Book Review By Yochanan Gordon
Biographies are published practically daily. So why did it take 20 years for an authoritative biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt’l, to be written? It’s remarkable that after years of silence, now, in commemoration of the Rebbe’s 20th yahrzeit, three books have now been published on the life of one of the most towering personalities of our day and arguably in all of Jewish history—Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt’l.
Rabbi Chaim Miller of the Kol Menachem publishing label, which has produced a number of Jewish classics in the Gutnick Chumash, the Slager Editions of Megillas Esther, Haggadah shel Pesach, and Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, and the Lifestyle series featuring a Friday-night prayer companion and Torah (Pentateuch), has authored a masterpiece on the Rebbe’s life. Titled Turning Judaism Outward: A Biography of the Rebbe—Menachem Mendel Schneerson, this is the first historical book about the Rebbe, and I hope that other historical accounts of the Chabad movement will be forthcoming.
The Brisker Rav once quipped, “If one lacks the ability to articulate a particular idea, he hasn’t grasped it well enough.” Conversely, Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook contributed to this and said, “There are some ideas that are just too sublime to be articulated.” Perhaps the absence of a true historical work on the life of the Lubavitcher Rebbe these past 20 years is a result of the sublimity of his life coupled with the paucity of historical sketches from his youth and the fact that he spoke very little of himself throughout his life. As Rabbi Miller writes in the foreword to his book, this presented a rather insurmountable challenge to anyone who ventured to sketch the Rebbe’s life.
What changed now? In his approbation to this book, Rav Moshe Weinberger of Kehillas Aish Kodesh in Woodmere wrote, “There are tzaddikim whose lives are like the Song of Songs. The words and events are explicit and clear but the mystery, the secret, remains unsolved. This book, while honest and bold, respects the sod, the secret, of the towering tzaddik whose life’s song changed the world.” Through relentless research and painstaking effort, Rabbi Miller availed himself of the detailed historical framework throughout the Rebbe’s life, but there remains an aspect of the Rebbe’s existence that remains locked.
In this volume, the reader is taken on a journey following the Rebbe from his place of birth in Nikolayev on Friday, April 18, 1902, to Berlin, Paris, Vichy, and then to New York where ultimately he would become the heir to the Rebbe Rayatz and succeed in bringing Judaism to the four corners of the world and a message of morality and purpose to the nations of the world.
The book details: “Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was ostensibly named after his paternal grandfather who was the third Rebbe of Lubavitch, known as the Tzemach Tzedek. Having been born amidst tumultuous times about 20 years after the assassination of Czar Alexander II, a time when pogroms were sanctioned and hundreds of Jewish locales were put up in flames, the Rebbe’s name Menachem symbolizes a personality who will ultimately carry a message and sentiments of consolation to his people.” An occurrence which took place when the Rebbe was all but three years of age portrays this superhuman aspect of the Rebbe’s life that would stay with him throughout his life. “As mobs roamed the streets shouting ‘kill the Jews,’ attacking innocent victims, and setting Jewish homes and businesses on fire, the young Menachem Mendel huddled with his mother, Chana, along with other Jewish women and children at a hidden location in a local pharmacy. Due to the cramped conditions and palpable fear, many of the children began to cry loudly, endangering everybody’s safety. Menachem Mendel instinctively shifted into comforter mode, circulating the room, and one by one soothed each of the children until they calmed down.”
“His coping mechanism, it seems, was to stay aloof and immerse his head in books. He possessed natural genius and a penchant for study, and the detached idealistic world of the mind must have offered some inner peace amid the external fear and turmoil.” Reading through the Rebbe’s early years, one will discover that he was an extreme introvert who loved sitting on his own in a corner learning Torah for endless hours. Testimonials from people who remembered the Rebbe during his younger years attest to his diligence and studiousness in an unceremonious manner where even people who attempted to give him honor or recognition would cause him to retreat in discomfort.
How did someone of his introverted character end up being the most charismatic leader of our time? It becomes clear that Reb Menachem Mendel Schneerson never intended to assume the capacity as leader of the Chabad movement. There was a period of a year from the passing of the Rebbe Rayatz before the Rebbe acquiesced, amidst a torrent of pressure from both local and abroad, to fill the position that was vacated with the passing of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. It’s important to get a sense of the feelings of desperation that motivated many of Ramash’s supporters to force his hand early on after the Rayatz’s passing to fill the leadership position, as well as the Rebbe’s unwillingness, out of pure humility, to see himself ever assuming that role.
On page 178, Reb Miller writes, “On 31st January, just three days after Rayatz’s passing, Dubov approached Ramash and pleaded that he should formally accept the leadership of Chabad. Ramash appeared incredulous. ‘What are you thinking? That Mendel Schneerson is a Rebbe?’ he retorted as if the notion was laughable.”
“The response was typical of a number of sharply dismissive comments about the possibility of his future Rebbe-hood that Ramash made, both orally and in writing during these months. In a letter to Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz (1883–1978), a Chabad scholar from Tsfat who served as communal leader in Winnipeg, Ramash deflected a request to accept Chabad leadership in unequivocal terms: “I was shocked . . . that you demanded from me something which I do not possess and with which I have not been empowered, not in the very slightest. I have no complaint against you since you do not know me personally, but you should have done a little research first.”
“Perhaps the most striking dismissal from Ramash that he would consider replacing his father-in-law, came in a letter to Reb Yisrael Noach Belinitzky (1883–1982). Belinitzky was a revered spiritual mentor for generations of chassidim at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Kremenchug, Russia and later in Brunoy, France. On May 16, Ramash responded to Belinitzky’s requests that he should accept the leadership.”
“As for what you write about me . . . I don’t know what to tell you. This matter is not my responsibility. What I know with certainty is that I lack Chassidut, I lack guidance and much, much more. I make no attempt to conceal this from others . . . I have said this in the past and I say it again now. (I do not write that I lack a Rebbe as I trust that the Rebbe Rayatz will continue to lead me . . .)
“As for what will be with the chassidim, that is for the Rebbe Rayatz to worry about. It is his responsibility.”
This narrative paints a vivid picture regarding the events of that era and how badly some of the more prominent chassidim of that time wanted the Ramash to step up to the plate and how desperately the Ramash himself wanted to hear nothing of it, stemming from what he saw as his personal inadequacy for the job.
Two pages later, Chaim Miller quotes from author Susan Cain, who, in a 2012 book titled Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, writes, “Some of our transformative leaders in history have been introverts . . . They all took the spotlight, even though every bone in their bodies was telling them not to and this turns out to have a special power of its own, because people could feel that these leaders were at the helm not because they enjoyed directing others and not out of the pleasure of being looked at; they were there because they had no choice, because they were driven to do what they thought was right.”
In an era when the true characteristics of leadership have long faded and been obscured, it’s important to dwell on the abovementioned stubbornness and resistance that the Rebbe displayed when confronted to assume the leadership position in Chabad. This is certainly not something that we, in our day and age, can relate to. We are used to a very different series of events where families and entire dynasties become divided as a result of a power struggle between siblings who are vying to fill vacated seats of leadership. I do not make mention of this humorously, because it is anything but humorous. Rather, it is critical to read and absorb the irony that true leadership qualities are embodied by those who feel inadequate and unqualified to get the job done.
It seems that the host Western culture and the messages conveyed in old time classics such as He-Man, Hercules, and Popeye have impressed upon us that people who naturally possess brute strength and power are the ones who are truly strong. However, if we look to Torah for the accurate meaning of gedulah, which is loosely translated as greatness, we find a very different meaning in “the ability of G‑d’s mercy to overtake his wrath.” True greatness is exercised when one is able to defy his or her loftiness and relate to those that exist on a lower end of the totem pole. Furthermore, Chazal teach us that gevurah, which means strength, is embodied by he who overcomes his inner urges for vain pleasures. Again, we find that these descriptions require complete self-sublimation and are not defined by a person’s abilities and achievements outside one’s self.
This leads into another quality of the Rebbe which keeps coming up time and again throughout the course of this book—the Rebbe’s sense of inclusivity. This means that the Rebbe perceived the world and all of its inhabitants vis-à-vis their particular G‑d-given roles in this world. The Rebbe’s objective during his tenure was to impart to every chassid, every Jew, and even every gentile what his or her purpose in this world was in order to bring about the materialization of the perfect world that G‑d had envisioned at the genesis of creation.
It was this sense of inclusivity that drove him to implement a moment of silence in public schools throughout the nation at the beginning of each school day. It was this sense of inclusivity that led President Ronald Reagan and every subsequent president since then to declare the date of the Rebbe’s birth as Education Day USA in recognition of his efforts to impact the face of American education through instilling moral values based on the seven Noachide laws. And it was that selfsame sense of inclusivity that succeeded in smoothing out the racial differences between Jews and African Americans in a famous meeting with New York Mayor David Dinkins in Crown Heights just a few days after the infamous riots in 1991 left many maimed and burglarized.
Miller writes at the outset of the book that as a child, the Rebbe had visions of the future redemption and it seems that much of his life was spent uniting the various factions in the world to bring about that ultimate reality. So when we say that the Rebbe was the paradigmatic lover of Jews, that is true, but that does not quite sum up all that he represented. He loved humanity and he saw it as his duty to turn the moral ethical system of the Jews outwards so that it should succeed to bringing an awareness of G‑d to the entire world. It is as a result of that that all loved and revered him.
This book leaves no event unturned, carefully researching every minute detail that combined to make up the 44 years of the Rebbe’s leadership of Chabad. There are extremely emotional, sentimental, and humorous accounts that are addressed at length, making this book a true experiential journey from beginning to end. I strongly recommend it to all. v
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