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REVIEWS: Trying To Grasp the Rebbe

By , New York

To one biographer, he was a world leader who shaped a worldwide movement; to his student, the Rebbe was a tzaddik, a personal link to a higher reality.  

My Rebbe/Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz/Maggid, 2014. 246 pp

Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History/Joseph Telushkin/HarperCollins, 2014. 617 pp

SOME 25 YEARS AGO my husband and I hosted a symposium at Cornell University celebrating the legacy of Maimonides. My uncle, Rabbi Immanuel Schochet, of blessed memory, was the guest speaker, and he opened the session by describing the towering accomplishments of Maimonides: doctor to sultans, teacher of his community and correspondent with Jewish communities around the world, medical researcher, statesman, philosopher, and codifier of the first encyclopedic treatment of Jewish law. How was it possible for him to excel at so many things? And how can we reconcile the worldly, intellectually sophisticated Maimonides of The Guide to the Perplexed with the man of simple faith who begins his Magnum Opus with the phrase: “The beginning of all knowledge is to know that there is a G-d?” 

The noted philosopher Max Black was a commentator on the panel, and he arose and said, “Rabbi, undeniably, Maimonides was not a single individual but the work of a corporation!”

We might forgive some future historian who, reading the diverse accounts of the Rebbe would conclude that surely, the Rebbe was a corporation. A polymath at the cutting edge of vast number of fields; a leader who considered the fate of Jews everywhere as his personal responsibility; an advisor with a subtle grasp of politics, military strategy, and diplomacy who could balance unwavering principle with focused pragmatism; a deeply original yet painstakingly thorough Torah scholar who shared a prodigious amount of scholarship, the leader who shaped and crafted Chabad into a world-wide movement that continues to grow and flourish beyond anyone’s prediction. He thought in bolder terms than any other Jewish leader in memory—can there be a bolder move than setting nothing short of a perfected universe as one’s objective?—and yet no detail was too small to be insignificant: even the lullaby one chose to sing to put an infant to sleep was seen to have profound spiritual significance.

It is 20 years since the passing of the Rebbe, an entire generation. How can we introduce him to those who never had the chance to meet him personally? And given that the Rebbe defied easy categorization, how is it possible to do so in a way that does not distort the reality? This is the daunting challenge taken on by the authors of two new biographies of the Rebbe.


Rabbi Joseph Telushkin opens his book with a personal anecdote. In 1986, his father, who served as the Rebbe’s accountant, suffered a serious stroke, one from which he never fully recovered. One day, when his father was still hospitalized, Telushkin received a call from the Rebbe’s office insisting that he ask his father a question.  At first, he was surprised at the request, but then he realized that “even while dealing with the macro issues confronting Jews and the world, the Rebbe had the moral imagination to feel the pain of one individual lying in a hospital bed . . . wondering if he would ever be productive again . . . The Rebbe asked him a question, and by doing so reminded my father that he was still needed and could still be of service.” 

Early in his leadership, the Rebbe met with a group of college students. One of the students bluntly asked, “What’s a Rebbe good for?” 

The Rebbe replied, “For me, my Rebbe was geologist of the soul. You see, there are many treasures in the earth. There is gold, there is silver, and there are diamonds. But if you don’t know where to dig, you’ll only find dirt and rocks and mud. The Rebbe can tell you where to dig, and what to dig for, but the digging you must do yourself.”  

Telushkin clearly has an ear for what makes a compelling story about the Rebbe, and the book is replete with others that are equally touching, Undoubtedly, almost every reader will identify with at least some of these stories, but the overall feel of many of the early chapters is that they are a somewhat motley collection. 

A chapter about the friendship the Rebbe and Rabbi Soloveichik seems to be included mainly to highlight the differences in their views; while some may find the analysis of interest, it seems out of place in a book whose subject is Rebbe. Likewise, a large part of the chapter meant to describe the Rebbe’s active encouragement of women’s full engagement in Jewish life is devoted to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s decision to allow women to dance with a Torah on Simchat Torah, suggesting that this was with the Rebbe’s (qualified) approval. Yet Telushkin relegates to only a couple of paragraphs the central role that the Rebbe accorded shluchot as partners in their husband’s work and barely mentions the Rebbe’s passionate encouragement of women’s Torah study. 

Among the most memorable chapters in the book is Chapter 12,  “It is a Commandment to the Tell the Story: The Rebbe and Journalism,” which makes a compelling case for the Rebbe’s appreciation of the power of a free and open press as a tool for bettering society and for positively influencing public opinion. The Rebbe’s support of writers and journalists takes on additional resonance when considered in light of Telushkin’s later discussion of the Rebbe’s somewhat controversial support for non-denominational prayers or a moment of silence in the public schools (and his decision to face down the Jewish establishment who attempted to fight the display of public menorahs.) Telushkin astutely observes that the Rebbe’s position may well have been informed by his early years in the aggressively atheistic and murderous Soviet Union and his own later experience of living in Germany during the rise of Nazism. While many Jews feared that any breakdown of church and state in the United States might lead to the sort of Christian domination that had once resulted in severe discrimination and persecution, the Rebbe felt that in our age, the greater danger was the excessive indifference to religion and the growing materialism. 

While Telushkin takes the stance of a master storyteller, with the goal of inspiring the reader with the Rebbe’s wisdom and humanity, Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz’s objective is bolder. His book, entitled “My Rebbe” is about the most exalted human relationship in the Jewish tradition: the reverence of a student for one’s spiritual teacher. Steinsaltz does not set out to recap the basic details of the Rebbe’s life nor to provide digestible sound bites about the Rebbe’s wisdom.

Yet in a book that is less than half the length of Telushkin’s, Steinsaltz manages to do all this and still have room left over to reflect on the essential questions: What is a Rebbe? What is a tzaddik (holy man)? Can a Rebbe work miracles?  What is at the heart of the Rebbe’s scholarship and teachings? What does it mean to visit the Ohel, the Rebbe’s resting place? Are we still guided by the Rebbe in his absence?

Steinsaltz states in his introduction that this book is not a conventional biography of the Rebbe, but rather a biography of the Rebbe’s mission and the movement he built. Indeed, the greatest disappointment of the book is Steinsaltz’s reticence about his personal relationship with the Rebbe, which could have provided a window into the unique bond between Rebbe and chasid. 

Yet he compensates for what is lacking in personal detail with his poetic phrasing and evocative exploration. In trying to distill the essence of what it means to have a Rebbe, Steinsaltz suggests the following analogy: A train has only one locomotive; the other cars are connected to it. Together with the locomotive, a car can move somewhere; without it, the car remains in the same place, not moving. 

Where Telushkin tells stories about the Rebbe, Steinsaltz shows us how the Rebbe told stories: Once while Rabbi Dov Ber (the second rebbe of Chabad) was immersed in study, his baby, who had been sleeping nearby—fell out of his cradle and began to cry.  Deeply focused, Rebbe Dov Ber did not hear the cries and continued with his study. The infant’s grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, was on an upper floor of the house, yet he did hear the baby’s cries. Interrupting his studies, he went downstairs, soothed the infant and returned it to his cradle. Rebbe Dov Ber still did not notice. Later the Alter Rebbe reprimanded his son, “No matter how lofty a Jew’s pursuits, he must always hear the cry of a child.“  

For the Rebbe, the story was also about the submerged cry of the children of his own generation whom had fallen from their cradles: that is, from their connection to their Jewish roots—as well as his listeners’ responsibility to focus not only on their own spiritual concerns, but to hear the pleas of those around them seeking Jewish connection. 

The Rebbe made Moshiach such a fundamental cornerstone of his leadership, explains Steinsaltz, not as an escape from the world’s evils, or as a time marked by miracles, but rather as a time in which the world, though outwardly the same as our own, contains deep changes in social, economic, and political structures that will enable humanity to develop spiritually. 

And central to his leadership was bringing us into his vision.

In the epilogue to his book, Steinsaltz cites a Talmudic text that describes the reaction of the nations of the world when Abraham passed away. They eulogized him, saying, “Woe to the world that lost its leader. Woe to the world that lost its captain” (Bava Batra 91a). Steinsaltz points out the difference between losing a leader and losing a captain.

“A world without a leader is a confused place. The people are waiting for someone to make decisions, to take the lead. However it is worse when a ship loses its captain. A ship is not anchored to anything stable. The people on board cannot sit and wait. The captain has to steer while with every passing minute, conditions are changing.”  Yet, says Steinsaltz, the Rebbe prepared the charts, leaving us only to stay the course, to plot our progress along the lines he set. 

The Rebbe once said to Israel’s former president, Zalman Shazar, “You see, just as I know by my watch that you will be leaving in half an hour, so I know that the Moshiach is coming.”  In his last years, he asked us to open our eyes, the see the world as it really is, to see the shore of redemption that lies ahead. 


THE PROFESSOR THOUGHT MAIMONIDES WAS A CORPORATION, but Rabbi Schochet suggested a different solution to the enigma of a leader that was larger than life. For while Maimonides engaged in different worlds, philosophy, science, and politics they were mere handmaidens, but at his root, he was the man of faith. 

Despite the overlap in these books about the Rebbe, ultimately, they approach their subject in fundamentally different ways. To Telushkin, he is a leader who shaped Chabad into a movement of world-wide influence, a brilliant rabbi who cared for world Jewry on an international scale while never losing sight of the individual, and whose towering example could help us become better people. 

But Steinsaltz goal is more audacious. The Rebbe is first and foremost his Rebbe as he is and can be ours: he is the personal link that we all have to a profound spiritual reality that is beyond our ability to grasp on our own . . . if only we are willing to make the connection. 


Dr. Chana Silberstein is educational director of the Chabad House of Ithaca, serving Cornell University, Ithaca College, and the local community. Chana is chair of Ithaca Area United Jewish Community. She has a doctorate in psychology from Cornell University. 


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