By Larry Gordon
As we approach the 20th yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt’l, several books have arrived or are arriving on the market that provide readers with some remarkable insight into the person who may have had the greatest impact on Jewish life over the last 100 years. One of those authors is the insightful writer and thinker Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, who resides in the Old City of Jerusalem.
His book, My Rebbe, a concise 224 pages, touches on remarkable points about the Rebbe’s life that were observed by the author, who discussed many of the topics directly with the Rebbe during many “yechidus” meetings in the Rebbe’s Brooklyn office over the years.
The points that stand out and that I had a chance to discuss with Rabbi Steinsaltz at length over the phone last week are what make this book a unique must-read.
In the book, Rabbi Steinsaltz touches upon the loneliness of the Rebbe, his life outside the spotlight, his reluctance to become Rebbe in the early 1950s, the struggle within the family on the matter, and finally his determination to change the nature of the world through acts of love and kindness so as to create an environment that would force the hand of Hashem, in a manner of speaking, and bring the long-awaited redemption of the Jewish people with the arrival of Mashiach, which is the so-called end game and indeed the purpose of creation.
In conversation with Steinsaltz—who at the Rebbe’s suggestion many years ago changed his last name to Even-Israel—we seemed to home in on several aspects of the Rebbe that readers as well as the interviewer would find somewhat remarkable. As to the name change, the Rebbe thought that Steinsaltz—which, translated from Yiddish, basically means “stone” and “salt”—was too harsh a name for such an erudite and gentle man. The Rebbe’s idea was for the rabbi to go by the name Even-Yisrael, or Rock of Israel, and that is indeed what it became. Still, for the most part, the author is best known by his traditional family name.
A good part of our talk, though it pertains to only one chapter of the book, dealt with what Rabbi Steinsaltz refers to without hesitancy as the Rebbe’s loneliness. When I expressed surprise, considering that the Rebbe was so well known and knew so many people, the author explained that loneliness is part and parcel of leadership. “The greater the leader, by definition, the more lonely he will be,” explained the author.
In fact, a local Chabad shliach told me he was not surprised by that characterization and that he had heard from one of the Rebbe’s longtime assistants that Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, who watched over her husband very carefully, often complained that the Rebbe had no real friends.
Rabbi Steinsaltz says “the Rebbe was so alone,” but that it should not be surprising because, as he explained, the head of anything is lonely and that the higher up you are, the lonelier you will be.
I had to reflect on that, because having been born and raised in Crown Heights, I would have perceived the reality to be quite the contrary. But I suppose that being surrounded and sought out by people all the time does not mean that one is not lonely or at least alone.
On that note, an underlying theme and an aspect of the Rebbe’s life that was not publicized or necessarily analyzed much was his relationship with his wife, their closeness, the things they endured together, and then the fashion in which the Rebbe changed after Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka’s passing in 1988.
As a young couple, they endured a great deal, staying one step ahead of the Nazis, fleeing Russia for Paris, and then eluding the Nazi clutch on that city as they made their way to the United States in 1941. The Rebbe was extremely close to his father-in-law, the previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson. Though Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s wife was the younger of two sisters who made it to America, a third sister and her husband were caught in the European Nazi trap and perished in 1942. Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, according to Rabbi Steinsaltz, was extremely considerate of her sister’s feelings after the chassidim expressed their collective choice of Rabbi Menachem Mendel over his slightly older brother-in-law Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary.
Steinsaltz points out that one of the considerations may have been that after the first Rebbe, the Baal HaTanya, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, all the subsequent Rebbes were in some way blood relatives. Had Rabbi Gurary been chosen as Rebbe, that string would have been broken.
People who read books about the Rebbe want to know about the issue of the Rebbe and Mashiach. Over the last two or perhaps three decades or more, Chabad has been largely criticized and even maligned by some for being a one-issue movement within Jewish religious life. And that is a twofold concern. One is a determination, even an insistence, on hastening the arrival of Mashiach through Torah, mitzvos, and other actions that would “force” Hashem to send him. The other was the expressed hope and a feeling still harbored by some that the Rebbe himself was or in some way can still be the ultimate Jewish redeemer that we all believe will arrive someday and introduce an enhanced brand of G‑dliness to the world.
Without spending too much time on the counterproductive criticism of these stands, Rabbi Steinsaltz says that the Rebbe did indeed hope and work to create the greatest revolution of all revolutions in history and, as he describes it, “bring an end to history” with the advent of Mashiach.
Steinsaltz writes: “The coming of Mashiach and the redemption were not vague dreams for the Rebbe. As I understood it, this was not only some heavenly vision; the Rebbe based his thinking on concrete observations of how the world was developing, on the changes he witnessed. He viewed the suffering and pain that he had seen in his lifetime as presaging a major event. The Rebbe saw all the change and distress throughout the century as labor pains heralding an impending birth.”
As to the consistent and ongoing discussion about the possibility that the Rebbe himself could be Mashiach, the author says in the book: “While he never said so outright, I think the Rebbe considered it possible that he might be tapped to become the Mashiach—and that he could bring the redemption. However, he never made the claim outright and tried to quash all speculation.”
To clarify this perspective on these matters, Rabbi Steinsaltz also writes, “Jewish philosophy holds that there is nothing wrong with considering oneself to have the potential of messianic greatness. Many great rabbinic figures have hinted that they could wear this mantle, from Rav Nachman to Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar, the Or Hachaim in the modern period. Trouble came only when false messiahs proclaimed heretical views and led their followers out of the mainstream.”
The analysis of this often-talked-about issue relating to Chabad is both intense and probing. Rabbi Steinsaltz also relates in depth his personal observations about the Rebbe’s subsequent deteriorating health and how his eventual passing after an extended illness impacted on the chassidim and the movement itself.
Critics and prognosticators at the time remarked that without the dynamic personality of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson at the head of the movement, in all likelihood it would dwindle, weaken, and eventually become irrelevant. Now, two decades after the Rebbe’s death (the yahrzeit is on 3 Tammuz), Chabad emissaries have doubled to 4,000 families serving communities around the U.S. and in 95 countries around the world. In other words, the experts and the critics were wrong.
While My Rebbe by Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz handles some deeply probing and intense topics in Jewish philosophy, it is written in an easily digestible style and is an educational and enjoyable read.
Steinsaltz himself is a well-known teacher, philosopher, social critic, and prolific author of over 60 books, including a full translation with commentary of the Babylonian Talmud. His lifelong work in Jewish education earned him the Israel Prize, his country’s highest honor.
Born in Jerusalem in 1937 to non-religious parents, Rabbi Steinsaltz studied physics and chemistry at the Hebrew University and has set up a yeshiva network in Israel. My Rebbe is simply a great book filled with a unique analysis and in-depth history of a very special and fascinating individual—the Lubavitcher Rebbe. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.