I am a mitnaged (non-Chasid) of good stock and longstanding. My father was born in Pruzhana (hence my name), famous as one of the four “Karpas” towns where Chasidut never took root and Chasidim never settled. (The others were Kossova, Rassein and Slutzk.) I come by my hitnagdut honestly. It is in the genes.
Therefore I am well-positioned to write that few books have impressed me this year as much as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s “The Rebbe,” a biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l. It is an unusual biography in that it does not follow a chronological narrative but is rather a topical discussion of the issues with which the Rebbe dealt during his remarkable life into which biographical data are woven. More than six decades since the Rebbe’s assumption of the mantle of leadership of Chabad, we take for granted its successes, its pervasiveness, even its ubiquity in Jewish life. We should not take it for granted – because none of it had to be. Chabad was a small movement in 1950, having barely survived the devastation of the Holocaust. Today, its scope is breathtaking, and there are not many Jews who have not encountered a representative of Chabad, somewhere.
Few rabbis are leaders of standing; the Rebbe was such a leader, and the success of Chabad is attributable to him.
There are certain facets of the Rebbe’s life that were truly remarkable. His intellect – in a wide variety of spheres, including the sciences; his stamina – he would regularly meet people through the night until the time for Shacharit (he seemed to need exceedingly little sleep); his sensitivity – in one vignette, a Chasid revealed that the Rebbe covered his face while davening in his semi-private alcove so that people should not stare at him, but uncovered his face when he was visited by a disfigured former Israeli soldier so that the latter should not feel that the Rebbe was trying to avoid looking at him; his openness – he treated men and women, Jews and non-Jews, young and old with the same respect and courtesy; his prodigious memory (an eyewitness told me that the Rebbe immediately picked up a conversation with him, a relative unknown, without batting an eye and after an interval of…ten years); and, of course, his knowledge of Torah that left a legacy of the equivalent of hundreds of books filled with Torah insights of extraordinary depth, substance and complexity.
As an outsider, I was less aware of the closeness of the Rebbe to his predecessor, the Previous Rebbe, his father-in-law, including weekly visits to his grave that could last hours, something that provided him with inspiration but is quite detached from the life of a Mitnaged. Certainly the succession controversy – which lasted more than a year when the Previous Rebbe died – was unknown to me and caused deep unrest within the Rebbe’s family. The choice – between two sons-in-law – shaped the relationship of the two sisters (the Previous Rebbe’s daughters) for the rest of their lives. And even if the Rebbe’s brother-in-law reconciled himself to his new status – he received a major appointment in the Chabad hierarchy – his wife was less impressed. After the controversy over the removal from the Chabad library of some of the Previous Rebbe’s books by the Rebbe’s nephew (a federal judge ruled that the legacy had to be returned and was rightfully the property of Chabad as an organization and not any person or family), the sisters apparently never spoke again.
What shines through every page is the Rebbe’s selflessness – the complete dedication of his life and all his energy to bringing Torah and Mitzvot to every Jew. The dollars he gave out were not to be kept but to be given by the recipient to the charity of his choice. (One NYPD officer, accompanying a local politician to the Rebbe, received a dollar, and dropped it off immediately in the collection box at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in mid-town Manhattan!) He saw the waning of Jewish observance well before it became a “crisis,” and began campaigns that are, by now, routine and familiar parts of the international Jewish landscape: the tefillin campaign (“are you Jewish?”), Shabbat candle lighting for every Jewish mother and daughter (including the Friday ad in the NY Times announcing the proper time), the public Menorah lighting (an issue that the US Supreme Court eventually ruled on, and in Chabad’s favor), the study of the Rambam’s works, and of course, the establishment of Chabad houses in 49 states across the USA – only South Dakota lacks a permanent Chabad presence that can service its 350 Jews – and more than 100 countries across the world.
Some of these are of dubious halachic import – but the objective was and is to establish points of connection between a Jew and his/her heritage, wherever we are in the world and whatever level of observance we have at the time. The goal is to remind every Jew that every mitzvah done by whomever, wherever, is a legitimate service of G-d, elevates our lives and benefits the individual and the society in which he/she lives. No persona or organization has touched more Jewish lives in the last century.
For sure, the Rebbe was a man of great complexity. There are stories with conflicting resolutions and even contradictory messages. For example, to some people with problems he gave advice but told them they had to decide for themselves; to others, he offered no advice at all. Still others – especially Lubavitcher Chasidim – were ordered to do one thing or another. This meant that the Rebbe approached each person as an individual, as unique. One size did not fit all.
The classic cases of direction involved assignment on shlichut – the staffing of the Chabad houses across the world. That was done by the Rebbe, and the shlichim – husband and wife – were expected to follow the Rebbe’s directives “like a soldier following the orders of the general.” He did not seem to take “no” for an answer when he dispatched a representative, nor even when that representative felt he was failing. Indeed, it is astonishing how few Chabad houses have “failed,” i.e., gone out of business, closed up shop, and very often in environments that are inhospitable to traditional Jews. Additionally, the Rebbe would frequently be consulted about shidduchim among his adherents, with a mental data base of people that reached the thousands.
Perhaps above all he instilled a love of all Jews in his followers, the first prerequisite for a Chabad shaliach. Whereas a traditional community has to strive to maintain halachic standards (Shabbat observance, the intermarriage taboo, etc.), Chabad has the luxury of being able to welcome all Jews, even occasionally non-Jews, into their sanctuaries. As a rule, Chabad does not do conversions, but they certainly have succeeded in “family reunifications,” encouraging Torah study and mitzvah observance until the non-Jewish spouse is ready for a proper conversion. I have personally witnessed and been part of that experience.
Of course, any leader is subject to criticism, and the Rebbe had numerous detractors outside his world. Not all criticisms found their way into this book – and just as well. Other Chasidic groups routinely attacked Lubavitch, sometimes physically; many Jews resented Chabad’s efforts at kiruv – then, in the 1950’s, unknown and perhaps even unwanted in Jewish life. Relations in Crown Heights between the Jewish and non-Jewish residents were not always tranquil. These matters are given relatively short shrift in the book, perhaps because the unsuccessful often carp at the successful – and Chabad has been an enormous, even unimaginable, success.
The Rebbe realized before most that women had a powerful, indispensable contribution to make to Jewish public life. He was not uncomfortable around women, something that is occasionally found in other Chasidic courts and in the Lithuanian world as well. He also stood out for his staunch opposition to territorial concessions by Israel and routinely shared his unvarnished opinions with Israeli political leaders. He was enormously active in the liberation of Soviet Jewry but behind the scenes rather than through public demonstrations, having been personally burned by the evil of Communism in his own life.
One controversial area not skirted is the Moshiach question, which certainly has colored public perceptions of Chabad in the last quarter century. Here, Rabbi Telushkin takes the unequivocal position that, of course, the Rebbe, being deceased, was not Moshiach, cannot be Moshiach, and during his lifetime did not fulfill most of the prerequisites for the Moshiach as outlined in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. Of course, not being Moshiach is hardly a criticism; it is the fate of everyone who is not Moshiach! But there is something quite noble about a rabbi’s followers thinking he might be Moshiach. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 98b) states that disciples in different academies felt that Moshiach’s name was – no coincidence – the name of the head of their academy! In this regard, Chabad is no different, except since the Rebbe’s passing, when such talk should have stopped. (If Moshiach can come from the dead, then why not King Shlomo, Rebbi Akiva, Rambam, the Vilna Gaon, etc.?) But the deep personal attachment that many Chabadniks have to the Rebbe makes that conclusion somewhat understandable, if misguided and even heretical. One hopes that it will fade over time; it doesn’t help that Chabad had no succession plan in mind when the Rebbe died. Despite that – and this is a tribute to the Rebbe’s greatness – Chabad has grown since his death and not contracted, as some Chabad detractors predicted. The spark that he lit continues to ignite Jewish souls everywhere.
Did the Rebbe ever claim to be Moshiach? To answer this question, the author cites a number of clear and public examples in which the Rebbe denied it vehemently, even urging his followers – once, angrily – to desist from such speculation. But such talk only grew after the Rebbe’s stroke – two years before his death – left him unable to speak or move. Some of his most fervent followers interpreted his silence as tacit acceptance of their claims, when in fact it was just the silence of physical infirmity. To a mitnaged, one price of Chasidut is the suspension of one’s critical faculties in deference to the Rebbe’s (any Rebbe’s) will or wishes, a price that most of us who live in the other world will not pay.
The Rebbe’s slow demise was sad, and one winces when reading about the frustration that this most energetic, vibrant and charismatic of men must have felt when illness was thrust upon him, stilling his voice forever, with disagreement among the physicians as to how much he was able to understand. (The other great frustration – mentioned in the book several times but apparently rarely by the Rebbe in public – was the Rebbe and his wife’s childlessness.) Charisma also comes with a price: the Rebbe refused to be hospitalized after a serious heart attack in the 1970’s, so his followers were hesitant to hospitalize him after the stroke. That delay of 4-5 hours, some of his doctors said, worsened his condition and exacerbated the extent of his debilities.
Nonetheless, reading the book is calisthenics for the soul. It enables us – through the life of one dominant Jewish figure, one of the few real Jewish leaders of the last century – to realize how much one individual can accomplish, how much goodness can be promoted, how much love of Israel and humanity are possible. It is all possible if one looks beyond the self, and tries to serve G-d by serving His creatures and immersing ourselves in His Torah.
It is impossible to read of “The Rebbe,” and – even we retain our hitnagdut – not to be inspired by such a person and such a life. If we can’t all be Chabad, then at least there should be a little Chabad in all of us.