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May 26th

Lubavitcher Rebbe 20 years later

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His movement has only grown his readers have only increased, and the Messianic talk has died down

When the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, died 20 years ago, many doubted whether his movement could survive, while others touted his survival as the Messiah. For the good of the Rebbe’s legacy and for the good of the Jewish people as a whole, not to mention the countless number of Jews who have benefitted from the hospitality and outreach of his emissaries, both were proven wrong. His movement not only survived but now thrives as never before, while the Messianic talk has all but gone away.

The most remarkable thing about the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s legacy is that the children of those who knew him are as dedicated to outreach as their parents. The main theme of his leadership — outreach — has become multigenerational. This surely is in evidence in Colorado as, in the past 20 years, Chabad centers and shuls have popped up all around the state. And, yes, many are led by children of followers of the rebbe who did not know him personally. Places that were once considered Jewishly underserved — CU, DU, CSU, Longmont, Lone Tree, Stapleton, Westminster, Auraria, Aspen, Vail, Boulder, Salt Lake, Jackson Hole — now enjoy active centers of Jewish life, including, in many instances, beautiful new facilities, including mikvehs in Boulder and Colorado Springs.

Parallel to this bequest of human capital has been Chabad’s bequest of intellectual capital. For starters, serious chronologies of the rebbe’s life and impact abound. Beyond that are numerous volumes in many languages presenting his teachings. It is worth noting that the rebbe wrote or recorded in his lifetime hundreds of volumes. Among them:

• Volumes of analysis of the Code of Maimonides.

• Analyses of entire Talmudic tractates, tying together their beginning and conclusion (hadranim).

• Volumes of homiletic material  on the Torah, midrash and Jewish holidays.

• Volumes of commentary on Rashi, the primary Biblical commentator.

The rebbe left another bequest, perhaps the most powerful of all: memories of conversations with him. Literally tens of thousands of individuals had these conversations (usually in the wee hours of the morning), and many of these people called these conversations life-changing. Among the latter are the former chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Lau, the former chief rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, and Elie Wiesel. The former prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, regularly sent to and received reports from the rebbe on Israel’s security situation. The rebbe occupied a unique place in the Jewish constellation.

Others cherish their l’chaim with the Rebbe during his long public discourses, or their letters from him. It is important to recall that before the number of the rebbe’s followers mushroomed, he counseled individuals extensively — not only seeing and corresponding with them, but corresponding with others about them — all in an attempt to bring to bear every possible influence to strengthen an individual personally and religiously.

Like his colleague, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, was a “lonely man of faith.” They say it is “lonely at the top,” but not really. Even presidents have advisers, confidants, old friends and family. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was different. No leaks, no scandals, no gossip about his life or his private thoughts ever came forth. He had trusted secretaries, but they really were not peers or advisers. Further, he joined no Jewish rabbinical council or organization; nor, it seems, after he became rebbe, did he consult even privately with those rare Talmudic peers on his intellectual level. Uniquely, he kept his own counsel. His only confidante in most of the later decades of his life was his wife, who predeceased him. Childless, he and she were lonely indeed. Such is the price of the leader who is always “on”; in the rebbe’s case, every day for 34 years, without a single day of vacation or travel.

There is, then, the mystery of his life. There is also the mystery of what he researched during WW II at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. And the mystery of his spiritual influence, which cannot be reduced to his intellect, his commitment, his spirit, or even a combination thereof — no formula can capture it.

The Jewish people was blessed with many 20th-century, charismatic religious author-scholar-leaders who have left their own multi-generational legacies and mystique, among them: Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Abraham Isaac Kuk, and Yisrael Meir Hacohen (Chaim”).

Barring a world-shaking disaster,  it seems inevitable that 20 years from now, the Chabad legacy will be still more widespread and ramified, with the grandchildren of those who knew the rebbe personally carrying on the traditions of their parents and grandparents.

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

 

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