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The Lubavitcher Rebbe Died 20 Years Ago Today. Who Was He?

Two new biographies attempt to describe the Chabad leader, but can we ever fathom his ultimate aloneness?

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It’s been 16 years since Menachem Schneerson’s death, but in a sense the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe is with us more than ever

For those of us who were close to the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, it’s hard to grasp that this July 1, 2014—the Hebrew date of 3 Tammuz—marks 20 years since his passing. I first encountered him when I was a graduate student in 1975, through the emissaries he was dispatching to college campuses all over America. I had just started my doctorate in English literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Arriving in town, I glimpsed a small Chabad House across from the campus in an odd little pagoda-style building. Two young Chabadniks had come a few years earlier, leased the space of a defunct Chinese restaurant, and replaced wonton, chow mein, and pork, with kugel, challah, and Torah.

I was somewhat wary, but curious about the place. After my years of adolescent philosophical and spiritual searching, I had emerged a benign Camus-style existentialist. But I had also just come back from living on a secular kibbutz in Israel where I had gone after the Yom Kippur War. Being in Israel had deeply connected me to the Jewish people and my heritage. But I was still a religious skeptic from a Midwestern assimilated family. Cold, snowy, economically depressed Buffalo drew me back to the United States because the campus had one of the most innovative graduate programs in English literature. And it was time to pursue my chosen career as an English professor.

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So, one Friday night, after a long week of struggling with the writings of Derrida and Lacan, I left the library and crossed the campus. Dragging my heavy book bag and dressed in my jeans, I apprehensively crossed the threshold of the former Chinese restaurant, where I was warmly greeted by a young man with blue eyes and a long beard, dressed in special long black silk Hasidic garb for the Sabbath. He asked my Hebrew name and invited me to stay for the communal dinner after the services, and that was the beginning of my 40-year connection to Chabad and the Rebbe. A year after that first visit, I wound up spending the spring semester studying Hasidic and Jewish thought in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the center of the Chabad world. I was still a questioner but had been impressed with the depths of Hasidic philosophy and biblical interpretation I was learning one-on-one with the rabbis in Buffalo. And I had always kept close to my heart the words of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet:

I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

So, I thought I would take a chance and go to Crown Heights for the semester and maybe live my way into some answers. Worse comes to worst, I said to myself, it would be a kind of anthropological experiment.

The danger for the anthropologist, of course, is “going native.” A few months into my stay, I had to decide by mid-April whether to return to Buffalo and resume my fellowship. So, I wrote to the Rebbe. He encouraged me to return for my doctorate, and as my studies later continued, gave me excellent pragmatic advice about my thesis topic and academic politics. He himself had studied math, physics, and engineering at universities in Berlin and Paris in the 1930s and knew academic culture well. He read 10 languages and spoke seven, and later he even edited some of my writings in English, as an English professor would—refining ideas, correcting awkward sentence constructions, taking out redundant words, catching typos, adding more felicitous phrasings.

So, like so many who encountered the Rebbe, his emissaries, or his teachings, I have my own story. And like so many who were touched by him, when I heard the news on June 12, 1994, that he had died at age 92 two years after a debilitating stroke deprived him of speech and movement and after months of hospitalization in a coma, I felt that a great light in my life, and the life of the Jewish people and world had been put out. Yet I felt it was also time to “allow him to leave” after all that suffering.

Each year, the day of passing of any dear one is a time of heightened love and longing, nostalgia and gratitude, contemplation and wonderment. So it is for me when I think of those gone from me: my parents, various dear friends and relatives, special former students and teachers. Each year, I feel once again the stab of loss; I ask myself in astonishment: How could it be all those years already? Where did the time go? Each year, I sense how I really didn’t fully grasp that dear one at all, as close as we were. Yet each additional year I see them anew and appreciate more deeply the gifts I received. Each year they feel still so present, and yet so absent.

So it is with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Yes, I have my story about him. But it’s only a fragment of who he was. It’s a story much deeper than the few sketchy remarks above. Each person who had a connection with him has another fragment—from his devout Hasidim all over the world, to the tens of thousands of people of all faiths and backgrounds who wrote him letters, confiding all the hopes and hurts of their hearts, and whom he always answered individually. And the thousands who stood in line each Sunday in his final years to personally receive a blessing and a dollar from him to give to charity, and to exchange a personal word. He instituted that practice in his late eighties, standing without a break for hours in the alcove outside his small, modest office, meeting each one close up, face-to-face, as they inched along the long line stretching out the door and down the blocks outside. There were really millions who were touched by him, one way or another, large or small, by the Chabad global outreach he inspired and directed, be it via the famous Chabad Passover Seder in Kathmandu, or a Chabad-sponsored drug rehabilitation center in California, or a Shabbat dinner on campus for a college student far away from home, or someone greeted on a street and given Shabbat candles in Alaska, or a chance to put on tefillin in Hong Kong. And there were so many affected by unpublicized, secret, and sometimes dangerous missions he sent his followers on in Communist Russia, Israel, and elsewhere.

I always wondered where he found the time for all that, let alone continuing his own deep studies of Torah. He had the same 24 hours of his day that I did—after all those activities, how was he also able to prepare for the frequent public gatherings in Crown Heights where he would speak for his followers for six hours without notes, expounding creatively and incisively on Bible, Talmud, Kabbalah, Hasidic thought, and current world events? I remember standing at those gatherings for several hours, my back aching in the crowded synagogue. Now I study their contents—from among the 200 printed volumes of his discourses, letters, and notes.

So, it is 20 years since he is gone, and he is so absent and still somehow so present. Hasidic philosophy teaches that each year, on the day of a person’s passing, all the works he or she did in their life shine forth and the soul achieves a higher level. But who can really grasp the works of this extraordinary man, or who he really was? Who could assemble all those fragments?

***

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s death, two major biographies have been published: One is titled simply My Rebbe, by the rabbinic scholar Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz; the other is more grandly titled Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. These are not academic or intellectual biographies, but admiring works by two highly talented men who could be characterized as both insiders and outsiders to Chabad.

Steinsaltz is well-known as the Israeli scholar who translated the Talmud into modern Hebrew, a project that has taken him 45 years. He’s written scores of books explaining Jewish thought, the Bible, Kabbalah, and Chabad philosophy; and he has built networks of schools in Israel and the former Soviet Union. He won my affection when I heard him respond after a lecture to a questioner who asked why he had become religious. With his characteristic ironic and impish smile, he answered: “Because I was a skeptic.” He came originally from a secular home and studied physics and mathematics at Hebrew University, but he questioned everything.

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The Lubavitcher Rebbe Died 20 Years Ago Today. Who Was He?

Two new biographies attempt to describe the Chabad leader, but can we ever fathom his ultimate aloneness?