By Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz
Maggid Books, 2014, 246 pages
My Rebbe is a biography of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902-1994) Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who led the Lubavitch chassidic movement, also called “Chabad,” for forty years. The term “rebbe” was developed by the early chassidim to distinguish their spiritual leaders, who they felt had supernatural and telepathic powers, over the rabbis who are spiritual leaders of non-chassidim. Schneerson or “the rebbe” as many call him, transformed the almost moribund sect into a vital many-member world-wide group.
Like other chassidim and many non-chassidim, Chabad theology is based on mysticism, but while others attempt to hide the secrets of mysticism, fearful that it will confuse the average Jew, Chabad openly reveals and praises mystical secrets. The rebbe composed many writings filled with his understanding of mysticism. One of his first books, for example, was a calendar in which he showed that every day had its “own esoteric, mystical meanings.” Chabad also differed from other chassidim in encouraging its adherents to obtain knowledge, although like many other chassidim, it is wary of secular knowledge. In fact the name Chabad is an acronym of chachma, bina, and daat, which many understand as “facts,” “understanding of the facts,” and “knowledge.”
Steinsaltz tells about the origin of the chassidic movement in the eighteenth century and about the Chabad offshoot under Schneur Zalman of Ladi (1745-1812). He describes how the sixth rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak, the father-in-law of the seventh rebbe, settled in the US in 1940. There were “so few Chabad members (at that time) that someone would stand on the street to recruit the tenth man for afternoon prayers.”
The seventh rebbe was highly educated, including in secular subjects. Many chassidim felt that the rebbe had a serious defect because he studied secular subjects. Yet, when he arrived in the US at age 39, he worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard supervising the electrical installation of naval battleships.
Steinsaltz tells us that the rebbe did not want to accept the role as rebbe but once he was pushed to accept it, he assumed it and spent all his time doing the work, never taking a vacation during the forty years he was rebbe. He states that the rebbe was a lonely man because of his high intellect; he found it virtually impossible to form a close relationship with other people. However, he was very close to his father-in-law the sixth Rebbe and followed his customs. Steinsaltz tells readers that the sixth rebbe started the idea of sheluchim, sending chassidic emissaries throughout the world to teach chasiddus, but the seventh rebbe expanded the program and even included women as sheluchim. He continued the practice of late 10 AM morning services; encouraged girls as young as three to light Shabbat candle; encouraged women to wear beautiful wigs rather than covering their hair because the wigs were more “appealing and promoted the observance of this custom;” and much more.
Significantly, although the notion that the rebbe is the messiah is an important part even basic to the belief of a segment of Chabad, but not all members, Steinsaltz makes it clear that the rebbe never condoned the idea. He explains the difference between this group and those who reject the idea that Rabbi Schneerson was or is the messiah. He states that the rebbe unfortunately followed the custom of the prior rebbes of not naming a successor and this resulted in the tensions and discord that exists today in Chabad.
I found the book interesting as a biography and as a history of a segment of Jews, and I think that even people who are not mystically-minded will enjoy it.