Turning Judaism Outward: A biography of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson
By Rabbi Chaim Miller
Kol Menachem Press
Of all the rebbes in recent history, Menachen Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbe of Lubavitch was exceptional. He led a small chassidic movement back from near extinction in the gulags of Siberia and the Nazi killing fields. He transformed it into the most successful outreach movement in Judaism since the days of Hillel.
The big question is whether it is possible to be objective about him and about his achievements? A biography is supposed to describe its subject – his limitations and mistakes as well as successes and qualities. But great spiritual leaders are rarely good material for interesting biographies because their true personal feelings are usually hidden from view. They rarely write the sort of memoirs politicians do to whitewash their records. There are no revealing diaries that betray their innermost secrets.
The result is that religious leaders usually get hagiographies. The very term describes how we write about holy men in order to ensure that their uplifting messages get accorded the respect and awe they hope for and their followers seem to need. Hence we often hear a lot about the miracles they achieve but never about when they fail. So when we read about great rabbis it is usually through a veil of devotion, devoid of blemishes in a holy record.
When Rabbi Natan Kaminetzky wrote The Making of a Gadol and suggested that some of the giants of Lithuanian Rabbinic authority actually read books of Russian literature and philosophy contra the current ban on such activity in haredi society, he was lambasted, hounded, and bullied, and the book was banned.
Chaim Miller has painted as broad and as honest a picture of the Rebbe as is possible. Perhaps the most important contribution of his book is to set the Rebbe in the context of Chabad tradition going back to its founders. The Rebbe remained intensely loyal to his predecessors and to the dismay of some of his admirers refused to depart from a fundamentalist approach to Judaism. And yet beyond the ideology he was able to break the mold and mental constraints that have limited the impact of almost all the other chassidic dynasties. Within Judaism he positioned his movement both within and without the haredi world.
Chabad as a movement went furthest in bridging the gap between the mystical chassidic world of mysticism and the Lithuanian mastery of scholarship and intellectual discipline. It was also the primary chassidic movement within Russia. This had the advantage of shielding it more than others from the depredations of Nazism, but it also meant that it suffered most under Communism for a very long period. It was almost entirely due to Chabad that Jewish life was sustained altogether in the Soviet Union. The incredible life and death commitment of Chabad in Russia of course long pre-dated the Rebbe. And interestingly, he was strongly opposed to the public demonstrations of the Soviet Jewry campaigns. But his major contribution to the wider community really began in the United States.
From an early age he was marked as exceptional. He combined intellectual achievement with deep spirituality and religious devotion. Although he came from Lubavitch aristocracy he was a junior son-in-law of the sixth rebbe and had no expectation of leadership. So he prepared himself to earn a living by studying engineering, first in Berlin then in Paris. All the time, however, he was deepening his already profound mastery of Jewish sources. Both would stand him in good stead.
As his family was caught in a pincer between the Russians and the Germans, the sixth rebbe fled – finally and almost miraculously ending up in the United States. By this time, with his father-in-law ailing, Menahem Mendel began to get more involved in Chabad affairs and soon emerged as the favored candidate to succeed his father-in-law after his death in 1950. There was some tension between him and his older brother-in-law. He hesitated and prevaricated but finally took over in 1951.