Rebbe: The Life and Teach­ings of Men­achem M. Schneer­son, the Most Influ­en­tial Rab­bi in Mod­ern History

  • Review
By – April 30, 2014

Rab­bi Joseph Telushkin’s biog­ra­phy of the late Lubav­itch­er Rebbe, Rab­bi Men­achem Mendel Schneer­son (19021994) is a well-craft­ed, well researched, and well writ­ten por­trait of the most influen­tial rab­bini­cal leader in mod­ern times. Based on exten­sive inter­views, access to the Rebbe’s cor­re­spon­dence (of ten thou­sand let­ters), his volu­mi­nous dis­cours­es (in two hun­dred vol­umes) faith­ful­ly com­mit­ted to writ­ing by his fol­low­ers, videos, tapes and oth­er archival mate­r­i­al, Rab­bi Telushkin pro­vides an inside look at this ini­tial­ly reluc­tant leader who gal­va­nized a Hasidic sect into a glob­al pow­er­house, bring­ing Judaism to the far-flung cor­ners of the globe by the sheer force of his personality.

Although not a Lubav­itch­er hasid him­self — nor is Rab­bi Telushkin— Telushkin’s father was the accoun­tant for the Rebbe and his father-in-law, the pre­vi­ous Rebbe, and his grand­fa­ther was a ven­er­a­ble inti­mate of both rebbes, a lega­cy that grant­ed him unfet­tered access and coop­er­a­tion — and inde­pen­dence. It is a very sym­pa­thet­ic, per­haps even par­ti­san biog­ra­phy, but it steers clear of the hagio­graph­ic aspects that have ren­dered sim­i­lar works less reliable.

We learn about the life of a bril­liant and pious rab­binic schol­ar who was intent on pur­su­ing a career as an engi­neer. While pur­su­ing his stud­ies in Berlin and Paris, the Rebbe drew clos­er to his father-in-law, the sixth Lubav­itch­er Rebbe, and became his assis­tant when they came to Amer­i­ca. Although he had assumed greater and greater respon­si­bil­i­ties as his father-in-law grew ill, Rab­bi Schneer­son, who worked for a while at the Brook­lyn Navy Yard dur­ing the war, had no inten­tion of becom­ing the next rebbe.

Telushkin pieces togeth­er data show­ing how the groundswell of sup­port from around the world even­tu­al­ly pro­ject­ed Rab­bi Schneer­son, almost against his will, to accept the man­tle of lead­er­ship, which he did in 1951, one year after his father-in-law’s death. Once installed as Rebbe, Rab­bi Schneer­son sought to uti­lize Amer­i­can tech­nol­o­gy and cul­ture to reach out to Jews wher­ev­er they might be to bring them clos­er to Judaism. Unlike most Hasidic sects, which tend to be more insu­lar, Lubav­itch, also known as Chabad, is char­ac­ter­ized by their out­reach to non-obser­vant Jews. The Rebbe cre­at­ed an army of emis­saries and sent them (with a one-way tick­et) all over the world to estab­lish out­posts of Judaism: schools and syn­a­gogues. He sent them to col­lege cam­pus­es as well.

Each of the book’s thir­ty chap­ters chron­i­cles a dif­fer­ent aspect of the Rebbe’s life, teach­ings, influ­ence, and posi­tions on a wide range of sub­jects. We come to learn of the incred­i­ble breadth, depth, and scope of his knowl­edge in so many dis­ci­plines. We are awed by his work sched­ule, dis­ci­pline, and adher­ence to his stat­ed goals. There is a good rea­son why pres­i­dents, prime min­is­ters, gen­er­als, sci­en­tists, politi­cians of all stripes, world lead­ers, diplo­mats, Con­ser­v­a­tive and Reform rab­bis, writ­ers, and of course his Hasidim, sought his advice. His pri­vate meet­ings would often last until dawn.

Although Telushkin does not shy away from some painful interne­cine issues, there is lit­tle dis­cus­sion about any of the dis­agree­ments with Sat­mar or with some of the major rab­binic lead­ers and yeshi­va deans on a wide range of top­ics, not the least of which con­cerned his pur­port­ed Messiahship.

He was the only leader of a major Hasidic group with a uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion, yet he dis­cour­aged his fol­low­ers from attend­ing col­lege. His under­stand­ing of mil­i­tary tac­tics and his­to­ry awed every Israeli Chief of Staff from Moshe Dayan to Arik Sharon. How did one man go about ener­giz­ing Jew­ish life and achieve so much? There are cur­rent­ly four thou­sand cou­ples pro­mot­ing Judaism in eighty coun­tries in over one thou­sand com­mu­ni­ties, two hun­dred cam­pus­es, and in forty-eight states; fifty to six­ty thou­sand peo­ple still vis­it his grave on the anniver­sary of his death. Edu­ca­tion Day in the U.S. is the Rebbe’s birth­day, by pres­i­den­tial decree since 1977.

The Rebbe ear­ly on rec­og­nized the pow­er of tech­nol­o­gy and encour­aged its usage to dis­sem­i­nate Judaism. Lubav­itch chil­dren in places far from Jew­ish schools get their edu­ca­tion online, the Rebbe’s speech­es were broad­cast world-wide via satel­lite, and in Los Ange­les the Lubav­itch con­duct a major telethon each year with many Hol­ly­wood stars in atten­dance. The Chabad approach to out­reach has result­ed in their uncan­ny abil­i­ty to gen­er­ate dona­tions from non-Ortho­dox Jews. Although no suc­ces­sor has been des­ig­nat­ed, the two decades since the Rebbe’s death have seen expo­nen­tial growth of the Lubav­itch move­ment to car­ry out the Rebbe’s wishes.

This book is a fit­ting ode and pan­e­gyric to a great man. It is by far the best biog­ra­phy of the Rebbe available.

Relat­ed content:

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

Discussion Questions