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Schneersohn, Menachem Mendel

SCHNEERSOHN, MENACHEM MENDEL

SCHNEERSOHN, MENACHEM MENDEL (1902–1994), ḥasidic rabbi, head of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and a central figure in the world of Torah, Ḥasidism, and Kabbalah. Schneersohn was the seventh generation, in direct male descent of *Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of the movement and the dynasty.

Schneersohn's main teacher in Jewish studies was his father, R. Levi Isaac Schneersohn, who was rabbi of Yekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk) in southern Russia, while his mother Hannah, the daughter of R. Meir Solomon Yanovsky, rabbi of Nikolaev, took care of his general education which included Russian, French, and mathematics. In 1924 he became engaged to his relative Ḥayyah Mushka, daughter of R. Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, then leader of Chabad.

Following the intervention of various governments, his future father-in-law was permitted to leave Soviet Russia in 1926, together with all the immediate members of his family, but Menachem Mendel was refused permission. As a result of strenuous efforts by his future father-in-law, however, he was enabled to come to Warsaw in 1929, where the marriage took place. It was already hinted at the wedding that R. Joseph Isaac, who had no sons, had designated Menachem Mendel as his successor, and after the marriage he began to instruct him for his future role, especially in the manuscripts of the previous Chabad leaders, only a few of which had been revealed to the followers of the movement.

Menachem Mendel also continued with his secular studies and in 1936 came to Paris, where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and graduated in electrical engineering, after which he returned to Warsaw. In 1940 R. Joseph Isaac succeeded in escaping from war-torn Warsaw, and after an adventurous journey arrived in New York. There he immediately took steps to rescue his son-in-law, who finally arrived in New York in 1941, where he obtained a position as an electrical engineer in the United States Navy.

In 1944 his father-in-law appointed him to head the Kehath Publishing House which began to publish the basic books of the Chabad doctrine. Menachem Mendel embellished the books with a wealth of quotations, explanations, and comments which revealed his comprehensive knowledge, particularly in the field of Kabbalah and Ḥasidism. In 1946 he was appointed head of the Merkos l'Inyonei Chinuch of the Ḥabad movement and, under his direction, there were established throughout the world yeshivot and schools, both for boys and girls, in the spirit of Chabad Ḥasidism.

Immediately after the death of his father-in-law (Jan. 28, 1950 – Shevat 10, 5710) R. Menachem Mendel was appointed his successor. From then on he devoted himself to the development of the Kabbalist philosophy of Chabad Ḥasidism and energetically applied himself to spreading Jewish knowledge throughout the world. From his small office at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, he exercised control over hundreds of educational institutions, and to his headquarters there streamed pilgrimages of his admirers and those who sought answers to problems affecting the Jewish world, the State of Israel, or the world of religion as a whole, particularly in the sphere of religious mysticism. The "Rebbe," as he was universally known, laid down clear directives on all subjects.

R. Menachem Mendel displayed an ambivalent attitude towards the State of Israel; on the one hand he supported the doctrine of the right to the whole of the historic territory of the Land of Israel and forcefully objected to the surrender of any part of it, and on the other hand he vigorously criticized the way of life in Israel and negated the system of education prevailing there and even designated the State as part of the Diaspora (galut). Nor did he encourage his followers to go on aliyah. He waged a constant battle on the question "Who is a Jew?" forcefully insisting that only a person converted according to halakhah can be recognized as such. In the sphere of religious observance he demanded the wholehearted and meticulous observance of halakhah as well as of all customs sanctified by Jewish tradition. His followers are obliged to devote themselves to "spreading the fountains outside" by demonstrating both on the highways and public places in the large cities, as well as in small and neglected centers, in such details as the donning of phylacteries, the kindling of Sabbath lights, pronouncing the benediction over the lulav, the sounding of the shofar, the eating of matẓah shemurah, etc. These activities are organized as "military operations," with a fleet of vehicles which are known as "mitzvah tanks." From the Merkos l'Inyonei Chinuch there emerge streams of books, pamphlets and journals, designed for all age groups, in Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, Russian, Arabic, German, and Turkish.

The "Rebbe" did not venture abroad and did not visit Israel. A modern, up-to-date communications center was installed at his headquarters, and from it all his talks were broadcast to over 30 communities throughout the world. R. Menachem Mendel vigorously denied the validity of scientific theories on the eternity of the world and published articles in which he denied that in fossils or even in archaeological artifacts there is any evidence to support it. He also adamantly opposed interfaith discussions or compromises in Jewish practice, but maintained that every Jew has to be attracted through love and affection towards observance of Judaism.

[Shmuel Avidor Hacohen]

Although never declaring himself to be the Messiah, the fact that the Rebbe was unequivocally of the opinion that these were messianic times led many in Lubavitch to imagine that the Rebbe himself was the Messiah. By 1990, a cult of personality swelled around the Rebbe. Sidewalk vendors sold postcards, ḥasidic tracts, and every conceivable souvenir imprinted with the Rebbe's face. Some Ḥasidim took the dollars the Rebbe was in the habit of handing out and laminated the Rebbe's face over George Washington's. The messianic excitement was strongest in Crown Heights and Kefar Ḥabad. By distinct contrast, the Rebbe's thousands of emissaries outside Crown Heights almost unanimously tried to distance themselves from the messianism and downplayed its significance.

In 1993, Schneersohn suffered a stroke that left him speechless and increasingly isolated from his Ḥasidim, with rare appearances limited to his wheelchair being perched on a balcony above the synagogue in 770 Eastern Parkway. When he was sighted, his Ḥasidim below the balcony would often erupt into messianic song, and imagined that the speechless Rebbe nodded his head in approval. There were occasional attempts by some Ḥasidim to get the Rebbe to "reveal himself." But one of the Rebbe's closest aides in his secretariat, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, always insisted that the Rebbe, while deeply committed to the messianic idea, never encouraged or wanted the speculation that he was the presumptive Messiah.

Schneersohn's death punctured the messianic balloon, though it is estimated that about a quarter of the hard-core believers in Crown Heights and Kefar Ḥabad continued to maintain that Schneersohn might yet be the Messiah, despite his death, a belief that became a lightning rod for criticism from the rest of the Jewish community, including fierce criticism from the Rebbe's emissaries as well.

After the Rebbe's death, the focal point for many of Schneersohn's followers became his grave in Queens, known as the "Ohel," where the Rebbe shared an open-roofed mausoleum in the Lubavitch plot in Old Montifiore Cemetery with his predecessor and father-in-law.

In an atmosphere that evokes the Western Wall, pilgrims to the grave come around the clock to recite Psalms, light candles, and bring letters requesting the Rebbe's intercession in Heaven. Chabad supporters purchased several private homes in the Cambria Heights section of Queens, just yards from Schneersohn's resting place, for a visitors center, a meditation area, study halls, and offices for support staff. Requests for the Rebbe's blessings continue to be sent every day by e-mails or faxes from around the world. On anniversaries special to Chabad, or on the eve of Jewish holidays, the visitors number well into the thousands.

[Jonathan Mark (2nd ed.)]

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