A new biography of the Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z”tl, is getting lots of attention. Rabbi Schneerson who died in 1994, was the last rebbe of the Lubavitcher ( Habad) hasidic dynasty. He left no heir.
“Mr. Heilman, a sociologist at Queens College, and Menachem Friedman, a professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, offer a view into his world in their new biography,“The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson” (Princeton University Press). But they have provoked a growing chorus of complaints from people inside and outside Chabad with their characterization of the rebbe.
Controversy is perhaps inevitable. “Any attempt to humanize the rebbe is going to provoke this reaction.” said Elliot R. Wolfson, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University and the author of “Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision.”
What some early readers have found most disturbing is the authors’ description of the rebbe as a not especially pious young Hasid. They argue that Rabbi Schneerson’s initial dream was to be an engineer and that he mostly absented himself from Lubavitcher affairs before World War II, living in Berlin and Paris outside of a religious Hasidic community.
Only after he escaped from Europe and arrived in the United States in 1941, when he was a childless refugee with little English and few job prospects, and millions of his people had been massacred did he see he himself as having a different mission, the book contends.
Rabbi Schneerson was a man who “must be feeling desperate in his anxiety, loneliness, confusion and survivor guilt, whose prospects are unclear, looking for a way out, an answer from God,” the authors write.”
The rebbe, as his followers call him, has been made into a larger-than-life figure by the hasidic movement he left behind him. This movement is divided into two major camps, one of which states that he is the messiah.
Neither of the groups welcome a realistic, honest portrayal of the rebbe.
However, this book does just that.