My review of Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman’s new biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was recently published. In it, I reject as bizarre their central thesis that the Rebbe was not passionate about Judaism for the first four decades of his life and fell into the leadership of the Chabad movement almost by default because he had failed as an architect.
It’s kind of a wacky theory when you think about it, and I have
spent the past while wondering why Heilman and Friedman – respected academics
both – wrote it. Of all the things to insinuate about the leading Jewish
spiritual authority of the twentieth century, that he was bored by Judaism? To
be sure, like all great men, the Rebbe has his critics. I have heard sworn
enemies of the Rebbe tell me that he was a crazed fanatic who believed he was
the Messiah and convinced his army of drones of the same, a cult leader who
abused his charisma for nefarious purposes. But here two great academics argue
precisely the opposite, that the Rebbe was a bit of a con who was prepared to
give up his chosen modern European wardrobe of tailored suits and white Stetson
hat for the drab and black attire of a Chassidic Rebbe because he couldn’t make
a living as a secular professional. Is it believable that the man who almost
single-handedly reversed the tide of Jewish assimilation merely pretended to be
interested in Judaism when in reality he simply needed a job?
It’s kind of insulting when you think about it. Not for the Rebbe
but for the rest of us. According to Heilman and Friedman, world Jewry was
essentially duped. The Rebbe’s hundreds of thousands of worldwide followers,
and the millions more who have been touched by Chabad across the globe, were
conned by a failed engineer. It would be akin to an author writing a book about
Nelson Mandela that suggested that the cause of African rights bored the great
leader for most of his life. But when he discovered he couldn’t make a living
as an attorney he reluctantly decided to spend 27 years in a jail cell because
he had no other career prospects. Except that in the Rebbe’s case the
allegation is even more preposterous because the author’s cannot account for
how such a charlatan became one of the greatest Torah sages of the twentieth
century, publishing more than 100 books.
Albert Einstein discovered relativity as an utterly unknown Swiss
patent clerk. Yet no one suggests that because he worked a dead-end job and did
not teach at a University there was no way he could be serious about physics.
But Heilman and Friedman are convinced that since the Rebbe studied to be an
engineer there was no way he was equally passionate about his Judaism. What
I have my own theory about the author’s theory. Here goes.
Two hundred years ago, when Jews first embraced the enlightenment,
they believed they had discarded Judaism forever. The smartest, most educated
Jews rejected Judaism as a primitive and superstitious relic of a dark and
ignorant past. No doubt even these intellectuals would hold on to some
semblance of their Judaism, perhaps harmless rituals like lighting Friday night
Candles or cultural rights like enjoying Yiddish theater. But the rest of
Judaism’s primal husk that had for so long stifled Jewish creativity, cutting
them off from the mainstream, would be forever discarded.
Of course, secular intellectuals accepted that there would still be
some weak-minded, secularly illiterate Jews who would cling to the old
superstitious ways. Distinguished by their long, unkempt beards and long black
coats, they would remain on the fringes of Jewish life, in their self-imposed
ghettos, where they would be harmless. So long as they knew their place, their
existence was not threatening. But the new face of Judaism would be urbane,
well-groomed, and clean-shaven intellectual who were properly cynical about
Everything went according to plan for nearly two hundred years.
Great Jewish minds like Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein became the most famous
Jews in the entire world. Both were strongly attached to their Jewish
identities while ridiculing Judaism as a collection of fairy-tales and myths
from a crude Jewish past.
But then something changes. One of the religious Neanderthals dared
to rear his head publicly. Unsatisfied with seeing Judaism shunted to the
sidelines, he dreamed an era of global Jewish Renaissance and began to put it
into practice. He refused to accept that secular Jews were any more
sophisticated than the religiously observant. On the contrary, possessed of a
formidable mind and extensive secular training himself, he demonstrated the
considerable intellectual and moral shortcomings of modern secularism and began
to win victories in the marketplace of ideas. He sent his emissaries to the
world’s most important cities and leading Universities and, after first being
seen as oddities they began to win a considerable following. Within a few
decades they had become the Jewish mainstream.
The Rebbe obliterated the unspoken agreement that religious Jews
should remain locked in their broken neighborhood hovels while secular Jews
became the grand Ambassadors of the faith. He refused to be locked in a holy
box. He thought the unthinkable, that secular Jews would eventually reject
their rejection of Judaism and begin to embrace Jewish observance all over
gain. In so doing he brought about the greatest Jewish spiritual revolution of
all time and by the time he died he had almost single-handedly reversed the
tide of two centuries of Jewish assimilation. And he became the face of global
Is that man a threat to old order, or what?
So what do you do when 200 years of Jewish acculturation has been
turned on its head by a single man? Easy. You claim that even he was really a
Jewish secularist. That notwithstanding his long black coat, white beard, and
black hat, he too wanted to discard it all and become yet another
super-sophisticated, secular Jewish intellectual. Unfortunately, he just wasn’t
gifted enough to be part of the secular, professional elite. So he was forced
to go back to the Jewish boondocks and hang out with his backward clan, all the
while wishing the he could have stayed in Paris and Berlin. But, wink, wink, he
knew all along where the real action was, and envied those who were lucky
enough to succeed in it.
Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, has just published
‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ His website is http://www.shmuley.com. Follow him on Twitter