The Rebbe

Reading “Rebbe” So Far

If a person consistently talks about the faults of others, he will usually overlook even the most obvious positive attributes of those same people.

Today, think of someone that you often degrade, and try focusing on one positive quality of that person.

(see Rabbi Chaim Zaitchyk -Maayanai Hachaim, vol.3, p 85; Rabbi Pliskin’s “Consulting the Wise”)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #79: Focus on the Positive”

I’ve been reading Joseph Telushkin’s book Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History which, according to Dennis Prager, is one “of the greatest religious biographies ever written.” I had heard good things about the book and put it on my mental list of books to read. Then I saw that my wife had checked out a copy from our local public library and thought of asking her if I could borrow it when she was through.

And then last week, I found the book on my desk with a note from her suggesting I read it. Of course, it was almost due (you can only check books out of the New Releases section of the library for two weeks), but I got a chance to start reading before it had to be turned back in. I went online and put a hold on the book, so when I returned it on a Friday, it was ready for me to pick it up and check it out on my library card the following Monday.

I’m a little over a quarter way through this 640 page tome and find it utterly fascinating. Telushkin is doing a great job of portraying the exceptional abilities and humanity of the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) while avoiding lionizing him and making him into an unrealistically perfect person (as perhaps some Lubavitchers tend to do).

We often hear the phrase, “It’s not personal.” But often, perhaps more often than not, disagreements do become personal. For example, in theory, since differences of opinion between political liberals and conservatives, and among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews, are over matters of policy and beliefs, they need not result in personal ill will among those holding opposing views or advocating different policies. As a Hebrew expression puts it: Halevai, if only that were true. For the Rebbe, though, it was true.

-Joseph Teluskin
“Chapter 9: Expressing Disagreement Without Being Disagreeable,” p. 131
Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History

If I had to pick one chapter to recommended to anyone who blogs or otherwise expresses their opinion on the Internet (of the chapters I’ve read so far), I’d pick this one. I think it should be required reading before writing and particularly before clicking on the “Submit” button and spewing our thoughts, feelings, and perspectives on the web for all to see…and particularly if we’ve got an ax to grind, religious or otherwise, that involves castigating another human being.

The Rebbe had many strong opinions, so it wasn’t always like he was playing the role of meek and mild “Mr. Nice Guy.” For instance, he believed that the only valid conversion to Judaism was an Orthodox Conversion and that people who had converted to a different branch of Judaism should not be considered Jews and particularly should not be allowed to make aliyah (have the right of return to emigrate to Israel as a citizen).

The “Who is a Jew?” issue — in which the Rebbe insisted on Israel only recognizing what he regarded as fully halachic, in effect only Orthodox, conversions to Judaism as valid — was one of those issues that provoked considerable opposition to the Rebbe, and one on which he found himself in periodic opposition with the Israeli minister of the interior, Yosef Burg (who was himself an Orthodox Jew). The Rebbe felt that Burg was permitting compromises on what he felt must be a non-compromisable issue. At a meeting with Bernie Rader, the Rebbe, in an uncharacteristic manner, screamed out at one point, “Why does he allow people who are not Jewish to be written down as being Jewish?” Yet, at this very moment of great annoyance, the Rebbe drew back and then, in typical Rebbe style, he said, “But it’s also true that he is a Jew who prays three times a day.” For Rader this was vintage Rebbe: “He always finished up by saying something nice about a person.” And not just a general platitude about the person being nice, but a specific detail (“prays three times a day”) that served to remind the Rebbe (and Rader) of areas in which he and Burg were united.

-Teluskin, p.134

Rabbi M.M Schneerson, the Rebbe

If I could copy and paste the entire chapter into my blog, I probably would, or at least make a downloadable PDF of the chapter available.

As we see from Telushkin’s recording the obvious outburst of the Rebbe in the above-quoted paragraph, the Rebbe was all too human. He could lose his temper out of frustration and scream at people. But he also realized what he did and backed off, seeking to define relationships, not by where people disagreed, but by where they were alike.

According to Telushkin, the Rebbe had the ability to focus on speaking critically of a person’s opinion without attacking their motives or their personal character. That’s extremely important because it’s quite possible to disagree with someone who has good motives and a fine character, and even if they don’t (or you believe they don’t), it is still possible, and perhaps from the Rebbe’s point of view necessary, to avoid embarrassing or causing emotional pain to another person, particularly another Jew.

Much of the time in public discourse, the Rebbe would state his opinion in contradiction to another person without ever mentioning that person’s name. Again, this was to accurately represent his stand on an issue, which was sometimes critical such as the Rebbe’s belief that “trading Land for peace” in Israel would not achieve peace and simply put Jewish lives in danger, without verbally assaulting the person having a different stand, who in all likelihood believed they were doing what was best.

Even when Rabbi Tzvi Greenwald, an Israeli educator and lecturer who was often accused of being too easygoing and tolerant in his interactions with non-religious Jews, asked the Rebbe if he should rebuke secular Jews in an attempt to motivate them to become more observant, the Rebbe’s response in part was:

“You will just build a wall between you and them, an impenetrable wall.”

-ibid, p. 140

The ability to treat another person with respect in the face of disagreement, especially on highly emotionally charged issues, is rare in my experience. Most of the time, even among religious people on the web and sometimes in person, relationships can be strained, even to the breaking point. This is hardly a good reflection on our Master and desecrates the Name of God.

Telushkin wrote that it isn’t known if this ability came naturally to the Rebbe or if he acquired it over many years of experience. It is known that the Rebbe was an extraordinary person even as a young man, many years before the would assume the leadership of Chabad.

The Rebbe
The Rebbe

One of the qualities a person must possess in order treat another person as a valued human being created in the image of the Almighty while disagreeing with strongly held opinions of that person is being “comfortable in your own skin.” That is, you have to realize that first of all, you’re not perfect either, and secondly, that your imperfections and your being God’s cherished creation is something you and the other person have in common.

If you fail to fully grasp and embrace those two facts, you will not achieve anything close to what the Rebbe did in these situations. In other words, you’ll be like about 98% of the people commenting in the blogosphere.

There is no person on earth so righteous, who does only good and does not sin (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

Reading the suggestions for ridding oneself of character defects, someone might say, “These are all very helpful for someone who has character defects, but I do not see anything about myself that is defective.”

In the above-cited verse, Solomon states what we should all know: no one is perfect. People who cannot easily find imperfections within themselves must have a perception so grossly distorted that they may not even be aware of major defects. By analogy, if a person cannot hear anything, it is not that the whole world has become absolutely silent, but that he or she has lost all sense of hearing and may thus not be able to hear even the loudest thunder.

In his monumental work, Duties of the Heart, Rabbeinu Bachaye quotes a wise man who told his disciples, “If you do not find defects within yourself, I am afraid you have the greatest defect of all: vanity.” In other words, people who see everything from an “I am great/right” perspective will of course believe that they do no wrong.

When people can see no faults in themselves, it is generally because they feel so inadequate that the awareness of any personal defects would be devastating. Ironically, vanity is a defense against low self-esteem. If we accept ourselves as fallible human beings and also have a sense of self-worth, we can become even better than we are.

Today I shall…

…be aware that if I do not find things within myself to correct, it may be because I am threatened by such discoveries.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Av 25”

As Rabbi Twerski said, most people who are disagreeable don’t think of themselves as perfect and the rest of the world as losers. In my experience, most people who are disagreeable are aware, at least deep down inside, of their imperfections and their insecurities. They attack or behave in a hostile or rude manner, not just because they think they are right, but because they have to be right. If they allow themselves to consider the possibility that they could be wrong, it would be a blow to their ego and would strike at the very heart of their vulnerabilities. They can’t afford to be wrong, to be humble, to apologize, to ask forgiveness because of the emotional distress that would result.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve greatly appreciated my interactions with Pete Rambo on his blog. We disagree about a great many things, at least in the religious arena, but have yet to attack each other or to personalize conflict. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted out of a relationship with those people who differ from me on some opinion in the blogosphere. I think it’s a quality the Rebbe employed in his dealings with everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike (more on the Rebbe and non-Jews in a minute).

I recently posted a blog about the value and priority of living a focused life. I have admired focused lives for at least forty years. And in recently reading Joseph Telushkin’s study on the life and work of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, I drank deeply from a remarkably focused life. Telushkin said that researching the book made a better man of him. Reading the book is doing the same for me.

-Rabbi Stuart Dauermann
“Learning From the Lubavitcher Rebbe How To Be A Mentsch and Servant of God”

I read this shortly after my wife recommended Telushkin’s book and it was encouraging. R. Dauermann’s parting words at the end of his short review were:

Read this book. It will make you a better human being . . . and a better servant of God.

In discussing my experience in reading the book with my wife (as far as I’ve gotten so far), I pondered whether or not the Rebbe was one of those rare persons in our world who truly was a tzaddik. I sometimes use that word to refer to people such as Abraham, Moses, and certainly Jesus (Yeshua), but no one who has lived in modern times.

Stuart Dauermann
Rabbi Stuart Dauermann

And yet if a tzaddik did live among us (Rabbi Schneerson passed away in 1994) and we have a record of his teachings and lectures (which we do), perhaps it would be a good idea to take R. Dauermann’s advice and read the Telushkin book. So far I’ve found it compelling and even inspiring. It is my prayer that reading of the Rebbe’s extraordinary life will make me a better person and better servant of God too, even as a non-Jew and a disciple of Christ.

A final note on the Rebbe and his relationship with non-Jews. In “Chapter 11: Judaism’s Mission to the World,” Telushkin relates how the Rebbe had encouraged Jewish businessman and philanthropist David Chase to pray daily as Chase’s birthday present to the Rebbe. Chase agreed, and while vacationing on his yacht, he asked the Captain each morning which way was east (the yacht would periodically change course, sometimes even while Chase was praying) so he could face toward Jerusalem while davening. The Captain agreed to tell Chase which way was east each morning and not to change course while Chase was praying.

One Sunday morning, the yacht pulled into Block Island and the Captain asked to go ashore for an hour or two.

Chase answered yes and asked the captain where he was going. “I would like to go to church,” Winters answered. “You pray to your God every morning, and you’re making me feel guilty that I don’t follow my faith. So I want to go to church and say my prayers.”

At his next visit to 770, Chase told the Rebbe about this incident. The Rebbe, to quote Chase, “got a big kick out of it,” and the businessman learned that the Rebbe shortly thereafter spoke of this event at a public lecture; he wanted his Chasidim to know that their behavior could encourage non-Jews, not just Jews, to come closer to God.

-Telushkin, p.158

Shabbat Shalom.

8 thoughts on “Reading “Rebbe” So Far”

  1. Have not read the book but the little I know about Schneerson is that HE WAS PASSIONATE about reaching & teaching the Non-Jewish world. He Did/Spoke to non jews much, and emphasized that it’s the Jewish Peoples responsibility to teach non-Jews about the G-d of Israel.

    Something I’ve said many times on this blog.

    Chabad today hasn’t carried that torch of Schneerson.

    1. Of course he was passionate about teaching the Gentiles the Noahide laws which is consistent with his view of the non-Jewish world. I don’t doubt he’d probably have taken a dim view of “Messianic Gentiles”.

  2. I have been attending a Chabad shul (off and on) here in my hometown of Miami, Fl for over 4 years. In this time i have learned a lot about the life and character of the Rebbe Schneerson. I have also gathered up many of his works and i have always been impressed with his wisdom and faith that he showed throughout his life. I agree that he is a modern day tzaddik.

  3. I always think of Yeshua as the perfect example of how we should treat one another. How often did his words lead to violent reaction from others?
    What would his ministry have been like if he would have employed rules of dialogue and verbal engagement that appear socially acceptable today? Did he ever “agree to disagree” for the sake of peace and coexistence? Why did he say he did not come to bring peace, but a sword of division?

    My point is that if we teach what Yeshua taught and act like Yeshua acted, we should expect to get the reaction he got. Can you see my point? Here is what he said: “Blessed are you, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.”

    How can I have this blessing come upon myself if I just speak smooth words that do not upset anyone?

    Anyway, I have to leave off commenting on blogs for the most part for a long break, so I pray the best for all of you here at James’ blog, may you all learn and follow the words of our Master, and in Yeshuas’ name, peace! 

  4. I should have wrote, “peace to those who are Yeshua’s and division to the rest” but you probably got that from what I said.

    1. Yes, I see what you’re getting at, Steven. On the other hand, that’s not a license to go out of our way to be uncivil to one another. If you could read the whole chapter in the book I’m referencing, You’d see the Rebbe wasn’t always gentle and in fact, he could be pretty much “in your face” about things, but on the other hand, he didn’t deliberately try to be controversial or insulting. I think he really was a modern-day example of a tzaddik, a righteous person. From a Christian point of view, this is difficult to understand, since we are taught that only Christians, that is, only those with faith in Jesus Christ and who are saved are righteous. I suppose it gets complicated and requires the belief that God did not abandon the Jewish people in order to cleave to the Gentile Christians. It also requires the belief that God attends to the faithfulness of His people Israel when they endeavor to observe the mitzvot in obedience to Him as Jews have done all the way back to Sinai.

      Nevertheless, as you say, we believers can do well if we emulate the behavior and hearken to the teachings of our Master who was not just a tzaddik, but the tzaddik, the most righteous one.

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