Book Review: The Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History

In his new book, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, best-selling author Joseph Telushkin reveals many surprising and sometimes shocking facts, as he chronicles the life and teachings of the charismatic Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, popularly referred to as the “Rebbe” by his followers and admirers worldwide.

In a span of 92 years the Rebbe traveled from his birthplace, the city of Nikolayev, Ukraine, studied in the cosmopolitan cities of Berlin and Paris, where he earned degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, and finally settled in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. It was there he reluctantly donned the mantel as the Seventh Lubavitcher Rabbi and humbly assumed the title of the Rebbe.

Prior to his “coronation” he had already attained the stature of a spiritual magnet who attracted into his sphere of influence a warren of world leaders, as well as ordinary people who sought his wise counsel and blessings. More than a biography, this book relates historic events bonded with personal insights and coupled with private moments, which bring the reader to yichudusim, private moments of consultation, with the Rebbe.

Known worldwide for his sage advice, one cannot help but wonder how the Rebbe could advise a distraught son seeking the best way to help his ailing father to, “Take your father to the poolroom.”

Equally surprising is that the spiritual leader of Chabad, a movement of thousands of religious Jews led by the Rebbe, a man who on a daily basis dealt with weighty questions of life, death and faith, asked a visitor on the occasion of his birthday, “How come you don’t have a birthday cake?” And in an uncharacteristically terse response to an adherent’s statement that he was much too tired to take on additional responsibilities, the Rebbe responded, “I’m also tired. So What?”

In his portrayal of the Rebbe, Telushkin successfully depicts him not only as a man of faith but as a man who has faith in mankind. He had a fervent belief in the coming of the Moshiach, Messiah, and although some regarded him as the Messiah, the Rebbe disavowed and discouraged such a notion. Well-versed in both secular and religious studies, his breadth and depth of knowledge enabled him to transcend the particularism of each dimension and nurture what he saw as their inherent symbiotic relationship.

The Rebbe was as comfortable speaking to world leaders as he was to his neighbor down the street. Prior to Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s meeting with President Jimmy Carter in 1977, the prime minister met with the Rebbe in his office at 770 Eastern Parkway, where they discussed matters concerning the Carter administration’s less-than-friendly policy toward Israel. On another occasion, Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin met with the Rebbe to discuss Israel’s security concerns.

President Ronald Reagan was an admirer of the Rebbe, and in recognition of the Rebbe’s 80th birthday, the president proclaimed that day, April 4, 1982, a “National Day of Reflection.” In 1995, the Rebbe was posthumously given the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed upon a civilian, by unanimous consent of both houses of Congress, for “outstanding and enduring contributions toward world education, morality, and acts of charity.” Those laudatory words were uttered by President Bill Clinton at the award ceremony.

The Rebbe was paradoxical in some ways. For example, it was his early scientific education that led him to the threshold of a spiritual life. He was knowledgeable in the physical sciences of physics, chemistry and math, and found no contradictions between science and religion, as he regarded both as a function of faith. He even invoked Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to clarify his views concerning Ptolemaic, Copernican and Biblical versions of the relative motion of the Sun and Earth. Using deductive reasoning he found no contradiction between the Darwinian theory of evolution and the Biblical account of creation.

Most surprisingly, however, even as an ardent Zionist, the Rebbe never visited Israel. Telushkin goes into great detail to explain the enigmatic nature of some of the Rebbe’s positions.

Although the Rebbe was a very private man, his door was open to the world. He passionately embraced Jewish law, tradition and theology, which impelled him to tirelessly attempt to ignite the holy spark that he believed resides in the soul of every human being. In spite of never having children of his own, he begot a family of thousands of shluchim, “emissaries,” whom he dispersed throughout the world to teach the importance of performing acts of loving-kindness.

Some regarded the Rebbe as a workaholic, for he often conducted meetings beginning at 8 p.m. and lasting to the break of dawn. On Shabbat, he conducted hours-long farbrengens, “joyous gatherings,” at which time he offered words of spiritual guidance and inspiration to followers and admirers, to the accompaniment of Chasidic nigunim, “melodies,” usually without words. In spite of the crushing demands of his schedule, he found time on a daily basis to share quiet moments over a cup of tea with his beloved wife, Chaya Mushka.

Although Telushkin acknowledged that he admired the Rebbe greatly, his admiration did not lead him to agree with all of his views. Some areas of disagreement were about issues pertaining to:

  • prayer in public schools,
  • Israel’s territorial compromises,
  • demonstrations supporting Soviet Jewry,
  • permanently moving to Israel (making aliya),
  • the efficacy of studying at a university, and the pitfalls of failing to earn a degree once enrolled in college.

Telushkin successfully uses straightforward, easily understood language to explain the complexities of the nature of their areas of disagreement.

The Rebbe was an innovator. He instituted Chabad houses on college campuses, public lighting of menorahs on Hanukkah, and later in life when age had began to diminish his physical strength, he distributed dollar bills to be used for charity. Although the Rebbe did not sanction women carrying the Torah during the hakafot processional service on the holiday of Shimini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, neither did he disapprove of the practice for some Orthodox congregations.

Many have commented that the unusual hue of the Rebbe’s kindly blue eyes was mesmerizing. They have been likened them to windows through which the Rebbe could peer in into the viewer’s soul.

Throughout the book, Telushkin skillfully guides his readers on a journey with the Rebbe, bearing witness to the special kind of teacher he was. The name of his movement, “Chabad,” is an acronym for chochma, bina and da’at which mean wisdom, understanding and knowledge, respectively. The Rebbe possessed all three of those attributes, fused with the uncanny ability to use them effectively. According to the Rebbe, each soul had the potential to burn brightly in the service of G-d, and thereby help light a path leading to the betterment of all mankind.

Telushkin provides a brief timeline biography of the Rebbe’s life in the closing pages of his work, followed by numerous footnotes.

Although Telushkin obviously has great respect and reverence for the Rebbe, it is a testament to his honesty when he states, “I learned that one can have great admiration for a person with whom one has profound disagreements”. He may have learned that lesson from the Rebbe.

Among some of Telushkin’s other books are his best-sellers Jewish Literacy, Jewish Wisdom and A Code of Jewish Ethics.

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