It’s the last day of the secular year. I assume you too have had your fill of the Top Ten whatever’s of the past year, so I won’t bore you with my own lists which range from the most impressive Hagbaah’s (raising of the Torah scroll), most creative ways of taking kiddush food home, or most dramatic entrances to be the tenth in the minyan, and that is only scratching the surface.
I took a few days of vacation, during which time I saw two excellent movies (Selma and The Imitation Game) and read some books. In the latter category was Joseph Telushkin’s Rebbe. Telushkin is known as a prolific writer on Jewish topics, including his Jewish Literacy which is arguably the widest selling work on the topic of Judaism. The Rebbe is none other than Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, a towering figure who transcended his Chabad-Lubavitch world and was arguably the most influential rabbi in our time, the only rabbi ever awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the only one that leaders and politicians around the world consulted or wished they had.
The Rebbe’s impact came in two basic areas: his innovative campaigns to bring Jews closer to Judaism (see below) and the army of shluchim (emissaries) that he nurtured to carry out those campaigns, eventually in well over 1000 cities in 80 countries around the globe. Chabad was moribund until Schneerson became the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe ca. 1950 and began making his impact; the results are pretty impressive.
Schneerson’s rise to rebbe is nicely described. The role of the rebbe is very important in all Chasidic circles not just Chabad – his disciples seek a rebbe’s advice on a variety of issues because he not only has wisdom but has achieved a spiritual level of bittul ha-yesh, a nullification of his personal will and ego so that he can be a pure vessel for transmitting God’s wisdom. Most rabbis are happy to have gotten close to achieving one or the other of those qualities, but, though possessing both, being rebbe still wasn’t a position Schneerson sought. He was an engineer, pious enough (he put on four different pairs of tefillin each morning to acknowledge the various views among medieval Jewish scholars) but happy to live in both the secular and religious worlds. But he was clearly the right man for the job.
His program for the growth of Chabad was based on ten campaigns to be implemented by the shluchim. The best known are: tefillin (you have seen the mobile vans and street corner activities of this variety), the Shabbat candle campaign, a campaign for Jewish education so that no kid should be left without it, and kashrut (Chabad offers to reimburse 50% of the expenses involved in making a house kosher and also makes kosher food available in places where that is difficult to obtain.) I love the story told by the observant Joseph Lieberman about his vice presidential campaign in 2000. The Secret Service kept the identity of the hotels where he was staying strictly secret but to his astonishment in virtually every city where he travelled when he arrived at the hotel there was a kosher meal awaiting him from the local Chabad Shaliach.
For many of us, being approached by a young bearded man on the street, one of those shluchim or their co-workers, and being asked “Are you Jewish?” or “Will you put on tefillin?” was our encounter with the Rebbe’s influence and his campaigns. There is nothing like this in Jewish life and it has touched many individuals. Truth be told, of course, not everyone is anxious to be touched in the Chabad way. When I was Hillel Rabbi in Ann Arbor, the Shliach in the Upper Peninsula told me that he always knew who the Jews were when he came into town in his Mitzvah Mobile = those who started walking faster in the opposite direction when they saw the van. And there were missteps. At the University of Michigan – where the glory days may just be returning – one of my greatest conversion students ever was offered Shabbat candles on the Diag by the campus Chabad Rabbi. But she didn’t “look Jewish” and so the Rabbi asked if she was. She told him that she was a Jew by choice. When he found out that she had studied with me, he said, “I would rather you not light the candles.” She gave him back his candles in some disbelief but ultimately laughed it off, though neither of us has forgotten that encounter. I think the Shluchim are better trained these days.
Schneerson had so many amazing character traits. His one-on-one meetings with people, yechidus they are called, lasted till at least 3AM in the morning and were legendary. The book is full of those accounts, from the famous and not famous. I loved particularly reading about his honesty. Occasionally he asked his secretary, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, to make purchases that the movement needed. One time, the Rebbe looked at the receipt and noticed that no sales tax had been charged. Rabbi Krinsky said it was because the educational wing of the movement was tax exempt. But, said the Rebbe, one of the items was for his personal use. And he took out his wallet and made Rabbi Krinsky return to the store and pay the applicable sales tax on that item.
The Rebbe died in 1994 at age 92. Some of his followers think he was or will be the Messiah and await the beginning of the Messianic Age. Most don’t hold by that viewpoint – Schneerson himself found the idea repugnant – but it is also true that an eighth rebbe has not been chosen to this day. The title rebbe may remain attached to Schneerson until the Messiah does come.
There is much more to be said about this unique figure with a unique influence in our time. But for now, I hope you have a great day and a great 2015. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Here is the announcement you have been waiting for. On Wednesday evening, January 14th, at 7:30, we will hold our second annual Israel Ride Information Meeting. Anyone inspired by my blog from this year’s ride to consider doing next year’s (October 27 – November 3) should join me and some of the ride organizers from NY and some of our ride alumni to see what makes this such a special experience. No heavy sell. And remember that you don’t have to ride 70 miles/day, you can do 30 or 50 and still be inspired by the land and the people you will meet.