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.

Relat­ed content:

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.