Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Rebbe: A Great Leader

Book Review
Title: The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Authors: Samuel Heilman & Menachem Friedman
Princeton University Press
Publication Date:
by Perry J Greenbaum

Menachem Mendel Schneerson [1902-1994]: The Rebbe. "Tracht gutt, vet zein gutt", a Yiddish expression that translates as "Think good, and it will be good," which sums up the thinking and trust of many Hasidic Jews.
Photo Credit
: © Perry J Greenbaum, 2012

Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the seventh and last leader of Chabad-Lubavitch, a branch of Hasidic Judaism that follows the mystical teachings of Bal Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name"), dating to the early 18th century. For some within the boundaries of Chabad's World headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn's Crown Heights district of New York City, the Rebbe, as he was called by his followers, was the long-awaited Messiah ("Moshiach") who would bring the long-awaited redemption and peace to a fractured world. It is understandable why this sentiment is so strong.

There have been a number of books and articles written about Menachem Mendel Schneerson, this being the latest offering on a figure in Judaism that helped to a great degree revive the Jewish world with the vitality that it was sorely lacking. Whether or not you agree with the philosophy and ways of Chabad, you cannot ignore what they have done in the last fifty years under the wise guidance of its last Rebbe.

The book, The Rebbe, does an excellent job of stripping away the hagiography that is common with many great religious leaders, and presents a human face to those interested in such matters. In many ways, the history of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, from his birth in 1902 to his death in 1994, traces the rise of Chabad Judaism and its transformation from an obscure sect to an organization recognizable to both Jew and non-Jew. Some will object to the well-researched book's chief premises: to wit, Menachem Mendel Schneerson was not groomed to become the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, but when called upon to take on the mantle of leadership at a difficult period, did so with such vigor and intelligence that he transformed Chabad into the modern Hasidic movement that you see today.

Truly, all credit goes to the Rebbe for this, and the authors make that abundantly clear in this 343-page work. The authors, Samuel Heilman & Menachem Friedman, both academic sociologists, the latter at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and the former at City University of New York, are accomplished scholars, which is clearly evident in the final narrative. For the most part, they set about their task as biographers in an impassioned academic style; in a few occasions, however, they stray and allow their emotions to enter the discussion. This is both understandable and human.

One of the criticisms made in Chabad-Lubavitch circles is that Heilman & Friedman failed to draw from Schneerson's voluminous correspondence and and other religious writings and primary sources. This is a valid criticism. Their response was that they wanted to show the human dimension, in essence Menachem Mendel Schneerson the man, and not so much the religious figure or leader. To their credit, Heilman and Friedman do an excellent job of filling in the gaps of a life that was filled with much movement in its early years.

The constant traveling is in stark contrast to Schneerson's arrival in New York City, where he left his Crown Heights headquarters, called "770," only twice during his tenure as Rebbe, once to briefly visit a camp, Gan Israel in 1956, which he had established in upstate New York. Menachem Mendel Schneerson never visited the State of Israel; the reasons are intimated in the book, but we cannot know for sure his reasons for not traveling to Eretz Yisrael. There are also interesting facts, such as his long four-year courtship before marriage, atypical in Hasidic circles, but perhaps lending credence to his indecision on whether he wanted to lead a life in the Hasidic court of the sixth Lubavitch Rebbe. His reluctance, it seems, centers on his early career aspiration: to become an engineer. Such is intimated by the book's authors on why he delayed marriage:
It is entirely unclear, however, whether becoming his father-in-law's successor was in the young man's plans (75).
The authors add the following, suggesting that he had his feet in both worlds, the secular and the holy:
He was not ready to give up his pursuit of a secular education, even at a time of intensified Lubavitch involvement (94)
True, one could argue that such is entirely speculation, but it is speculation based on good scholarship and the marshaling of facts that present a consistent and cogent argument. Many a young man has particular career aspirations, only to be thwarted by circumstances, including world events, only to find another place to thrive and perform. That makes the early years all the more interesting, since it gives hints to the personality and forming instincts of Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Early Life in Ukraine & Russia

Menachem Mendel Schneerson's was born to Levi Yitzhak Schneerson and Chana Schneerson (née Yanofsky) on April 18, 1902 (11 Nisan 5662) in Nikolayev, an Ukrainian port city on the Black Sea. He was the eldest of three sons born to the couple, who were married on June 18, 1900. Dov Ber ("Bereke') was born a year later, and the youngest, Yisrael Aryeh Leib in 1909.

The family moved to Yekaterinoslav, a cosmopolitan city on the Dnieper River in 1907, where Levi Yitzhak took on a position as a Chabad rabbi; Menachem was aged five. His early interest in science and mathematics, an interest that would be used later on in his role as a leader, are depicted here in a recollection by one of their cousins from the Shlonsky family who lived next door to the Schneersons:
Vardina, his sister recalled her older cousin Mendel, or Mekka, as she called him, as being intellectually curious, finding everything of interest—decorating his room, for example with astronomical maps. Indeed, according to the Shlonskys' recollections, neither of the Schneerson's boys lived a life translated from the political, ideological and social currents that swept up their Jewish neighborhoods in Yekaterinoslav (71).
One of these was, of course, the strong currents of Bolshevism; the other, more particular to the Jews, was Zionism in its various forms. Particularly curious is the fact that "Levi Yitzchak did not 'permit' his son Mendel to go yeshivah in Lubavitch" (72). There is no record of Mendel of ever having attended any Lubavitch institution of learning, which is a point worth noting. The authors posit that the father wanted his two sons to gain a general education (DovBer suffered from mental illness and was sent to an institution.). They attained this by hiring a tutor, Israel Eidelsohn, five years older than Mendel and a confirmed socialist and Zionist, who would later emigrate to Palestine (1926), change his name to Israel Bar-Yehuda and become an important member of the Labor government.
At the time Eidelsohn became the Schneerson's tutor, he was already a leader of a Zionist youth organization and a student at the university at Yekaterinoslav and worked part time in the office of the Jewish secondary school (gymnasium). He taught the boys mathematics, Russian and other languages and mapped out a program of study equivalent to what would have been covered in a gymnasium, Mendel was apparently gifted both in translation and in mathematics. (72)
His interest in science and mathematics increased during his adolescence, and he served as an apprentice to an engineer for two years before deciding to attend Jewish Polytechnic Institute in 1923. When it fell under the control of the Communists, it became part of Yekaterinoslav University. "He remained there during 1924, after Lenin's death in January, and in 1925, while Stalin and Trotsky, whom his brother Leibel supported, were engaged in a power struggle for control of the nascent Soviet Union" (74).

Mendel wanted to continue his studies and could not be distracted by politics. He moved to Leningrad, Russia (St Petersburg) in 1926 at age 24, where Mendel lived at the court of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who was also his cousin. It was also here he has met his future wife, Chaya Moussia, known as Chaya Mushka.

Marriage and Studies in Germany & France 

The next fifteen years would be a life of constant movement, crossing borders, learning languages, adapting to new cultures, exploring ideas while developing a more modern sense of a Hasidic Jewish identity. He would leave the USSR and the familiar surroundings of his parents to first study at Berlin in December 1927, and then marry Chaya Moussia, one year his junior, on November 27, 1928, in Warsaw, Poland.
Soon after the wedding, MM and his wife moved to Berlin where they both studied: he at Friedrich Wilhelm University while Moussia studied German language and culture at the Institute for Foreigners. Her father supported the family financially, but not morally. (118)
A few years later, the young couple were on the move again. In March 1933, he attended the École Spéciale des Travaux Publics, du Bâtiment et de L'industrie (ESTP), a Grandes écoles in the Montparnasse district of  Paris. For two years, he was an auditing student, a preparatory step before being granted admission to the engineering school. It was a demanding difficult period in many ways, marked by 40-hour work and study weeks and mandatory attendance at all classes and labs. It was made all the more difficult that Mendel had to balance school life with life as a Hasidic Jew and the requirements of such.

Yet, he persevered and was accepted into advanced degree-granting program in the fall of 1935. For the next few years, he had to again balance engineering studies with the demands of his religious duties. "At last, on March 25, 1938, Mendel Schneerson, who was now thirty-six years old, received his diploma. He was finally an engineer with a degree" (121). But war in Europe would change all future plans for many, including Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Life In America

With the situation becoming more perilous for Jews in German-occupied France, the couple had to move. They were fortunate to get to America, by way of Lisbon, Portugal, on the Serpa-Pinta, arriving on the ship in New York City on June 23, 1941, where they joined Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitch Rebbe, who had arrived in March 1940. What happens next shows not only some biases on the part of the book's authors, but a poor understanding of military work and the war effort. In effect, although the authors report it, they cast doubts if Menachem Mendel Schneerson would have been given classified military work.

Yet, an article in The New York Times says the opposite: "In 1942, a young rabbi and electrical engineer named Menachem Mendel Schneerson settled in, having fled the war in Europe and spent a year doing classified military work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard." One of the programs that he was working on was for the battleship Missouri (USS Missouri), famous for being the one on which General Douglas MacArthur accepted the surrender of the Japanese in Tokyo Bay at the end of the Second World War.

Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn died on January 28, 1950 (Shevat 10, 1950 in the Jewish calendar), after leading the Hasidic sect for 30 years. He was 69. During the next year, a reluctant Schneerson was convinced that he was indeed the right man to lead; the other contender was his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shemaryahu Gurary, who was married to Chana, another daughter of Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn.

In January1951 (on the 10th of Shevat in the Jewish calendar), exactly a year after the death of his father-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneerson assumed the mantle of leadership, becoming the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, at age 48. He forever changed the way Chabad did things. He had many things to consider, including revitalizing an Hasidic sect in a foreign nation, America, which many European religious Jews considered irreligious. The war ravaged the number of Jews, including religious Jews. Few Jewish families were exempted from its savage maw, including Schneerson, who lost a mentally ill brother, Dov Ber, to Nazi soldiers in the Soviet Union in 1941.

But life continues, such is the Jewish way. If he was not going to work as an engineer, he would use his high intellect, keen insights and moral vision to lead the Chabad sect into the modern era, and do so in a way that would make it a magnet for unaffiliated and dissatisfied Jews. One of the key changes was increase the number of emissary couples (shluchim) that he sent all over the world, whose purpose was to be warm lights and whose aim was to increase the knowledge and awareness of Judaism.

If any one achievement stands out among the many, it was the Rebbe's ability to transform Chabad from one of a number of Hasidic sects to the most well-known Hasidic, if not Jewish, organization worldwide. He did this by changing one key message. Soon after becoming its leader, six years after the dark clouds of the Holocaust ("Shoah") still hovered over the Jewish People, he integrated the positive and promising message of modern America into his talks and writings:
He made clear that redemption did not require any further death and suffering as a prerequisite, no more birth pangs or martyrdom. His was not a messianism of pain and catastrophe.  His was a messianism of promise. He stressed the ability of the converted sinner to change the cosmic balance and bring about the redemption, a Messiah whose footsteps (ikveso dimeshikho) could now be seen. (146)
It was in some ways like a mathematical equation. The more good deeds one does (i.e. mitzvot), the greater the possibility of bringing about the Messiah, or Moshiach, as he is called in Yiddish, thus ushering in an age of peace and justice. Instead of patiently waiting for that big event to happen, the Rebbe taught his followers that it was left, to a large degree, in the hands of humans to achieve. Truly, you can't find fault in the Lubavitch followers of their Rebbe for wanting, even demanding, justice and peace in the world, and to desire a messianic age of redemption. That desire is steeped in Judaism and in humanity's need for a better world.

Chabad's campaigns to bring about a change in the world became well-known, including encouraging Jewish men to don tephillin in public, Jewish women to light Shabbat candles and Jewish families to affix at least one mezzuzah on their front entrances—all outward signs of Jewish affiliation but, more important, symbolic acts infused with centuries of Jewish spirituality.

Such campaigns continued unabated for decades, each decade bringing greater hope of the imminent arrival of the Moshiach. The first shock-wave for the Lubavitcher followers of their Rebbe was the death of Chaya Mushka, lovingly called the Rebbetzin, on February 10, 1988 (22 Shevat). She was 86. The marriage, which lasted 60 years, produced no children. Her death was not only a great loss of her presence, a kind and generous individual and close and deicated confidante of her husband, but a reminder of her morality, "and that not even their revered rebbe could prevent her passing" (223).

Yet, the Rebbe was a human, and one could rightly argue a great human who achieved great things for the Jewish People. But he was not more than that. In many ways, he was pushed into the role of a messianic figure, becoming a reluctant messiah. This became all the more apparent after his debilitating stroke a month before his 90th birthday, on March 2, 1992. After Chaya Mushka's death, he spent more and more time at his father-in-law's burial site, known as The Ohel ("tent"), at Montefiore Cemetery in Queens.:
The Rebbe had collapsed. The Oracle of Brooklyn, whose followers thought he was the Messiah, was immobilized and silent. He had suffered a stroke, and the damage was substantial. (237)
It is true that the Rebbe never again made another speech. He would spend the remainder at his days at his beloved 770, near his Hasidim,  helpless in a bed, in a room surrounded by all the machinery of modern medicine. As many others have pointed out, including the book's authors, the Rebbe's health made it an even greater urgency that Menachem Mendel Schneerson reveal himself as the long-awaited Messiah.

During the next two years, his followers tried to make sense of what befell their Rebbe. Positions were taken, including affirmation to work harder and do an even greater number of mitzvot. Yet, his condition deteriorated, against their better desires and wishes and petitions to Heaven. On March 8, 1994, their Rebbe suffered a series of seizures and was hospitalized. On Sunday morning at 1:50 am on June 12, 1994 (Gimmel Tammuz 5754 in the Jewish calendar), Menachem Mendel Schneerson died. He was 92.

Camp Gan Israel in the Laurentians: The boys and their counselors gather in front of "770" for a memorial service called Gimmel Tammuz, which, as the Chabad-Lubavitch website puts it, is: "The anniversary of passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory (b. 1902), who passed away in the early morning hours of the 3rd of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, of the year 5754 from creation (1994)."
Photo Credit: Perry J Greenbaum, 2011

The AfterLife

Many Chabadniks refused to believe that their beloved Rebbe was dead. Factions were formed between those that didn't and those that did (in effect, messianists and non-messianists). The messianists say that he is hidden, and don't refer to his death but to his histalkes, or leave-taking. In other words, this was a planned event and Menachem Mendel Schneerson will return someday.

Today, almost 18 years later, we have a whole generation of young Lubavitchers who have never met the Rebbe. Yet, his message lives on, chiefly with the efforts of the older generation.
These Hasidim also kept the Rebbe alive by continuously plumbing and internalizing the messages that were in the copious literature built up of texts their rebbe had left them. they paid particular attention to ensuring that the young studied and assimilated these words. (23)
Another way that the Rebbe is kept alive, or at least his digital presence is, is in large part due to technology that Chabad-Lubavitch enthusiastically embraces and uses. This became evident, at least for the book's authors, at the annual Chabad kinus, or conference:
There is yet another way that Lubavitchers revive the missing Rebbe, and it was manifested at the 2006 kinus. A wall of video screens surrounded the vast hall at Pier 94 in Manhattan where the gathering was being held. The ubiquitous of videos of the Rebbe made his voice and words very much part of the day. On them, past and present merged seamlessly in a kind of visual metaphor of precisely what was critical for continuity. (24)
On a personal note, I am not a follower of Chabad-Lubavitch nor of Hasidim in general. But I am familiar with their ways and a good number of their teachings (see here). Our family often attends a Chabad synagogue (shul) near our house for Sabbath observances and for holidays and festivals.  As in any group, there are things one can accept and things one cannot, greatly conditioned by upbringing and personal tastes. I can't accept their limited understanding and acceptance of modern science, arts and literature, and their general rejection of modern ideas and influences.

Their political and social views are often in contrast to mine, marked by the chief idea that humans play a more integral and responsible role in shaping human affairs. In Chabad, as with all Hasidic Jews, God plays the central role in human affairs, and all results, whether good or bad, are in accordance with God's true and just will. Such is not always humanly easy to accept, and it can lead to careless and heartless behavior.

Yet, not in the case of Chabad. As a group they are a welcoming people who don't quickly form judgments. I admire their zeal and devotion to a higher ideal. I can also admire what they have accomplished under the leadership of their last Rebbe and continue to do today in his memory, which is not inconsequential. He left a legacy and a wonderful example to follow. His death is sad, no doubt, and the world lost a great leader.

But to make him more than that would add nothing to his legacy, and might prevent the Lubavitch moment from progressing forward. He was, in many regards, a reluctant messiah, hesitant at first to take on the mantle of leadership. In that regard, Menachem Mendel Schneerson is in exceptional company, joining no less a figure than Moses, who despite his initial hesitancy became the greatest leader of the Jewish People.

In modern times, the Rebbe might be the greatest, if you measure greatness by accomplishments in bettering humanity and raising the moral level of individuals. In Judaism, a few persons reach the standard of a tzaddik, a righteous leader. In that regard, I am reminded of the words of Martin Buber, the known Jewish philosopher, in his wonderful work, The Legend of Baal-Shem (1955):
But he who is content to serve in solitude is not a true Zaddik. Man's bond with God is proven and fulfilled in the human world. The Zaddik gives himself to his disciples (several of whom he usually takes into his household) in transmitting to them the Teachings. He gives himself to his congregation in communal prayer and instruction and as a guide to their lives. Finally, he gives himself as comforter, adviser and mediator to the many who come "travelling" to him from far and wide, partly in order to dwell for a few days—especially on the high Holidays—in his proxmity, "in the shade of his holiness," partly in order to obtain his help for the needs of their bodies and souls. (222)
Menachem Mendel Schneerson embodied such qualities, without a doubt, to his followers, and even to those who were not part of his court at 770 in Crown Heights. But there's more. He was a man who undertook the rigors of engineering and scientific studies, his mind sharpened by this as much as by studies in Talmudic and Hasidic texts. Of course, no one doubts that his greatness was not as a scientist or engineer, but as a Jewish leader. He was the right leader for the right time. He brought a sense of righteousness and justice to the world, a high sense of morality and a hope that life would get better. If there is one thing the book, The Rebbe, brought out was that Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was a man of progress who stretched the boundaries of Hasidic Judaism for the good and betterment of all humanity.

For that alone, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbe, will always be remembered. Kol hakavod.