility to biographical evenhandedness than Steinsaltz.
Telushkin is gifted with a sure and engaging pen, no matter his subject. Filled with inspirational stories and piquant quotations, he also gives the reader the context to understand the world in which the Rebbe operated. At this point the old cliché is apt—if you are only going to read one book about the Rebbe, Telushkin’s is the book to read.
Yet he does not entirely escape the perils of reverence. When there is material that might be discreditable in some way, Telushkin seeks to minimize its impact. He quotes the Rebbe’s outlandish belief that the world is less than 6,000 years old, and softens it by saying that many Orthodox Jews do not feel the need to follow the Rebbe’s reasoning on this issue. Readers may find this a generous way to react to a declaration that flies in the face of everything we know about the natural world.
In one similar and startling case, Telushkin simply quotes without comment. At the end of a subsection entitled “Rooting His Arguments in Science, Not Religion,” wherein he quotes the Rebbe as saying “scientific theories must be judged by the standards and criteria set up by the scientific method itself,” there seems to be a chance to exonerate the Rebbe from the charge of obscurantism. But the section closes with this: “As the Rebbe assured one correspondent bothered by this issue: ‘If you are still troubled by the theory of evolution, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that it has not a shred of evidence to support it.’”
Telushkin is a sophisticated and learned man and surely knows how utterly fantastic is such a claim. His silence is not assent. Rather, it appears his point is that these views are not the essence of the Rebbe or his achievement.
The accounts of the Rebbe reviewed here share an omission. Chabad Lubavitch is an intensely mystical philosophy, and some of its sheer strangeness to the modern ear is elided in these books. The average reader who has not spent time with the Tanya, the classic source for Chabad Hasidism, will not know, for example, that Chabad reckons that Jews have essentially different souls from other people (a conviction one modern theologian called “a kind of metaphysical racism”) or the way in which prayer has theurgic power. The deep mystical background of the messianic drives in Chabad are alluded to but left unexplained; all those Mitzvah Mobiles are related to the mystical conception of the sefirot and a tikkun that has to do, broadly speaking, with fixing God. Such central philosophical issues, which form the heart of Chabad theology, find no place in these biographical stud
ies. Perhaps it was thought that the explanations would be too cumbersome or elaborate—but can the reader really understand the Rebbe without appreciating the core convictions that guided his sense of mission?
Heilman and Friedman pen a more classical biography in a readable but scholarly mode, though it has occasioned scathing critique. The key point of contention is how deeply involved the Rebbe was in the secular world in his youth. Here, as with so many things about this man’s life, the evidence points in more than one direction. The authors write an account of a gifted, somewhat conflicted man with an extraordinary career, who gradually closed the secular doors that early life offered, as opposed to Steinsaltz and Telushkin, who portray a divinely touched emissary changing the world.
Whether the Rebbe considered himself the Messiah, or a candidate to be the Messiah, is one of the most rehashed questions in the literature on Chabad. There is sufficient evidence to argue the case either way. Although today those who actively promote the Rebbe as a messianic figure are the minority, in my own experience there are few in Chabad who will flatly deny the possibility.
Those who see the Rebbe as a human being like all others must also admit that he was a human being like few others. From the broken bits of the Jewish world after the Holocaust he created a remarkable vision, inspired a cadre of good-hearted and passionate emissaries and personally touched the lives of countless people with a combination of intellectual depth and charisma borne of both kindness and deep insight.
A philanthropist once marveled that the Rebbe remembered a discussion they had almost 20 years before, when they last saw each other. “You are amazing!” he exclaimed. The Rebbe responded, “How is the fact that ‘I am amazing’ going to benefit the Jewish people?”
Well, he was, and it did.