September 21, 2019

Three books, three opinions about The Lubavitcher Rebbe

The 20th anniversary of the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902-1994) has inspired no fewer than three new biographies, a fact that attests to his enduring importance even outside the Chasidic community he led for four decades. Even more telling, however, is the fact that he is not merely the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe but apparently the last one. Unlike his predecessors dating back to the 18th century, who were each followed in turn by a son (or, in Menachem Schneerson’s case, a son-in-law), there has been no new Lubavitcher Rebbe. 

The subtitle of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s ambitious and comprehensive biography, “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History” (Harper Wave), attests to the Rebbe’s commanding stature. Indeed, Telushkin argues that he was “inarguably, the most well known rabbi since Moses Maimonides (Rambam).” But even Telushkin warns his readers that the Rebbe was and is not wholly without controversy in the Jewish world. He was willing to insert himself and his hawkish views into Israeli politics, for example, and he disapproved of the confrontational tactics adopted by the movement to free Soviet Jewry. Above all, he embraced, advocated and symbolized a version of Judaism that was all too constraining for most American Jews, and yet, at the same time, his media-savvy emissaries have never been entirely forthcoming about the core values of Chasidism when approaching secular Jews.