“I FELT LIKE I WAS ENGROSSED IN A PERSONALLY RELEVANT CONVERSATION …”

By Rabbi Ira Bedzow
SPECIAL FOR THE AJT

Greatness is rarely experienced and even more rarely can it be communicated to others after the fact. Yet two authors were able to do just that. This speaks not only to the eloquence of each author but also to the multifaceted and complex subject about which both authors wrote – namely, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.

There is a concept in the realm of Jewish dietary law that helps to explain how these books were efficacious in communicating their shared message. Flavor does not transfer with the same intensity through multiple transmissions (i.e. from a pot to its contents to the bowl in which the contents are ladled), except if it is sharp (charif). While the idea that potency weakens through numerous iterations is obvious in food science, such is also the case with respect to the ability of great leaders to influence subsequent generations. Many leaders have influenced millions, yet their followers have not been able to communicate their messages over time. The exception is the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose message has been carried by his Chabad chasidim with ever strengthening vitality.

My Rebbe, written by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, provides background to the Chabad movement and its philosophy as well as an intellectual biography of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Though Rabbi Steinsaltz is a Chabad chasid (hence the title My Rebbe), he does not give a personal account of his relationship with the Rebbe. Rather, he tries to show his readers the Rebbe’s broader vision. He calls his book “a biography of the Rebbe’s mission and the movement that he built,” and in doing so he provides context for the far-ranging and diverse initiatives that the Rebbe started in his lifetime. He shows how the Rebbe was not an individual with followers but the leader of a movement that started generations before him and will continue for generations afterwards.

Through historical accounts, anecdotes, and explanations of various themes in Chabad philosophy, Rabbi Steinsaltz paints a much larger and more colorful picture of Chabad chassidus than a typical biography. Yet, there are also some very funny parts, such as when he recounts the time when Rabbi Soloveitchik tells Rabbi Menachem Mendel, after picking him up from jail when he was arrested for creating a public disturbance, that he can now be a rebbe since he has done his time in prison, like all the Chabad rebbes before him.

Rebbe, written by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, tells a more personal story. The author begins by telling us that while he is not a chasid, his family has been close to the Rebbe for generations (his father was the Rebbe’s accountant). He also uses other people’s personal stories to drive his book forward. Vignettes introduce new concepts and are used to clarify ideas. For example, rather than explain the idea of yechidus (personal one-onone meetings with the Rebbe), Rabbi Telushkin makes us flies on the wall of a number of different yechidusen (meetings) so that we can come to understand their importance vicariously. Also, instead of telling us how the Rebbe changed the world, he lets world leaders tell us how the Rebbe influenced them. The book covers a lot of ground and exposes its readers to the enormity of the Rebbe’s accomplishments, but, as I turned the pages, I felt like I was engrossed in a personally relevant conversation, not like I was reading about another person’s life.

The biggest testament to the profound impact these two books had on me is that after reading them, when I went about my daily routine, I continuously recalled either a story or a concept that I read, which would then make me re-evaluate my own choices and decisions in my life.I was influenced sharply by the lessons that these books conveyed – or rather by the lessons that the Rebbe transferred through them.