The Rebbe: The Life and After­life of Mena­hem Mendel Schneerson

Samuel Heil­man and Men­achem Friedman
  • Review
By – September 12, 2011

This fas­ci­nat­ing book by two out­stand­ing schol­ars of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ry is a must-read for those inter­est­ed in the Lubav­itch move­ment, whether insid­ers or outsiders. 

This book is not sim­ply a biog­ra­phy of a man or even a Rebbe; it is also a social his­to­ry of a move­ment. It cov­ers the peri­od from the arrival in Amer­i­ca of the sixth Lubav­itch­er Rebbe, Yosef Yitz­chok, in 1940 through the ascen­sion and lead­er­ship of Men­achem Mendel, with par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the focus of both these lead­ers on the com­ing of the mes­si­ah.” It pro­vides an up-close look at Men­achem Mendel as a cul­tured and edu­cat­ed young man and traces his trans­for­ma­tion into the Rebbe of Lubav­itch. The authors sug­gest that his ear­ly expe­ri­ence made him unique­ly capa­ble of lead­ing his fol­low­ers in the last half of the 20th cen­tu­ry, turn­ing a small Chas­sidic com­mu­ni­ty into a world rec­og­nized Chas­sidic movement. 

Two issues are explored in detail; 1) changes in the Rebbe from a cos­mopoli­tan par­tic­i­pant in Berlin and Paris to, how­ev­er reluc­tant­ly, a leader of a Chas­sidic com­mu­ni­ty who nev­er left Crown Heights, yet became a world leader, and for some, the Mes­si­ah, and 2) changes in this com­mu­ni­ty from the typ­i­cal pat­tern of chas­sidic with­draw­al from the world to involve­ment and even immer­sion in the world. 

The authors use two par­a­digms to gath­er data and explain their find­ings; one is a focus on inter­nal Jew­ish and par­tic­u­lar­ly Lubav­itch events, doc­u­ments, and inter­views. The oth­er is a con­cern with events in the larg­er soci­ety and their impact on the move­ment and on the Rebbe. It is a dif­fi­cult task they have set for them­selves, for their work describes not only actions, but mind­sets, atti­tudes, and emo­tions. And, indeed there will be those who will have oth­er views of these per­son­al reflections. 

It is puz­zling that the authors dis­cuss nei­ther the Crown Heights riots of 1991, nor the move­ment of return to tra­di­tion which occurred in the same peri­od, as both had a sub­stan­tial impact on the Lubav­itch com­mu­ni­ty. Nonethe­less, the facts mar­shaled and the the­o­ries employed are per­sua­sive. The out­side fac­tors impact­ing on the devel­op­ment of the Lubav­itch out­reach pro­grams are sim­i­lar to those I used study­ing the move­ment of return to tra­di­tion, and the impor­tance of reli­gious rit­u­al or action, rather than belief, in cre­at­ing and devel­op­ing com­mit­ment (Return­ing to Tra­di­tion: The Con­tem­po­rary Revival of Ortho­dox Judaism, 1989).

The book is schol­ar­ly in approach and thor­ough­ly foot­not­ed. Over­all, it exam­ines a mys­tery that com­pels the reader’s inter­est. Glos­sary, illus­tra­tions, index, notes.

M. Her­bert Danzger is Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus in the Soci­ol­o­gy Pro­gram at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter and at Lehman Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. He is the author of RETURN­ING TO TRA­DI­TION (Yale U. Press 1989) and of numer­ous arti­cles on Jew­ish return, on com­mu­ni­ty con­flict and pow­er struc­ture and on methodology.

Discussion Questions