Menachem Mendel Schneerson: The Expedient Messiah, Part 2


Settled with and continuing his dependence on his father-in-law, Schneerson no doubt experienced some anxiety about what to do next. Job prospects for a 40-plus-year-old refugee engineer with poor English language skills were not good. A temporary place was soon found for him, however, serving as his father-in-law’s financial emissary to Hasidim in Europe for the next seven years. Sometime during that period it seems to have occurred to Schneerson that he could compete for the plum position of rebbe of Chabad, now that the reign of his ailing father-in-law appeared to be nearing its end. Either that or he underwent an opportunely timed Hasidic born again-experience. Whichever it was, he needed to reinvent himself, to acquire the lingo and gravitas to compete against his brother-in-law, Shmaryahu Gourary, who was Yosuf Yitzchok’s apparent successor. Incidentally, Schneerson’s change of heart from secular to religious, if such it was, is not unusual in middle age. It is a common Jewish experience to identify with secular modernity in one’s youth and return to Jewish collectivism and commitment in middle age.[11]

But first he had to evade the draft. As a legal immigrant resident Schneerson might very well have been conscripted during WWII. But Schneerson no more wanted to serve in the American army than Hasidic Jews in Russia had wanted to serve in the Czar’s or in the Bolshevik army. US law required all men between 18 and 65 to register, with those aged 18 to 45 to be immediately liable for induction. Though lists his date of birth as 1902, Schneerson reported 1895 as his birthdate on his draft card. He was therefore not subject to immediate conscription as he might have been. also claims that he worked as a civilian engineer at the Brooklyn Naval Yard to avoid the accusation that he, in the habit of orthodox Jews, had evaded military service. No documents have been found to substantiate this claim.[12]

In almost all Hasidic groups, including Lubavitchers, an important rebbe is usually succeeded by a son, son-in-law, or outstanding disciple, groomed for the position. By the end of the 1940’s, when Rebbe Yitzchok’s health began to fail, his older son-in-law was his presumed successor. Shmuryahu Gourary had been groomed for the position and had been included in Yitzchok’s entourage since marrying the sixth rebbe’s older daughter. Schneerson, however, had no intention of playing second fiddle to his brother-in-law. He possessed an unblemished pedigree and believed that during the years as his father-in-law’s emissary, he had developed sufficient knowledge and connections to challenge the installation of the unassuming, conventional Shmuryahu Gourary. However, while Gourary had completed extensive religious study, Schneerson had neither received formal religious training nor exhibited any commitment to rabbinical office. Not only had he required a decade and a half to complete a degree, but his college transcript showed a mediocre performance and revealed a general lack of fortitude and focus. Moreover, he was by nature a shy introvert, not rebbe material.  Nevertheless, he must have possessed sufficient native intelligence and strong determination to transcend his limitations and to throw his hat into the rebbe ring.

During 1950, the year of mourning for Yosef Yitzchok, Schneerson increasingly appeared to be the better candidate for the job. Hasids were taken in by Schneerson’s frequent and tearful public demonstrations of mourning for his father-in-law at Gimmel Tammuz Cemetery in New York. Moreover, they were impressed by Schneerson’s polished manners, secular scientific training, and knowledge of several languages. They reasoned that the younger, sophisticated, cosmopolitan son-in-law might be a better choice in modern America than the bland, bookish, older one. Schneerson’s childlessness was a great source of personal anxiety and a potentially professional obstacle for him. Hasids place high value on many offspring, and a rebbe candidate with a son would be a guarantee of a successor.  To overcome the serious impediment of his childlessness Schneerson persuaded his audience, in one of the crucial speeches of the mourning year, that no successor would be needed after him. Elaborating on key Hasidic beliefs, he claimed that the messiah would arrive in time to solve any future succession questions, for his reign would be that of the seventh generation. Within the seventh generation of Chabad, analogous to the seven generations between Abraham and Moses, the messiah would appear to redeem the Jews. This address, which became a key text to Lubavitch mythology, was recited each year thereafter on the anniversary of the day it was first presented. It later served as the basis of the entire “We want Moschiach now” campaign and the justification for all Chabad’s missionizing activities.[13] In the end the Hassids concluded that both the content and the delivery of Schneerson’s oral presentations were superior to those of Gourary. Convinced that he was the right man for the job, the Chabad tapped Menachem Mendel Schneerson to become the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.

No matter for what reason Schneerson initially decided to become rebbe, once chosen he was fully devoted to the responsibilities of the position. From the beginning of his reign as Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Schneerson quickly consolidated his power and summarily overcame all opposition, including that from disgruntled family members.  The contemporary Lubavitch custom of  wearing a black snap brim fedora at all times, instead of the more characteristic fur hat, the shtrayml, previously worn at all high holiday functions, was a result of family opposition to Schneerson’s election. According to custom a former rebbe’s fur hat was passed on to his successor almost as a crown would be passed on to a new monarch. Yosef Yitzchok’s widow, however, refused to bequeath her late husband’s shtrayml to Schneerson, indignant that he and not her older son-in-law had been chosen to succeed her husband.  The new rebbe’s reaction was swift; he declared that shtraymls would never be worn again. He also acted swiftly to limit Shmuryahu Gourary’s influence. To counter Gourary’s prominence as head of the Lubavitch Yeshiva school system, Schneerson established his own school system, thereby insuring the inevitable decline of the existing one.

Schneerson’s authoritarian ruling style in suppressing family and other Lubavitch opposition continued throughout his reign. Thirty-five years after he took over Lubavitch leadership he celebrated his final victory over opponents within the family. At that time Yitzchok’s eldest daughter, Chana Gourary, Schneerson’s sister-in-law, and Moussia’s older sister, finally wanted to claim her share of her father’s estate. The estate included his large library which, in order to be removed from Russia and transferred to NYC, had been designated as Chabad property and not as Yosef Yitzchok’s personal library. When Chana and her son Barry, Yitzchok’s only grandchild, and presumed next in line for the rabbinic crown, were discovered removing and selling volumes from their family library, Schneerson became infuriated and spoke out against the “thieves.” An enraged follower of Schneerson went to Chana’s apartment and assaulted the eighty year old woman. The attacker was quickly placed on a flight to Israel and out of US airspace, by the time police arrived to investigate.

Refusing to go to a Beit Din court of Jewish law about the matter of the library, which would have been the customary action, Schneerson took the case instead to US Federal Court. This was most unusual and a violation of rabbinic laws and traditions. Since the federal government had secured and transferred the books from Russia to New York, the secular court, as was to be expected, eventually found that the estate belonged to all Hasidim and was not the personal property of the sixth rebbe or his descendants. Such a decision would not have been reached in an impartial Beit Din. Incidentally, all mention of Chana and her son, Barry, has been erased from official Chabad directories.[16] Barry, Yitzchok’s only grandchild and the only relative who might have continued the dynasty, finally left Lubavitch, claiming it had cult characteristics. He eventually went to Brooklyn College and became a management consultant.[17]

Reprisals for not conforming to Schneerson’s will extended even to respected members of the rabbinate. On one occasion Schneerson requested all members of the Chabad-Lubavitch governing council to sign an order to excommunicate an Israeli politician with whom Schneerson was at odds. One of the elderly members of the governing board, Rabbi Rivkin, respectfully refused to sign, concluding that insufficient grounds existed for an excommunication. In response, Schneerson initiated a vicious campaign against the council member. Schneerson made public the excommunication order signed by all the other council members, so that everyone would know who had not signed. Followers of Schneerson spit on Rabbi Rivkin, publicly called him a Nazi, and ransacked his house. The old man could not stand the strain, suffered a stroke, fell down the stairs, and died.[18] All those who did not cooperate in this campaign, including family members, were penalized for refusing to submit to group goals and the rebbe’s authority—traditional Jewish collectivism in action.

Go to Part 3

11   Kevin MacDonald, A People That Shall Dwell Alone, (Writers Club Press, 2010), 344.

13   Samuel C. Heilman and Menachem M. Friedman, The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, (Princeton University Press, 2010),  50

16   Simon Dein, Lubavitcher Messianism, (New York, Continuum, 2001), 152.

17   Heilman and Friedman, 34

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