Excerpt fromRebbe by Joseph Telushkin. Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Telushkin. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
I entered into the writing of this book with a high regard for the Rebbe (why else devote years of one’s life to focusing on another person’s life and teachings), and after five years of research and writing I came out with an even higher one. Much, I know, has been said of the Rebbe, both true and untrue, both highly adulatory and highly critical, and thus I pursued my subject with much scrutiny and with open eyes. Along the way, I learned that one can have great admiration for a person with whom one has profound disagreements. To cite just two: unlike the Rebbe, I believe that it is very worthwhile for Israel under certain conditions to make territorial compromises with the Palestinians, just as I believe it was right for her to do so with Egypt, a position the Rebbe believed would put lives at risk (see chapter 19), and that I believe saved lives. Also, I was an ardent member of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and supporter of anti-Soviet demonstrations during the 1960s and 1970s (a time of severe antisemitism by the Soviet government), at a time when the Rebbe was convinced that such demonstrations were harming Russian Jews, and that only “quiet diplomacy” could improve their situation. In the course of researching this book I learned things I hadn’t known, that the Rebbe, despite his fervent opposition to demonstrations, was a more nuanced and practical thinker on the issue of how to help Russian Jews than many people—I being one of them—realized. True, he opposed anti-Soviet demonstrations, but on the quiet, out of earshot of the Russians (and in addition to the secret work he was spearheading to maintain Jewish life inside Russia), he found ways to cooperate with people who supported them—and I believe that the actions taken by both sides greatly helped the Jews of Russia (see chapter 21). In general, I was struck again and again by the nuanced nature of the Rebbe’s thinking. Thus, to no one’s surprise, the Rebbe thought that Reform and Conservative Judaism were wrongheaded in their approach to Judaism, but when a Reform rabbi asked him if he should leave his congregation, the Rebbe told him, “You’re a soldier on the front” (the sort of response he might well have given one of his shluchim [emissaries]), and told the man that not only should he not leave his congregation but that he should challenge his congregants to do more, and even challenge him, the Rebbe, to do more as well (see page 224).
Perhaps the most unanticipated result of the researching and writing of this book is the profound impact it has had on my life. Given that the Rebbe transformed so many people’s lives, it is perhaps not surprising that he has impacted the life of this biographer as well. In many ways. Most significantly, the Rebbe’s innate optimism and his focus on the use of optimistic language has changed me, I hope forever. I was first struck when I learned of the Rebbe’s refusal to use the word “beit cholim,” the Hebrew term for “hospital,” a word that literally means “house of the sick,” and which the Rebbe felt demoralized people (see the term he proposed instead; page 110). I immediately realized he was right. Similarly, because of the Rebbe, I have stopped using the word “deadline,” substituting instead “due date,” the first term—which is so widely used—connoting the end of life and the second, life’s beginning. Does this change seem minor and petty? Maybe minor, but certainly not petty. There are few things we use more often than words, and the types of verbal changes the Rebbe recommended, which invariably involved seeking out encouraging words, have in turn changed me. My wife, Dvorah, often commented that whenever I spent the day researching at 770 Eastern Parkway, the generic address for the Chabad movement’s Brooklyn headquarters, I came home in an uplifted, invigorated mood. That is because Lubavitchers as a group are upbeat, a result in large part of the influence exerted upon them by the Rebbe and his teachings, even now, almost twenty years since his death. If one can make a generalization about so large a group of people as Lubavitcher Chasidim, one generalization I feel comfortable in making is that Lubavitchers exude a warm calm and optimism, they avoid negative language, and the mood they convey is contagious. I am a happier and more spiritual person as a result of writing this book—and I would like to believe more generous and less judgmental of others. All of these things would not have occurred if not for the fact that my life was consumed in learning the details of the life and thinking of the Seventh Rebbe of Chabad.
Similarly, the Rebbe’s insistence that anything worth doing should be done now and not delayed (see chapter 10), even in instances in which most of us would delay, has repeatedly caused me to act in a more forthright and direct manner. If a difficult phone call has to be made or a difficult issue confronted, I am now more likely than in the past to not procrastinate but to do so right away; I am not yet sure if I have the guts to also do so even in the middle of the night, as the Rebbe sometimes advocated (see page 148).
The Rebbe’s impact on my life has grown strong, and I suspect will grow stronger, in a whole host of spiritual, ethical, and ritual ways over the coming years. It is difficult to be exposed to the teachings of such a man and not be affected in some fundamental ways. I hope and expect that these impacts will long endure.
I was well aware of the Rebbe as a significant figure before researching and writing this book but have come to appreciate over these past years the magnitude of his achievements. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson assumed leadership of a relatively small movement of Lubavitcher
Chasidim in 1951, and he turned Chabad into the most dynamic and geographically diverse religious movement in Jewish life; furthermore, his influence extended well beyond his movement. The outgoing chief rabbi of Great Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks, described well the enormity of the Rebbe’s accomplishments: “Among the very greatest Jewish leaders of the past, there were some who transformed communities. There were others who raised up many disciples; there were yet others who left us codes and commentaries which will be studied for all time. But there have been few in the entire history of one of the oldest peoples in the world who in one lifetime made their influence felt throughout the entire Jewish world. . . . The Rebbe was one of the immortals.”