Here was a man with a grand, universal vision. Unlike most leaders he had no interest in personal gain or aggrandizement. Neither was he interested in travel. He lived within his brownstone Brooklyn world and his father-in-law’s mausoleum in Queens. He soon established himself as a powerful, humane, and brilliant leader. People began to flock to him for his sensitive and perceptive advice and guidance. His soft but piercing eyes engaged everyone he met, and his ability to focus on whomever he was speaking to was overwhelming.
The zeitgeist of the U.S. had a profound impact on him. He adopted American methods of publicity and public relations to achieve his mission and combined this with the discipline and devotion that came from the Russian campaigns. He did not hold back from public displays of overt Orthodox Judaism even in a society that separated State from Religion. And he was able to instill a universal character of openness, bonhomie, and altruism amongst his followers.
There were three broad goals. To build up the movement organizationally through divisions that involved youth, women, and emissaries, using publications and every means available to spread his ideology; to reach out to Jews anywhere and everywhere and offer them a path into intense Jewish life regardless of background or affiliation; and to extend his influence into the wheels of power wherever there were Jewish communities – even to the point of having a lobby in Washington.
It was inevitable in such a broad and dramatic campaign that there would be setbacks. Some of those he encouraged in outreach, like Shlomo Carlebach, went beyond his comfort zone. Some of his followers who had to go out and create their own little empires used financial methods that bordered on the illegal. As in any large movement there were crooks and manipulators.
His “Army of God” succeeded because of the authority of the Commander in Chief and because everyone had to adhere to the rules of uniform, style, and content he laid down. His writings became the new Oral Law for his movement and this was what enabled his representatives to keep the faith no matter where.
Perhaps his most controversial influence was felt in Israel where he encouraged his followers to integrate into Israeli society. But he was profoundly opposed to making any territorial concessions and campaigned strongly against any modifications of the traditional definition of Jewish identity.
It is a matter of debate as to whether his refusal to name a successor was intentional or not. His catchy campaign “We Want Messiah Now” led some to think he would be the Messiah himself. When he died some thought he would return for a “Second Coming.” But the organizational framework he established held firm and has expanded as perhaps the only example of a successful religious franchise. Certainly the influence of Chabad continues to grow and that is his legacy.
It has now been 20 years since his death and a range of new biographies has hit the bookshelves. Those by Adin Steinsaltz and Joseph Telushkin have been widely reviewed. There have been more critical and less adulatory works such as The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson by Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman. None of them actually gets into the mind of the man. But for a well-researched inside picture that gives one a deeper insight into the ideology, background, and achievements of the Rebbe (despite minor quibbles over errors and inaccuracies of dates), I heartily recommend Chaim Miller’s to you as the most worthwhile.
This review was originally printed in the Algemeiner Journal.