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Seeking the real rebbe: New books about Schneerson aim to separate man from myth

by sue fishkoff , jta

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Sixteen years after the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a flurry of new publications indicates not only how enduring the interest is in his life and legacy, but how potent the minefield is surrounding his mythology.

Writing a biography of a larger-than-life figure is never easy. And when that figure is the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, the charismatic leader of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement, the usual challenges of sifting through sources and evaluating mountains of research material are complicated by internal politics, religious sensibilities, personal loyalties and a lack of reliable first-person information.

Then there’s the Messiah business.

Arebbe bios
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson stands next to future father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. photo/jta/therebbe.org
Until now, the only recountings of Schneerson’s life have been hagiographies written by Chabad followers. Now there are two new biographies by academics outside Chabad circles, with a third in the works.

New York University Professor Elliot Wolfson came out last fall with “Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson,” an examination of Schneerson’s leadership within the context of Jewish esoteric tradition.

Next month will see the publication of “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson,” by Samuel Heilman of City University of New York and Menachem Friedman of Bar-Ilan University, who examine Schneerson’s early life and what the authors describe as his growing messianic pretensions.

And Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of several best-selling books on Jewish life and thought, is in the early stages of a book focusing on the source of Schneerson’s charisma and the influence he continues to exert on people’s lives.

***

“The Rebbe” is generating the most controversy. Written for a lay audience, it frames Schneerson’s mission, and that of the Chabad movement he led, as motivated by messianism, here defined as the attempt to hasten the messianic era through human actions. The messianic mission was so much at the heart of the late rebbe’s leadership, the authors argue, that one cannot be a follower of the rebbe without full commitment to that goal.

Arebbebios2The authors take a psycho-bio approach to Schneerson’s life, trying to get inside the man’s head to uncover his motivation — always a tricky business.

They focus on Schneerson’s 14 years in Berlin and Paris — the so-called “lost years” between his marriage in 1927 and the couple’s escape from Nazi Europe in 1941.

Left to his own devices, they write, Schneerson would have preferred to “settle in Paris, become a French citizen, and live as a Jew of Hasidic background pursuing a career in engineering.”

The authors write extensively about the short beard and secular dress Schneerson favored until his arrival in New York.

“There is no question he was an observant Jew, but he lived in places where Chassidim didn’t live, and he did things they wouldn’t do,” Heilman said in an interview.

It was, the authors write, a combination of survivor’s guilt — Schneerson was the only member of his close family to escape the Holocaust — and the improbability of his becoming an engineer in the United States that led him by the late 1940s to set his sights on a new career goal: succeeding his father-in-law to become the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe.

When Schneerson assumed leadership of Chabad, the authors continue, he was able to use this worldly experience to push a hitherto small Chassidic movement onto the world stage, launching the global outreach campaign that was to become its hallmark.

Eventually, they assert, Schneerson believed he was “the prophet of his generation,” the man destined to bring on the messianic era. They ask rhetorically: Was he “getting lost in a culture of messianic delusion”?

This version of Schneerson’s life contradicts the official Lubavitch version of an unbroken journey toward the mantle of movement leadership and suggests a more nuanced life whose twists and turns might easily have led to a different outcome.

Even before its publication, the book has engendered considerable objections in Chabad circles. Lubavitchers are ripping into it, disputing its details as well as its overall thesis. According to these critics, the rebbe never trimmed his beard in Europe, he rolled it, and the rebbe attended synagogue regularly in Berlin.

Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, a Lubavitch scholar, pointed to a wealth of correspondence that exists between Schneerson and his father showing the two engaging in deep Talmudic and kabbalistic discourse.

“We never question the future Rebbe’s knowledge of Chabad or even his interest in it,” Heilman countered. “But as we document, that interest was not always the center of his concerns while he pursued his engineering studies.”

***

Wolfson, a philosopher and NYU professor, portrays Schneerson as having a very deep and radical understanding of Jewish esoterica.

“In his prime, his teaching was very dense, very laden with kabbalistic terminology,” Wolfson said. “I don’t know how many really understood him; most were simply mesmerized by his style of presentation.”

Arebbebios3Schneerson’s teachings are rife with internal contradictions, Wolfson said, including the subverting of Judaism’s gender hierarchy and the boundaries between the permissible and the non-permissible.

But most of this was destined for the realm of theory. Schneerson never intended for them to be actualized — not in this world.

Wolfson agrees with Heilman and Friedman that Schneerson’s messianic vision “was there from the beginning.”

“I feel he is using the rhetoric of a personal Messiah to mark not so much a political change but a change in consciousness that … involves reaching a state of personal perfection that exceeds the need for the Torah as we have it,” he said. “I don’t think he understood the impossibility of his own vision. And he took no steps to remedy that. He took no steps to name a successor. The whole history of Chabad from the Alter Rebbe [18th-century founder of Chabad-Lubavitch] to [Schneerson] is a messianic line that comes to a close with him.”

***

Through Jewish Educational Media, Chabad is about to release more than 1,200 documents related to Schneerson’s life and work, in English and Hebrew, including his own diaries and important correspondence between him, his father and his father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe.

One volume will come out in late June, followed later by others, both in print and online at http://www.chabad.org.

Chabad sources said this information will “clear up many misunderstandings.”


“The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson” by Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman (382 pages, Princeton University Press, $29.95)


“Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson”
by Elliot Wolfson (472 pages, Columbia University Press, $35)

 


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