Dai­ly Wis­dom: Inspir­ing Insights on the Torah Por­tion from the Lubav­itch­er Rebbe

Rab­bi Moshe Wisnefsky
  • Review
By – February 23, 2015

The twen­ti­eth anniver­sary of the death of Rab­bi Men­achem Mendel Schneer­son, the sev­enth Lubav­itch­er Rebbe, has spawned a num­ber of biogra­phies and oth­er works dis­sem­i­nat­ing his teach­ings. Much of the Rebbe’s writ­ings and dis­cours­es focused on the week­ly Torah por­tion that is tra­di­tion­al­ly reviewed pri­or to the Sab­bath, and Dai­ly Wis­dom presents snip­pets of this com­men­tary. The book is divid­ed into sev­en sec­tions cor­re­spond­ing to the sev­en days of the week as well as the sev­en por­tions that are read in the syn­a­gogue on the Sab­bath every week. In this man­ner one can review a sec­tion each day and be enriched with the wis­dom and insight of this great teacher in 378 install­ments. Each short com­ment is dis­tilled from many dif­fer­ent sources to present an inspi­ra­tional and infor­ma­tive nugget. Rab­bi Wis­nef­sky has pro­vid­ed a valu­able ser­vice to Eng­lish read­ers since these tran­scribed talks were orig­i­nal­ly deliv­ered in Yiddish.

The phe­nom­e­non of a bril­liant and very pri­vate man thrust into a posi­tion of lead­er­ship, who led a rev­o­lu­tion of out­reach to the Jew­ish­ly unaf­fil­i­at­ed, gal­va­nized a Hasidic revival, and inspired an army of fol­low­ers all over the world while rarely leav­ing a square block in Brook­lyn cries out for analy­sis. Many biog­ra­phers have attempt­ed to cap­ture and explain the essence and sin­gu­lar­i­ty of the Rebbe. The lat­est study, Turn­ing Judaism Out­ward, is the prod­uct of prodi­gious research and adds much new infor­ma­tion. The only caveat is that the schol­ar­ly biog­ra­ph­er, Chaim Miller, is a Lubav­itch­er Hasid whose admi­ra­tion for the Rebbe occa­sion­al­ly laps­es into rev­er­en­tial hyperbole.

Miller has sift­ed through thou­sands of doc­u­ments, ser­mons, offi­cial records, let­ters, dis­cours­es, diaries, tes­ti­monies, inter­views, and news­pa­per accounts, and care­ful­ly foot­not­ed every­thing. His thor­ough­ness notwith­stand­ing, Miller’s claim that no oth­ers have writ­ten accu­rate biogra­phies of the Rebbe, or that this is the only authen­tic biog­ra­phy, is some­what disin­gen­u­ous. In truth, if one were to syn­the­size all the attempts to chron­i­cle the life of this icon­o­clas­tic Hasidic mas­ter, there might be an approx­i­mate appre­ci­a­tion of his great­ness. Each biog­ra­ph­er brings his own per­spec­tive to the task. Giv­en that Rab­bi Schneer­son was so mul­ti-faceted, such a poly­math, so pro­lif­ic, and his pub­lished works num­ber over three hun­dred vol­umes (with more being edit­ed), it is no won­der that it is dif­fi­cult for him to be reduced to any sin­gle biography.

A major con­tri­bu­tion of Turn­ing Judaism Out­ward (the title comes from a descrip­tion of the Rebbe’s work by Lord Rab­bi Jonathan Sacks) is infor­ma­tion about the Rebbe’s youth, child­hood, and ear­ly years. It is almost two hun­dred pages into the book until he assumes the man­tle of lead­er­ship as the sev­enth Lubav­itch­er Rebbe. There are also new tid­bits such as, the world head­quar­ters of Chabad at 770 East­ern Park­way in Crown Heights, Brook­lyn, that was orig­i­nal­ly pur­chased for the sixth Rebbe, Rab­bi Schneerson’s father in law, was the repos­sessed house of a physi­cian who was jailed for a vari­ety of offens­es includ­ing- abor­tions, manslaugh­ter, and tax evasion.

Many of Miller’s sources are trans­lat­ed from the Yid­dish and Hebrew for the first time. Giv­en that all the Chabad mate­ri­als and this vol­ume itself are pub­lished in-house there is no edi­to­r­i­al screen­ing. For the most part the trans­la­tions are ser­vice­able and con­vey the intend­ed meaning. 

The Rebbe was a genius and a mas­ter of rab­binic lit­er­a­ture both exo­teric and eso­teric. His knowl­edge in so many fields of sci­ence, med­i­cine, pol­i­tics, war­fare, psy­chol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing, and lit­er­a­ture con­sis­tent­ly amazed the parade of states­men, writ­ers, sci­en­tists, physi­cians, pro­fes­sors, etc. who were among his thou­sands of vis­i­tors. His bril­liance was over­shad­owed by his dri­ve to bring Judaism to the mass­es. To accom­plish this he cre­at­ed lead­ers, not fol­low­ers. His achieve­ments were impres­sive: camps, yeshiv­ot, schools, pub­lished let­ters, per­son­al meet­ings, pub­lic gath­er­ings, emis­saries all over the world, cam­pus rab­bis, kosher eat­ing clubs, children’s mag­a­zines, Chabad Cen­ters, etc. Even if many of his dis­cours­es were lost on his audi­ence, his fierce deter­mi­na­tion sent a strong message.

Rab­bi Schneer­son pio­neered in uti­liz­ing New World meth­ods to dis­sem­i­nate Old World val­ues. First print media, then the inter­net, then live stream­ing of events from Brook­lyn all over the world. (A glar­ing omis­sion is the Chabad dis­tance learn­ing pro­gram for chil­dren of shluchim—Lubav­itch emis­saries — in far­away places where there are few Jews and no Jew­ish schools.)

The Rebbe pro­mot­ed women’s learn­ing and women’s roles with­in Chabad. He was in favor of school prayer in pub­lic schools, believ­ing that chil­dren, Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish alike, should not grow up in a God­less envi­ron­ment. He was con­cerned about Israel, encour­aged peo­ple to fly El Al, and sup­port­ed the cre­ation of Israel’s first auto assem­bly plant in 1950. He was opposed to ter­ri­to­r­i­al con­ces­sions., about which he delivered 

The Rebbe ini­ti­at­ed hun­dreds of cam­paigns. The best known are: tefill­in, mez­zu­zot, Torah study, cre­at­ing Jew­ish home libraries, light­ing Shab­bat can­dles, and going to the mik­va.

He preached inclu­sivism, believed that there was a mys­ti­cal core unit­ing all Jew­ish peo­ple, and under­stood the need to speak the lan­guage of youth; in fact, most Chabad cre­ativ­i­ty is by shluchim in their 20s and 30s. 

If one wants to under­stand how guys with beards are doing a bet­ter job reach­ing unaf­fil­i­at­ed Jews than smart Ivy Lea­guers with degrees in mar­ket­ing; if one wants to gain an insight into a move­ment ener­gized with enthu­si­asm, mys­ti­cal devo­tion, and absolute clar­i­ty; if one wants to com­pre­hend what dri­ves young cou­ples who nev­er knew the Rebbe to leave Brook­lyn every week to work in dis­tant lands: Turn­ing Judaism Out­ward: A Biog­ra­phy of the Rebbe Men­achem Mendel Schneer­son is a good place to start.

Relat­ed content:

Addi­tion­al book fea­tured in this review:

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions