Arts and Culture

New bios of Lubavitcher rebbe dig for the man behind the myth

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, standing, with his future father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. (

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — Sixteen years after the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a flurry of new publications indicates not only how enduring the interest is in his life and legacy, but how potent the minefield is surrounding his mythology.

Writing a biography of a larger-than-life figure is never easy. And when that figure is the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, the charismatic leader of the worldwide Chabad Lubavitch movement, the usual challenges of sifting through sources and evaluating mountains of research material are complicated by internal politics, religious sensibilities, personal loyalties and a lack of reliable first-person information.

Then there’s the Messiah business.

Until now, the only recountings of Schneerson’s life have been hagiographies written by Chabad followers. Now there are two new biographies by academics outside Chabad circles, with a third in the works.

New York University Professor Elliot Wolfson came out last fall with “Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson,” an examination of Schneerson’s leadership within the context of Jewish esoteric tradition.

Next month will see the publication of “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson,” by Samuel Heilman of City University of New York and Menachem Friedman of Bar-Ilan University, an examination of Schneerson’s early life and what the authors describe as his growing Messianic pretensions.

And Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of several best-selling books on Jewish life and thought, is in the early stages of a book focusing on the source of Schneerson’s charisma and the influence he continues to exert on people’s lives.

The Heilman-Friedman book is generating the most controversy. Written for a lay audience, it frames Schneerson’s mission, and that of the Chabad movement he led, as motivated by Messianism, here defined as the attempt to hasten the Messianic era through human actions. The Messianic mission was so much at the heart of the late rebbe’s leadership, the authors argue, that one cannot be a follower of the rebbe without full commitment to that goal.

The authors take a psycho-bio approach to Schneerson’s life, trying to get inside the man’s head to uncover his motivation — always a tricky business. They focus on Schneerson’s 14 years in Berlin and Paris — the so-called “lost years” between his 1927 marriage to Chaya Mushka, the daughter of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, and 1941, when the couple escaped Nazi Europe and arrived in New York to rejoin the Lubavitch court.

Left to his own devices, they write, Schneerson would have preferred to “settle in Paris, become a French citizen, and live as a Jew of Hasidic background pursuing a career in engineering.” 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. It was, the authors write, a combination of survivor’s guilt — Schneerson was the only member of his close family to escape the Holocaust — and the improbability of his becoming an engineer in America that led him by the late 1940s to set his sights on a new career goal: succeeding his father-in-law to become the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe.

“Mendel’s whole world had collapsed,” they write. “Now he was a childless refugee in America nearly forty years old with little or no English facility, with no job prospects in what had been his chosen field … a man who must be feeling desperate in his anxiety, loneliness, confusion, and survivor guilt, whose prospects are unclear, looking for a way out, an answer from God.”

When Schneerson assumed leadership of Chabad, the authors continue, he was able to use this worldly experience to push a hitherto small Chasidic movement onto the world stage, launching the global outreach campaign that was to become its hallmark.

Eventually, they assert, Schneerson believed he was “the prophet of his generation,” the man destined to bring on the Messianic era. And because the rebbe was so alone, with no peers to contradict him, they ask rhetorically: Was he “getting lost in a culture of messianic delusion?”

This version of Schneerson’s life contradicts the official Lubavitch version of an unbroken journey toward the mantle of movement leadership and suggests a more nuanced life whose twists and turns might easily have led to a different outcome.

Even before its publication, the book has engendered considerable objections in Chabad circles. One female emissary said some of her colleagues “have been briefed by headquarters” to steer their people away from it.

Lubavitchers are ripping into it, disputing its details as well as its overall thesis, claiming it shows a lack of familiarity with readily available primary sources. According to these critics, the rebbe never trimmed his beard in Europe, he rolled it, and the rebbe attended synagogue regularly in Berlin — videotaped interviews with Jews who saw him in shul prove it.

And the suggestion that Schneerson spent his European years divorced from Chabad activities?

Rubbish, they charge.

Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, a Lubavitch scholar and dean of Britain’s Machon Mayim Chayin, points to a wealth of correspondence that exists between Schneerson and his father showing the two engaging in deep Talmudic and kabbalistic discourse.

“All this is a far cry from” the claim by Heilman and Friedman “that the father was guiding a son who had but an elementary or, worse still, a cursory interest in a Chasidic lifestyle,” he says.

In response, Heilman said in an e-mail to JTA, “We do not deny and indeed suggest that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson was a primary religious and Chasidic guide for his son. Indeed, we quote from the letters they exchanged. We particularly note the exchanges around the time of the wedding of the son to the daughter of the Sixth Rebbe.”

On the question of the rebbe’s beard, Heilman said readers will be able to judge for themselves by looking at photographs of Schneerson, reading comments from his father-in-law and thinking about when those comments were made.

In general, Heilman says, it should come as no surprise that some Chasidim “see things differently from the way we do. But we have presented our viewpoint based on the facts we have gathered.”

“Our book documents what we have learned about the years in Europe,” Heilman said. “We explain that most of the activities of those years were focused around the primary activity that brought the young Schneersons to Berlin and Paris. That activity was pursuit of education, career, and a life distant from Lubavitcher areas of settlement. When they wanted more of the Lubavitcher life, they either returned to the Sixth Rebbe’s court or visited with him when he came to where they were.

“We never question the future Rebbe’s knowledge of Chabad or even his interest in it. But as we document, that interest was not always the center of his concerns while he pursued his engineering studies.”

Chabad itself, through Jewish Educational Media, is about to release more than 1,200 documents related to Schneerson’s life and work, in English and Hebrew, including his own diaries and important correspondence between him, his father and his father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe.

One volume will come out in late June, followed later by others, both in print and online at Chabad sources say this information will “clear up many misunderstandings.”

Wolfson, a philosopher, presents a much different take on Schneerson’s Messianism than sociologists Heilman and Friedman.

The NYU professor portrays Schneerson as having a very deep and radical understanding of Jewish esoterica.

“In his prime, his teaching was very dense, very laden with kabbalistic terminology,” Wolfson said. “I don’t know how many really understood him; most were simply mesmerized by his style of presentation.”

Schneerson’s teachings are rife with internal contradictions, Wolfson says, including the subverting of Judaism’s gender hierarchy and the boundaries between the permissible and the non-permissible. But most of this was destined for the realm of theory. Schneerson never intended for them to be actualized — not in this world.

“What the implications would be sociologically, what a Jewish community would look like if the Torah were superseded by the ‘new Torah’ he spoke about, a kind of law beyond the law, I don’t think he thought that through,” Wolfson said.

Wolfson agrees with Heilman and Friedman that Schneerson’s Messianic vision “was there from the beginning.”

“I feel he is using the rhetoric of a personal Messiah to mark not so much a political change but a change in consciousness that … involves reaching a state of personal perfection that exceeds the need for the Torah as we have it,” he said. “I don’t think he understood the impossibility of his own vision. And he took no steps to remedy that. He took no steps to name a successor. The whole history of Chabad from the Alter Rebbe [18th-century founder of Chabad-Lubavitch] to [Schneerson] is a Messianic line that comes to a close with him.”

Neither book will satisfy Chabad’s strongest critics, nor its closest friends. It remains to be seen whether the deluge of new material about to be published by JEM will cast further light on the most elusive aspects of Schneerson’s life and leadership.

“Like many mythic figures, he was a combination of opposites,” Heilman muses. “But you can’t really be sure what was inside his head. Who was he really?”