Two admiring biographies celebrate the life of the Chabad Rebbe

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the seventh (and to date, last) Rebbe of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, has been widely praised for his leadership skills, charisma and Torah scholarship. That praise continues with two admiring biographies released shortly before the 20th yahrzeit, or anniversary, of the Rebbe’s death. 

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who has published popular books on Jewish literacy and Jewish culture, is the author of “Rebbe:  The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, The Most Influential Rabbi in Modern Jewish History” (HarperWave, $29.99),  and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a leading Talmudic scholar, has written “My Rebbe” (Maggid, $24.95).

As is evident from their book titles, Telushkin and Steinsaltz are upfront about their personal admiration for the life and work of Schneerson. Both books  have been criticized as “hagiography,” but that criticism seems harsh and unfair,  since both volumes are carefully researched and fact-based.

In the two decades since his death, only one previous major book-length biography of Rabbi Schneerson has been published, “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, by Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman (Princeton University Press, $24.95), which came out in 2010. All three are valuable and fact-filled resources about Schneerson, whose career was truly remarkable, and whose influence has not been dimmed 20 years after his passing.

When Schneerson died on June 12, 1994, concern was expressed among his followers and admirers as to whether the Hasidic dynasty, which he had led for 44 years, could continue without him at the helm. 

Schneerson had no children, and no successor was named. There was also a split within the Chabad movement between some of Schneerson’s more fervent followers who were convinced that he was the promised Moshiach, or Messiah, and those who did not share that belief. The movement’s current leaders, who are scattered among nearly every major city in the world (and in many remote locations) kept the issue from becoming so divisive that it resulted in a formal schism within the worldwide organization, which now claims 200,000 members across the globe. 

Telushkin describes Chabad’s remarkable global reach,  writing that visitors to the Chabad center in Morocco “have long reported seeing two pictures hanging in Moroccan Jewish homes, one of the Moroccan king and one of the Rebbe.” He adds that he saw a picture of the Rebbe hanging in his local barbershop, owned by a man from Uzbekistan. Telushkin goes so far as to add that Schneerson was “inarguably the most well-known rabbi since Moses Maimonides.”

Steinsaltz is no less admiring, writing, “The Rebbe was a great man, certainly the greatest man I have ever met, one whom I deeply admired. The life’s work he chose constitutes one of the most remarkable religious tasks ever undertaken by a single man, a task whose purpose is urgently relevant to our times. He sought nothing less than to transform our reality into a better one. While he was devoted to the Jewish people, his message was universal; his vision encompassed the entire world.”

So glowing was Rabbi Schneerson’s charisma that some of his followers became convinced that he was indeed the Messiah, the descendant of King David who would usher in the World to Come. Telushkin devotes an entire chapter to “The Rebbe and The Messiah,” and the controversy it generated which has not been fully resolved.

Telushkin makes clear that he personally does not believe the claims that Schneerson was the Messiah, and he notes that the current official leadership of Chabad has clearly stated “that the views expressed (by those who proclaim that the deceased Rebbe is the Messiah)…are in no way a reflection of the movement’s position (and) they are in fact misleading and a grave offense to the dignity and expressed desires of the Rebbe.”

Telushkin concludes that the Messiah dispute, which reached its peak in the mid-1990s, has essentially run its course and has become a “non-issue.”

While some purists among historians and biographers could question the objectivity of authors who express such strong praise for their subject, it would be unfair to dismiss these books out of hand merely because the authors admire the subject of their biographies. Indeed, such respected historians as Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodman and Michael Beschloss have written admiring biographies of FDR, Lincoln and JFK, which are no less valuable as resources on the lives of these leaders.

Telushkin and Steinsaltz have fulfilled their goal of honoring the memory of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. They have recounted Schneerson’s truly fascinating life with the scholarship and intellectual depth that had been a hallmark of Rabbi Schneerson’s remarkable career.