The ProsenPeople

Interview: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Friday, August 22, 2014 | Permalink

by William Liss-Levinson

William Liss-Levinson, member of the Board of the Jewish Book Council, sat down with fellow Board member and noted author, scholar and speaker Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, to discuss this newest book, Rebbe, focused on the life and teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

William Liss-Levinson: A number of books have been written in the past few years about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And it’s twenty years since his death. What prompted you to write this book?

Joseph Telushkin: The Rebbe might well be the most well-known rabbi since Maimonides. I can think of no other rabbi who is as familiar to Jews in Israel, the U.S., the former Soviet Union, and France, the four most populous Jewish communities in the world today. So it certainly seemed that that this was a man whose life deserved to be studied in depth.

WL-L: You’ve also chosen a unique approach, to discuss the Rebbe—according to thematic issues across time, with a fifty page chronologi­cal biography at the end. Why did you choose that approach to his life?

JT: I thought that what most mattered about the Rebbe were his viewpoints and his unique approach to a variety of issues. Also, I really was interested in writing a biography of his years of leadership. In 1951 he took over a small movement and turned it into the most dynamic religious movement in modern Jewish history—and that is what intrigued me; how he did it. A biography would need to focus in detail, for example, on things I was not as interested in: his years as a child in Russia and the years he spent in Germany and France in university. I was interested in that, and write about it in the book, but this was not what most interested me about the Rebbe

WL-L: How did you gain access to the materials for your research?

JT: Thirty volumes of the Rebbe’s letters have been published—Chabad is not secretive; they really want the Rebbe’s teachings to get out to a more general readership. And while this was not an authorized biography and Chabad had no editorial control over any of the book’s contents, they did give generous access to the very people who could give an account of things the Rebbe did or said. I had to work very hard to research this biography, in part because the Rebbe was not the sort of person who spoke often about himself or his life experiences; he re­ally said very little about himself.

WL-L: What surprised you the most about his life, as you researched it?

JT: One of the surprising things about the Rebbe, given his strong opin­ions on various matters, was the degree to which his decisions, as his secretary Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky told me, were not “cookie-cutter;” he always tailored his advice to the individual in front of him. For example, because of the secular and often anti-religious orientation of many university faculty, he was generally opposed to a college education for his followers (at least at the age that most people go to university), but there were instances in which he approved it, and many instances in which he urged people to finish their degrees. It really depended on the circumstances and the person in front of him.

WL-L: What do you believe is the lasting legacy of the Rebbe?

JT: One way to assess a leader, perhaps the most important, is to look at what happens to his or her movement after the leader’s death. The remarkable feature of Chabad is that subsequent to the Rebbe’s death there has been a remarkable expansion in the movement—more than tripling in size. There are Chabad houses now in forty-eight of the fifty states and in eighty countries. This is a phenomenon, and one that was totally unexpected when he died, when many people thought that the movement would greatly contract. Also, some of his unique approaches which I think defined him as a leader and which I think continue to de­fine the movement: his unconditional love for Jews, his use of optimistic language, his commitment to expressing disagreement without being disagreeable. And of course, the Rebbe’s most enduring achievement are the 4,000-plus couples, shluchim, who represent his vision through­out the world—and this accounts for Chabad’s enduring success.

William Liss-Levinson is vice president, chief strategy & operations officer of Castle Connolly Medical Ltd., a consumer health research, information, and publishing company. He holds a Ph.D. in education and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Book Council.

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When Telling the Truth Is Wrong

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Everybody thinks it's wrong to tell lies, but are there times when it's wrong to tell the truth? Renowned theologian Joseph Telushkin has a surprising answer.


New Haggadah from the JDC

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Looking for a new Haggadah to enhance your Seder this year? Check out this new, beautiful Haggadah from the JDCIn Every Generation: The JDC Haggadah(Commentary by Ari L. Goldman, Forward by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin).

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin Shares His Thoughts...

Thursday, September 10, 2009 | Permalink

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As we approach the new year, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin shares his thoughts on Rosh Hashanah and the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature:

One of the most important images of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur derives from the world of books, most specifically, the Book of Life, and those who shall be inscribed in it.

It is perhaps symbolic that in the Jewish mind life is so associated with a book, for I know of no other culture in which books play so central a role. Obviously, at the heart of Judaism is the book, the Bible. For that matter, I don’t know of another culture in which its central book is carried around at prayer services, as people kiss it. The famous expression about the Jews, “people of the book,” was coined by, or is attributed to, Muhammad, and he meant by that expression the people of the Bible. But over the centuries, the expression became associated with a general sense of intellectualism and love of learning among Jews. That is why the Jewish Book Council considers it a great honor to administer the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, and to encourage through this award and through ongoing conferences the coming generation of Jewish writers.

We still are the people of the book, the people of the Bible and Talmud, a people devoted to fiction and non-fiction, and a people who are trying to fashion a literature that will affect the world in our generation and in generations to come.

So, as we approach the New Year, we extend to all of you a wish for a year of good books, both holy books and wise secular ones, books that deepen you even as they bless the lives of generations to come. And may we all be inscribed for a year of sweetness, growth, and fine reading.

- Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Interactive Tele-Webinar with Rabbi Telushkin and Professor Kimelman

Wednesday, April 22, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Love Your Neighbor As Yourself–Is It Possible?


120-Minute Live, Interactive Tele-Webinar with best-selling author top-50 speaker Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and renowned scholar and master teacher Professor Reuven Kimelman.

“Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is the most widely recognized line from the Hebrew Bible. There is hardly any Jew, Christian and perhaps others who has not heard this five-word sentence.

But what does it really mean? Please consider:

* Why aren’t we asked to “love humanity,” but just our neighbor?
* What does the word “as” mean here?
* How does it relate to “do not hate your brother in your heart?”
* Does it apply to enemies?
* What is the neighbor’s responsibility to us?
* Does it imply that we are obligated to love ourselves?

If you find any of these questions (or others you may have) puzzling or intriguing, this interactive, live session with two of the world’s best scholars, teachers and captivating speakers is just for you.

Date: Monday April 27, 2009
Time: 9 PM Eastern | 6 PM Pacific
Place: Your telephone OR your Internet computer

If this time is NOT convenient for you, no worries: a recording of the full session is available to you within 48 hours of the live event, so you can listen to it at your leisure. However, you MUST register to gain access to the replay.

For more information about this opportunity, please visit here.