My Rebbe (Maggid, 250 pages), the title of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s new book, is an accurate description of the book’s subject matter. Unlike Samuel Heilman’s The Rebbe and Joseph Telushkin’s upcoming book Rebbe, much of Steinsaltz’s work is based on his own personal experiences, perceptions and interactions with the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Chabad movement.
Steinsaltz, himself a great Talmudic sage, has been hailed by Time magazine as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar.” His new book covers a wide variety of topics including some of the fundamental beliefs of the Chabad chassid. Steinsaltz provides a brief history of Chabad and a biography of the Rebbe’s life and goes on to address the major events and controversies surrounding the Rebbe’s persona.
I was a little disappointed with some of the historical aspects of the book, specifically where he talks about the Rebbe’s early life in Paris and Berlin. There are no details of that phase of the Rebbe’s life that haven’t already been written about elsewhere. But more importantly, some of the information is inaccurate. Although Steinsaltz clearly recognizes that it is problematic to rely solely on internal testimony and sources, when he discusses this chapter of the Rebbe’s life he seems to have done just that.
“Paris and Berlin,” he writes, “were the centers of sophistication and advanced culture in those years. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak wanted Menachem-Mendel to understand the wider world. The sixth Rebbe may have felt that a grasp of Western culture would help his son-in-law play a more public role within Chabad. As Jews were moving out of the Shtetl and acclimating themselves to city life, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak saw that secular culture could equip Menachem Mendel to deal with this new breed of Jew. If Chabad was going to speak to the broader world, it would need leaders who could speak its language….
“Yet, during the years in Berlin and Paris, Menachem Mendel had no plans to become a leader within the Chabad movement. As close as he and his father in law were, there was a push-pull between them. As the sixth Rebbe was encouraging engagement with the Jewish community, the younger man sought to preserve his privacy.”
The differences between Menachem Mendel and Yosef Yitzchak were much greater than the above excerpt suggests. It is the accepted wisdom among those who were present at the time that the previous Rebbe opposed Menachem Mendel’s pursuit of secular studies in Berlin and Paris. There is ample testimony to prove that. Steinsaltz seems to jump to the contrary conclusion, yet it is unclear how he gets there. Perhaps this error reflects Steinsaltz’s personal dilemma, his own push-pull between these two worlds – his commitment to rabbinic studies and observant Judaism yet his deep love for culture, academia and scholarship. Steinsaltz acknowledged, in Newsweek in 1980, that he is “caught between two worlds” – the secular world of the West and the traditional Jewish world. “My duty,” he said, “is to combine the two.”
Later on in My Rebbe Steinsaltz writes that “loners like the Rebbe may be surrounded by others and even maintain lifelong friendships. Still, they do not seem to need many close friends to share confidences or to depend upon. They have a clear purpose, a consuming aim, an intense focus on work to be accomplished…. He had few if any intellectual peers.”
While this does seem to be an accurate description of the Rebbe, it is interesting that others have described Steinsaltz in similar terms. Here, too, I wonder whom Steinsaltz is really describing.
It is puzzling that Steinsaltz wrote that the Rebbe told someone that his work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard was “his way to thank the country that had saved him and to help with the war effort.” Besides the fact that the source of this quote is unreliable, this story is usually told by people who feel the need to defend the Rebbe’s choice of employment. There is no need to justify the Rebbe’s work at the Navy Yard. He did what needed to be done to make an honest living and support his wife.