The extraordinary in man

The Bait Jewish Center has just published a book entitled “Rebbe: the life and teachings of Menachen M. Schneerson , the most influential rabbi in modern history” hides a remarkable and unknown scope. To know more about the life of a clergyman who, as the subtitle part says “the most influential rabbi in modern history” – should give curiosity in specific niches of religious communities to people interested in contemporary philosophical discussions. Thus, “Rebbe”, written by Joseph Telushkin deserves to be read by a larger audience and appreciated in all its breadth, just as the personality of the biographer is presented. 

The author faithfully researched and compiled fundamental excerpts from a figure, who, well beyond the cult of personality and the inevitable partisan praise , moved into areas that transcend specialties and blur the boundaries of literary expertise. Eclectic, lively and generous Menachem Mendel managed the feat of shedding light on the most obscure subjects with discernment, and thereby attracted the admiration of people of all creeds and ideologies, as comments by Dennis Prager on the fourth cover. On the same fourth cover Alan Dershowitz recommends “a case study” for Harvard Business School for the success of this rabbi’s efforts to promote Jewish and humanitarian values ​​around the world.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson 1902-1994, born in the Russian city of Nikolaye , was the seventh rebe of the dynasty of a religious movement, succeeding his father-in-law in the leadership of the Hasidic Chabad movement (acronym for the Hebrew words Chochma , Bina and Dat , respectively, wisdom, understanding, knowledge), Jewish religious organization born in the Russian city of Lubavich . He graduated in naval engineering at the Humboldt University in Berlin, a profession he formally pursued for some time. It is important to note, as Peggy Noolan noted in her 2003 book “What I saw in the Revolution, a political life in the Reagan era”, that the word “Rebbe” always used to mean “special rabbi and master of Jewish holy texts” but after Menachem Mendel, the term has transcended ordinary nomenclature. In a unique and peculiar case, since Schneerson , the word has come to personify a single and specific individual: Schneerson himself .

Rare were the areas of knowledge that Menachem did not dare to comment on. From language to medicine, through political strategies, fighting for political and persecuted prisoners in the former USSR, women’s rights and encouraging charitable actions aimed at the most vulnerable. In this sense, the Rebbe became a respectable leader, who, at the same time, presented the rigid and flexible facets. He admonished politicians, but he also received them to engage in persuasive dialogues, it was not easy to obtain concessions from him, on the other hand he avoided judging those who had antagonistic positions to his. 

By the time that conflicts between the Jewish community and african American erupted in Brooklyn, in the Crown Heights neighborhood, location of the headquarters of the movement Chabad in the city, the Rebbe received the then New York Mayor David Dinkins . In expressing his desire for Dinkins to help pacify the city, he responded “to both sides” to which the rabbi replied “We are not two sides, we are one people living in a city under a government and a God. That he protect the police and all the people of this city “.  

His actions were often directed towards a collective purpose, as in 1964, when he met Robert F. Kennedy — who at the time was running for the Senate election in New York – when the Rebbe urged Kennedy and Franklyn Delano Roosevelt Junior to take action. address the drug problem among teenagers.

Once, in an interview with the newspaper “The New York Times” when the journalist teased him about his willingness to offer advice on issues that went beyond religious themes in areas as diverse as business and even medical issues, Menachen answered :

“I’m not afraid to say that I don’t know something. But if I do, I have no right not to respond. When someone asks you for help and you can help that person in the best way possible and you refuse to help, you become the cause of this person’s suffering “.

Surprising, and the author of perplexing spurs , perhaps that is why he influenced such heterogeneous figures – both from an existential and ideological point of view – in direct or indirect contacts such as Bob Dylan, Bill Clinton, Israel’s first ministers, Labor Shimon Peres and the conservative Menachen Begin, the Polish worker and former president Lech Walesa, the former Uruguayan president Luis Alberto Lacalle , as well as Ronald Reagan, and a significant number of artists and intellectuals. His campaigns for education and the encouragement of charity and “promoting education and perfecting the human race” earned him the ” National Honor Award ” granted by the American Congress. 

His “silent diplomacy” was successful, despite the criticism he received, in many episodes during the cold war, when religious practice was typified as a crime, and Russian Jews, persecuted by the communist regime, were often sent into exile in Siberia.

The book also shows how Schneerson was particularly adept at using language to produce small resignifications that managed to balance concepts and dogmas: he suggested a replacement for the common word beit cholim (which in Hebrew means ‘hospital’, but whose literal meaning means ‘home’ of patients’), also suggested the word ” due date “, which is close to “beginning of life, birth”, to replace the expression ” deadline” whose connotation is “end of life”. In more than one letter he stated that in his vocabulary preferred to ignore the word “retirement”.   

His letters also reveal his absolute respect for individual will and the sacredness of free will. Asked once by a boy if he should commit to a girl “When it comes to marriage, I cannot help you, neither your father can help you , nor your mother, nor your seichel (intellect). helping you is your heart. If you have feelings for the girl go ahead. If you don’t have them, don’t get married “.

Without incurring simplifications of common sense, its rating system favored positive pointing over destructive criticism, gave preference to praise for failure and, whenever possible, avoided the hasty and summary judgment of human actions to seek to find some dignity in the mistakes and faults of others. , nor criticize their motivations, since speculations of intentionalities are nothing more than pretentious interpretations. 

But it was because of his insights and ability to formulate from detailed analyzes of sacred texts to elucidative and controversial syntheses that he stood out and achieved unprecedented worldwide projection. The book “Rebbe” is more than an intellectual biography since it addresses the profile of a complex man. One might fall into the temptation to call him extraordinary, but in his honor this should not happen. For perhaps he himself suggested not to be touted as an exceptional person , since modesty would be consistent with his insistent exhortation to precisely reaffirm that every man has the potential to perform unusual tasks and missions. In his own words “I don’t talk about people, I talk about opinions”. According to Schneerson, everyone has a fraction above the average. It is enough to exalt it , to attract it, to make it emerge from the buried shells of material stupidity. This would be a summary of the mission of man and humanity. And that goes for all races, ethnicities, religions and creeds.   

In this sense, there would be an additional subtitle to the book: “the extraordinary in man”.