Rebbe: The Life And Teachings Of Menachem M. Schneerson, The Most Influential Rabbi In Modern History, by Joseph Telushkin
This book has received a lot of praise, and it is hard to tell whether that praise is justified. Even though I am by no means an expert on the nature of Jewish life in contemporary America, I read about it enough to have heard of the Rebbe and his followers in several books that I have read, and the author certainly portrays him in a highly sympathetic light. A reader should be aware that this is not a conventionally told biography where a chronological examination of the author’s life is given in detail, but rather this biography is thematically organized, which leaves some fascinating questions, such as what in the world the Rebbe was doing during World War II, unanswered until towards the end, whereas a more conventionally organized biography would have answered that mystery fairly early. The reader can decide whether they prefer the narrative flow of a conventional biography or this more complicated approach. I am not sure whether non-Jews will be reading this biography in any great numbers over the next few generations, but as long as Chabad has a strong influence on Jewish life and the politics of Israel, this book will have some value in discussing the life and thinking of the late Menachem Schneerson, a man who lived a truly exciting and complex life.
In terms of its structure, this book of roughly 500 pages is divided into eleven parts and 30 chapters. The first part of the book begins properly in media res showing the leadership of the Rebbe (I) painting him as a rebbe for the new world (1) and looking at the time when he became the leader of Chabad (2). After that the author looks at what it means to be a rebbe (II) in terms of connecting to others through yechidus (one-on-one meetings) (3) and ten campaigns of taking Judaism into the world (4), including the famed tefillin squad and the public menorah lighting ceremonies that made Hanukkah well known among non-Jews. The next part of the book focuses on seven virtues (III), including loving one’s neighbor (5), creating fearlessness and leaders (6), optimism and the careful choice of words (7), the Rebbe’s work ethic (8), expressing disagreement without being disagreeable (9), and Judaism’s mission to the world (10). After this the author looks to express life lessons according to the Rebbe (IV), including the Rebbe’s relationship with journalism (11), some miscellaneous thoughts about science and chess and other stories (12), as well as some unexpected lessons in gratitude (13). After that the author looks at the Rebbe’s thoughts regarding the unity of Jews (V), including women’s issues (14), the Rebbe’s open door to reform and conservative Jews (15), the subject’s thought that no one is beyond the possibility of repentance (16), and differences that don’t affect a friendship with the case study of the Rebbe’s relationship with the Rav (18). After this the author looks at some controversial views of the Rebbe (VI) including prayer in school and menorahs in the street (19), his hostility towards the approach of land for peace (20), his views that public demonstrations in Soviet Russia would hurt Jews (21), his ideas of when it is wrong to make Aliyah (22), his dissent to evolution (23), and his complex thoughts about college education (24). After that the author looks at the subject’s family relations (VII), including his relationship with his wife (25), and his devotion beyond measure (26). The author then moves on to a look at a courtroom battle (VIII) over the subject’s father-in-law’s library about the ownership of the movement’s books within the movement (27) that tore apart the family of the previous leader of Chabad. The author then closes the book with chapters on the relationship of the Rebbe to Jewish messianic fervor (IX, 28), the example the Rebbe set to modeling leadership after life (X, 29), and, finally, a chronological look at the major events of the life of the Rebbe (XI, 30).
As someone who is an outsider to the community discussed here, the immediate applicability of the life of the subject is somewhat limited. The long-term viability of the Chabad movement in the absence of this leader is something that is likely in question, and the sorrow he faced in not being able to have any children, and the immense losses the movement faced as a result both of internal conflict as well as the horrors of the Shoah are discussed here rather movingly. It is a bit puzzling why the author chooses to wait until the very end to talk about the Rebbe’s involvement in building Liberty ships to help the American effort in World War II, given that this knowledge would have increased the credibility of his desire for Chabad members in Israel to support the similarly just efforts of Israel to prevail in the Six Day’s war and other conflicts. The efforts at keeping an open door while avoiding ecumenical compromise is something I happen to support, and I was pleased in reading the book to see so many similarities in the views of the subject and I towards such matters as education and science. Perhaps there is something worthwhile in reading about the life and thinking of an influential rabbi after all.