NEW YORK, NY – He is considered one of the greatest Jewish thinkers and scholars of the modern era. His photograph is ubiquitous in certain Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, some of which even consider him the messiah. His charisma, drive, and devotion have inspired emissaries to establish Jewish welcoming homes in over 3,000 locations worldwide.
And, according to a recently published biography, this man, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (“the Rebbe”)—the seventh and final leader of the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty—was actually a bit of a charlatan.
While neither my boss nor I are members of Chabad, one of the main tasks of my internship this summer has been to help my supervisor defend Schneerson’s reputation from two academics who believe that he was not quite as immaculate as he appeared. Published last month, their contentious biography seeks to provide an answer to the mystery that has long surrounded Schneerson’s life. Even after his death in 1994, the Rebbe remained an enigma, a leader who left behind reams of scholarship but very little insight into his personal psyche.
In a provocative thesis that has incensed many of Schneerson’s followers, the book posits that the Rebbe took on the role as head of a rabbinic dynasty primarily because it was steady work. In fact, the authors argue, for most of his formative years Schneerson was uninterested in the Hasidic lifestyle, dreaming instead of becoming a secular-minded engineer in Paris. After he assumed his post, however, the book asserts, Schneerson used his charisma and various “mystification” techniques to enhance his standing in the eyes of his followers, eventually leading some to champion him as the ultimate Jewish savior.
While prominent Jewish intellectuals outside the Chabad community have praised the book as “extraordinary” and “masterful,” those who dig a bit deeper will see that the book is rife with shoddy scholarship.
For example, the authors claim that Schneerson never wanted to pursue a life related to his Hasidic upbringing while blatantly ignoring reams of correspondence filled with Judaic lore that Schneerson exchanged with his Hasidic father and father-in-law. They also assert, based on a single photograph, that Schneerson was so proud of receiving his engineering degree that while in France he wrote his return address as “Eng. M. Schneerson.” Apparently, they misread the word in the photo—what they actually saw was “Exp. M. Schneerson,” shorthand for “expéditeur,” sender, as in “return to sender.”
Since most of the major figures to come to the Rebbe’s aid so far have been his own emissaries (one of whom penned a brilliant 45-page rebuttal to the book), the authors have been able to shrug off criticism effortlessly. “To believers,” they write, “it cannot be that the man who stands between them and God could have had a life like any other.” For this reason, what my supervisor and I eventually do with our information is crucial to the debate. My supervisor does not wish to be named, but suffice it to say that he has previously written for Slate and New York magazine.
Dismantling the thesis of this biography has been quite challenging and tedious, but also immensely fulfilling. Students and academics seem to spend so much time criticizing leaders historically held in high esteem that it is refreshing for once to help set the record straight by repairing a reputation. Indeed, by discovering and writing the truth about Schneerson, I feel as though I am, in effect, saving his afterlife.
Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.