Schneerson, Menachem M.
SCHNEERSON, MENACHEM M.
SCHNEERSON, MENACHEM M. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994) was the seventh-generation leader of the Habad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement in the period following World War II who played a significant role in the modern Jewish world. He was born in Nikolayev, Ukraine, to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Schneerson (1878–1944) and Chana Yanowsky (1880–1964). In 1909 the family moved to Yekatrinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk) where Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, a noted Talmudic and qabbalistic scholar, was appointed Hasidic chief rabbi.
Menachem Mendel was named for his paternal ancestor the third Lubavitcher Rebbe (1789–1866), grandson of Rabbi Schneʾur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), the founder of the Habad-Lubavitch school of Hasidism. He was given a traditional Jewish education with private tutors and also studied at the Talmudic Academy (yeshivah ) in Yekatrinoslav, headed for a time by the Vilna Talmudist Rabbi Haim Ozer Grodzinsky (1863–1940). Menachem Mendel was regarded as a brilliant scholar with a wide grasp of languages and general studies as well as of Jewish thought. He came in contact with the leading Talmudist Rabbi Joseph Rozin (1858–1936), the gaon (genius) of Rogachov, whose writings he would often quote.
In the 1920s he began to associate closely with his relative Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn (1880–1950), the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was endeavouring to preserve traditional Jewish observance in the secularist USSR, and was consequently arrested in 1927 and expelled from Russia. Menachem Mendel married Schneersohn's daughter Chaya Mussya (1901–1988) in 1928.
The couple lived in Berlin and, from 1933, in Paris. In both cities Rabbi Menachem Mendel attended university courses, earning a diploma in electrical engineering from the Ecole Speciale des Travaux Publiques engineering college in Paris. He was also involved in editing the Habad rabbinic journal Ha Tamim, published in Warsaw from 1935 to 1939. This combination of secular study with traditional Torah knowledge was unusual in the Eastern European Hasidic movement, which championed the exclusive study of the Talmud and related literature. The Habad branch of Hasidism had always emphasized rationality. The term Habad (popular spelling: Chabad ) is an acronym of three Hebrew words meaning wisdom, understanding, knowledge. The combination of "worldly" knowledge with intensive religious concern was to characterize Rabbi Menachem Mendel's later work as a religious leader.
When World War II broke out Rabbi Joseph Isaac was trapped in Poland and Menachem Mendel in France. Eventually the U.S. branch of Habad managed to rescue both rabbis and some of the members of their families; other relatives perished in the Holocaust. Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his wife reached New York in 1941.
In the United States, based in Brooklyn, Rabbi Joseph Isaac tried to promote traditional Jewish education and practice among American Jews, with the motto: "America is not different." His older son-in-law Rabbi Samarias Gurary (d.1989) headed an advanced Talmudic Academy (yeshivah ) and a network of Jewish schools. This endeavour was paralleled by similar work undertaken by other Jewish leaders who had escaped from Europe, although the Lubavitch yeshivah included qabbalistic Hasidic teachings in its curriculum.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel, with the support of his father-in-law, embarked on a different course, undertaking the singular task that was to dominate the remainder of his life: the attempt to turn the tide of Jewish assimilation; to regenerate traditional Jewish values and practice; and to find "lost Jews" wherever they might be. His father-in-law created for him, or appointed him to lead, publicist and activist organizations with goals such as promoting religious education for American Jewish children, including those in the public school system; setting up Jewish schools for girls; providing spiritual outreach to Jewish farmers and soldiers; and making contact with Jewish men and women in outlying communities. Thus during the 1940s a number of Lubavitch emissaries were sent from Brooklyn to work as rabbis and teachers in locations around the United States.
In January 1950 Rabbi Joseph Isaac passed away and was succeeded, after a period of uncertainty, by Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who became the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. Over the next four decades he became known for his outreach work, which was creating a global phenomenon of unparalleled proportions in the Jewish community. Through his many emissaries (some three thousand before his death) he aimed to address assimilated Jews and also those who felt staunchly Jewish but did not observe all the distinctive mitsvot (traditional observances).
Many traditional Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe tried to protect themselves from the secularization of their new society by living in closed, homogenous communities. Rabbi Schneerson, through his rabbinic teachings, appealed to this group to open its borders to less observant Jews. In 1952 he wrote an open letter addressed to students at all yeshivot asking them to befriend and communicate with other Jews less observant than themselves. Over the years he repeatedly claimed that the Jewish people are one, despite apparent differences in observance and belief. A favorite image was the idea that the individual members of the Jewish people are like the letters of a Torah scroll: if one letter is missing, the entire scroll is unfit for use; each individual is essential.
To help foster Jewish religious identity, he established Lubavitch outreach organisations, which made contact with Jews on college campuses and in less-traditional communities. Adult education programs were created, including special yeshivot providing supplementary Jewish education for hitherto acculturated Jews. Kfar Chabad, a large village of Chabad followers in Israel, presented itself as a welcoming showcase of tradition for many Israelis.
A key issue for Schneerson was combating the widespread idea that modern science had displaced traditional Jewish belief. In a 1952 letter addressed to a scientist in Israel he employed the concept of axioms to argue that science provides what he called a narrative, but not truth. Science generates a narrative in that if you agree to such-and-such a set of axioms, factors x and y are likely to result in z. However, if you change the axioms, a different result may ensue. He contrasted this relativistic view of science with what he saw as the truth of the Torah. He also claimed that scientific advances and Torah teachings, especially as interpreted in Hasidic thought, were approaching the same goal. He encouraged artists and writers to believe that their creative talent could strengthen Judaism. Through letters and personal contact he maintained close relationships with thousands of individuals in many walks of life, including academics, military figures, politicians, and members of the wider public, as well as prominent rabbis, always endeavouring to increase people's religious observance and, more particularly, to encourage them to become spiritual leaders themselves.
This effort, combined with other factors, such as the moral turbulence of the sixties and the 1967 Six-Day War, which brought the Temple site in Jerusalem back into Jewish hands, contributed to the creation of a Return to Judaism movement. In talks and letters Menahem Mendel presented the outreach ideal as a central facet of Orthodoxy, citing an early Hasidic motif (with strong messianic connotations) of "spreading the wellsprings to the outside" in an effort to combat what he saw as the imminent dissolution of traditional Jewish values and practice among most Jewish people. Traditional Lubavitch values such as love of your fellow and accepting people despite their spiritual failings were important in this process. The Return to Judaism movement eventually grew far beyond Lubavitch and is now a major focus in the work of many other Jewish movements.
Rabbi Schneerson also addressed the non-Jewish world. Controversially, he campaigned to promote a moment of silence for spiritual reflection in the U.S. public schools, and drew attention to a statement by Maimonides that the Jews have the duty to communicate the Seven Noahide Laws—the basic elements of biblical religious morality, including respect for the sanctity of life and traditional sexual ethics—to the larger society around them.
At the same time he campaigned for adherence to the traditional formulation of Jewish identity: one born of a Jewish mother or converted in accordance with strict Jewish law. He thus tried to present the controversial and almost self-contradictory idea that a Jew should be a person who lives according to seemingly exclusivist traditional laws, but at the same time feels a sense of responsibility to Gentile society.
In Hasidic gatherings Rabbi Schneerson would frequently give scholarly talks which were transcribed by a team of rabbis. His edited writings fill more than a 150 volumes in Hebrew and Yiddish and include commentary on the Pentateuch, discussions of the Talmud and Zohar, qabbalistic Hasidic discourses, and some thirty volumes of letters.
His teachings expound traditional Jewish-Hasidic ideals such as the spiritual virtues of loving one's fellows, Torah study, and prayer and fulfilment of the mitsvot. He discusses issues particularly relevant to modernity, such as faith versus reason, the role of the woman, and the significance of the individual. Negative aspects of people ("sins") are viewed as an opportunity for repentance, and this and all other positive values are presented as leading to the redemption of the individual and ultimately of the whole world.
During the 1980s Rabbi Schneerson developed the concept of Chabad House. This is a house run by a rabbi and his wife sharing the role of spiritual leadership, which aims to combine the hospitality of the home with the sanctity of the synagogue. A Chabad House can be seen as rivaling the more formal synagogue on the one hand and the less religiously rigorous Hillel House or Jewish Center on the other. Rabbi Schneerson's emissaries run Chabad Houses in almost every country where there are Jews. In some cases, his Jewish outreach work had to be more discreet. During the Cold War he maintained secret contact with the Jews of the USSR. After the fall of Communism Lubavitch schools and other institutions have flourished throughout the former Soviet Union.
A central feature of Rabbi Schneerson's teaching was the empowerment of women, claiming that each woman has the ability—in some ways greater than that of a man—to change the world. This contrasts with conventional Jewish Orthodoxy and especially Hasidism, which are often described as casting women in a secondary role. Women continue to have a key place in the Lubavitch movement.
The founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (d.1760), had been told in a visionary experience that the Messiah would come when his Hasidic teachings had spread to "the outside." Rabbi Schneerson hoped that the global attempts by his followers to strengthen Jewish observance and spread Hasidic teachings would indeed lead to the messianic Redemption. After the passing of his wife in 1988, Rabbi Schneerson wrote a legal, anticipating his own demise, will but also began to teach that the messianic transformation was imminent. His messianic teachings intensified during his last years. In 1991 he interpreted the Gulf War in messianic terms. He described yearning for the Messiah as a key element in the spirituality of Judaism.
A highly controversial result of these teachings was to generate a movement focused on him as the potential messianic redeemer. Observers are divided as to whether this was his deliberate intention. A faction of his followers initiated a poster campaign depicting him as the Messiah, which still continues, undeterred by his death in 1994. The campaign has been repeatedly condemned by the official leadership of Lubavitch, and, in his lifetime, by Rabbi Schneerson himself. Many voices have been raised against these messianists from various sectors of the Jewish community, some comparing them with Jewish messianists of the past, such as the followers of the seventeenth-century Shabbatai Tzvi. Others point out that unlike the Shabbatians they are in no way antinomian and that the phenomenon underlines the messianic element in Hasidism, of which there are several examples in the nineteenth century. Within the Habad movement the more extreme messianists are seen as negating Menahem Mendel's outreach ideal. They are accused of promoting only the overtly messianic teachings communicated in his talks from 1990 to 1992, and ignoring the main body of his writings.
Despite the internal and external controversies this final messianic thrust produced, since his death the Lubavitch movement has continued to grow. He left no children and no designated successor and, seemingly by unanimous consent among his followers, none has been appointed. His will designated the central committee of the Chabad movement as the trustees of his affairs. That body, based in Brooklyn, provides the centralized focus for the worldwide outreach movement he created.
His life combined contrasts: Talmudic and Jewish mysticism combined with secular education; a miracle-working Hasidic rebbe who reached out to the Reform Jew and the unaffiliated; a practical organizer and activist who was also seen as a mystical Messiah. He sought to bring Jewish spirituality out of its self-imposed ghetto enclave and into the public domain. His voluminous teachings, many recorded on audio-tape and video, remain as evidence of a rare combination of Jewish law, tradition, mysticism, and modernity.
Torah Studies (London, 1986), by British chief rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks, provides an in-depth view of Rabbi Schneerson's discussions of the Bible and rabbinic sources, combining both spiritual and socially relevant levels of interpretation. The Letter and the Spirit (New York, 1998) is an anthology of Rabbi Schneerson's English letters on various topics, edited by Rabbi Dr. Nisan Mindel, his secretary of many years. Simon Jacobson's Towards a Meaningful Life: The Teachings of the Rebbe (New York, 1995) extracts his personal, spiritual, and social directives from their rabbinic context and presents them in the form of a universal guide to life. Dr Aryeh Solomon's The Educational Teachings of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (Northvale, N.J., 2000) provides an academic investigation of his unusually positive approach as an educationalist. For an informed and scholarly account of the messianic movement that arose around him, see Professor Rachel Elior's "The Lubavitch Messianic Resurgence: The Historical and Mystical Background, 1939–1996" in Toward the Millenium: Messianic Expectations from the Bible to Waco, edited by Peter Schafer and Mark R. Cohen (Leiden, Netherlands, 1998).
Naftali Loewenthal (2005)
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