Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is a prolific writer of Jewish religious themes. His most recent book: The Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, takes a hard but wholly sympathetic look at the last Lubavitcher Rebbe.  

So, this is an entirely positive appraisal of the Rebbe and his work.  Rabbi Telushkin calls him the most influential rabbi of the twentieth century and the most well-known rabbi since Maimonides.  I suppose both labels are correct.  It is hard to argue with success.  The Rebbe took Judaism, which tends to be insular in its outlook, divided by squabbling denominations, and not really interested in engagement with the wider Jewish or Gentile world, and turned that on its head.   His had a vision for world Jewry, and was largely successfully in carrying it out.  When post-war Judaism was dying on the vine of indifference, the Rebbe gave it a shot of spiritual adrenal. Even those outside of Chabad and somewhat hostile to it find much to admire in his work. 

Rabbi Telushkin explains that the Rebbe was one of the early critics of two approaches to Judaism which, with hindsight, have harmed the advance the religion.  One was the overwhelming sense of the Holocaust hanging over post-war Jewish life.   Pressing Jews to stay Jews based on guilt, fear, or hatred, the Rebbe believed, has no future.  He also did hinge his Judaism on the emerging State of Israel.  He was not interested in Jews in the Diaspora taking on the Zionist cause.  He wanted to help Jews practice Judaism wherever they lived. {Note did not think the Holocaust or Israel were unimportant; he just believed all the eggs should not be in either basket).

In these two senses, he was prescient.  As liberal Jews shy away from hawkish Israel, the Zionist connection to Jewish identity has been tarnished for many American Jews.  As the fear and guilt of the Holocaust has worn off, nothing has filled the gap, and annihilation by love, through intermarriage, is ironically Judaism's greatest threat in Europe and America .  

That the Rebbe realized this in 1950 shows great insight.  Jews must learn to be Jews wherever they live.  They must concentrate on practicing Judaism in the moment, without guilt from the past or allegiance to another country.  

So, this is a fine work on the Rebbe.  It is not a critical biography in any sense.  It is a gentle form of hagiography.  If you want a hard hitting biography, you must go to other works recently written about the Rebbe.

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