2014-07-09 / Editorial

Bestselling book chronicles the life of Chabad leader

By STEVE WENICK For the Voice

Did you know that in the entire Bible only one birthday is mentioned and it is that of Pharaoh, and according to some scientists, by accepting Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it is impossible to prove or disprove that the sun is the gravitational center of our solar system. In his new book, “REBBE,” best-selling author Joseph Telushkin reveals many such surprising and sometimes shocking facts as he chronicles the life and teachings of the charismatic Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, popularly referred to as the “Rebbe” by his followers and admirers worldwide.

In a span of 92 years, the Rebbe traveled from his birthplace, the city of Nikolayev, Ukraine, studied in the cosmopolitan cities of Berlin and Paris, where he earned degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, and finally settled in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. It was there he reluctantly donned the mantel as the Seventh Lubavitcher Rabbi and humbly assumed the title of the Rebbe. Prior to his “coronation,” he had already attained the stature of a spiritual magnet who attracted into his sphere of influence a warren of world leaders as well as ordinary people who sought his wise counsel and blessings. More than a biography, this book relates historic events, bonded with personal insights and coupled with private moments that bring the reader to yichudusim (private moments of consultation) with the Rebbe.

Known worldwide for his sage advice, one cannot help but wonder how the Rebbe could advise a distraught son seeking the best way to help his ailing father to, “Take your father to the poolroom.” Equally surprising is that the spiritual leader of Chabad, a movement of thousands of religious Jews led by the Rebbe, a man who on a daily basis dealt with weighty questions of life, death and faith asked a visitor on the occasion of his birthday, “How come you don’t have a birthday cake?” And in an uncharacteristically terse response to an adherent’s statement that he was much too tired to take on additional responsibilities, the Rebbe responded, “I’m also tired. So What?”

In his portrayal of Schneerson, whose 20th yahrzeit was observed last week, Telushkin successfully depicts him not only as a man of faith but also as a man who has faith in mankind. He had a fervent belief in the coming of the Moshiach (Messiah) and although there are those who regarded him as the Messiah, the Rebbe disavowed and discouraged such a notion. Well versed in both secular and religious studies, his breadth and depth of knowledge enabled him to transcend the particularism of each dimension and nurture what he saw as their inherent symbiotic relationship.

The Rebbe was as comfortable speaking to world leaders as he was to his neighbor down the street. Prior to Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s meeting with President Jimmy Carter in 1977, the prime minister met with the Rebbe in his office at 770 Eastern Parkway where they discussed matters relating to the important upcoming meeting with Carter concerning his administration’s lessthan friendly policy toward Israel. On another occasion, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met with the Rebbe to discuss Israel’s security concerns. President Ronald Reagan was an admirer of the Rebbe, and in recognition of the Rebbe’s 80th birthday, the president proclaimed that day, April 4, 1982 a “National Day of Reflection.” The Rebbe was posthumously given the Congressional Gold Medal (the highest honor bestowed upon a civilian) by unanimous consent of both houses of congress for, “outstanding and enduring contributions toward world education, morality, and acts of charity.” Those laudatory words were uttered by President Bill Clinton at the award ceremony.

The Rebbe was paradoxical in some ways. For example, it was his early scientific education that led him to the threshold of a spiritual life. He was well versed in the fields of physics, chemistry and math and found no contradictions between science and religion as he regarded both as a function of faith. He even invoked Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to clarify his views concerning Ptolemaic, Copernican and Biblical versions of the relative motion of the Sun and Earth. Using deductive reasoning, he found no contradiction between the Darwinian theory of evolution and the Biblical account of creation. And surprisingly, even as an ardent Zionist, he never visited Israel. Telushkin goes into great detail to explain the enigmatic nature of some of the Rebbe’s positions.

Although he was a very private man, his door was open to the world. He passionately embraced Jewish law, tradition and theology, which impelled him to tirelessly attempt to ignite the holy spark he believed resides in the soul of every human being. In spite of never having children of his own, he begot a family of thousands of shluchim (emissaries) whom he dispersed throughout the world to teach the importance of performing acts of loving kindness.

Some regarded the Rebbe as a workaholic, for he often conducted meetings beginning at 8 p.m. in the evening and lasting to the break of dawn. In spite of the crushing demands of his schedule, he found time on a daily basis to share quiet moments over a cup of tea with his beloved wife Chaya Mushka.

Although Telushkin acknowledged that he admired the Rebbe greatly, his admiration did not lead him to agree with all of his views. Some areas of disagreement were about issues pertaining to prayer in public schools, Israel’s territorial compromises, demonstrations supporting Soviet Jewry, making aliyah (permanently moving to Israel), the efficacy of studying at a university, and the pitfalls of failing to earn a degree once enrolled in college. Telushkin successfully uses straightforward, easily understood language to explain the complexities of the nature of their areas of disagreement.

The Rebbe was an innovator. He instituted Chabad Houses on college campuses, public lighting of Menorahs on Chanukah, and later in life when age began to diminish his physical strength, he distributed dollar bills to be used for charity. Although the Rebbe did not sanction women carrying the Torah during the Hakafot processional service on the holiday of Simchat Torah, neither did he disapprove of the practice for some Orthodox congregations.

Many have commented that the unusual hue of the Rebbe’s kindly blue eyes was mesmerizing. They have likened them to windows through which the Rebbe could peer in into the viewer’s soul. Throughout the book, Telushkin skillfully guides us on a journey with the Rebbe bearing witness to the special kind of teacher he was. The name of his movement, “Chabad” is an acronym for Chochma, Bina and Da’at, which means “Wisdom,” “Understanding” and “Knowledge,” respectively. Because the Rebbe possessed all three of those attributes, fused with the uncanny ability to use them effectively, it motivated him to try to ignite the spark of goodness he believed was contained in the soul of every human being. According to the Rebbe, it is with that spark that each soul had the potential to burn brightly in the service of G-d and thereby help to light a path leading to the betterment of all mankind.

In deference to the reader, Telushkin, the author of “Jewish Literacy,” “Jewish Wisdom,” and “A Code of Jewish Ethics,” takes care to explain the meaning of Hebrew and Yiddish words at the places they occur in the book. In addition, he provides a brief time-line biography of the Rebbe’s life in the closing pages of his work, followed by numerous footnotes. Although Telushkin obviously has great respect and reverence for the Rebbe, it is a testament to his honesty when he states, “I learned that one can have great admiration for a person with whom one has profound disagreements.” A lesson he might have learned from the Rebbe. .

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