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 spent 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 noone 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 gives?
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 faith.
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 Judaism.
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.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, has just published ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ His website is www.shmuley.com. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.