In the last two months, no fewer than three new biographies of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, have been published: My Rebbe by Adin Steinsaltz, Turning Judaism Outward by Chaim Miller, and Rebbe by Joseph Telushkin.
The release date of the latter two was likely selected to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing coming up on July 1. In the case of My Rebbe, though, it was simply a case of writer’s block.
“When you are removed from a subject,” Steinsaltz told The Jewish Press in a recent interview, “you can deal with it, say, cold bloodedly. But I had, and still have, a very strong personal connection [to the Rebbe], and this personal connection was not a simple one that can be put into words. Because of that it was very hard to go on and to do anything…. I was involved with it for years and years and years.”
For Steinsaltz, the Rebbe was no less than “the greatest man I have ever met,” as he writes in the preface to his book. What about the Rebbe so impressed a man like Rabbi Steinsaltz – author of 60 books, translator of the entire Talmud into Hebrew, and once dubbed by Time Magazine as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar”?
“Let me put it this way,” Steinsaltz said, “I’ve met quite a number of people who were [great in the sense that they produced] a great work or had a certain great attribute. But in general, they were not like this. It’s like when you see a peacock – of course it has a magnificent tail, but the peacock itself is not anything magnificent…. The Rebbe was a great man – great in every dimension, every way you measure it. And that is quite unusual.”
Asked to elaborate, Steinsaltz said, “You look at Everest – that’s a great mountain. How do you describe it? How do you define anything that is great? How do you define a great work of art?”
Rabbi Steinsaltz acknowledges that the Rebbe had many detractors during his lifetime, but he argues that the antagonism was never personal. “I don’t think people disliked him. Let’s put it this way: they hardly knew him. He met thousands of people. I know of hardly anybody who after their meeting had any [sort of feeling] of dislike.”
Any hostility toward the Rebbe, Steinsaltz said, was really hostility to his vision. “He went in a certain way, and he was very clear cut and very unyielding in many ways. He went against the ideas of so many people.”
For example, Steinsaltz said, the Rebbe’s particular manner of reaching out toward unaffiliated Jews (and irreligious non-Jews) bothered many. And yet 20 years after the Rebbe’s passing, outreach has become mainstream. “One of the highest levels of victory,” Steinsaltz said, “is when people begin to imitate you…. People [might not] say, ‘Okay, we changed our mind,’ but they did.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz – like the authors of the other two recently published biographies on the Rebbe – is not a disinterested party to Lubavitch or the Rebbe. He met the Rebbe numerous times, was enthralled by him and – most importantly – has the Rebbe to thank for his son’s life.
“When my son was fifteen years old,” Steinsaltz writes in the book, “he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. The prognosis was poor. We asked the Rebbe for a blessing and instructions. The Rebbe was deeply encouraging and blessed our son with a long life. However, he added that we should not permit a bone marrow transplant to be done. The doctors were furious when we chose to follow the Rebbe’s guidance, not theirs. Despite their prediction, our son healed, married, and had children – without undergoing the transplant procedure.”