“The Rebbe” – the new biography of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (17 cents)

A few weeks ago, I reported that I attended a presentation by Samuel Heilman, co-author of the new book “The Rebbe”, a biography of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I reported that the reviews of the book at http://www.amazon.com were remarkable in that there were a large number of five star reviews, and an equally large number of one star reviews. Opinions were indeed split. Now that I have finished the book, I fully understand the split,although I don’t think I would wind up fully on either side.

Forty plus years ago, when I was in college, I read Erik Erikson’s “Young Man Luther”, a book which (as I remember if) claimed to be a psychological biography of the founder of the Protestant movement, dealing not only with the known facts of his young life (quite limited) but creating a psychological portrait of Luther based upon Erikson’s assumptions as to how facts would have led to Luther’s actions and, conversely, how Luther’s actions made it possible to assume certain otherwise unknown facts, all based on what Erikson assumed to be Luther’s reactions to his past. It was a new form of biography, and garnered quite a bit of attention at the time. How it has weathered the test of time is another story.

In reading “The Rebbe”, I felt I was reading a book in the Erikson mold. [Coincidentally, and apropos of nothing, both Erikson and Schneerson were born in 1902 and died in 1992.] While the basic facts of Scheerson’s early years (the years prior to his 1941 arrival in this country) are known, the details are not. And the same can be true with regard to the remainder of his life, a very private life for such a public figure. This does not stop Heilman and his co-author Menachem Friedman from filling in some of the blanks, and establishing the Rebbe’s psychological make up at various times during his life, and using that psychological analysis to explain what he did, and what he was thinking when he did it.

For those who are part of the Lubavitcher movement, who view the Rebbe in messianic or quasi-messianic terms, this is sacrilege. But I think it should be cause for concern amongst others as well, because while the authors may be right on the mark, they also may be far from the truth.

The prime concerns seem to revolve around two different (and somewhat connected) items. First, during his student years (when he lived with his predecessor’s family in St. Petersburg and Riga, and when he went to school in Berlin and Paris), how religious was he or, conversely, even if he was religious in his thoughts, how observant was he? Second, if he went through this period without living a strictly Chasidic life, where did he get the religious training that he used throughout his rebbe-ship, and why did the authors ignore his religious scholarship?

As to the second point, I don’t think the criticism is appropriate. This is not a book on the Rebbe’s religious teachings, of which there were many, both oral and written, so their contents are not discussed. What is mentioned time and time again, is how bright the Rebbe was and how religiously educated he was, even though the source of his religious training was not apparent. (He was primarily home schooled by secular instructors, and studied to be an engineer, not a clergyman; he apparently never had rabbinic ordination.). His writings and his messages are referenced time and time again, both as one of the reasons that his ascension to the head of the Lubavitcher movement was accomplished (he was in apparent competition with his brother in law and his nephew), and as one of the things that drew his followers so close to him.

As to the first point, we have a dilemma. The activities of Schneerson and his wife (the daughter of the Previous Rebbe) in Berlin and Paris are primarily secular in nature. But, at the same time, there is no evidence that they were not observant Jews at the time, or that he did not keep his religious studies up. While the book says this, the implications are clear that here is a man who until he was almost 40 years old was determined to break away from his Lubavitcher connections and lead a secular, professional life, and who was, in effect, “born again” during the Nazi occupation of Europe. Again, this might be 100% true. But you can’t prove it, and to sell it to the Chasidic community, schooled in a very different interpretation of the Rebbe’s past, is virtually impossible.

Clearly, Menachem Mendel Schneerson was a very unique individual, brilliant, charismatic and, at least after he arrived in America, 100% devoted to the Lubavitcher cause. And that cause, according to the book, was a unique one. Rather than acting as most Chasidic groups, keeping its members close at hand in well controlled birth-to-death communities, the Lubavitchers send emissaries out around the world to minister not to other Lubavitchers, but to Jews of all stripes, religious and not religious, in the hope of increasing Jewish ritual observance and spiritual growth for the purpose of hastening the coming of the Messiah. As simple as that.

And the Rebbe’s success has been phenomenal and controversial only as to whether or not this activity does encourage the Messiah to appear, or – even more controversial – whether the Messiah did appear under the name of Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He left no children, and a significant part of the Lubavitcher community believed, and still believe, that he was the promised Messiah and that he will return to usher in the messianic age.

Strange to non-believers, of course, and certainly not credible to the authors of “The Rebbe”, but who knows? Anything is possible. Isn’t it?


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