THE DEATH of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, removes a charismatic figure from the Jewish scene. He was the seventh leader of a major Hassidic dynasty founded by Shneur Zalman of Lyadi (1745-1813), a great thinker who developed the doctrine known as Habad Hassidism.
Shneur Zalman was the pupil of Dov Baer of Meseritz, himself the pupil of Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism. In the hands of Shneur Zalman, the ecstatic practices and orientation of earlier Hassidism were given profound intellectual content, together with a practical programme of living. The Lubavitch movement (so called because its second leader, Dov Baer, moved to the town of Lubavitch, near Smolensk, in 1813), followed the ideas of its founder with energy, and gained many adherents worldwide. After the escape of the sixth leader, Joseph Isaac Schneerson, from the Nazis in 1940, the movement became a force in American Judaism from its centre in Brooklyn, New York.
Menachem Mendel Schneerson was born in 1902 in Nikolayev, Russia, the son of Rabbi Levi Isaac Schneerson, who became rabbi of Yekaterinoslav in 1907. The young man showed outstanding ability both in Jewish and secular subjects. He was a distant relative of the reigning Lubavitcher Rebbe, Joseph Isaac Schneerson, whom he first met in 1923, eventually becoming his son-in-law. The vicissitudes of the Nazi era took Menachem Mendel to Latvia, Poland, Germany, France and finally, in 1941, to the United States (though many of his relatives, including his brother Dov Baer, were lost in the Holocaust). In addition to his deep Talmudic and mystical studies, he had acquired a sound knowledge of mathematics, physics and engineering in university studies in Berlin and at the Sorbonne. Such an all-round education was in the Habad intellectual tradition. Indeed, his first post in the US was as an electrical engineer in the US Navy.
Menachem Mendel was soon entrusted with a responsible position in the Lubavitch movement as head of publications and education, and was clearly destined to be the next leader. On the death of Joseph Isaac in New York in 1950, Menachem Mendel became Rebbe, with relatively little of the dynastic dissension that sometimes marks a Hassidic succession.
A Hassidic Rebbe is a figure who combines the characteristics of a rabbi, a shaman and a king. The rabbis, and even the Chief Rabbis, of mainstream Orthodoxy do not have anything like this role, and are inured to a stream of advice and criticism from their flock. While the intellectual tone of Habad Hassidism precludes the excesses of reverence found in some other Hassidic sects, the Rebbe is still regarded as an almost superhuman being who is beyond criticism. Menachem Mendel was able to sustain this difficult role without even a touch of arrogance or self-seeking; he was the model of a Hassidic Rebbe whose whole energy was devoted to the spiritual and physical welfare of others. He was always available both to followers and outsiders, and his advice was prized as practical, wise and even inspired by many who had no allegiance to him.
Under his guidance, the Lubavitch movement made great advances, setting up communities and educational institutions in many parts of the world. Its numbers world-wide are variously reckoned but are probably at present about 100,000. The centre of the movement and its greatest numerical concentration remained, however, around the Rebbe's modest residence in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. At a time when many Jews and other whites were moving from Brooklyn to more affluent areas, the Rebbe insisted on principle that his followers should remain in Brooklyn, where they sought an amicable modus vivendi with their black neighbours. This policy received a setback in 1991 when a misunderstanding led to the murder of a Hassid and a campaign of black anti-Hassidism.
Under the Rebbe's direction, Habad Hassidism became an evangelical doctrine, aiming at the return of the whole Jewish people to traditional observance. A fleet of vehicles, known as 'mitzvah tanks', was organised to set up displays in public places, where Jews were enjoined to testify their loyalty by donning phylacteries (tefillin), kindle Sabbath lights, eat unleavened bread at Passover, etc. The flamboyant Chanukah candlesticks erected in the streets by 'Lubavitchers' became familiar, though some Jewish organisations criticised these as infringing the American multicultural consensus against public religious displays.
An important facet of Lubavitch evangelism, inspired by the Rebbe, was its courageous work behind the Iron Curtain. Lubavitch emissaries daily risked their lives to sustain Judaism under oppressive Communist regimes.
The Rebbe increasingly took a role in the politics of lsrael. He supported the right-wing policy of not ceding territory, and even opposed the peace treaty with Egypt. Unlike the Messianism of the fundamentalist group Gush Emunim, however, the Rebbe's policy was pragmatic, being based on the duty to save lives (piqquah nefesh). The same reason has been advanced by other Orthodox leaders (including Lord Jakobovits, the former Chief Rabbi) to argue exactly the opposite policy, of exchanging territory for peace.
Though rejecting a Messianic basis for Israeli politics, the Rebbe saw his campaign of evangelism as Messianic in intent. Habad Hassidism, like other forms of Hassidism, lives in expectation of the Messiah's imminent coming which can be hastened by repentance. Some of the Rebbe's followers, indeed, saw him as a Messianic figure; but only in the sense that he was worthy to be the Messiah if God so willed. Every generation, it is believed, contains such a figure.
During his last illness, however, when the Rebbe, after a stroke in 1992, was unable to speak and could communicate only by gestures, some of his followers claimed to have received authority from him to announce his Messiahship, while others vigorously denied this. In the event, plans to perform a 'Coronation' ceremony were called off, but many members of the movement continued to believe in the Rebbe's Messiahship. It should be stressed, however that the Lubavitch movement, like all genuinely Jewish movements, does not include any concept of divinity in its definition of 'Messiah'. Ths shock of the Rebbe's death will inevitably produce a reaction of deep disappointment in the movement, especially as he has left no obvious successor.
The Rebbe was the direct author of only a few youthful compositions, including a highly regarded commentary on the Passover Haggadah. Yet he was very widely published, for his Yiddish discourses (many of them broadcast through the Lubavitch radio network) were translated into Hebrew and appeared in a series of over 30 publications under the general title of Sichot (discourse). These publications show an original and thoughtful mind, though one that rejected the presuppositions of the modern world. Also, 13 volumes of his correspondence have been published, and many more volumes are projected.
Menachem Mendel Schneerson, like his predecessors, was a selfless servant of the ideals of Hassidic Judaism. He will be widely mourned even outside the circle of his own followers.