Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of thousands of strictly Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch emissaries across the globe, was an introverted man who shied away from public attention and praise.
The description of one of the most venerated figures in Jewish history came from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the author of a bestselling biography called The Rebbe.
Speaking in London this week at an event to mark the 20th yahrzeit of the Rebbe, Rabbi Telushkin said the spiritual leader had always opposed any attempt by his followers to call him the Messiah.
He told the packed audience at South Hampstead Synagogue that in the mid-1960s, a prominent Chasid in Israel called Avraham Pariz started distributing flyers saying the Messiah had arrived and naming him as the Rebbe.
“When the Rebbe found out about it he ordered Pariz to collect every one of the flyers and never do it again,” said Rabbi Telushkin.
Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub, who also attended questioned the author on the paradox of the Rebbe’s respect for the Reform and Conservative movements despite his own strictly traditional and observant outlook.
“He had great openness to Reform and Conservative Jews,” said Rabbi Telushkin, who is a respected religious authority in his native United States. “He obviously thought they had serious misinterpretations of Judaism, but he was open to all Jews. Most of us find it very hard to be fair to people we disagree with. The Rebbe didn’t do this - he always criticised positions, not individuals.”
Rabbi Telushkin also said that the Rebbe’s influence spread to the secular world and his advice was in high demand among both American and Israeli political leaders alike.
Speaking to the JC after the event he said: “I think one of things which struck people who knew the Rebbe was his extraordinary sincerity.
“Politicians never felt he would exploit them but at the same time thought there was much to learn from his counsel. There aren’t many people who have something to teach you and don’t have any particular selfish interest.”