The Rebbe

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.

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19 responses to “The Rebbe

  1. You might also enjoy reading another well written biography of the Rebbe, Turning Judaism Outward by Rabbi Chaim Miller.

  2. Mordechai Weiss

    כל הכבוד to you Rabbi Pruzansky on your beautifully written words.

  3. Rabbi,
    So where did all this meshichist nonsense come from if not from the rebbe himself. And why didn’t the rebbe prepare a successor?

    • Rabbi Pruzansky explains that the movement has flourished since his passing. If so, perhaps not appointing a successor is not a shortcoming, but a commentary on extraordinary leadership?
      Or, put in different words: Perhaps he appointed 5,000 successors — every Shliach alive today?

      • It’s probably not a formula for success that can be duplicated but it does underscore the tremendous devotion he evoked in his followers.
        -RSP

    • great post rabbi!

      During the Rebbe’s life many people hoped that he would be revealed as the Messiah. Admirers pointed to traditional Jewish theology which teaches that in every generation there is one person who is worthy of being the Messiah, and if God deems the times right, he will be revealed by God as such. Chabad followers also pointed to a tradition that in every generation there is one person who is considered the Messiah of the generation.

      This is in fact not entirely unique to Chabad. Throughout Chasidic history, there have been numerous cases of Rebbe’s that have been identified by their Chasidim as worthy of being the Messiah.

      These figures were not thought of having been the actual Messiah, since the criteria that must be fulfilled by the Messiah have been clearly stipulated by the Rambam.

      However, Chasidim hoped, hoped that it would be their leader who would be the Messiah and spoke of him as the Messiah.

      Recognizing the Rebbes vast achievements, many Jews felt that if there was indeed a person worthy of such stature, it was hin. Although the Rebbe constantly and strongly objected to any talk that he could be the Messiah, this notion sparked controversy, particularly among those who were unfamiliar with these traditional teachings.

      Since the Rebbes passing, the Messianic movement has largely shrunken although there are still wish that he will be the Messiah. The Chabad umbrella organization, Agudas Chasidei Chabad has condemned Messianic behavior, stating that it defies the express wishes of Schneerson

    • Read the book. It discusses this as well. He said that some people need crutches. On some level, it’s admirable for his followers to believe he might have been Moshiach while he was alive.
      It’s just that after his death it must stop.
      -RSP

      • Respectfully, I don’t see how its admirable, on any level. It’s hero-worship. And he either outright encouraged it or did nothing to stop it when he could easily have done so. As for stopping hero-worship after one’s death – the Rebbe was smart enough to know the history of Shabtai Tzvi, or if you prefer, the Breslover Rebbe. Among the fervent, some things cant be undone.

        I’m not carping on his success – (I’m not important enough to do that!) But this is a flaw in his legacy, and a pretty darn big one, such that it can’t be ignored.

  4. Thank you Rabbi Pruzansky for an honest recap of the book. I did read the book and I feel that Telushkin did a fine job covering the Rebbe’s life. For those of us who grew up in NY we remember how controversy was part of the fabric of Lubavitch. Yet he continued plowing ahead not afraid of the next public outcry that might attack him. We are missing those leaders today. Telushkin was boy afraid to address some of those controversies.

    • great post rabbi!

      Yes. We do need such leaders like thw Rebbe today. Its intresting that you mention the other controversies. One that comes to mind is the tefilin campaign, when the Rebbe called on all men over the age of 13 to put on tefillin. The Satmar Rebbe came out against it and said that not all Jewish men are worthy of wearing tefillin. Another controversy was when the Rebbe praised the brave IDF for safeguarding life in Israel and mentioned that God preformed miricals during the wars in Israel. The Satmar Rebbe again came out agains this, and called the IDF sinners. He said it’s heretical to say that God did miricals through such sinners and if any miricals did happen they were done by Sattan. I imagine Telushkin didn’t mention these controversies in great detail, because although it is criticism of Chabad, when you actually think about it, and put it all in context (today there are thousands of people who have put on Tefilin as a result of the campaign) it actually seems to reflect very very negatively on the Satmar Rebbe. Yehei Zichrom Baruch.

  5. Liberal Jews Who Love Obama Slammed by Michael Savage:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onN7V3YJD_I

  6. More talking about Jews being their own worst enemies:

    Liberal Jews Who Love Obama Slammed by Michael Savage:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onN7V3YJD_

  7. Rabbi, either Teslushikin or your good self underestimates how much the Rebbe was responsible for the Messianic hopes his followers placed in him. He was very well aware of it (as you said, he was a smart man, too smart not to know it) and tacitly, it not actively, encouraged it. Even if on occasion he denied it, we all know that one can deny something in order to encourage it – just ask the next politician running-but-not-declared candidate for President. At a minimum, he never stopped it, which he could have done, easily. The Rebbe was philosophical enough to know that the Messiah can come in many forms, including political leaders. He knew he had many followers who would follow him blindly, and was quite self-aware of his reputation and image. It’s a mistake to think Rebbes don’t have the same egos as everyone else. To the contrary, the way they are worshiped makes it very hard to not fall prey to the flattery, even if initially one tried. When the Rebbe thought about the various leaders throughout history who were thought to be the Messiah, I think its very possible his ego may have led him to think, “why not me?”

    The below rhyming chant was being sung, publicly, by Chabad in the 60s and 70s, when the Rebbe was healthy.

    WHO IS HE?
    THE LUBAVITCHER REBBI!

    WHERE DOES HE LIVE?
    SEVEN-SEVENTY!

    WHAT’S HE GONNA DO?
    YAVO VI-YIGOLEINU!

    WHEN’S HE GONNA DO IT/
    BIMHARA BIYOMEINU!

    • great post rabbi!

      Intresting you mention this. First of all, what do you find so disturbing that talmidim want their leader to be the Messiah? Why should they want someone else? Also, I suggest you do some more research and read some of the early books written by those who publicly spoke of the Rebbe in messianic terms. They write how even though the Rebbe constantly and strongly discourages their behavior, they nevertheless want to proclaim him the Messiah. The Rebbe is certainly not responsible for the Messianic behavior (anymore than President Obama is for the riots in Ferguson). In fact, one of the most prominent Messianists said that Chabad must specifically go against the desire of Rabbi Schneerson regarding the Messiah issue. In general there seem to be major misunderstandings when it comes to the topic. Chasidim of many generations, and talmidim of many talmidei chachamim for that matter, wished it would be their leader who would merit to be the Messiah. I remember hearing Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in the early 1990s, saying how he wished it could be the Rebbe, and if there was anyone worthy of it in this generation, it was the Rebbe. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm made similer remarks. I also remember Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s famous hesped on the Rebbe in which he explained the concept in great detail. Eveyrone knew the Rebbe wasnt yet the Messiah (whose criteria is clearly stipulated by Maimonodes) but if there was one person capable, most people thought ot to be him. Of course, once the Rebbe passed away, most people sropped speaking like this.

  8. Another New York Times anti-Israel Character Assassination:
    http://tabletmag.com/scroll/187518/rolling-stone-apologized-will-the-times

    PS: Do a mitzvah today!
    Stop buying the New York Times and NEVER go back to it again!

  9. Phillip Slepian

    I am curious to learn how Rabbi Pruzansky views Chabad in the present. While I would think over 90% of Chabadniks agree now that the Rebbe was not Moshiach, they are not willing to push away the small numbers who cling to this belief. The desire for achdut within Chabad is admirable, but if those Messianic Chabadniks are still integrated into Chabad-Lubavitch, how are we to regard them? Most Jews want to welcome Chabad as a positive part of Klal Yisrael, but our history has shown us the dangers of those who observe Torah while believing in something very foreign to it. It is remeniscent of the Notzrim. In my own shul, we recently had to silence a kindly, well-meaning Chabad couple who were clearly proselytizing amongst our mitpalelim, trying to convince us that the Rebbe was indeed Moshiach. Where is the achdut in that?