When Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson assumed the position of Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1951, Chabad was a relatively tiny movement that sometimes struggled to get a minyan at its headquarters in Crown Heights. Today, it is the most widely known chassidic movement in the world with over 4,000 Chabad emissaries spanning the globe.
How did the Rebbe build such an empire? What about him inspired so many? What drew people from all walks of life to seek his advice?
In a new 600-page biography of the Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin – author attempts to answer some of these questions. Entitled Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History (HarperWave), the book was published earlier this month and is a New York Times bestseller.
Rabbi Telushkin, once named one of America’s 50 best speakers by Talk magazine, has authored several previous bestsellers, including A Code of Jewish Ethics, Jewish Literacy, and Why the Jews?: The Reason for Antisemitism, which he co-authored with Dennis Prager.
The Jewish Press: How does a Modern Orthodox rabbi come to write a biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe?
Rabbi Telushkin: I have very strong family ties to Chabad. My father, Shlomo Telushkin, a”h, was the accountant for the Rebbe and the Previous Rebbe from the time Chabad came to the United States, and my grandfather had a strong relationship with both rebbes. So I grew up with tremendous affection and admiration for Chabad.
And then, for the 12th yahrzeit of the Rebbe, I wrote an article about the Rebbe which contained a very moving story about my father. In 1986, my father had a stroke and was unconscious for several days. Every day I would get two calls from the Rebbe’s office – “The Rebbe wants to know how your father is.” My father finally came out of his coma, and a few days later I got a call from Rabbi Krinsky, the Rebbe’s aide. Rabbi Krinsky says, “The Rebbe has an accounting question.” I said, “Do you know how sick my father is?” (My father was also a little disoriented.) Rabbi Krinsky said, “Of course the Rebbe remembers that, but nonetheless he has a question.”
So I asked my father the question, and he said to me, “The answer is obvious, you should do this and this.” [At that moment] I realized what the Rebbe had done. Sitting in his office in Brooklyn, dealing with the biggest issues facing Jewish life, he thought of my father lying in a hospital bed feeling his life perhaps was coming to an end, and he wanted to make my father feel useful and needed.
I was profoundly moved by that experience because it underlined what I came to understand in researching this book – that as much as the Rebbe dealt with world Jewish issues, he always remained focused on the individual.
In the book, you write that the 19th-century clergyman Henry Ward Beecher once reportedly told his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) that he was too busy to get involved in the cases of individuals – to which his sister responded, “Even God is not that busy.”
It’s a great story. But you’re right, the Rebbe seemed to find time for individuals, and part of it was because of his extraordinary work ethic. I have a chapter on his work ethic where I quote what his father-in-law said of him: “At 4 a.m., Menachem Mendel is either getting up or going to sleep.”
You also mention that the Rebbe once responded to a rabbi who complained of being tired by saying, “I’m also tired, so what?”