Menachem Mendel Schneerson: The Expedient Messiah, Part 1

Trudie Pert


It is the committed core — made up now especially of the highly influential Orthodox and Conservative  movements- which has always been the critical force for channeling Jewish behavior in the direction of genetic and cultural separatism. … It is the radicals who have reconstituted the Jewish community and have eventually won the day.

Kevin MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents[1]

Now that sixty years have passed since Menachem Mendel Schneerson assumed leadership of the fundamentalist Lubavitch Hasidic movement of Orthodox Judaism and seventeen years since his death, it is well worth giving the Rebbe and Lubavitch Hasidism a closer look. For years bumper stickers and billboards asserting that the coming of the Moschiach (messiah) is imminent, were exhibited everywhere. These are the people responsible for the huge models of Hanukkah menorahs that are still loudly displayed in the public square. Schneerson’s influence during his lifetime extended beyond his Hasidic sect; his legacy may hold broad implications for the future of Judaism.

The Hasidim or “pious ones” in Hebrew are a Jewish sect possessing an extremely ingrained sense of Jewish identity and practicing total ethnic separatism. Hasidism was at its height in the first half of the nineteenth century, and claimed the allegiance of millions in Eastern and Central Europe—perhaps a majority of East European Jews.[2) The present estimate for Orthodox Jews in North America is estimated to be 550–650 thousand. Many of the approximately 165,000 American Hasidim in New York City, the largest concentration, belong to three courts, the Satmar in Williamsburg, the Bobover in Boro Park, and the Lubavitchers in Crown Heights.[3] Many Hasidim distrust all lists and simply ignore the census forms because they consider it bad luck to count people. At the same time, secular Jews underestimate their numbers, because they don’t want the group to appear too influential. The Orthodox converse in Yiddish, and they preserve many of the traditions of pre-war styles of clothing and the religious traditions of Eastern European Jewry. Highly cohesive, collectivist, and authoritarian, they comprise an endogamous, genetically segregated kinship group and generally have very large families. A majority of American Jews are the descendants of East European Hasidim.

Chabad and Lubavitch are now used interchangeably to refer to the Hasidic dynasty   (founded in 1796 in the Russian town of Lubavitch) of which Schneerson became rebbe. Chabad is an acronym for the Hebrew words “Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge,” while Lyubavichi is the name of the Russian town where the sect was first located at the end of the 18th century. The idea of racial superiority, which has been an underlying constant in Jewish narration, appears early in the history of the seven generation dynasty of Schneerson (also spelled Schneersohn) rebbes. Since Chabad philosophy incorporates the teachings of the Kabbalah, the Tanakh, the Talmud and the Tanya (see below), messianic thought and belief in racial superiority are intrinsic to the sect’s dogma.

(A note about the difference between rabbi and rebbe: while a rabbi is hired or appointed by his community, a rebbe’s commission is by acclamation and his position powerful and lofty. He is considered to be an intermediary between the divine and his community; his position accords him an unprecedented role in his followers’ lives and his word about all matters is final.)

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The Chabad Dynasty

Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), founded the Chabad dynasty. He defined the direction of his movement and influenced Hasidic Judaism through his book, The Tanya, 1797.

The Tanya contains two noteworthy ideas:

  • First, an elaboration of much earlier teaching that Jews are racially superior to gentiles
  • Second, the prediction that Moshiach, (messiah), would appear during the reign of Chabad’s seventh generation, establishing Chabad as foremost among all Jews.

(The names “Schneersohn” and “Schneerson” began as patronymics by Rebbe Shneur Zalman’s descendants.)

Rebbe Dovber Schneuri (1773–1827), son of Rebbe Shneur Zalman.

Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1789–1866), grandson of Rebbe Shneur Zalman, son-in-law of Rebbe Dovber Schneuri, and namesake of Rebbe Mendel Menachem Schneerson.

Rebbe Shmuel Schneersohn (1834–1882), youngest son of Rebbe Menachem Mendel. He was politically active in defending Jewish interests against anti-Semitic elements in the Tsar’s government.

Rebbe Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (1860–1920), son of Rebbe Shmuel Schneersohn. Opposed political Zionism in both its secular and religious versions.

Rebbe Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn (1880–1950), son of Rebbe Sholom Dovber Schneersohn. Also an anti-Zionist, he was the first Lubavitcher Rebbe to visit and later settle in the United States. His messianic message contained the criticism that laxity or indifference of American Jewish observation had brought about catastrophe and annihilation of European Jews. (The theme that Jewish suffering is due to lax observance is a repetitive theme in the Old Testament.) As did his predecessors in Chabad, Yosef Yitchok taught that the messiah would appear and restore Israel’s fortunes as soon as Jews obeyed all the rabbinic laws.

Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994), fifth in paternal line from Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, his namesake, and younger son-in-law of the previous rebbe, Rebbe Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn. He was successful in expanding the ranks of Chabad and its messianic message and by means of his emissaries, in persuading many secular Jews to reestablish their Jewish identity through the practice of .the mitzvahs of rabbinic law.  Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the seventh and last rebbe of the Lubavitch branch of Hasidic Judaism (Mendel dropped the “h” in the name Schneerson to distinguish his surname from the third Lubavitch rabbi, his namesake.

To be able to demonstrate a family tree of at least seven generations is not at all unusual for Hasidic Jews for it exhibits not only illustrious ancestry, but also Rassenreinheit. Product of and married within a seven-generation Russian rabbinic dynasty, he steered his Hasidic sect out of its reclusive enclave into the public arena. By profession not a rabbi at all but an electrical engineer, Schneerson was in his mid-forties when he arrived in New York during World War II, a non-English speaking refugee with bleak job prospects. The improbability of finding employment as an engineer in America at his age forced Schneerson in the late 1940’s to set his sights on a new career goal – that of succeeding his father-in-law as the seventh Lubavitcher rabbi. Born around 1900, his date of birth is not certain. To avoid conscription into the Russian armies, Jewish families were often vague about the date of their sons’ birthdays. Schneerson and his siblings did not receive the usual type of yeshiva education, but were given religious and secular instruction by tutors in the family home. One of Schneerson’s brothers was mentally handicapped and institutionalized. Another became an ardent anti-religious Troskyite and eventually a physicist in Liverpool. To avoid a similar fate for Schneerson, in 1924 his father arranged for him to live in Leningrad with a relative, the leading Lubavitch rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn. In Leningrad and later in Berlin, Schneerson studied math and engineering as a university auditor, supported during that time by his uncle, Rebbe Yosef Yitzchok.[6]

The dapper Schneerson, known for his piercing blue eyes, striking looks, and refined manners, exhibited no interest in rabbinical study.  He did, however, use the opportunity in Leningrad to court his cousin, the rebbe’s middle daughter, Chaya Moussia. Much against the norm in Hasidic families, especially in such a prominent one, Schneerson and his cousin carried out a courtship of four years in Leningrad and in Western Europe. This long and unchaperoned courtship was highly irregular, as was much about Schneerson’s life. After four years of auditing courses in Berlin, and visiting Moussia and her family in Leningrad, Schneerson married the rebbe’s daughter. The bride had an independent streak, had rejected earlier suitors as too Jewishly parochial, wore makeup and short skirts, studied Western culture, and preferred Russian to Yiddish. The wedding was in all ways unconventional for a Hasidic ceremony. Moussia was twenty eight when she finally agreed to marry—old by Lubavitch standards. To the chagrin of their rabbi fathers, both Schneerson and his bride wore Western clothing at the wedding.[7]

Soon Schneerson and Moussia were back in Berlin, where both continued their studies and enjoyed the freedom of the West, all the time supported by Moussia’s father, Rebbe Yitzchok. Though Yitzchok was opposed to university education and there were arguments in which he tried to convince the couple to drop their plans, they were determined to study in Berlin and resided there from 1929 to 1933. No evidence exists of contact with the local orthodox community in Berlin. In fact, except for the jaunts back to Leningrad for the periodic obligatory family reunions and holiday attendance, there exists no proof of much interest in or knowledge about religious scholarship. Nor is there evidence of exceptional scholarship in any other field. (He had not obtained a high school diploma in Russia and could not pass the university entrance exam.) Nine years after beginning his engineering studies Schneerson received only a certificate of attendance for his efforts and not a university degree.

In 1933, the couple moved to Paris, where Schneerson continued to try his hand at the study of engineering, while his wife, Moussia, attempted architecture study. As in Berlin, they did not reside in a Jewish neighborhood of Paris, but chose instead a bohemian area with cafes which were favorites of Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Gide. A short distance from the Schneerson apartment, studios drew artists such as Chagall, Le Corbusier, Picasso, Modigliani, Miró and Kadinsky.

Finally, in 1938, fourteen years after beginning university studies, Schneerson received his engineering degree at a French technical trade school. On letters to his family he proudly marked his return address as Eng. M. Schneerson. Moussia later considered their time in Paris to be the happiest of her life.

The Schneersons, ostensibly quite assimilated, hoped to continue living in Paris indefinitely and intended to become French citizens. Shortly after obtaining professional status, however, they found it necessary to leave Europe.[8] In this first, pre-America segment of his life, Schneerson reveals no indication in letters or conversations of an interest in the intellectual and political forces of the time, whether Zionism or Communism, and only a family connection to the religious aspects of Judaism.

In March, 1940 Schneerson’s father-in-law (Rebbe Yitzchok), his dependents and entourage entered the US as refugees from the Soviet Union.  Included in the group were Chana Schneersohn Gourary (Yitzchok’s older daughter and Moussia’s sister), and Rabbi Shmaryahu Gourary (Chana’s husband), the assumed successor of Rebbe Yitzchok. Schneerson and his wife Moussia were not included in the group of refugees. Instrumental in the effort to grant expedited immigration status to Rebbe Yosef Yitzchok had been, among others, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, presidential advisor Benjamin Cohen, Senators Robert Wagner of New York and William Borah of Idaho. To convince the State Department of the importance of the expedited rescue the Rebbe was referred to as a “kind of pope” and he was compared to Francis of Assisi.

Because Yosef Yitzchok could not remove his large and valuable personal library when he left the Soviet Union as a refugee, the library was eventually designated as property of Chabad in order to permit American immigration to obtain its release after the war. Upon arriving in the US, the library was immediately returned to Yitzchok.[9] The ownership of this library would be significant later in Schneerson’s life.

Under provisions of the 1924 Immigration Act, clergymen were exempt from the quota system, thus permitting Yitzchok and his entourage to enter the US. However, though Jewish attorneys tried to persuade the State Department that Schneerson was also a rabbi or professor of Jewish theology, they were not successful. Schneerson and Moussia finally left Paris for Vichy, Nice, and Marseille where, with the continued behind-the-scenes intervention of significant Jews in the State Department, they finally obtained a conventional though expedited visa. Arriving in Manhattan in 1941, they were taken directly to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where Rebbe Yitzchok had located himself and his court.[10] The Schneersons would remain there for the rest of their lives.

Go to Part 2.

NOTES

1   Kevin MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents, (Bloomington, IN, 1st Books, 2004), 327.

2   “World Jewish Population, http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/world-jewish-population.htm#_Toc26172077)

3    “World Jewish Population,” http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/world-jewish-population.htm#_Toc261720

6    Samuel C. Heilman and Menachem M. Friedman, The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, (Princeton University Press, 2010), 10, 344.

7    Heilman and Friedman, 91.

8    ibid, 114

9   ibid, 216

10   ibid, 135

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