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Excerpt from 'Rebbe' by Joseph Telushkin

Excerpt from 'Rebbe' by Joseph Telushkin

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The following is an exerpt from the new best selling book, 'Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History' by Joseph Telushkin. I thought you might enjoy reading before this Shabbos.

If you would like to purchase this book, it is available at Amazon.com at this link; 
Purchase 'Rebbe' by Joseph Telushkin

Chapter 1

A Rebbe for the New World

In 1994, a few months after his passing, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award granted by the American government to a civilian (he is the only rabbi, and only the second clergyman, to have received this honor). The rarely awarded Gold Medal is designated for those “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized… long after the achievement.” At the award ceremony, African American congressman John Lewis, the civil rights legend and cosponsor of the award, noted that perhaps the only issue on which he and the Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich agreed was the importance of bestowing this medal on the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Congressman Lewis, citing his awe at the Rebbe’s accomplishments, expressed his sorrow that neither he, nor his mentor, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., had ever met the Rebbe. Gingrich, yet another cosponsor, spoke not just of the Rebbe’s integrity but of his respect for the Rebbe’s representatives whom he had met in Washington. Gingrich described his good feeling at being approached by one of the Rebbe’s emissaries, someone “not in the right Gucci shoes [and] not in the right Italian suit, who doesn’t ask you to increase their profit margin, but instead says, ‘For the good of the world, this is something noble and idealistic that should be [done]’.” And that’s why, Gingrich concluded, he felt so celebratory that day.

Nor was it only Lewis and Gingrich who felt this admiration for the Rebbe. President Ronald Reagan, upon receiving letters from the Rebbe, would take them upstairs from the Oval Office to his residence and personally draft his responses. In an April 1982 letter, the president cited words from a proclamation for a National Day of Reflection he was about to issue honoring the Rebbe’s eightieth birthday: “Your work stands as a reminder to us all that knowledge is an unworthy goal unless it is accompanied by moral and spiritual wisdom and understanding.” When a National Scroll of Honor signed by President Reagan was awarded to the Rebbe, every single member of the House of Representatives and Senate signed it as well.

By 1990, when Peggy Noonan, the longtime White House speechwriter, published What I Saw at the Revolution, her best-selling political memoir, the Rebbe had become a widely acknowledged cultural reference. When speculating in the book’s final pages about moral issues that Noonan, of Irish-Catholic descent, felt were better addressed by religious rather than political leaders, she specified three, “the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and the Pope.”

By the Rebbe’s later years, and continuing after his death, his impact had become far-reaching in a manner dissimilar from any other modern rabbinic figure. In 2013, on the night preceding his election to the Senate, Democratic candidate Cory Booker, and African American Christian, went to the Ohel, the site of the Rebbe’s grave, to pray. It was done in private manner, no journalists were present, and the visit only came to public attention after the election. As Booker has often made clear, he regards the Rebbe as one of his foremost teachers.

***

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, was, inarguably, the most well known rabbi since Moses Maimonides (Rambam). Hundreds of prominent rabbinic figures have lived in the intervening eight hundred years, but how many can be named before an audience of Jews from the United States, Israel, France, or the former Soviet Union (the four largest Jewish communities in the world today), without the speaker needing to add a sentence or two explaining who the person was?

The Rebbe is widely recognized in all the Jewish denominations and in all the countries just mentioned. And beyond. Visitors to Morocco have long reported seeing two pictures hanging in Moroccan Jewish homes, one of the Moroccan king and one of the Rebbe. Just a few days ago I saw a picture of the Rebbe in my local barbershop; the owner and senior barber is from Uzbekistan.

There is also no shortage of non-Jews who know of and feel connected to the Rebbe. In effect, he has become a global ambassador for Judaism. In 1989, Uruguayan presidential candidate Luis Alberto Lacalle, a religious Catholic, came to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for what proved to be a brief but highly significant meeting with the Rebbe. What Lacalle was pursuing was a blessing from the Rebbe, whom he regarded and continues to regard as a holy man. In an interview more than a decade later, Lacalle, who went on to serve as Uruguay’s president, spoke of how moved he was when the Rebbe gave him a dollar – one of several thousand people to whom he gave a dollar that day – and asked him to give it to charity. “I give it to you,” Lacalle recalls the Rebbe telling him, “to remember to do works of good.”

Lech Walesa, the Polish labor leader who helped lead his country to democracy and later served as Poland’s president, has long carried in his wallet a dollar from the Rebbe that was given to him by an American-Jewish businessman, David Chase. When Walesa visited the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv and saw a picture of the Rebbe, he asked Chase, who was accompanying him: “Is this my Rebbe? The one who gave me the dollar?” When told that it was, Walesa bowed from the waist toward the Rebbe in a gesture of respect. The museum’s curator, who had overhead Walesa’s exchange with Chase, was stunned. “What is he doing?” he asked Chase. “Is the president of Poland bowing to the Rebbe?” “Right,” Chase responded. “He’s showing his respect to the Rebbe.”

Four years ago, a full sixteen years after the Rebbe’s death, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a secretary to the Rebbe, was at the Atlanta airport when he was stopped by a young African American man of about twenty: “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the Lubavitcher Rebbe?” the man asked. Krinsky soon learned that the man had watched the Rebbe on television.

This, too, was an unusual feature of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. How many rabbis of any background routinely broadcast speeches on television, not sound bites, but full-fledge talks? The Rebbe’s subjects encompassed not only lessons from the Torah and from Chasidic thought but insights on the space race and the moon landing (see page 181), energy independence, and the attempted assassination of President Reagan. In the heyday of Chabad broadcasts, 770 Eastern Parkway, the movement’s headquarters in Brooklyn, commonly received several hundred letters a day addressed to the Rebbe, the majority from Jews but many from non-Jews as well. This was among the largest number of private letters being delivered to any address in the New York area.

But the Rebbe’s popularity and legacy were not without controversy. Indeed, he expressed his views fearlessly, even when they were not popular. His views on Israeli security and his opposition to any territorial compromise by Israel sparked both support and intense opposition and, on one noted occasion, kept a leading prime ministerial candidate from becoming Israel’s leader. His stern opposition to public demonstrations against the Soviet Union’s oppression of Russia’s Jews, focusing instead on “behind-the-scenes diplomacy” to sustain Soviet Jewry and facilitate their release, put him at odds with the overwhelming majority of American, European, and Israeli Jewish leaders who thought demonstrations to be an indispensable and very necessary option. On more than one occasion, he butted heads with leaders from both the Jewish religious left and right, and while he was determined to engage Jews from across the spectrum of observance, many Reform, Conservative, and haredi leaders as well voice opposition to his outreach ideas, and found others of his policies alienating. And, of course, in the last years of his life, while many of his followers believed he would soon be revealed as the Messiah, this notion was overwhelmingly rejected and sometimes ridiculed by others. Notwithstanding these controversies, no one can deny the immense and reverberating worldwide impact of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson both during his lifetime and no less forcefully since.

What was it about the Rebbe that caused Yediot Achronot, Israel’s then largest-circulation newspaper, to devote twenty pages to the Rebbe on the day following his death, the type of coverage normally reserved for a sitting head of state? What was it about him that caused the Newsweek, which rarely had occasion to write of the Chasidic world, to label the Rebbe “the most influential Jew in the world”?

It would seem that two factors in particular account of the Rebbe’s extraordinary impact: first, his innovative ideas on how to reach Jews (later non-Jews as well), and second, the army of shluchim, the emissaries, he nurtured to carry out his ideas and his vision, eventually in well over a thousand cities.

For American Jews, even those who maintained no synagogue affiliation and had no involvement with their local Jewish community, and exposure to Judaism might well have come from being approached by a young bearded man on the street, and asked, “Are you Jewish?” If the listener was male and responded yes, he was escorted to a nearby van, a Mitzvah Mobile, and encouraged to wrap tefillin on his arm and on his head – tefillin are two small black boxes with leather straps attached to them in which are inserted text ordaining, among other commandments, a love of G‑d. Over the years, the number of men who had this experience reached into the hundreds of thousands. The same question, “Are you Jewish?,” was also addressed to women; those who answered yes were offered candles and candlesticks and asked to light and make the blessing over the candles on Friday before sundown in honor of the Sabbath.

For the Rebbe, asking Jewish women (starting with girls aged three and older) to make the blessing over the candles was only the beginning. Jewish tradition wanted them to do it right, at the specified time, for that, too, is ordained in Jewish law, which forbids lighting a fire after the Sabbath begins (Exodus 35:3). Thus, a small ad started to appear in the New York Times every Friday in which “Jewish women” were informed as to the time candles should be lit that day. It was the only ad the Times ran regularly on its front page. Many traditional Jews routinely checked the Friday paper to know when Shabbat started, since it varies from week to week, based on when the sun sets.

No less than this outreach to the broad Jewish community, what equally characterized the Rebbe was his ability to always remain focused on individuals. I know of no other leader of his stature who remained so accessible to all those who wanted to meet with him. For the first thirty years of his leadership, he would meet with visitors three and then two nights a week, at which time people would pose personal and religious questions to him. The meetings would commence at 8:00 p.m. and last till 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., sometimes until dawn. Rabbi Uri Kaploun recalls a private meeting with the Rebbe (yechidus) that concluded at 2:45 a.m. and notes that he was the forty-third person the Rebbe saw that evening – and that was not the last meeting of the night. Visitors from abroad appreciated that they needed no translator to speak to the Rebbe. He was fluent in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, German, and French (he had studied at universities in the last three languages, earning a degree in engineering) and was known to understand visitors who spoke to him in Spanish and Italian.

As he neared his eighties, he stopped conducting all-night meetings but soon started Sunday Dollars. Each Sunday, for several hours, he would dispense a blessing and a dollar (to be donated to charity) to thousands of people who waited in line to have a brief encounter with him.

Miriam Fellig, the sole survivor of a family destroyed in the Holocaust, was one of those who came to meet with the Rebbe. It was shortly after her marriage, and she was distraught at being alone in the world. “[You have] no one?” the Rebbe asked her. “No,” she answered, “just my husband; no one else.” She confided that the thought of becoming a mother frightened her, as she had no mother or family members to offer her guidance and help. Fellig soon made clear the one thing she did want was for the Rebbe to adopt her, making her in essence part of his family – and he did. As she recalled decades later, the Rebbe took out a little black book from his pocket, marked down her and her husband’s names, extended to her a blessing for happiness, and made sure that they stayed in touch on a regular basis.

It is told – and this account might well be apocryphal – that when Henry Ward Beecher, among the most prominent and admired clergymen in nineteenth-century America, was approached by his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), to become involved in the case of an individual who needed assistance, the already overworked preacher demurred, “Harriet, Harriet, I am too busy. I can no longer become involved in cases of individuals.” To which his sister is said to have responded, “Even G‑d is not that busy.”

The Rebbe, and this is not apocryphal, tried to make sure to always find time. In June 1986, my father, Shlomo Telushkin – who had been the accountant both for the Rebbe and for the Previous Rebbe, since Chabad had come to the United States more than forty years earlier – suffered a serious stroke, one from which he never fully recovered. For several days he lay in a hospital bed in a coma, and I was with him when he awoke.

During those days, we received calls twice daily from the Rebbe’s office asking about my father’s condition. “The Rebbe wants to know,” we were told. A few days later, I received a call from Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the Rebbe’s secretary. He told me that an accounting issue had come up and the Rebbe had said, “Ask Shlomo.”

“But you know how sick and disoriented my father is,” I protested.

“We reminded the Rebbe of that,” Krinsky answered. “He, of course, remembered, but insisted that we ask your father.”

I immediately went back to my father’s room and posed the question to him. He looked at me, puzzled, and said the answer was obvious and told it to me.

At that moment, I realized what the Rebbe had done. He had made a calculation and asked my father a question that he knew my father would be able to answer. Sitting in his Brooklyn office at 770 Eastern Parkway, dealing with macro issues confronting Jews and the world, he had the moral imagination to feel the pain of one individual, my father, lying in a hospital bed, partially paralyzed, and wondering if he would ever again be productive. And so the Rebbe asked him a question, and by doing so he reminded my father that he was still needed and could still be of service.

Of his innovative campaigns to reach out both to communities and to individuals, perhaps the foremost and most innovative idea the Rebbe preached was the love of every Jew and, as we shall see, the broad love of humanity.

The preceding words sound neither innovative nor revolutionary. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the basis of the Golden Rule, is the Torah’s most famous verse (Leviticus 19:18), and two of Judaism’s best-known rabbis, Hillel and Akiva, regarded it as Judaism’s most fundamental law.

With such emphasis on the centrality of love of neighbor, it would seem that interpersonal love was always a uniformly treasured and practiced part of Judaism. Only it wasn’t. The Talmud attributes the first-century Roman destruction of Judea and the Great Temple in Jerusalem, perhaps the greatest catastrophe in Jewish life prior to the Holocaust, to sinat chinam, causeless hatred, inside the Jewish community, a hatred that made it impossible for the Jews to unite and fight as one force against their Roman oppressors.

This pattern of infighting has characterized and harmed the Jewish community ever since. In thirteenth-century France, it was a group of rabbis, not anti-Semites, who turned over Maimonides’s writings, which they regarded as containing heretical ideas, to the Dominican-headed Inquisition to be burned. Just as the Romans took advantage of Jewish infighting to decimate Judea, killing some million Jews in the process and selling hundreds of thousands of others into slavery, the Dominicans took advantage of this “gift” given them by these French rabbis and, seven years later, started to burn the Talmud as well.

In the eighteenth century, Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, among the greatest Jewish scholars in Jewish history, so despised the newly emerging Chasidic movement, which he regarded as heretical, that he refused to meet with its representatives who wished to assuage his concerns, and instead he issued a ban of excommunication against the Chasidim, forbidding Jews from conducting business with or marrying them. In addition, he declared one of its leaders in his hometown of Vilna, “If it was in my hands, I would [do] to him what Elijah did to the false prophets of Ba’al”; in short, kill him, as Elijah led the Israelites in massacring 450 idolatrous priests (see I Kings 18:19, 40). After the Gaon’s death, one of his admirers made a false accusation of treason against the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in an attempt to have the rabbi executed by the czar’s government.

The Rebbe came with a different message, one that he preached non-stop for over forty years: Love your fellow, and not just those who agree with you.

As the Rebbe intuited, while all Jews are familiar with the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself,” it seems that virtually everyone, even some otherwise very great figures, has reasons and rationales to justify why it doesn’t apply to those with whom they disagree.

As Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson introduced what was in effect a new standard in Jewish life, and unconditional love and respect for all Jews, regardless of their denominational affiliation or non-affiliation. Love all Jews, he preached, because they are your brothers or sisters, and just as you don’t look for excuses not to love your sibling, don’t look for reasons not to love other Jews.

This refusal to judge others based on their observance of Jewish laws, particularly ritual ones, was, and still is, a radical idea. Indeed, one prominent Orthodox rabbi, who was a devoted supporter of the Rebbe, had one complaint against him, that he allowed Reform and Conservative rabbis to attend public events at Chabad (see chapter 16). When he raised his objection to the Rebbe, it was dismissed; all Jews were, and continue to be, fully welcome at Chabad events.

The Rebbe’s openness was no just a tactic, as some opponents of Chabad suspected, to augment financial support or to stimulate goodwill for Chabad, but represented what the Rebbe really felt. The young rabbi Israel Meir Lau, (later, Israel’s chief rabbi) recalls that when he came to meet with the Rebbe and proudly explained that he was involved in kiruv rechokim, bringing back to Judaism lost Jews who had strayed far away, the Rebbe immediately corrected his inherently judgmental language: “We cannot label anyone as being ‘far.’ Who are we to determine who is far and who is near?  They are all close to G‑d.”

One year, shortly after Rosh Hashanah, George Rohr, the prominent New York philanthropist and supporter of Chabad, was understandably proud and excited to tell the Rebbe of the beginners’ service he had conducted at Manhattan’s Kehilat Jeshurun synagogue: “The Rebbe will be pleased to know that we had 180 people for Rosh Hashanah services who came to us with no Jewish background.” The Rebbe did no react. Rohr, thinking that the Rebbe had not heard what he had said, repeated his words, this time in a louder voice. “We had 180 people for Rosh Hashanah services with no Jewish background.” The Rebbe gently challenged him for his choice of words: “No Jewish background? Tell them that they have the background of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”

The belief in the brother hood of all Jews, not just those who life like onself, led to another remarkable innovation: the Rebbe’s willingness to send his followers out into the world. The Lubavitch movement now has Chabad Houses in forty-eight American states (only Mississippi and South Dakota are without permanent Chabad representation) and in some eighty countries (a number that might well be higher by the time this book is published), run by over four thousand Chabad couples. The shluchim (emissaries), as these couples are known, go to countries as Jewishly remote as the Congo and Cambodia (in 2010, my friend Dennis Prager and his wife spent Shabbat at the Chabad House in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, along with fourteen other Jews from some ten countries) and to cities with small Jewish communities such as Jackson Hole, Wyoming (Prager has come to define “remote” as referring to a city that doesn’t have a Chabad presence). And, of course, there are the Chabad Passover Seders, the most famous of which in Kathmandu drew eleven hundred participants in 2012, the large majority of them young Israeli backpackers trekking through Nepal. Meanwhile, over eighteen hundred Jews attended Seders in six Thai cities: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Ko Samui, Phuket, Koh Phanang, and Pattaya. It is fair to assume that few people outside of Thailand can name any cities in that country aside from Bangkok, yet the Seder in Koh Phangang alone drew five hundred attendees.

What was particularly notable about the Rebbe’s willingness to dispatch disciples far away from the Lubavitch community in Brooklyn was his openness to sending them to communities that were largely nonreligious in character, where the arriving Chabad couple would have few, sometimes no, peers, and where their children’s friends would come from homes that did not keep kosher and in which their children could not eat. This was challenging and problematic in two ways. First, the family would likely feel isolated and lonely in so nonreligious an environment, and second, their children might be influenced by their peers and move away from traditional Jewish life.

In this regard, the Rebbe was fearless. The Rebbe wanted to take Judaism into the world, without being stymied by the fear that contact with nonobservant Jews or with non-Jews would diminish the observance of his emissaries and lessen their religious convictions. The prevalent attitude in the most traditional Jewish circles is to avoid, to the extent possible, the outside world and the Jews who inhabit it, a mind-set that is reflected in a Talmudic story:

“Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma said: ‘I was once walking on the road when a man met me and greeted me, and I returned his greeting.’

“Said he to me, ‘Rabbi, from what place are you?’

“I told him: ‘From a great city of scholars and scribes am I.’

“He said to me: ‘Rabbi, would you be willing to live with us in our place [and serve as our rabbi and teacher]? I would then give you a million gold denarii and precious stones and pearls.’

“I answered him: ‘Were you to give me all the silver and gold and precious stones and pearls in the world, I would live nowhere but in a place of Torah’ ” (Ethics of the Fathers 6:9).

This was precisely the sort of attitude the Rebbe rejected. True, he wanted his followers to first spend years in immersion in a yeshiva and to experience a full involvement in Jewish learning and in traditional Jewish life. But then, if there was a city devoid of Torah knowledge, they should go there. For the first time in Jewish history, a campaign was launched to reach every Jew and every Jewish community in the world. The Rebbe set a new standard with this campaign. As the former British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has expressed it: “If the Nazis searched our every Jew in hate, the Rebbe wished to search out every Jew in love.”

But it wasn’t only Jews whom the Rebbe loved, and non-Jews came to know that. One dramatic and little-known incident involved the Rebbe and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. In 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress. A powerful figure in her own right, Chisholm lacked the power to stop senior, and influential, southern Democratic congressmen, many of whom in those days were racists, from assigning her to the Agriculture Committee, an intentionally absurd appointment for a representative from Brooklyn. One New York newspaper headlined the affront: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?” Chisholm, who wanted to work on education and labor issues, was both frustrated and furious.

She soon received a phone call from the office of one of her constituents. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe would like to meet with you.” Representative Chisholm came to 770.

The Rebbe said, “I know you’re very upset.”

Chisholm acknowledged both being upset and feeling insulted. “What should I do?”

The Rebbe said: “What a blessing G‑d has given you. This country has so much surplus food and there are so many hungry people and you can use this gift that G‑d’s given you to feed hungry people. Find a creative way to do it.”

A short time later, on her first day in Congress, Chisholm met Robert Dole, the Kansas congressman who had just been elected to the senate; Dole spoke to Chisholm and expressed great concern regarding the plight of Midwestern farmers who were producing more food than they could sell and were losing money on their crops. Working with Dole and on her own, in an effort that eventually benefited millions of poor people and farmers, Chisholm greatly expanded the food stamp program. In 1973, the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act ordered that food stamps be made available “in every jurisdiction in the United States.” Chisholm played an even more critical role in the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which mandated food supplements for high-risk pregnant women and for young children at nutritional risk. Chisholm let the battle in the House, and Dole and Hubert Humphrey did so in the Senate; today some eight million people receive WIC benefits each month.

David Luchins, a twenty-year veteran of New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s staff, heard Chisholm relate the story of her meeting with the Rebbe and her work on behalf of food stamps and WIC at a 1983 retirement breakfast in her honor. As she said that morning, “A rabbi who is an optimist taught me that what you think is a challenge is a gift from G‑d.” And, she then added, “If poor babies have milk and poor children have food, it’s because this rabbi in Crown Heights had vision.”

In 1951, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the leader of Chabad, the then small movement was headquartered in one neighborhood of one borough in New York City and was not well known beyond it. During his four decades of leadership, he turned Chabad into the most dynamic and geographically diverse religious movement in Jewish history. Even more remarkably, through Chabad has remained leaderless since his death, basing itself on principles of leadership that he set in motion, it has far more than double in size. How one man came to do this is the story to which we now turn.

 

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