Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s wisdom and sound counsel were sought by ordinary citizens and world leaders alike
By: Deborah Fineblum
When Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson—known universally as “the Rebbe”—passed away 25 years ago, skeptics predicted the end of the forward growth and momentum of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement he had led for four decades.
It seems that the Chabad movement knew of what it spoke when asserting then that the Rebbe’s innovative and inspiring teachings would prove lasting to a world that craves inspiration.
As his 25th yahrtzeit was marked internationally last month, a number of new books emerged in various languages from a variety of publishers and different vantage points.
The following three capture different glimpses of the Rebbe’s teachings and wisdom, adding new pieces of the puzzle that is his enduring influence, both for the Jewish people and beyond.
‘One by One: Stories of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’
One by One: Stories of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Jewish Educational Media, $19.95), describes 66 first-person oral recollections of late-night private audiences with the Rebbe (yechidus) culled from hundreds published over the years in Chabad’s weekly “Here’s My Story” newsletters. Through these anecdotes, the leader who rarely left Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., emerges as a personal counselor in touch with the modern world, yet one who also conveys age-old wisdom, revealing the potential in all who came to seek his advice.
“I looked at the Rebbe, and his eyes were filled with such kindness that I opened up and started talking to him as if he were my father,” relates Rose Schrage of Brooklyn. “The Rebbe kept me there for a long time, listening to me and offering advice. I went into his office in a terrible state, but I went out a totally different, much calmer person.”
Schrage was far from the only one. From an angry witness of the Holocaust’s devastation to a Broadway actor, many of this book’s subjects speak of the power of the Rebbe’s gaze, the uncanny knack he had of illuminating each life and the sense he gave visitors of being deeply cared for. “I felt as though I had been in a dark room, and the Rebbe had turned on the light,” says David Stauber of Los Angeles.
His love of all Jews, irrespective of their level of observance, was experienced firsthand by the newly graduated Rabbi Marvin Tokayer when the Rebbe sent him to strengthen Judaism in the Far East. “You must be open to everyone, and everyone should know that you are their friend,” he told Tokayer. “They need to know that they can come to you, and that you’ll go to them if they need you. Whether they attend shul or not, you should be interested in them and concerned about them.”
In addition to a depth of knowledge in fields from science and technology to military strategy, psychology and medicine, the Rebbe apparently possessed an uncanny memory, with many marveling at his remembering their names, their families and even their personal requests or situations decades later.
At the same time, the Rebbe also appears to lack the ego so common is a world leader. When he told the late Ariel Sharon that Jewish identity must be coupled with Torah observance, he added, “I, too, am not complete in the mitzvot. The fact that I do not live in the Land of Israel makes me incomplete.”
Sharon says, “I saw greatness in hearing such words from him.”
While this book is not an official compendium of his wisdom, like its primary subject, it contains entire lifetimes of applicable guidance and wisdom for readers of all ages and backgrounds.
‘Positivity Bias: Practical Wisdom for Positive Living Inspired by the Life and Teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’
Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson takes another approach in Positivity Bias: Practical Wisdom for Positive Living Inspired by the Life and Teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Chabad.org/Ezra Press $19.95). In these pages (the book is now already in its third printing), the author of the classic guidebook for mourners, A Time to Heal: The Rebbe’s Response to Loss and Tragedy, reveals how the wisdom of the Rebbe continues to uplift and transform lives.
Kalmenson appears at first to narrow his focus to one particular teaching of the Rebbe, into which he delves ever more deeply. But in so doing, he actually expands the reader’s horizons to recognize the seemingly limitless application of a deceptively simple premise: “Living a life of positivity is a matter of choice, not circumstance, and derives from perspective, not personality.”
Stitching together little-known stories illustrating the Rebbe’s “positivity bias,” the author offers a primer destined to inspire readers, whether or not they are familiar with the Rebbe’s wisdom.
One woman wrote that in the week of preparations for her daughter’s wedding, her own mother passed away. In her grief and confusion—and feeling as if her daughter’s wedding was ruined—she reached out to the Rebbe.
He counseled her to view the situation differently: “ … One could say that G-d orchestrated your daughter’s wedding to be in proximity to your mother’s passing to make it easier for you to cope with the loss, seeing the growth of your family and the perpetuation of your mother’s legacy.”
In another section, the Rebbe takes exception with someone describing his “lost Judaism.”
“ … No person can lose something that is his or her true essence and inner nature. What is possible is that this true essence is sometimes in a state of ‘suspended animation,’ or covered over with various layers of foreign substances, even [such] that are at variance with this essence. But this essence can never be ‘lost’; it can only be dormant, as it were, instead of being active and expressed on the surface as it should be.”
In the case of a little boy who stubbornly refuses the Rebbe’s gift, the Rebbe remarks kindly, “This is a good sign! He is not someone who craves money.”
Kalmenson also includes a poignant meeting with Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel that left an indelible impression on the eventual Nobel Prize laureate and guided him in forging forward with life, despite the enormous pain and suffering he had witnessed and endured.
Optimism, however, doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it cannot self-generate. As such, Kalmenson writes that the Rebbe firmly believed that positivity is “indissolubly bound up with one’s faith in G-d’s ability to manifest a positive outcome.”
‘Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World’
If the above works describe the Rebbe as empowering personal counselor, Philip Wexler’s Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World (with co-contributors Eli Rubin and Michael Wexler; Herder & Herder, $34.95) makes a much bolder argument about the impact and vitality of the Rebbe’s teachings, not only on individuals and for Jews, but as an advanced system to achieve societal repair.
Not intended as a leisurely endeavor, readers need to pay attention to grasp the full arc of its arguments. (And unlike the other two books, in this one he is referred to as “Schneerson.”)
Wexler, an acclaimed expert on social theory, education and religion, whose 18 books emerge from a nearly five-decade academic career as dean, chairman and founder of university departments, details the Rebbe as global social innovator.
Describing him early on as “not only a charismatic religious leader, but also a scholar, mystic and philosopher,” Wexler adds that the Rebbe also made his mark on this world as “an engineer of social change, engagement and participation,” who “provided a complete blueprint for a new mode of being in the world.”
With no small measure of ambition, Wexler sets out to “get ‘under the hood’ and understand not only the theoretical and practical axioms of [the Rebbe’s] tactical agenda, but [nothing less than] the full extent of his vision for society.”
Wexler juxtaposes the Rebbe’s socio-mystical ethos against the Protestant ethos diagnosed by sociologist Max Weber, positing that the Rebbe’s worldview can become “the new foundation for a sacralized global society.”
The author further explores the Rebbe’s ideal of “reciprocity,” in which every one of the world’s citizens is both a giver and receiver in a myriad of ways. He writes that the Rebbe’s regular distribution of dollars, beginning in 1986, was designed for passing on that gift to someone in need: “The recipient was transformed into a giver.”
Along the way, Wexler traces the Rebbe’s thinking about some of the major questions of the day, such as what role should religion have in civil society? How should the United States see its role in the world at large? How involved should government be in public education? What is the purpose of education? He also visits the Rebbe’s uniquely positive (for an Orthodox rabbi) view of the women’s movement and the youth rebellions of the 1960s and ’70s, as well as his (often surprising) positions on such contemporary issues as gun control, criminal justice and the environment.
The author argues that the Rebbe “deserves to be seen not as a starry-eyed messianic herald, but as a clear-eyed engineer of social revitalization and repair.”
Once immersed in Wexler’s tour de force, the reader, too, emerges with a new understanding of society’s great potential, along with the Rebbe’s action plan of how to get there.
The literary takeaway
The reader is left with the impression that none of these books could have been penned in 1994 or even 2000. It would have been too early. Time was necessary to gain a certain perspective, in order for the Rebbe’s legacy to mature and much of his vision come to fruition.
And, as different as the three volumes are, one message unites them: the Rebbe’s love for every Jew and for every person—for his great belief that human beings can always do good, perform better and work to bring more light to overcome the darkness in the world.
Wexler quotes from the Rebbe’s acceptance of the mantel of Chabad leadership in January 1951: “There is love of God and there is love of Torah and there is love of the Jewish people, and these three things are all one,” making it clear that “love of God alone, without any anchor in the physical world” is “empty of substance.”
Calling Ahavat Yisrael, the unconditional love and acceptance of one’s fellow, “the cornerstone of (the Rebbe’s) unceasing effort to heal and revitalize the Jewish people in the aftermath of the horrors of the Holocaust,” Kalmenson relates the story of an elderly woman waiting for a blessing and a dollar. “When her turn finally arrived, she could not contain herself and blurted out, “Rebbe! I’ve been standing here for only an hour and I’m already exhausted. You have been standing here for hours and hours, how do you not get tired?” The Rebbe smiled gently and said, “When you are counting diamonds, you don’t get tired.”
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