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Jewish Journal

The Man Who Changed Judaism

By Elaine Margolin

July 19, 2010 | 10:05 am

Sociologists Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, authors of “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson” (Princeton University Press: $29.95, 400 pps.), have both traveled radically different roads than the subject of their compelling new biography, which focuses on the life of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.  Schneerson spent almost half a century transforming the scattered remnants of the Lubavitcher movement after World War II into something unexpectedly grand.  Yet, the reader can’t help but sense that there still exists a tremendous allegiance between all three men.  In their own ways, they each carry upon their shoulders the sorrow of the Jewish people, and each has manifested his grief in a different way.  It is this intensity and sense of purpose that fuels Heilman and Friedman’s well-researched narrative and allows them to critically approach the Rebbe with equal amounts of awe and disdain.

Readers of “The Rebbe” will be most surprised to learn that Schneerson often seems to have been confused and ambivalent about his precise place on the Jewish radar.  Fragments of the future Rebbe’s childhood that the authors uncover paint a somewhat disquieting and mysterious figure. 

Schneerson was born in the Ukraine in 1902 and by almost all accounts, was an incredibly gifted child.  The son of a rabbi, Schneerson grew up during a particularly turbulent time, when his fellow villagers were continually debating whether they would find a better safety net under Communism or Zionism.  Yet young Mendel was always self-involved.  Instead of attending a Lubavitcher yeshiva, his father arranged for him to be tutored at home by Israel Eidelsohn, who was known to be both a Zionist and a Socialist. 

It appears as if the pursuit of secular knowledge was always of extreme importance to him.  We find out that by 1920, he had apprenticed himself to an engineer.  By 1923, he was attending the Jewish Polytechic Institute, before it was confiscated by the Communists.  By 1926, he had already left for Leningrad, where he lived in the court of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and whose middle daughter he would marry after an unusually long and unconventional courtship.  It is known that they lived in the same apartment before being married and would often go out at night, returning well after midnight.  Their long union would produce no children.

Schneerson also attended, as a non-matriculating student, the University of Berlin, where he pursued his interest in mathematics and philosophy.  The evidence suggests he did not attend any synagogue during his time in Germany.  Much of the information discovered by Friedman and Heilman has been removed from the official Lubavitcher record of the Rebbe’s early years.  We do know that he was in France at the outbreak of World War II and miraculously saved by an American Visa that was provided for him by some special contacts he had in the United States.

Once in America,  Schneerson entered into a fierce battle with his brother-in-law to become the next Rebbe after the death of his father-in-law.  He won, seducing his future followers with what many describe as an uncanny charisma and an ability to make meaningful and accessible to them the most esoteric sacred texts.  Many became so entranced with him during his long tenure as Rebbe, until his death in 1994, that they believed him to be the Messiah, and 16 years later, many still do.  He proved himself to be a masterful combination of salesman and religious leader, and he restructured the goals of his fledging organization.

Unlike other Chasidic groups who remain insular and hostile to the secular world, he organized zealous emissaries, whom he called his schluchim, to leave their headquarters in Queens, N.Y. and relocate themselves in locations all around the world, where they organized Chabad centers, places of Jewish learning and worship.  Instead of castigating secular Jews like many ultra-Orthodox groups do, he welcomed them into his Chabad Houses and had his schluchim convince them to perform small mitzvot.  For example, visitors would be encouraged to eat a kosher meal, or to don tefillin, or to hang a mezuzah on their front door.  They would be encouraged to light Shabbat candles and pray, or begin to study some of the Jewish texts.

Schneerson believed, as did his fellow Lubavitchers, that getting a non-religious Jew to perform even one sacred act would make the world more holy and thus hasten the arrival of the Messiah.  Chabad centers thrived, from Morocco to Kiev to Hong Kong to Seattle, and enjoyed even greater success on American college campuses, where anxious, lonely and disenfranchised Jews were vulnerable to any sort of spiritual guidance and consolation.  Regarding Israel, Schneerson, demonstrating the savvy of a Fortune 500 company CEO, embracing the Israeli army as an essential part of the divine plan that would hasten the day of redemption.  Unlike other Chasidic sects who refused to recognize Israel,  he was pro-Israel and firmly against any concession with the Arabs regarding territory. 

So the reader is left wondering what might have really happened inside of the mind of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson that ignited an unbridled passion and religious zealotry at age 50, after a life lived following mostly his own secular pursuits?  What drove him to want to take the reins of the Lubavitch Chasidim in America?  It is tempting to speculate.  Author Samuel Heilman suggests that when you are in charge of any religious order,  the allure of power is incredibly potent, and “There are thousands of people for whom every move you make is important.  To walk through a room, and it’s like a parting of the sea.”  That sounds credible, but some readers might suspect other factors.

When Schneerson arrived in the United States, four-fifths of the Chasidic communities of Europe had been decimated by the Nazi assault.  His brother had been murdered by the Nazis.  Another brother, Leibel, became a Zionist but died in Paris during his early forties.  His father was arrested by the Soviets in 1939 and sent to Kazakhstan, where he would die five years later.  His mother was still trapped behind the Iron Curtain.  He had no children.  He also had no formal degree of any kind in any of the disciplines he had studied.  It must have felt to him as if his entire world had been demolished, and perhaps the lure of the Lubavitcher court proved irresistible to him.  A chance to build a new Jewish world; one of his own making, and one that would never disappear. 

Elaine Margolin is a freelance book critic and essayist for the Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and several other publications.  She can be reached at margolbn@optonline.net.

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