By R’ Nison Gordon, z’l
Translated by P. Samuels
Note: This article is a translation from a biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, written in 1962 by R’ Nison Gordon, z’l. It is based on interviews with the Rebbe’s mother, a’h, which first appeared in Der Yiddishe Heim. They were dedicated to Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson on the occasion of the Rebbe’s 60th birthday.
From his earliest youth, still as a child, the Rebbe was a homebody, a loner, a prudent child. He had a small room in his house, and he spent most of his time there, immersed in his studies.
Even though his father, Reb Levi Yitzchok, was rav in the city and headed many community organizations, his son remained in the background and was not openly involved.
“Just once,” relates his mother, the Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, “did he go out of his comfort zone and devote himself wholeheartedly to the community. A typhoid epidemic had broken out in Yekaterinoslav and people were falling like flies. The Rebbe was then a young man of around 20, and only a select few members of the community knew what a genius the son of the rav was. He came out of his self-imposed isolation to care for the ill people himself and he also organized others to help, too.”
He paid dearly for this humanitarian work. While helping others, he himself was infected with the dread disease. The Rebbetzin recalls that he had very high fever, and during the time of high fever he spoke about lofty mystical concepts of Kabbalah and about how man’s good deeds on earth affect the highest spheres.
In the previous chapters, we already wrote about his diligence in Torah study under the influence of his illustrious father, and how, by the time he was bar mitzvah, he was already considered a gaon (genius).
The Rebbe is also known to be fluent in many languages, and quite knowledgeable in worldly studies, which accords him an influence in academic circles. Jewish intellectuals and college students come to the Rebbe to discuss religious matters and to present their questions. The fact that he can speak their language and is fluent in their terminology helps bring Chabad into their society. They see in the Rebbe a man who knows about their world and is blessed with the ability to differentiate between truth and falsehood, between what is worth being called knowledge and that which has no substance or truthful foundation.
A year ago, the English text of a letter which the Rebbe wrote was publicized. He was corresponding with a Jewish intellectual who had questions about evolution and belief in the creation of the world through Hashem. This intellectual felt that his questions deserved a straight answer.
The letter that was publicized showed how knowledgeable the Rebbe is in the various worldly disciplines, and how he uses this knowledge to defeat the idol of today’s generation which is called science. The letter was translated into many languages and it caused quite a stir in academic circles.
The letter led many to quote the Tanya, at the end of chapter eight where the Alter Rebbe comes out strongly against learning secular subjects. However, he notes two exceptions: if a person uses it as a “shovel with which to dig,” meaning if he uses his education as a means of a comfortable livelihood so that he is better able to serve Hashem; or if he knows how to use it as a means to serve Hashem and complement his Torah learning, naming the Rambam, the Ramban, and their contemporaries as examples of those Torah greats who also delved into worldly knowledge.
It’s possible that at the beginning, the Rebbe used his secular knowledge as a “shovel with which to dig.” He grew up in a land that required everyone to work, and the simpler the work, the harder it was to keep Yiddishkeit. Under the Soviet regime, it was possible for a professional to acquire a certain measure of freedom that was impossible for a simple worker to obtain. But circumstances led to him actualizing the second exception of the Tanya, daily, as he uses his worldly knowledge to show the world the truth in Torah and belief in Hashem.
The Rebbe is personally adamantly opposed to studying secular subjects, and against the synthesis of Torah and secular knowledge. He demands of his Torah scholars that they immerse themselves in Torah studies exclusively. Once, at a farbrengen on Shabbos Mevorchim, there was a group of graduates from an out-of-town high school. The Rebbe asked the entire crowd to yell three times “No college, no college, no college!”
Being that he felt that to others it would look odd that he expressed his opposition to college so often, he was once heard to remark “Don’t look at me. If someone jumps off a high wall and survives, it doesn’t mean that everyone has to copy him.”
To all of the above, an important point, made by his mother, must be added: namely, that in Russia he never attended any school. Rather he acquired his knowledge on his own, delving into secular subjects, reading, and researching but never sitting in a classroom.
He never attended gymnasium (the European term for high school) in Yekaterinoslav but he did take the exam as an outsider, and he did exceptionally well. His mother recalls that the exam was given on Shabbos, and that he was allowed, under the Communist regime, to take the exam alone on a weekday. She still sees in her mind’s eye how he looked at that time—a young man with a newly sprouted beard and his tzitzis hanging out.
In Yekaterinoslav there was a young man who was about to lose his job as interpreter in “Targsin” (the overseas trade group) because he could not translate an article from English to Russian. The Rebbetzin states the name of that bachur and relates with pride how her son saved the man’s livelihood.
Where did he learn English? From a dictionary, and he also taught himself Italian and other languages.
When the Rebbe Reb Yosef Yitzchok left Rostov and settled in Leningrad (in 5684/1924) he befriended a Professor Bartshinka, who wanted, of all things, an explanation of the Star of David symbol according to Kabbalah and according to astronomy. According to the Rebbetzin, the Rebbe declared, “I will call on my education minister.” He then called his future son-in-law to Leningrad. He spent around three months in Leningrad, and he wrote a whole work explaining the Magen David according to nigleh (revealed Torah), nistar, and astronomy. Later he traveled a few more times to Leningrad in connection with that project.
The Rebbetzin remembers well the thick book of mathematical formulas that her son had in his room.
Shortly after the Magen David dissertation, the Rebbetzin paid a long visit to Leningrad. Her son was home in Yekaterinoslav. For the Purim seudah, she was a guest of the Rebbe on 12 Machavaia Street. According to her best recollection, this was in 5686 (1926), a year before the Rebbe’s arrest. While in the city, she paid a visit almost every day to the home of her future mechutanim. Although there had been no formal agreement between the two parties, the Chassidim were “more than” sure who the Rebbe’s second son-in-law would be.
“Without words,” recalls the Rebbetzin, remembering that visit to Leningrad, “you could tell how much the Rebbe loved my son, by his reaction each time he mentioned his name.”
The sagacity from those years in Yekaterinoslav followed him on all his wandering in Riga, Berlin, Paris, and also in America and is in effect even today, when he is the Rebbe of thousands of Chassidim with a mutual interconnection, and a leader who lives and breathes the Jewish people’s needs and problems.
This foresight comes from a deep modesty and an inner drive to utilize every second for Torah and good deeds. It is this natural modesty and shyness which originally kept him from accepting the leadership role immediately after the demise of the Rebbe Reb Yosef Yitzchok.
The world in which he was raised and in which he hoped to live his entire life consisted of a small room with a stand piled high with sefarim and manuscripts.
Every morning, when he walks the few blocks from his apartment on President Street to the door of 770 Eastern Parkway, or back to President Street late at night or sometimes early morning, you see the full expression of his natural reserve. His head slightly bent, his hand held close to his heart, an envelope full of pamphlets and manuscripts on which he works. He walks with calm, measured steps. There isn’t the slightest thing that would indicate to a passerby who does not know him that there walks a great man, let alone a gadol.
The same personality traits show up when he davens, says the berachos on the Torah, or says Maftir. There is no sign that he is different from anyone in his whole behavior and manner. Just like as a youth in Yekaterinoslav he davened from a siddur without making a move that would indicate what’s going on in his heart, so too does he daven today, when hundreds and thousands of eyes are looking in his direction waiting to see some sign, some movement.
Even in the middle of a farbrengen, in the presence of hundreds and thousands of people, it seems as if he is reminding himself that he is sitting at the head of a table with a congregation of Jews who look at every movement and swallow every word he says. His quick movement with his hands, as he directs the singing of a lively melody like a conductor, is not just to arouse the crowd but perhaps it also serves to remind him that he has to acquiesce to the will of the Jews who want him to be their leader.
It’s already 13 years (may he serve for many long years) that he is sitting at the helm of Chabad, ruling with a strong hand and much siyata d’Shmaya (heavenly intervention), leading Chabad Chassidus onto widened horizons in quantity and quality.
Yet he does not stop talking about the Friediker Rebbe as “The Rebbe, The Leader” and looks at himself with the same humility and conducts himself with the same discretion as in the days of Yekaterinoslav.