Schneerson, Menachem Mendel

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Schneerson, Menachem Mendel

(b. 18 April 1902 in Nikolayev, Russia (now Ukraine); d. 12 June 1994 in New York City), the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe (rabbi), who was considered the spiritual leader of the Chabad branch of Hasidim from 1950 until his death and was regarded by many of his followers as the Messiah.

Schneerson was the eldest of three sons born to Rabbi Levi Isaac Schneerson and Chana Yanovsky and was named for his great-grandfather, the third Grand Rabbi of Lubavitch, Russia. His father, a direct descendant of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady, Russia—the founder of Chabad Hasid-ism (the school of thought that gives emphasis to wisdom, knowledge, and understanding in the study of the Torah)—served as chief rabbi of the Russian city of Yekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk) when the family moved there in 1905. In December 1928, in Warsaw, Poland, Menachem Schneerson wed his distant cousin, Chaya Mushka Schneersohn, the daughter of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (Lubavitcher Hasidim are a sect of Hasidic Jews who follow the virtues of Chabad), Rabbi Yosef I. Schneersohn; they had no children. After his marriage, the young Rabbi Schneerson followed an unusual course of study for a Hasidic rabbi. He studied mathematics and science at the University of Berlin and continued with his studies at the Sorbonne and at a Parisian engineering college until 1938. Faced with the spread of Nazism in Europe, Schneerson and his wife emigrated from France to the United States in 1941, where they joined Chaya’s father, who had settled in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in 1940. Once in the United States, Schneerson began to rebuild the Lubavitcher community, which had witnessed its center in Poland and its followers decimated by the Nazis. (The Lubavitcher Hasidim are ultra-Orthodox Jews who strictly observe the laws of the Torah. They keep kosher, do not travel on the Sabbath or major Jewish holidays, and generally devote their leisure time to the study of the Torah. Many of them are professionals, although most do not pursue a college education because it takes time away from the study of the Torah.)

In 1942 Schneerson was appointed the director of Lu-bavitch publishing, known as Kehot Publication Society, and Lubavitch educational activities, known as the Merkos Linonei Chinuch. He also headed up Machne Israel, the social services organization. Following Rabbi Yosef Schneer-sohn’s death, Schneerson, in 1951, was formally installed as the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.

As rebbe, Schneerson reached out to assimilated Jews and received support from non-Hasidic and even non-Orthodox Jews. With their assistance, Schneerson launched an ambitious program of disseminating the “Lubavitch way,” or specifically Chabad Hasidism, among all sectors of American and world Jewry. Under his leadership, the Lubavitch set up Hebrew day schools in various cities in the United States and Canada. By the early 1970s, the Lubavitch movement was establishing so-called Chabad houses throughout America, which served as synagogues, schools, and drug-counseling centers, with the objective of reaching out to college-age youth. In 1990, there were more than 250 such houses throughout the country. In addition, the Lubavitch movement launched an extensive media campaign to spread its message. For example, they published textbooks and periodicals and broadcast the rebbe’s speeches over radio and cable television.

Aside from promoting the teaching of this kind of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Schneerson also organized the Baal Te-shuva movement, an organization that helped tens of thousands of American Jews return to their faith. Schneerson’s views were formulated in lengthy weekly discourses on a diverse range of subjects, including Hasidism, rabbinic thought, and political issues. His discourses usually were presented at the Farbrengen, or gatherings, before his followers on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. These gatherings were held at his headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, which consists primarily of a population of Hispanics, African Americans, and Hasidic Jews. (The Eastern Parkway address is now the headquarters of the worldwide Lubavitcher movement and was the rebbe’s home until his death.) In addition, Schneerson was a highly regarded rabbinic scholar whose opinion on Jewish law was widely sought throughout the world of Orthodox Judaism.

Although he eschewed ecumenical dialogue, Schneerson taught that Gentiles were crucial for the world’s redemption. Not interested in converting Christians to Judaism, he encouraged non-Jews to observe the seven Noahide Commandments, believing that the Jews were ultimately responsible for the moral welfare of their Gentile brethren. (As listed in the bible, the Noahide Commandments include the belief in God; prohibitions on murder, thievery, illicit sexual relations, using God’s name in vain, and eating a portion of a living animal; as well as the commandment to establish a just system of law. All human beings are bound by these commandments.) Through his writings and public statements, he also advocated a moment of silence in the public schools and favored federal aid to religious schools.

Although he never set foot on Israeli soil, Schneerson was a major political force and a firm supporter of the Jewish state. He adopted a rigid position on the question of Israel’s occupied territories, believing that the Bible and Jewish law prohibited the return of these lands. He opposed the Camp David accords (1979), which returned the Sinai to Egypt as part of the overall peace between Israel and Egypt. In the spring of 1990, during the Israeli elections, Schneerson urged select Orthodox members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, not to help the Labor Party form a government that would have supported the Baker plan (sponsored by the United States and named after Secretary of State James Baker), which called for a peace conference to negotiate the question of Palestinian autonomy. Subsequently, Schneerson condemned the Oslo accords (1993), which he feared would lead Israel to cede land to the Palestinians.

Following Schneerson’s death in 1994, his followers opposed Shimon Peres, who had promised to continue the peace process initiated by the assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. On the eve of the 1996 Israeli election, the Lubavitch movement put up thousands of posters with the words “Bibi Is Good for the Jews.” Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu was the head of the Conservative Likud Party that believed in slowing down the policy of Land for Peace, a policy that Schneerson believed would scuttle the peace process. Netanyahu became prime minister, defeating the Labor Party candidate, Shimon Peres. Schneerson also failed to persuade the Knesset to change Israel’s Law of Return (the law that states that any Jewish person can attain automatic Israeli citizenship), so that conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis would be invalidated. (Orthodox Jews do not accept conversions by non-Orthodox Jews because they are believed to deviate from the laws of the Torah.) Ironically, many of Schneerson’s opponents on this issue were Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders in the United States, some of whom were financial backers of the Lubavitch movement.

In the 1980s, Schneerson came under attack by an array of Orthodox rabbinical leaders for fostering a cult of personality and for implying that he was the Messiah. By the 1980s, Schneerson’s campaigns and speeches had become marked by a messianic fervor. Indeed, the semiofficial Lubavitch motto was “We Want Messiah Now.” In the months before his death, the Lubavitch movement was divided between those followers who believed he was the Messiah, though he had mildly discouraged such belief, and those who wanted to put an end to such speculation.

As Schneerson grew older and suffered a heart attack (in 1976), speculation grew as to who would succeed the childless rebbe. He had given no indication concerning how to handle the problem of succession. In 1994 Schneerson died of complications resulting from a stroke; he is buried in Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, New York. At the time of his death he had not designated a successor as spiritual leader, and there was considerable discussion among the Lubavitcher about whether there even would be a successor—at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was still no successor. (The movement has split between those who believe that Schneerson will return as the Messiah and those who think this is a form of heresy.)

Under his charismatic leadership, Rabbi Schneerson transformed the Lubavitch movement from an obscure ultra-Orthodox sect into the fastest-growing and most influential Hasidic group in the United States as well as a major force in American Jewish life. At the end of the twentieth century, the Lubavitch movement numbered about 200,000 followers around the world, with an estimated $100 million a year in contributions.

There is no biography of Rabbi Schneerson. The bulk of his homilies, sermons, lectures, and writings are in Hebrew and has not been translated into English. One work in English that provides the reader with the flavor of Schneerson’s thought is his Toward A Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe, adapted by Rabbi Simon Jacobson (1995). Magazine articles on Schneerson include “The Oracle of Crown Heights,” by Michael Specter, New York Times Magazine (15 Mar. 1992), and “Rabbi Menachem Schneerson: Waiting for the Rebbe,” by Clyde Haberman, New York Times Magazine (1 Jan. 1995). An obituary is in the New York Times (13 June 1994). For general information on Hasidism, see Lis Harris, Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family (1985), and William Shaffir, Life in a Religious Community: The Lubavitcher Chassidim in Montreal (1974).

Jack R. Fischel

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Schneerson, Menachem Mendel

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