How does Modern Man conceive of a Gadol, a giant in Torah leadership? This question challenges Rabbi Joseph Telushkin when he writes about the Rebbe, HaRav Menachem Mendel Schneerson ZT”L in his new biography entitled, “Rebbe”, published by Harper Collins. Unlike Gedolim biographies that have been criticized for their attempt to delete the flaws of history and erase any stains that Judaism may have created, Telushkin’s book is different.
Too frequently, the formula goes like this; Giant X was born a genius, rose to the top of Yeshiva Y, mastered his character traits and never looked back. Some of the more daring biographies might make mention of a minor challenge or two, yet nothing too serious is mentioned and any character flaw is justified as a springboard for why that challenge truly made the individual great.
Rabbi J.J. Schachter, Senior Scholar at Yeshiva University, penned an article in the Torah U’Maddah Journal called, “Facing the Truths of History”. This essay debates the issue of truth in biography. What parts of the life of a Torah giant ought to be revealed and what ought not to be revealed? When does knowing too much hinder our understanding of the notable, and when does complete clarity and knowledge enable us to grasp the truth more clearly and learn from the ways of our Leaders?
This pitfall of leaving out the negative poses two challenges. First of all, smoothing over the cracks disengages us from understanding the path to true growth. Rav Hutner writes in his letters that too many times we skip over the essence of what truly makes a Gadol great. “7 times the Tzaddik Falls and gets Back up,” (Mishlei 24:16). Rav Hutner says that the fall is not incidental to the rise. On the contrary it is necessary to the rise. To comprehend how our Great Ones have struggled is essential to knowing how they emerged triumphant. In that way we may glean a lesson that can apply in our own lives.
It is said that the Imrei Emes used to give mussar to his son with the following analogy. Imagine a young man lost in the forest. He’s wandering around looking for a way out. Months go by with no luck. He feels down and dejected when suddenly he meets an elderly fellow with a long white beard. He’s so excited. Finally he will find a way out. He turns to the elderly fellow and asks “I’m lost, do you know how I may find my way home?” The elderly man says back to him, “I’m sorry I too am lost. I’ve been wandering for 30 years.” The boy is crushed. Totally defeated. Then suddenly the old man says, “BUT! I’ve taken many wrong roads in life and so I can tell you the ones not to go down. And perhaps, with that, you can find the true path.” The Chazon Ish in his letters similarly wrote, “Humans in this world are like those wandering around the forest aimlessly. If it were not for the ones walking with us who have already made the mistakes….”
If we don’t know about the Gadol’s setbacks, struggles and inner turmoil, how may we grow from them?
The second challenge in glossing over the shadow side of our heroes is that prior to the emergence of the internet when the ease of capturing became a source for retaining every conversation, it was possible for us to perceive humans as angels. But now we know too much, we’ve seen too much. Nobody is perfect and G-d didn’t create angels; G-d created humans. Now we are exposed to the reality. We all fail, we hurt, we quarrel and in many ways our greatest gift is our discontentment.
So these are the challenges facing a modernist and a scholar like Telushkin as he sits down to write this 617 page biography on the Rebbe.
The challenge becomes more enticing as we watch Telushkin submit to the greatness of the Rebbe. The book begins with statements that demonstrate that Telushkin refuses to wear rose colored glasses: “But the Rebbe’s popularity and legacy were not without controversy (p.6),” or in the way he addresses the feelings of families sent on shlichus, “The family would likely feel isolated and lonely in so nonreligious an environment (p.12).” Next, in the initial apathy toward the Rebbe’s cause, he explains, “we also know of the Rebbe’s disappointment that more couples did not volunteer to be sent as emissaries without having to be asked. (P.77).”
But as the book marches on, Telushkin struggles to retain the human side of the Rebbe. He is simply so much larger than life. His magnificence abounds. Not by his chassidim, but by scholars, rabonim, and political and military leaders. And as we near the middle of the book Telushkin also submits. He is forced to, and as readers we are as well. I dare you to read this book and not think more than once about what your life would be like in the service of the Rebbe.
Even though the author relents and is overwhelmed by the greatness of the Rebbe and in a matter of pages is forced to express his own admiration, it is good that his credentials as a modern scholar still remain. The modernity imbedded in Telushkin’s work manifests when you look at the structure. The book is elegantly organized by subject material as opposed to chronology. Those looking for a chronology of the Rebbe’s life can turn to Chapter 30. You don’t need to read this book straightforward you can pick your subject. The Rebbe and his approach to the secular world can be read about in Chapter 13. The Rebbe’s relationship with the Reform and Conservative movement can be found in Chapter 16. This is a compelling structure that allows the reader to pick up and put down the book as one’s time and temperament allows. It also lets us use the book as an inspirational reference guide gleaned from the Rebbe’s life.
The scope of diversity captured by the interviews and anecdotes are so tremendously vast. Whether it is a discussion with the Rebbe’s secretaries like Rabbi Groner and Rabbi Krinsky or whether it is a discussion with political titans like Ariel Sharon and Robert Kennedy, all trains somehow lead back to the Rebbe.
Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik was a contemporary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and a classmate (there’s a wonderful picture of these two titans shaking hands after not having seen each other for years). Students of the Rav love to note that he was like a prism. Everyone who knew him had a different view of what he was about and what he believed. The complexity of his personality lent itself to the refracted views of his persona. The Rebbe, on the other hand, was the inverse. He was viewed by so many people, on so many different sides of the political and religious spectrum, and the amazing thing is that they all viewed him the same way. They all recognized his passion for the Jewish people, his love for humanity, and his tremendous leadership skills. That is clear in this book.
What I found wanting by the time I finished “The Rebbe” was the issue of intimacy. I was blown away by the Rebbe. I was motivated to be better because of the Rebbe. But to be totally honest, I don’t feel like I know the Rebbe. I don’t know what he felt about assuming the mantle of leadership instead of his brother-in- law. I don’t know what kept him up late at night. I don’t know what he dreamed of as a brilliant teenager. I don’t know what I was expecting; in previous years other biographers went way too far in trying to guess the Rebbe’s motivations and it was obviously agenda driven. But we would like a small glimpse in the Rebbe’s inner world. This may not be the fault of Telushkin; it could simply be like many great heroes the Rebbe never revealed his thoughts. Such self-exposure may have been pointless for Rav Schneerson.
20 years after the Rebbe’s passing, the hot button question for so many is whether he was the Moshiach. I recently dealt with this hot button question in my Shavuos class at Yavneh. Rabbi Telushkin claims that the Rebbe despised being referred to as the Moshiach. Others have told me that they disagree with that assertion. Far be it for me to know the truth about what the Rebbe felt, but I did find it interesting to see Rabbi Telushkin take a stand on that issue as he does on several other critical subjects.
Bottom line – can the Rebbe be Moshiach? Before we answer that question I challenge our broader community to first get to know the Rebbe as painted by Joseph Telushkin.
Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is the Rav & Dean of Yeshivat Yavneh in Los Angeles. He can be reached at Rabbieinhorn@gmail.com
Rebbe, a biography is available at your local bookstore and Amazon.com