Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Rebbe by S. Hellman and M. Friedman

[This book is about Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the 7th Rebbe ( 'Prince' - tzadikim, - righteous spiritual leader) of the 'ultra-orthodox' Chabad Lubavitch Hasidim. It is 'about' the rebbe but, in my estimation, should not be considered the comprehensive story ( biography) of his life because it does not cover his distinctive religious thinking in sufficient depth. Where does Menachem Mendel's life work stand in relation Talmudic literature and Jewish Mysticism ( Kabbalah) in general ? What was so special about the way he dealt with the tales and maxims of the Midrash, the Baal Shem Tov and the Tanya in his talks, lectures and writings ( described as 'bravura performances')? Maybe I'm being picky but such intellectual concerns were a central focus of his life and teachings, and his accomplishments in such matters- his interpretations of what it meant to be Jewish, the nature of the exile of the Jewish soul ( , and G-d's own alienation from the world)- were obviously the main reason he became the 7th Rebbe in the first place and even today is subject to a significant degree of occultation among the Lubavitcher Hasidim. Of course the authors rightly wished to avoid writing a mere hagiography of the rebbe but, perhaps they learned a bit much over to other side thus leaving goyims like myself too much in the dark!]

Menachem Mendel was a directly related to the third rebbe and became, after an unusually long engagement, the son-in-law of the sixth rebbe and was thus one of two presumptive heirs to the leadership Lubavitch Hasidic Court which originated in Russia and Lithuania during the 18th century. Early in his adult life, however, he, together with his new wife and against the expressed wishes of her father, detached himself to a large degree from the household and immediate community of the sixth rebbe in order to study to become an engineer first in Berlin and then in Paris. This ambition could only be achieved by stint of a great and prolonged effort because he lacked secondary school certification, had to audit many courses and was thus forced to rely on testimonials rather than official grades to advance his academic career. He eventually succeeded in getting his degree but, as the result of the rising tide fascism in Europe and anti-immigrant fervor in France, was unable to follow it up with a useful internship in his chosen field of endeavor. He was then forced to flee to America for his very life. Very few opportunities to work as an engineer presented themselves to Menachem in his new country, the language of which he did not even speak. Thus he settled into an intimate connection with the Court of the sixth rebbe.

Throughout is years as a student of the secular arts Schneerson maintained his studies in Talmudic literature, the kabbalah, Midrash, the Baal Shem Tov and the Tanya . In so far as possible – for the schedules of classes at the Universities were very exacting, synagogues at great distances from his living quarters (sometimes in quite multi-cultural and artistic neighborhoods)- he maintained orthodox religious practices and returned to his father-in-law's household for important holidays when circumstances permitted. It is virtually certain that both he and his wife enjoyed a more cosmopolitan outlook than was generally acceptable among the Lubavitch Hasidim and had other plans than the one that fate eventually provided.

The sixth rebbe – Rabbi Yoseph Yitchak- had been admired within Jewry as a whole for his advocacy on behalf of persecuted Soviet Jewry. After his arrival in the United States, however, during the last decade of his life, his increasingly insistent messianism embroiled him in controversy. His messianism carried within itself a powerful criticism of broad swaths of American Jewry, whose laxity in Jewish observance, he argued, had defiled the world and brought about catastrophe and ruin. Only immediate repentance and return to ultra-orthodox would ensure the Messiah's coming and the redemption of the world (which he predicted would occur in his own lifetime.) In August 1941, fifteen months after his arrival as a refugee in his adopted country – a rescue brought about by Jews were not at all orthodox in their observance - he had argued that American Jews “coldness an indifference... towards Torah and religion” were no less destructive than the fire in Europe that threatened “ to annihilate two-thirds of the Jewish people.”

Many of Rabbi Yitzchak's contemporaries understood these words to be a criticism of other rabbis, religious leaders, and yeshiva heads who had clearly been unable to turn American Jewry towards greater religious observance. In words that stung much of the Orthodox religious rabbinate when they were published in 1941, at a time when Nazi general Erwin Rommel's tanks threatened to occupy the Holy Land, Yosef Yitzhack invited Jews to “imagine what would have happened if a few hundred rabbis... had appeared before the community and announced that the day of redemption is coming soon and that the tribulations of the Jewish people were simply the birth pangs of the Messiah; how powerful would have been the repentance of the Jewish people been had they done so." In the eyes of many Jews, he was blaming the victim.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak had hoped to offer a recipe for a religious revival and Jewish survival, but instead he created conditions that led to the decline of his influence in America, a decline accelerated by his physical deterioration as his life neared its end. Such statements, as well as what many of the influential considered his radical messianism ( and aggressive fund-raising at their expense), did not endear him to many of the religious leaders in America, and probably accounted for their absence at his funeral in 1950. Never-the-less, the family and the Lubavitch Community, centered at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn Heights, remain united in their bereavement and commitment to survival and growth.

This was the situation in which Mendel Schneerson stepped into the shoes of the 7th and last Lubavitch rebbe, claiming to channel the soul of Yosef Yitchak and overwhelming the pretensions of the other candidate with his sensitive understanding of the Kabbalah texts and their adaptability to modern life. He breathed life into the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidim. General accounts of his and the community's accomplishments such as provided in this book are readily available on-line.

1 comment:

  1. “In practice, Lubavitcher emissaries have to confront precisely the problem that modern Orthodox Jews have been dealing with for years: how to stand with one foot in the world beyond their own religious commitments and the other firmly planted in their own traditions. The difference is that the modern Orthodox Jews see ontological value in the outside culture and society – or at least have for a generation or more before its perceived moral decline – while the Lubavitchers are entering it only to retrieve Jews from it. Yet both live a kind of double life, one in which they look at the world outside as a threat as well as an opportunity, and perceive the world from inside their Jewish attachments differently than when they are on the outside.

    In this double life Lubavitchers remain on the one hand open, compromising, and willing to be engaged by the people and the society they seek to transform. In that life, they accept the legitimacy of all sorts of rabbis with whom they have to cooperate, including the non-Orthodox and women. They allow that a supporter or congregant could be less than fully committed to Jewish practice and still be someone of value, and tolerance is the name of the game.

    In their other life, however, they remain rooted in their own sectarian values and maintain powerful attachments to the highly parochial and esoteric world of ChaBaD Hasidism. But there are no easy solutions nor ironclad guarantees that they will not end up adrift.”

    Again, without better understanding of "the esoteric and parochial world of ChaBad Hasidism", I am unwilling to whole-heartedly endorse this kind of psychoanalytic approach to the ontological questions. In such arguments it is always difficult to decide who and who is not "facing the facts"