Friday, May 21, 2010

The Man Behind the Myth

Once again the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, has become the subject of historical scholarship. Two books have been written about him recently and others await completion - presumably to be published in the not too distant future.

The one that interests me the most is the one by Samuel Heilman of City University of New York and Menachem Friedman of Bar-Ilan University entitled The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson. It examines the 14 years the Rebbe spent in comparative oblivion - living in Berlin and Paris.

Let me state at the outset, that I believe that the Rebbe was a genius. And that he probably had a photographic memory. He is perhaps the most published Jewish figure in history. Virutally all his words - mostly on Chabad Chasidism - have been recorded in book form.

I should also state that he built an unprecedented dynasty of Chasidic followers who practically deified him when he was alive. So charismatic was he that the bonds between him and individual Chasidim was in many cases closer than bonds with their own fathers. Lubavitch Chasidim became so devoted that it enabled the Rebbe to send emissaries to the most remote areas of the world to spread observant Judaism via Chabad Chasidus.

That said it is interesting to note that his entire thrust of his Chasidus was as much messianic as it was in spreading observance. It is certainly no secret that at the end of his life he focused almost exclusively on the coming of Moshiach. So much so that practically all of his Chasidim believed that he would soon reveal himself to be the actual Moshiach Ben David.

So strong was the Rebbe’s influence on his Chasidim that upon his passing, this belief continues to fester in the form of a resurrected Messiah in various interpretations.

But this post is not about that. It is about the contention of the book that the Rebbe himself was not always focused on Chabad – even though it was certainly always close to his heart. The authors apparently have done some painstaking research to determine that fact.

One fascinating fact is that it is quite obvious from an early picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (see above) that he at one time trimmed his beard. Although there is a counter claim by Chabad Chasidim that he didn’t trim but that he rolled it – a common custom among many Lubavitch Chasidim - it is pretty clear from the photo that the beard was not rolled. It was trimmed. This is interesting in the sense that unlike most of the rest of Orthodoxy - Chabad considers that trimming one’s beard is forbidden as per the Psak of the Tzemach Tzedek - one of the earlier Lubavitcher Rebbes.

Heilman and Freidman’s book points to evidence that the Rebbe originally had no intention of becoming the Rebbe. He went to college to study engineering and wanted to make a career out of that. There is in fact no dispute about that. The Rebbe had an engineering degree. But Lubavitch disregards any form of proof that his goal was not completely focused on becoming the 7th and final Rebbe of Lubavitch.

I personally find it hard to believe that he didn’t at least consider engineering as a career. Engineering school is not exactly where one trains to become a Chasidic Rebbe. And why are those years lost? Why is there is little information about those years? According to the book, the Rebbe lived outside of Chabad’s sphere. He therefore was ‘off the radar’ so to speak. He apparently was not interested at first in leading Chabad. From a JTA article:

While not explicitly claiming that Schneerson and his young wife fell away from their Chasidic roots, the authors return again and again to the short beard and secular dress Schneerson favored until his arrival in New York, along with other similar details, as evidence of an Orthodox but not haredi lifestyle.

“There is no question he was an observant Jew, but he lived in places where Chasidim didn’t live, and he did things they wouldn’t do,” Heilman told JTA.

Lubavitchers take strong issue with all of this. Shumley Boteach's critique in the Jewish Week is a good example of that. They claim that the Rebbe always had his eye on the ball. He always saw himself as taking the mantle of leadership in Lubavitch as heir to his father-in-law’s dynasty.

I’m not sure one can bring conclusive proof either way. But if I were a Lubavitcher I would consider it a compliment to my Rebbe that he became such an inspirational leader despite his youthful intentions to do otherwise. I guess Chabad Chasidim too are of the anti ‘Making of a Gadol’ philosophy. They simply cannot tolerate any truth that detracts from their ‘holy from birth’ approach to their leader.

There is probably heavy denial of any of this with all kinds of ‘explanations and proofs’ that the Rebbe was indeed born holy from the womb. That’s the problem with the kind of loyalty that the Rebbe inspired. It was a double edged sword. On the one hand it enabled him to build an empire that continues to flourish well past his death. That kind of loyalty is rare an very difficult for anyone to achieve.

On the other hand the problem with that kind of loyatly is that it breeds a near deification. And that has been Lubavitch’s Achilles heel. Because of that loyalty they have taken the Rebbe’s focus on Moshaich and cast him in that roll himself. Both before his death and well past it. That more than other any other issue separates them from the rest of Orthodoxy. It has caused them to even be shunned in some Orthodox circles.

It would go a long way to reconciliation with the rest of mainstream Orthodoxy if the Chabad masses would stop seeing their Rebbe in this way. Let them see the Rebbe as others do. A great man to be sure. A great leader to be sure. But a great leader who was an imperfect human being and made mistakes. This is the nature of all human beings – including the greatest men of every single generation.