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.