A rabbi known for taking the ‘long, short way’ has written an exhaustive biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, in time for Gimmel Tamuz. The Hebrew date of the passing of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the third day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz is marked by Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidim around the world with special events; thousands fly to New York to visit the Rebbe’s gravesite.
The Rebbe was one of the most influential Jewish leaders of his generation, establishing a worldwide network of emissaries. To this very day, thousands are sent out with their families to remote places around the globe to reach out and help Jews across the spectrum, drawing many closer to their roots. His impact on history – Jewish or otherwise – has yet to be measured.
Numerous materials are published for the special day as well. This year, ‘Turning Judaism Outward’ written by Rabbi Chaim Miller, has joined them. It is an elegant tome in the Gutnick tradition that chronicles the Rebbe’s entire life from 1902 to 1994 and beyond in 590 pages — in short, a massive work. It is also an incredibly scholarly work, not one of simple slavish praise nor written in the style of compromised language one sometimes finds in texts focused primarily on a specific content area.
Because Rabbi Miller is a Chossid with a secular, academic background — his texts are among those used at New York University and Yeshiva University — he is uniquely qualified to attempt what many would call an impossible task.
This year marks the 20th since the Rebbe passed away, leaving his office in “770″ – the affectionate name and address of the building in which Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters is located — 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Spiritually it often seems as though the Rebbe never left. The Chassidic-Carribean-African-American neighborhood is still a swarm of Chabad-Lubavitch activity around the clock. The Rebbe’s shluchim (emissaries) and their families are in and out of the neighborhood for various reasons throughout the year and they continue to carry out their activities around the world. Regional and international conventions are held annually, with the number of attendees and new Chabad Houses growing more with each passing year.
Likewise, new books and materials are churned out each month from headquarters – including new items in all kinds of languages about the Rebbe and his life. So why another one?
“Everyone who has written about the Rebbe’s life picks and chooses the bits they personally feel are impressive. That’s the ‘short, long way,’” explains Rabbi Miller, compiler of the Gutnick Chumash (Pentateuch). “You get some nice information but in the end you lack a really substantial picture. It’s a bit like eating the dessert before the main course – it tastes good to start with, but then you don’t feel satisfied.”
Meyer Gutnick, director of Kol Menachem, which published the biography, added the organization felt it was important to “address the Rebbe’s life in its entirety, with all of its paradoxes and mysteries,” impossible a task though it might be.
Rabbi Miller candidly discusses in the foreword the difficulty he faced in gathering primary sources for his work: “By the time interest in the field began to gain momentum around a decade ago, there was almost no one alive who personally remembered the Rebbe from this period, except for a few individuals who were small children at the time.” Instead, he was forced to track down the Rebbe’s movements and activities much as would any other historian, or ‘private eye’ – using the Rebbe’s personal notebooks, his personal correspondence, academic records, his mother’s diaries, memoirs from Chassidim with whom he was closely associated and his Russian passport, among other items.
In meticulous language similar to that of a post-doctoral researcher, Rabbi Miller notes that he “sought to render the narrative with as much scrupulous objectivity as possible. While it is almost inevitable that personal bias will influence an author in some way or another, my goal has been to offer a detached and dispassionate account of events as they transpired…Hana Levi Julian