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The rebbe: The life and afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson

More messianic madness

    Schneerson: a great spiritual leader revered sometimes beyond reason
    Schneerson: a great spiritual leader revered sometimes beyond reason

    By Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman
    Princeton University Press, £20.95

    For a biography of a man who never went to war, never ran for public office, never endangered his health with drugs or alcohol, never indulged a passion for fast women, but mostly taught religion and, before that, dreamed of being an engineer, The Rebbe tells an at times riveting story. The question is whether it is an entirely true story.

    Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the seventh and final rebbe, or grand rabbi, of the Chabad - Lubavitch - movement, arguably the most dynamic force in world Judaism today.

    This account of his life by sociologists Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman asserts that, having fled Europe for America in 1941, Rabbi Schneerson came ultimately under a "messianic delusion". Followers pressed him to reveal himself as Messiah, until he was brought down by a massive stroke in 1992 while praying at the grave of his father-in-law, the previous Chabad rebbe.

    In the authors' suspenseful recounting, that event reads like an act of divine retribution for his "hubris". No wonder Chabadniks are indignant at the book, which they claim is marred by factual errors and biased judgments.

    When the Rebbe died in 1994, he left Chabad not only bereft of leadership but, it appeared, bereft of sanity. A vocal faction proclaimed him as the Messiah and predicted his imminent resurrection. This turn to madness has since been replaced by a degree of success in spreading a wholesome, upbeat message that Chabad under the Rebbe himself never experienced. You hear much less now about the Rebbe-is-Messiah concept.

    But the mystery of why Chabad is now more omnipresent in Jewish life, more imitated by outreach professionals and more admired by those unaffiliated with the sect than it ever was before, is one on which Heilman and Friedman unfortunately shed little light.

    Though there is plenty to enjoy in their book, a sourness also clings to it, as does the doubt over whether Heilman and Friedman have given an authentic portrait. Many of the damaging insinuations are attributed in footnotes to a longtime and embittered opponent of the Rebbe, the son of the man who was passed over for the leadership role when the previous rebbe died.

    There are peculiar omissions and contradictions. Thus the authors give us a Rabbi Schneerson who expected he would never die, yet they omit to mention that he prepared a will in 1988 and left instructions on how Chabad should be operated after his death.

    I attribute no malice to this pair of academics but perhaps a tone-deafness, a flatness of perspective. Heilman and Friedman bring to mind the allegorical novel Flatland, written by English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott in 1884. In the story, the inhabitants of a literally flat land - a place of two dimensions where only geometric figures thrive - deny the existence of a third dimension until a square encounters a visitor from "Spaceland", a sphere.

    Great men are rare but the Rebbe was one such. I remember the feeling of being torn and abandoned that strangely overcame me the night he died, though I was not aware he had done so and I was not -- and am not - a Chabad follower. Readers of this biography may wonder if the authors have failed to grasp their subject because he inhabited a realm with vaster and deeper spiritual dimensions than they, like squares contemplating a sphere, can fully appreciate.

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