Menachem Schneerson transformed a small sect into a world Jewish movement—but was he also the Messiah?
By DARA HORN
June 13, 2014 5:54 p.m. ET
‘Are you Jewish?” If you’ve lived in a large American city in the past 30 years and look the part, chances are that a young Hasidic man has approached you with this question. Men who answer “yes” are given a quick tutorial in donning tefillin, ritual objects worn by Jewish men during prayer; women receive Sabbath candles with instructions to recite ancient blessings. It all seems suspiciously cultlike, but these bearded enthusiasts aren’t out to convert anyone. They are emissaries of Chabad (also known as Lubavitch), a religious movement whose goal is to expose more Jews to Judaism—unconditionally.
Schneerson speaks to his followers in Brooklyn in January 1992 about the everlasting nature of the soul on the fourth anniversary of his wife’s death. Corbis Images
Their approach has succeeded in a secular age when hundreds of other Jewish organizations have failed. A recent Pew study of American Jews showed a dramatic attenuation of communal ties, and other religions have also seen declining institutional involvement, but Chabad has built thriving outposts from Anchorage to Zimbabwe, touched the lives of millions, and become ubiquitous almost to the point of comedy. On a recent trip to Australia, I discovered that the building adjacent to my hotel in Melbourne was an exact replica of 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad’s legendary Brooklyn headquarters. Two excellent new biographies of Chabad’s great 20th-century leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-94), help explain how one man turned a decimated sect into a world-wide presence.
Hasidism is a religious revival movement inspired by the spiritual crises that followed the 1648 massacres of tens of thousands of Jews in Ukraine. Led by charismatic leaders called rebbes (a variant of a Hebrew word for “teacher”) who elevated seeking God through sincere action like prayer and deeds of kindness above studying Torah. Hasidism flourished in Eastern Europe, with various dynastic courts gaining ardent followers.
In the 1780s, a rebbe named Shneur Zalman in the Belarusian town of Lubavitch founded a new Hasidic group called Chabad (a Hebrew acronym for wisdom, understanding and knowledge), distinguished for its intellectual rigor. He also began his own dynasty; leadership descended within the family through followers’ consensus. It is this mantle that Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a direct descendant of Shneur Zalman, reluctantly assumed after the death of his father-in-law Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth rebbe, in 1950. (The tangled Schneerson family tree would put the Windsors to shame.) After a year of power struggles with a brother-in-law who badly wanted the job—and whose son was later sued by Chabad for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of rare books—Schneerson became the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1951.
By all accounts, Schneerson, born in 1902 and raised in Ukraine, was gifted with extraordinary intelligence and empathy. He never studied in a yeshiva but learned Torah and Talmud with his father and reportedly committed all 63 tractates of the Talmud to memory; his close relationship with his father-in-law, whom he first met in 1923 and who was later imprisoned and exiled by the Soviets, defined his spiritual life. As a young man he studied physics, calculus and philosophy at the University of Berlin. Just before the Nazi takeover, Schneerson and his wife moved to Paris, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering. This served him well when the couple escaped to New York in 1941, where he found a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, supervising work on battleship electrical systems. Most Lubavitchers were murdered in the Holocaust; at Chabad’s new Crown Heights headquarters, people had to be pulled off the street to provide the quorum of 10 Jewish men for prayers. The new Rebbe’s worldliness—he spoke seven languages and could read more than 10—prepared him to lead not just a small sect but a movement that could reach millions.
Those who admire young Mormons who commit to two-year missions ought to be awed by Chabad shluchim (emissaries), young married couples barely in their 20s who are sent to far-flung places to build Jewish communities and serve the needs of Jewish travelers—not for two years but for their entire lives, raising their children abroad. As pre-eminent Israeli Torah scholar Adin Steinsaltz details in “My Rebbe,” this practice began with the fifth rebbe at the turn of the 20th century, who sent shluchim to outlying regions of the Russian empire. But Schneerson vastly expanded the program. Shluchim are recruited for their intelligence and ingenuity, serve voluntarily, receive no salary (they must raise funds to support themselves), and devote their lives to bringing Judaism to places where resources like kosher food or synagogues are often nonexistent.
The Rebbe insisted on maintaining shluchim in challenging circumstances. In “Rebbe,” American rabbi and author Joseph Telushkin describes a 1982 incident where the Israeli government planned to evacuate the Tunisian Jewish community after the Palestine Liberation Organization established a headquarters in Tunis. The Rebbe, citing his own intelligence sources, insisted the threat wasn’t credible. The Israelis backed down, and Chabad, along with the city’s native Jewish community, remains in Tunis today. Such persistence isn’t without risk: In 2008, shluchim in Mumbai were targeted, tortured and murdered during citywide terrorist attacks, an incident that goes unmentioned in these books. It is worth noting that this atrocity did not lead to any pullback—8,000 shluchim currently serve around the world.
Both of these biographies depict the Rebbe’s management style. One of the Rebbe’s principles, for instance, was his religiously motivated insistence on never waiting to get things done. As Mr. Telushkin recounts, in 1978 a Jewish chaplain for South African prisons visited the Rebbe and lamented that Jewish prisoners, many of whom were dissidents, had permission to observe Passover but not Hanukkah. The Rebbe suggested that the chaplain approach the director of prisons. When the chaplain noted that Hanukkah would begin the following evening, the Rebbe told him to call the director at home, even though it was after midnight in Johannesburg, so that “he would be impressed by the matter’s urgency.” The director was indeed impressed, and prisoners received Hanukkah candles the following night.
The Rebbe also held private meetings all through the night and often until dawn. Petitioners from students to senators felt the urgency of the hour as they arrived for appointments at, say, 2 a.m. Mr. Steinsaltz vividly describes the profound, almost supernatural attention that people felt they received during these encounters. “Many people who stood in the Rebbe’s presence came away feeling that they had been branded, as a being that is marked by fire and set aside; so it was with me,” he writes.
Spreading himself too thin was never the Rebbe’s concern; he responded to those who complained of being overwhelmed with “I’m also tired. So what?” The Rebbe slept no more than a few hours nightly and ate only dark chocolate while at work, which was nearly always. During the day he prayed, often at his father-in-law’s grave, prepared religious discourses (later collected in over 200 volumes), edited Chabad publications, and handled correspondence from around the world. He and his wife were childless, which greatly pained them, but they had daily tea together. According to Mr. Steinsaltz, the Rebbe once remarked that this ritual was “as important to him as putting on tefillin.” Despite running a global organization, he rarely left Crown Heights.
The Rebbe never traveled to Israel. Nonetheless, he consulted with Israeli prime ministers and generals, who sometimes regretted ignoring his advice. In 1969, he wrote a detailed letter to Gen. Ariel Sharon pointing out vulnerabilities in a particular defensive line—which was attacked by Egypt in 1973 exactly as the Rebbe had warned. Congressmen made the Rebbe’s office into a regular campaign stop. In 1982, the Rebbe met Nevada Sen. Jacob Hecht and told him to make Soviet Jewry his priority. Later, when President Reagan owed Hecht a favor, Hecht convinced Reagan to pressure Mikhail Gorbachev for Jewish emigration.
But the Rebbe’s influence stemmed less from realpolitik than insight. Shirley Chisholm, the Brooklyn representative who was the first black woman in Congress, told the Rebbe of her dismay at being relegated to the agriculture committee. The Rebbe suggested: “You can use the gift God’s given you to feed hungry people.” Chisholm would go on to spearhead children’s food-stamp programs that still feed millions.
These two books, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s death, take very different approaches to their subject. Mr. Steinsaltz, writing from a deeply religious perspective, vividly describes Chabad’s history and the Rebbe’s achievements, interspersing biographical facts with musings on spirituality that can be quite moving. “My Rebbe” gives a rich sense of Hasidic history and ideas, as well as the Rebbe’s spiritual impact. Mr. Telushkin’s book is more journalistic, and a more accessible choice for the non-Jewish or nonreligious reader. It will appeal to those curious about the Rebbe’s influence on public life, and Mr. Telushkin is particularly strong on the Rebbe’s impact on Soviet Jewry, Israel-Diaspora relations and American politics. He includes many revealing anecdotes, along with the Rebbe’s thoughts on subjects ranging from evolution to baseball. (Mr. Telushkin also provides a timeline appendix that could be a book in itself.)
Both authors exhibit a frank admiration for the Rebbe, even when addressing his movement’s flaws. Not everyone appreciates Chabad’s assertiveness: Native Jewish communities in places where shluchim are sent don’t always welcome Chabad’s incursions, and after the Rebbe’s death a narrow slice of Lubavitchers who regarded him as a messianic figure gave the movement its own extremist fringe. Yet as Mr. Telushkin explains, the Rebbe repeatedly denied he was the Messiah. In 1965, he ordered an elderly Lubavitcher who had scattered messianic fliers around Tel Aviv to collect and destroy every flier. Mr. Telushkin relates that when an emissary presented the Rebbe with a letter addressing him as “King Messiah,” the Rebbe threw “it down in frustration, and wrote on it, ‘Tell him that when the Moshiach comes, I will give him the letter.’ ” When a journalist asked point-blank if he were the Messiah, the Rebbe answered: “I am not.” Still, Mr. Steinsaltz admits that, like other Lubavitchers, “while he was alive, I believed that he could be [the Messiah]. That is, I believed in the potential of his candidacy.”
To be fair, Lubavitchers who saw their Rebbe as the Messiah were influenced by his own mission: For the Rebbe, the entire goal of human life was to bring about the world’s redemption, and he interpreted the atrocities the Jews had suffered in the 20th century as the birthpangs of a messianic age. What comes through in his countless public talks, Mr. Telushkin writes, “is his passion and insistence that world redemption via the Messiah must happen soon and that people must do everything in their power to influence it to happen. He would speak about this time and again, often with tears and barely suppressed sobs.” Yet he would appoint no heir to take his place.
Judaism has many traditions regarding a future Messiah; none of them allow the Messiah to die, which the Rebbe did in 1994. This did not stop some Lubavitchers from believing, in grief-related denial, that their deceased leader would somehow return and redeem the world—a belief that sparked a schism within the Chabad movement. Here Mr. Steinsaltz’s book is particularly helpful, describing a concept of life after death that includes a person’s legacy in the here and now. The Rebbe, he writes, “implanted his spirit in so many people that . . . his insights and his singular passionate desire to change the world continue.” Mr. Telushkin and Mr. Steinsaltz both respectfully dismiss Chabad’s messianic margin today as, in Mr. Telushkin’s term, a “nonissue.”
These two books, while mesmerizing, are not objective works of criticism. Mr. Steinsaltz is a Lubavitcher Hasid who had a close relationship with the Rebbe: His book opens not with a catchy anecdote but with a discussion of eschatology. While this may alienate skeptics, Mr. Steinsaltz sensitively examines the Rebbe’s spiritual gifts, particularly his track record of “miracles.” In one example, Mr. Steinsaltz recounts how Jean Sulzberger of the New York Times publishing family approached the Rebbe, concerned that she felt distanced from God. The Rebbe told her to see a doctor. She did and discovered she had cancer. “One may describe this as a miracle,” Mr. Steinsaltz writes, “or one could say that this story reflects the Rebbe’s deep understanding of human nature.”
Mr. Telushkin’s father was the Rebbe’s personal accountant and friend. But he, too, is under the Rebbe’s sway—and movingly so. The Rebbe, the author relates, once called Mr. Telushkin’s hospitalized father to bother him with an accounting question. To the author, it seemed intrusive, but his father was enlivened and cheered. It was a calculated gesture typical of the Rebbe’s “moral imagination,” honoring each individual’s need to feel needed.
For all his immense achievements, the Rebbe’s power ultimately came from a simple message that anyone can appreciate. As Mr. Telushkin puts it: “Love your fellow, and not just those who agree with you.”
—Ms. Horn’s most recent novel is “A Guide for the Perplexed.”