February 25, 2020

The Rebbe’s Long-Lasting Legacy

The Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

I was looking through my library, and I suddenly realized that I have more books on the Rebbe than on any other leader in world history. I have more books on the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe than on Moses and Jesus, more than on Mao and Stalin, more than on Rashi and Maimonides. Was he as important as they were? Of course not — that is, unless time proves him to be the Messiah, as some of his followers believe. But even without him being the Messiah, he has one advantage over many past leaders: A hyperactive media arm that produces books and films, websites and posters dedicated to him and his legacy. The Rebbe keeps giving and giving. And when he doesn’t, Zalman Shmotkin does. Shmotkin is the director of public relations for Chabad. I have five books from him. 

I say all this tongue in cheek but mean it seriously. This Shabbat marks the 25th anniversary of the Rebbe’s death. It also marks the 25th anniversary of his Chabad Chasidic movement not having a rebbe. The seventh was the last, for now. Possibly forever. If you want to give the Rebbe credit for foresight — and the books I have about him, most authored by admirers, give him plenty such credit — consider this: More than any other leader I can recall, he left his movement well prepared for an era without him. Without a successor. Without a rebbe.

This is no small feat. The Rebbe was highly dominant in Chabad culture and consciousness. So you might expect, as many experts did, that after the Rebbe died, Chabad would begin a gradual decline. Maybe return to where the Rebbe picked it up, before the empire of Chabad was built. Or it would divide over a battle of inheritance. Or it would quickly look for a new leader (and then divide). Or it would lose energy and focus. Ultimately, none of these occurred. In fact, the opposite occurred. Chabad is more energized, more present, more focused than ever before. Like or dislike this movement, approve or disapprove of it, endorse or question its teachings, Chabad is a Jewish powerhouse. For some Jews, it is the embodiment of Judaism. For some Jews, it is the only Judaism they know.

On the day I’m writing this column, as I’m about to enter Tel Aviv, there is a large sign by the road. It is a commercial sign, urging motorists to buy a book: “Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.” This is one of a few signs carrying the Rebbe’s familiar image along the highway of a secular western city. 

I don’t know the cost of erecting such a sign, but one thing I do know: The Israeli book business is too small for making such a road sign a sound economic investment. I must assume that someone decided to promote the book, not for financial reasons but for ideological ones. In other words, to spread the Rebbe’s teachings. 

If you want to give the Rebbe credit for foresight — and the books I have about him, most authored by admirers, give him plenty such credit — consider this: More than any other leader I can recall, he left his movement well prepared for an era without him. 

We must dwell on them for a few sentences. Because in Chabad, as Philip Wexler writes in “Social Vision” (about the Rebbe’s “transformative paradigm for the world”), activism is the natural result of Chasidic ideology, and particularly of its emphasis on “interpersonal love.” As proof, Wexler looks at the statement made by the Rebbe as he assumed the leadership of the movement, in 1951: “[R]ather than privileging love of God over love of one’s fellow, as one might expect from a religious leader, Schneerson makes love of God entirely dependent on love of the Torah and love of one’s fellow Jew.” 

Love we all understand. We feel it as we engage in conversation or action with Chabadniks wherever we happen to fall into their (loving) hands. Surely, this makes us appreciate the movement, and by “we” I mean even those of us who don’t have a knack for the spiritual, or aren’t wise enough to understand calls as vague and mysterious as the call “to reveal the faith that is within every Jew, by dint of the essence of the soul. …” 

“Rebbe” by Joseph Telushkin is a thick tome about “the most influential rabbi in modern history.” (I tend to agree with this claim, as long as we agree to discount Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion.) Like many other books that I’ve read in the past two weeks about the Rebbe, this book at times is also suspiciously adoring. And yet, in its pages I found a wonderful speculation, “in no way intended to sound cynical,” as the author writes about Schneerson’s objection to university studies. “A Jew with a medical or law degree,” writes Telushkin, “even if he has extensive Jewish knowledge … is unlikely to move — and certainly not to move permanently — to Des Moines, or Calgary, or Shanghai to expose unknowledgeable Jews to Shabbat.” 

This story begins to explain what I find inspiring about the Rebbe, much more than his teachings. This is not about high-minded rhetoric, but rather about the managerial, the mundane, the systematic, the strategic. The Rebbe studied at a university. How he lived his life while a university student is an issue of a controversy involving another book in my library: “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson.” In this book, Menachem Friedman and Samuel Heilman argue, that in the 1930s, the young student Schneerson sported a short beard and seemed uninterested in becoming a rebbe (needless to say, this book is not distributed and recommended by Chabad activists). 

So why did the more mature Rebbe not want Chabad youngsters to go to a university? Maybe because he knew something about the life of a student from his own experience, or maybe because he needed troops “to be sent to any post to which their commander assigns them.” 

Telushkin proposes in this instance to look at the Rebbe as we would look at a victorious general rather than a commanding philosopher. The Rebbe reigns 25 years after his death not because of his great teachings. Surely, he had great teachings, by which the dedicated few are inspired. But the rest of us admire the Rebbe’s constant presence, we admire the troops who keep the fight under his flag, we admire their sacrifice and good cheer, we admire their no-surrender approach. 

The Rebbe was much more than a rabbi. He understood education. He understood motivation. He understood strategic focus, and targeted audience, and clear objectives. He had the skill with which to build an organization that survives him.

I suspect he also understood that the times are changing. That having another larger-than-life rebbe in the era of Twitter and Trump, an era of pettiness and smallness, could be an insurmountable challenge. So, he made sure Chabad is prepared for such an era. The movement’s success — without him, beyond him — is the starkest proof of the Rebbe’s foresight.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain for more.