Review: Rebbe

Light shone but not shed


By Joseph Telushkin
Harper Wave, £20

Under the leadership of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chabad (Lubavitch) grew from a small circle of Chasidim (no numbers are given in this book) into an omnipresent and unified force in world Judaism. Most importantly, he had the talent to ensure it would survive and prosper after his death by creating an atmosphere and structures in which the very idea of a successor was out of the question.

Such institutionalisation is an essential attribute of a charismatic leader who seeks to perpetuate his movement. According to Joseph Telushkin, the attempts to proclaim Schneerson Messiah infuriated him, though others have suggested that, in his later years and especially after the death of his wife, he may, perhaps unwittingly, have indulged it. Either way, if that faction had won, it would have derailed the continuing development of Chabad into a successful modern movement able to survive and grow without a living charismatic leader.

As a sage or rabbinic authority, Schneerson was, I need hardly say, different. As a Chasidic Rebbe, he left specific rulings to others, but Telushkin lists innumerable instances of sage advice on the practical problems of life that people brought to him. He also avoided pronouncing, for example, on the question, "Who is a Jew?" In this, he contrasts with other prominent rabbis. For example, the reputation of Ovadia Yosef, leader of the Shas movement in Israel - which surely learnt a lot from Chabad's methods of bringing people to teshuva - rests on his innumerable published rulings.

Like other leaders of large-scale, innovative religious movements, Schneerson created an apparatus around himself to calibrate and ritualise his every public appearance: his meetings with thousands of individuals who would queue up patiently and seek his advice, after which he would give them each a dollar bill as a signal of their obligation of tsedaka, were his trade mark.

At the same time, and although some of Telushkin's stories of his insights sound a little fanciful, he apparently had a true gift for sizing someone up, guessing their problem and, like a psychoanalyst, forcing them to recognise that the issue they were presenting was a distraction or cover for their real problem. And he charmed them all.

The Rebbe was also possessed of keen political astuteness, as illustrated by his avoidance of controversial theological and political issues within Judaism: on Israel, he opposed the return of occupied territory, but he did so on practical, security grounds - not a hint of messianic nationalism or territorial expansionism. Interestingly, when he did take part in a major political and legal controversy, it concerned prayer in public schools in the US, not an internal Jewish controversy.

To write a biography, in the usual sense, of this man is impossible because the sources are controlled by the organisation. Two scholars, Menachem Friedman and Samuel Heilman, wrote one based on as careful research as was possible without such co-operation. This was widely denigrated by Chabad people (and critically reviewed in the JC in July 2010). Telushkin is, however, right to highlight their intimation, premature to say the least, of the decline of Chabad without the Rebbe.

It was presumably to pre-empt further such efforts, that the Chabad leadership entrusted an insider, Telushkin, son of the Rebbe's personal accountant, with the task of assembling this compendium. The form of the book is not really biographical but organised in thematic chapters, followed by a chronology of the Rebbe's life, written almost in note form and interspersed with anecdotes. And no doubt it will take its place on the shelves of many households side by side with hagiographies of David Ben Gurion and Elie Wiesel.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive