The humanity of Rebbes

In a recent article in the AJS, Maya Balakirsky Katz presents a comparative analysis of the case history of the Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, as written by his psychoanalyst Wilhelm Steckel and the Rebbe’s son, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson.  The obvious goal of the article is to parse out what really happened to the fateful and unique event in early 20th century Hasidic history, namely turning to a modern scientific figure for support in psychological crisis.  While this article has been recently quoted for its sensationalist element, the revelation that the Rebbe Rashab was highly likely to have been molested as a child, I think there is a more tremendous value in examining the whole piece. 

Many people thrust into positions of power by family or communal circumstance tend to struggle with the loneliness of being far removed from people.  This is especially true when one is seen as the individual to which one goes when crisis hits.  In hagiographic literature of religious figures, we are often given the false impression that the person, when expressing a sense of unworthiness, is really just speaking out of a sense of humility.  Clearly this is not always the case, and this article presents just one example.  The Rebbe Rashab, at least before his therapy, seemed to be a man who struggled with the concept of being a Rebbe when he was still working on himself.  He was struggling with something very common, how to quell his sexual desires, as a good Hasid was supposed to do, especially as Rebbe. 

Her article does a good job in its previously mentioned aim, comparing Steckel’s account with R. Yitzchak Yosef Schneerson’s account.  While both contain errors as is pointed out, one gets the clear sense that the rewriting was coming more from the hand of R. Schneerson.  Nevertheless, this rewriting is an interesting insight into the hasidic psychology of one’s evil inclination (regardless of how the inclination manifests). 

From a different, secondary perspective, her piece jogs in me the need to reexamine the question of what does spiritual leadership mean for the guru, the rebbe, the saint, etc?  To quote a favorite piece that illustrates the general burden of being in a position of leadership:

Sometime after his death, a friend said of the Chasidic Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn, “If there had been someone to whom he could have talked, he would still be alive.” Rabbi Moshe must have listened to the problems of his Chasidim for many years and was likely very helpful to them.  When it came to his own problems, however, he had nobody to whom he could pour out his heart.  His friend was convinced that if he had had such a person to talk to, he might not have died so prematurely. – “The Muse of Relational Listening,” Samuel Chiel from Jewish Relational Care A-Z ed. by Rabbi Jack H. Bloom PhD. p. 101

Not to excuse the actions of any individual who might act upon one’s evil inclinations, but recognize the pressures of leadership.  We often forget what it must mean for the spiritual leader to have others follow him/her.  Granted for some that is part of the thrill, hence the cult mentality.  For others the burdens can be tremendous due to one’s own problems, especially if one is humble enough to recognize that he/she does have problems that need to be addressed.

Update Jun. 18, 2010:  I found this interesting response piece about the sensationalism made of Katz’s article. See it an the accompanying links in that piece for more on the Rebbe Rashab’s encounter with Modern psychoanalysis.


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