Book Review/Personal Observations: Holy Beggars – Update

Someone recently lent me the book Holy Beggars, by Aryae Coopersmith.  The book describes the author’s experience as a follower of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.  See here for some reviews of the book.  I will offer some of my observations from the book.

For me, Aryae’s story is interesting in that even when the book ends, I feel the author has not yet figured out his own life’s journey, though perhaps he would concede that point as one’s journey only ends at death.  It was imcomplete, which I think is crucial.

To me, one of his essential points is his statement that the spiritual gurus of the 1960s were able to guide people towards a spiritual journey, but they were unable to guide them in understanding how the journey jived with their relational lives.  I have observed among many in the various new-age movements the amount of multiple failed marriages people have.  I think the author was acutely aware of it, having been married three times and divorced twice.  How does one grow in a relationship without their partner growing as well?

The life of Shlomo Carlebach itself, as a Chabad Shliach, was more succesful than I had imagined.  To think that his inner circle from the House of Love and Prayer had so many people who became religious is a testament to his charisma as well as his absence.  Carlebach was always in their lives, yet he was merely a stepping stone for greater growth.  To me, Carlebach’s uniqueness shines through and is most impactful during a scene in the book when the author describes the group with R. Shlomo, walking 27 miles on a Friday night to arrive at their destination for Shabbat.  They had to walk because of the traffic on the way to the synagogue.  What is most fascinating is that the synagogue was a Reform Temple.  During the late 1960s, this could happen.  I cannot even fathom a religious rabbi walking so many miles today to provide spirituality to people who are not practicing religious Judaism.  If you even consider the last couple of sentences, you will see the contrast.  Our views on denominations are such that it is unfathomable.  However, if one truly sees all people as spiritual beings, the particulars become less important.

Having said that, R. Shlomo draws a line when the author decides to marry someone not Jewish.  He will teach all who want about Jewish spirituality but he has a limit as well.  As is a well known contrast, R. Zalman Schachter Shalomi is a universalist while R. Carlebach was still Judeo-centric in his thought.  Both had a mission from the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, and in some respects, both were successful.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book.  It spoke to my heart at points, somewhat unexpectedly.

Update:  I came across a new book review of this work as well as another recent book, which contains R. Carlebach’s thoughts on the first parshiyot on Bereishit. It is interesting to see a different perspective on the above discussed book. I do not agree with certain of the reviewer’s assessments regarding the chapter discussing R. Carlebach’s relationship with women.  While one never likes to see other’s dirty laundry, it is important to discuss in light of the fact that we all know Carlebach was challenged in this area.  If we don’t acknowledge his flaws, then all we are left with is the cult of personality, which would also be unfair.  True, he can’t defend himself any longer against those accusations, but anyone reading this book is aware on some level of his relationships and as such answers, even speculative, are in order.

Books contain both virtues, flaws

by Rabbi Jack Riemer

THE TORAH COMMENTARY OF RABBI SHLOMO CARLEBACH, VOLUME ONE, GENESIS, edited by Rabbi Shlomo Katz, Urim Publications, Jerusalem and New York, 2011, 263 pages and HOLY BEGGARS, A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem by Aryae Coopersmith, One World Lights, El Granada, Ca. 2011, 396 pages.

I confess my sin today. Very few of us, myself included, took Shlomo Carlbach as seriously as we should have while he was alive. Today, we realize what a pied piper he was and how many young people there are whose souls he reached but back then, most of us dismissed him as just an entertainer and we did not realize how bold his vision was and how much he cared about the lost souls that he reached out to. And therefore, these two books about Shlomo Carlbach are books that I wanted very much to like, but I had some difficulty in doing so.

The first is a collection of his words of Torah on Bereshit and the second is a memoir of what life was like in the House of Love and Prayer that Carlbach founded in San Francisco during the sixties.

The reason that I wanted to like these two books was that Reb Shlomo called me — just as he called every other person whom he ever met — one of his “top men” and so I treasure his memory. The reason that I am unable to like these two books as much as I want to is that each has at least one flaw within it that overshadows to some extent its undeniable virtues.

The problem with the collection of Carlbach’s stories and comments on the book of Bereshit is that these stories were meant to be heard, not read. The editor, Shlomo Katz, has transcribed them from tapes of concerts, conversations, classes and interviews, but even though he gets the words right, there is no comparison between the living moment and the cold page, between hearing Carlbach tell these words and reading them, between hearing them while standing together in a circle with a crowd of rapt listeners and reading them alone. You wish that this collection had been put out on disc instead of in print, because then, as you listened to them, you would understand that they were aimed, not only at your mind, but also at your soul.

Aryeh Coopersmith’s memoir is more complicated to judge. I came to it thinking that it was the story of Carlbach but instead it turns out to be the story of the author and of his own experiences at the House of Love and Prayer in the sixties. Carlbach is often somewhere offstage during this book while the author is always at the center of the story.

He does preserve some of Carlbach’s wonderful one-liners. For example, he tells the story of how he called Carlbach long distance in order to tell him that he had found a place for the House of Love and Prayer and asked him if he wanted a mechitsa in the prayer room or not. Carlbach answered:

“There are enough walls in this world between people already. Our job is to tear walls down, not to put them up.”

And he tells the story of what happened once when a pugnacious Orthodox Jew came into the House on a Friday night while the young people were dancing round and round and berated Carlbach for allowing these kids to dance together instead of insisting that boys only dance with boys and girls only dance with girls. Carlbach looked at the man, and said: “You know, when they rush someone to the hospital for an emergency operation, they don’t stop in the operating room to worry about whether his toenails need cutting or not. These kids are almost dead Jewishly and you want me to care about this?”

The man stayed, got drawn into the circle and eventually became a part of the group.

What then are the shortcomings of this book?

One is that it focuses more on the author and on his own spiritual journey than it does on Carlbach and on his journey. The author comes across as someone who sometimes is a disciple who wants to learn from his rebbe, and who sometimes wants to be him. This is why the narrative goes on for years after Carlbach’s death, taking us to the author’s reunions with his hevra in Israel and in America and telling us more than we need to know about how they have reconstructed their lives, some as haredim, some as business people, in the years since they left the House of Love and Prayer.

The other — the major fault of this book is that it includes a chapter on Carlbach’s relationships with women, which is simply inappropriate in view of the fact that Carlbach is no longer alive to respond to it. And that is all that need be said about a person who was never judgmental of others and therefore should not be judged — at least not posthumously — by others.

For those who want to have some idea of what the sixties were like for many young Jews and who want to know something about the one person who paid attention to these young people and reached out to them with a vision that they could help bring the day when the whole world would sing the song of Shabbas, this book is an invaluable guide. It is precisely because it achieves so much that it leaves me wishing it had done more and that it had left out some.


Reflections on Chabad Kinus Shluchim from an “Outsider”

To say I felt a sense of amazement is an understatement.  The siyum HaShas doesn’t compare (even though davening with 20000 Jews in one place is an experience as well).  Sitting in a room with almost all of Chabad’s shluchim was unbelievable.  It is hard to imagine the grandeur of the dinner (see this video to get an idea).  The highlight of the event was the speech from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.  For thos who have not seen it or read the transcript, I highly recommend it, both for what he says and for the way he says it.

…It is a story in three acts; the first took place in 1968, when I was a second year student, a sophomore, at university. I had already encountered Chabad, because Rabbi Shmuel Lew and Rabbi Faivish Vogel visited Cambridge. They were among the very first to go out to university campuses and I was one of the very first beneficiaries. They came that summer, ’68 and I came to America to meet great Rabbis of the day, and every one of them, every single rov[rabbinical leader] I met in America said, “You must see the Rebbe! You must see the Rebbe.”

So I went to Eastern Parkway, 770, I came in; I said to the first Chassid I met, “I’d like to speak to the Rebbe, please.” He fell about laughing.

He said, “Do you know how many thousands of people are waiting to see the Rebbe? Forget it!”

I said, “Well, I’ll be traveling around America, here is the phone number of my aunt in Los Angeles, if its possible phone me.”

Weeks later, I was in Los Angeles, came motzoei Shabbat, the phone went, it was Chabad, “The Rebbe will see you on Thursday.”

I had no money in those days, and all I had was a Greyhound bus ticket, if you’ve ever ridden from Los Angeles to New York on a Greyhound bus… Seventy two hours nonstop I sat on this bus.

I came to 770, and eventually the moment came when I was ushered into the Rebbe’s study. I asked him all my intellectual, philosophical questions; he gave intellectual, philosophical answers, and then he did what no one else had done.

He did a role reversal, he started asking me questions. How many Jewish students are in Cambridge? How many get involved in Jewish life? What are you doing to bring other people in?

Now, I hadn’t come to become a Shliach [Chabad-Lubavitch emissary]. I’d come to ask a few simple questions, and all of a sudden he was challenging me. So I did the English thing. You know, the English can construct sentences like nobody else, you know? They can construct more complex excuses for doing nothing, than anyone else on earth. (laughter)

So I started the sentence, “In the situation in which I find myself…” – and the Rebbe did something which I think was quite unusual for him, he actually stopped me in mid-sentence. He says, “Nobody finds themselves in a situation; you put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another situation.”

That moment changed my life.

Here I was, a nobody from nowhere, and here was one of the greatest leaders in the Jewish world challenging me not to accept the situation, but to change it. Here I was, a nobody from nowhere, and here was one of the greatest leaders in the Jewish world challenging me not to accept the situation, but to change it. And that was when I realized what I have said many times since: That the world was wrong. When they thought that the most important fact about the Rebbe was that here was a man with thousands of followers, they missed the most important fact: That a good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates leaders.
That’s what the Rebbe did for me and for thousands of others.

Friends, that particular episode had an unusual ending: I was due to leave the States, go back to England, on my charter flight on a Sunday at the end of August, beginning of September, I can’t remember exactly when. So the day before, on Shabbos, there was a big farbreng[en], and the Chassidim told me, “You’re going back to England? Take a bottle of vodka, go up to the Rebbe in a niggun, during the farbrengen, and he’ll zog a le’chaim, and you’ll take it with you and that’ll be the Rebbe’s vodka.”

So in the middle of the farbrengen, thousands of people there, I went up to the Rebbe and asked him to say a le’chaim, and he looked at me with surprise. He said, “You’re going?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “Why?”

I said, “I have to get back to Cambridge, the term is beginning.”

He turned to me and he said, “But the Cambridge term does not begin until October.”

I never knew then, I still don’t know today how he knew it, but he was right! He said to me, “I think you should stay for Rosh Hashanah.” So he said a le’chaim; I went back.

Everyone around me wanted to know, “What did the Rebbe say to you? What did the Rebbe say?” So I told them what the Rebbe said. I didn’t know – if the Rebbe says stay, it’s the polite thing, you say thank you very much – I didn’t realize; if the Rebbe said stay, you stay. So I stayed.

As a result of which, I heard the Rebbe on Rosh Hashanah blow shofar. Quite the most remarkable experience I ever had. The purity of those notes, the sight of all the Chassidim hanging from every surface, trying to catch sight of the Rebbe blowing shofar. And I heard a sound in which heaven and earth touched. And the echoes of that shofar have stayed with me ever since. That was the challenge he threw down. A challenge to lead.

That didn’t immediately change my life. I went back to University, although I still felt the power of the Rebbe’s challenge. So in 1969 after getting my degree, I went to study in Kfar Chabad, where I learned with Rav Gafni, and it was a wonderful experience. In 1970 I came back, got married, started teaching philosophy, writing a doctorate, but I still felt I hadn’t done enough to meet the Rebbe’s challenge. So I studied for smicha. I qualified as a rabbi, and I thought that’s it. I’ve grown a little as a Jew, and now I’m ready to get back with the rest of my life.

That was when I made the second great mistake – I went back to see the Rebbe again. (laughter)

January 1978: My friends in Lubavitch told me exactly what to do. You put your question in writing, you give the Rebbe options; one, two, three, and the Rebbe will tell you, the one or two or three. So I set out my options. I said to the Rebbe, “I have a career in front of me, I have three choices.” Number one, maybe I would like to be an academic – halevai one day I would be a professor or maybe a fellow of my college in Cambridge. Or number two – I went to university initially to study economics – I’d like to be an economist. Or number three, I’d like to be a barrister, an advocate. I was a member of one of the Inns of Court, the Inner Temple where you study to be a lawyer.

I went in to the yechidus [private audience] not knowing what the Rebbe would answer, would it be one, would it be two, would it be three? The Rebbe looked at me and he went through the list; not one, not two, not three.

I thought, “Hang on, this is against the rules!”

The Rebbe did not give me time to reply. He told me Anglo Jewry was short of Rabbis, and therefore he said to me, “You must train Rabbis.” He specified Jews College, where rabbis were trained in Britain. And then he said, you yourself must become a congregational Rabbi, so that your students will come and they will hear you give – I still remember the way he pronounced the word – “Sermons”. They will hear you give sermons and they will learn. He said you say you will train rabbis and you will become a rabbi. Well, I was a little farblonged – a word I’ve introduced into the English language courtesy of the BBC – but if the Rebbe says do it, I did it. I gave up my three ambitions, I trained rabbis, I taught in Jews College, eventually I became head of Jews College, and I became a congregational rabbi, in Golders Green and Marble Arch.

You know, a funny thing happened.

Having given up all my three ambitions, having decided to walk in the complete opposite direction, a funny thing happened. I did become a fellow of my college in Cambridge. I did become a professor. In fact, this year I have three professorships; one in Oxford University, two in London University. I did deliver Britain’s top two economics lectures, the Mais lecture and the Hayek lecture, and Inner Temple made me an honorary barrister and invited me to give a law lecture in front of six hundred barristers, the Lord Chancellor – the highest lawyer in Britain, and Princess Anne who’s the Master.

You know, you never lose anything – by putting yiddishkeit first.

And I learned something very deep: Sometimes the best way of achieving your ambitions is to stop pursuing them, and let them pursue you.

The Rebbe did something absolutely extraordinary; he said to himself: if the Nazis searched out every Jew in hate, we will search out every Jew in love. And that was act two. Act three was in 1990. Anglo Jewry was looking for a new Chief Rabbi. It was clear that I was going to be one of the candidates. But I wasn’t sure that I was right for the job or the job was right for me. And so, I sat down with my family, with Elaine, with my children, and they agreed to permit me to write to the Rebbe and ask his advice.

I set out the tzdodim lekan u’lekan – the pros and cons of the job, and the Rebbe wrote a most extraordinary reply, a brilliant reply, without using a single word.

You know that the Rebbe, before he was Rebbe, ran the Chabad publishing house – Kehot – and as a result he knew – I’ve written twenty four books and I don’t know these things yet, but he knew the typographical symbols that are used by proofreaders. So towards the end of the letter having set out the pros and cons, I wrote the sentence, “If they offer me the job, should I accept?” This was the Rebbe’s reply: The typographical symbol for reverse word order. Instead of saying, “Should I?” The answer is, “I should.”

So, thirteen years to the day after I became a congregational rabbi I became Chief Rabbi, and in that job I have tried to the best of my ability – if I succeeded I don’t know – but I tried to do what I know the Rebbe would have wanted me to do: To build schools, to improve Anglo Jewish education, to reach out, and to make – not followers – but leaders.

And I did one other thing, which was a little bit unusual, and I want to explain to you, now, why.

I never said this in public before. There was a point when I was a little involved – the hanhola [board of directors] in Lubavitch in London asked me just to get involved a little bit – there was a point in the 1970s and 80s, when the Rebbe developed a very interesting campaign – the sheva mitzvos benei noach campaign – to reach out not just to Jews, but also to non Jews.

I realized that in my new position as Chief Rabbi I could do just that. So I started broadcasting on the BBC, on radio, on television, writing for the national press. I wrote books read my non Jews as well as Jews and the effect was absolutely extraordinary. The more I spoke the more they wanted to hear – which certainly proves they weren’t Jewish. (Laughter.) The more I wrote the more they wanted to read, and you know what that experience told me – not only the wisdom, the vast foresight of the Rebbe in understanding that the world was ready to hear a Jewish message – but it taught me something else as well. And I want you never to forget these words.

Non Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism.

And non Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.

The Rebbe taught us how to fulfill verau kol amei haaretz ki shem hashem nikra alecha. Let all the world see we are never ashamed to stand tall as Jews…

I find it amazing to think that R. Sack’s approach to universalism and teaching the world is directly attributed to R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson זצ”ל.  Those of us who own the work Torah Studies were aware of the connection, but to hear it so vividly and so movingly really sheds a new light on R. Sack’s career.

Should we celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden and other commentary on this historic event.

  • Much has been written on the subject of celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, and by extension the death of any evil person.  See here and here for examples.  I agree with the notion of celebrating the death of evil, any amount of it.  However, to suggest that Osama’s death is worth celebrating is difficult for me.  Since the US military’s daring mission in which Osama was killed, security has been heightened and the general mood around the United States is more, not less fear.  It is too early to celebrate (and see here for Al Qaeda’s response).  When the Jewish people were celebrating at the Red Sea, singing praises to G-d, it was a moment of culmination.  The Egyptian army would no longer follow after them.  Little did they know what was in store just a short time later. 
  • Rav Yisrael Belsky of Yeshiva Torah V’Daas also shared the sentiments that it is too early to celebrate and that the Jewish community should continue to be extremely cautious.  He also warns the Jewish community to mute its celebration so as to further fuel the fires of antisemitism (Hamodia). 
  • One person shared that they felt the way people celebrated the news of Osama’s death was hypocritical.  The dancing in the streets throughout the United States reminded this person of how the Arab nations dance in the streets after a tragedy in the West. 
  • Let the prophecies begin.  It is quite interesting to see the 20/20 hindsight that occurs after major events like this.  Check out this post on Yeranen Yaakov in which he finds connections between recent events to suggest that not everything is coincidence.  Also, check out these two pieces from Kikar Shabbat, a Haredi news source. (here and here;   h/t Yeranen Yaakov). 
  • A question posed to R. Shlomo Aviner:
    Q: Is it ethical to kill a terrorist when it is logical to assume that he will no longer murder?
    A: This question can be divided into two parts: 1. From the perspective of reality, how is it possible to be certain that he has stopped murdering? It is impossible to know. 2. Even if we know that he will no longer murder, we must still kill him. But why – isn’t this the law of a “rodef” (literally “pursuer” – a case in which one is permitted to kill a pursuer so that the pursued person is saved from harm)? If he is in pursuit, we kill him and if he is not in pursuit, we do not kill him. There are three answers given by halachic authorities: a. The terrorist is not finished being a “rodef”. He is not an “individual rodef” who is angry with a particular person and wants to kill him, he is a “communal rodef” who wants to kill Jews and he does not care which Jews they are. If we capture him, put him in jail, and he is later released, as is the custom – to our great distress – he will continue to murder. The organization of parents of those murdered by terrorists has exact records which state that more than 180 Jews have been murdered by released terrorists who have murdered again. This means that when you free a terrorist with the proper goal of helping Jews, you endanger more Jews. This person is therefore not a one-time “rodef,” but a perpetual “rodef.” b. The halachic authorities also say that you should kill him in order that others will see and be frightened. This “rodef” is teaching other “rodefim” through his action. If he kills Jews and when the police approach, he gives up and we have mercy on him, we encourage others to act like him, thus endangering other Jews. Therefore, in situations like these, we must be extremely ethical. The question is, ethical to whom – the “rodef” or others Jews? Answer: to both of them. We must be ethical to the Jews who have done nothing wrong and to him, since if we kill him, we stop him from killing others and lessen his “Gehinom” (punishment in the World to Come). The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (71b) says that the “ben sorer u-moreh” (the rebellious son – see Devarim 21:18-21) is killed on account of his future. While he has done many things wrong, he has not committed a sin for which he is liable for capital punishment, but he is killed so that he will die innocent and not guilty. In our case the terrorist is already liable, but he should die liable and not even more liable. We do not use the concept “he should die innocent and not die guilty” to create new laws, but to explain them. C. These are halachot of war, and in war, we do not lock up an enemy who is shooting at us, but we fire back at him. This is similar to what King Shaul said to the “Keni” (Shmuel 1 15:6): “Go, depart, go down from among Amalek, lest I destroy you with them.” This means, even though you are my friend, if you are there, you could get hurt or killed. In the halachot of war, we do not make such calculations as it says, “The best of the non-Jews should be killed.” The Tosafot raised a major difficulty with this statement: how can we say such a thing when according to halachah it is forbidden to kill a non-Jew and all the more so the best of the non-Jews (Tosafot to Avodah Zarah 26b and see Beit Yosef Yoreh Deah 158)? Tosafot explained that this statement refers to a time of war. This non-Jew seems pleasant or, in our case, he killed but he will be pleasant. No, we did not make such calculations in a time of war; even a pleasant-seeming non-Jew is killed.
    In sum: we therefore see that killing a terrorist is ethical.

Are we resting on our laurels or striving forward?

In yesterday’s daily lesson in Tanya, we read the following (english text includes notes from lessons in Tanya).:

Likutei Amarim, middle of Chapter 15

In the category of Beinoni there are also two levels: “He who serves G‑d” and “he who serves Him not.”Yet he who “serves Him not” is not wicked, although he does not wage war with his evil nature, for never in his life has he committed even a minor transgression in the realm of negative commandments.

He has also fulfilled all the positive commandments which he was able to fulfill, including the precept of Torah study — which is equal to all the other commandments combined— to the extent that his mouth never ceased from study, despite the difficulty involved in this.

Yet he is still described as one who “does not serve G‑d,” for he does not wage any battle against his evil inclination to vanquish it through the aid of the Divine light that illuminates the G‑dly soul abiding in the brain, which rules over the heart — as explained above1 that the G‑dly soul and the Divine light illuminating it are the Beinoni’s answer to his evil inclination. He (“who serves Him not”) does not struggle with it — for his evil inclination does not oppose him at all in an attempt to deter him from his Torah study and divine service, and thus he need not wage any war against it. So it is, for example, with one who is by nature an assiduous student due to his stolid temperament, and who is also free of conflict with sexual desire due to his frigid nature; and similarly with other mundane pleasures he need not exert himself to master a desire for them, for he naturally lacks any feeling for enjoyment.

For this reason he does not need to contemplate so much on the greatness of G‑d to consciously create a spirit of knowledge and fear of G‑d in his mind in order to guard himself from transgressing any prohibitive commandments.

He also need not create a love of G‑d in his heart, which would motivate him to bind himself to Him through fulfilling the positive commandments and through Torah study which equals all the other commandments together.

The hidden love of G‑d found in the heart of all Jews, who are called2 “the lovers of His name,” is sufficient for him to motivate his fulfilling the commandments, since he is naturally so inclined.For a Jew who must engage in battle with his evil inclination, the love hidden in his heart is not enough. He must arouse it to an active, conscious state. For the person who is free of conflict with evil, however, this hidden love (together with his naturally favorable character traits) is sufficient.

For this reason, he is not considered “one who is serving G‑d” at all.

For this latent love is not of his making or achievement by any means. It is our inheritance, bequeathed by our Patriarchs to the entire Jewish nation, as will be explained further.3With this the Alter Rebbe concluded the thought that within the level of Beinoni there are two sub-categories — “he who serves G‑d,” and “he who serves Him not.”He now goes on to say that even one who is not naturally endowed with traits favorable to G‑d’s service, may yet come under the category of “he who serves Him not.”

So, too, he who is not inherently studious, but has accustomed himself to study diligently, so that this habit has become his second nature; thus, diligence is now natural for him,— for him, too, the hidden love of G‑d is now sufficient, unless he wishes to study more than he usually does.To do so, he must arouse a conscious love of G‑d in his heart. Only such a love can supply the strength necessary to free himself from the restraints of his acquired nature.

1. See chs. 12 and 13.
2. Tehillim 69:37.
3. Chs. 18, 19, and 44.

Life is always a process of growth or stagnation.  We can very easily believe we should rest on our laurels, thinking we have already reached a high level.  The true servant of G-d is the one who never thinks that he/she has made it.  Rather the person should always strive for more.  This is the challenge we all face in our day to day lives.

Messianism and End of History

Eliyahu Touger, most well known for his translation of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, authored a book about messianism and his experiences with the Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l,  From Dawn to Daylight.  While his book rehashes the standard Chabad messianic descriptions (not to be confused with doctrines of Rebbe as Messiah), I found his first appendix to be most fascinating.  In it, he discusses how the world we live in today is already manifesting aspects of the predicted messianic period.  More people have the luxury of recognizing G-d in life, whether due to modern technology or to the increase in new-age spirituality, in which finding meaning in the divine, in whatever manifestation, is at an all time high (even as the latest religious revival comes to an end).  Without being able to discuss this in much detail, his appendix reminds me of the debates regarding “the end of history.”  These debates took place in the post-berlin wall world, before 9/11 might have changed the world back into empire building (an example is Robert Kagan’s recent works, including “The End of the End of History.” and his book The Return of History and the End of Dreams).

The Rebbe – further online reflections.

It seems the Chaim Rapoport review on The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson has spurned a response from Heilman and Friedman.  See the Seforim blog for links to all three documents, Rapoport’s review, Heilman and Friedman’s response and Rapoport’s rejoinder.  I guess this goes to show the challenge of attempting to capture the life of great, controversial figure truly is.

Heilman and Friedman claim that many of those who have offered critiques of their work are doing so based on R. Rapoport’s review and not from having read the book itself.  To reiterate points I made earlier, their book was disappointing because it seemed too speculative and that their speculations tended towards a preconceived conclusion.  Now, it happens that R. Rapoport was better qualified to make various arguments about the book, but I did not need him to spell out the problems in order to come to the conclusion of being underwhelmed.  Besides, it is clear that Heilman and Friedman have attempted to take on the wrong reviewer.  One thing about R. Rapoport from his writings is his thoroughness in checking and presenting sources.  It is almost encyclopedic.  Just the fact he has written 72 pages of critique and says he has more for an updated draft should cause them to pause and reconsider.

The Rebbe – book review

Disclaimer:  I purchased the book The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

I think to some up my whole review in one word, this book was disappointing.  Much of my concerns have been discussed in other reviews which I have posted to at the end.  However, I will share some of my personal impressions of The Rebbe

First, the authors attempt, rather poorly, at psychoanalyzing the life of R. Schneerson.  Part of their challenge is that they do not engage more of his thought.  How can I gain an insight into a person’s inner psyche when I am not privy to what he was thinking and saying.  Profs. Heilman and Friedman conjecture and speculate based on secondary material and mere speculation.  The most obvious examples include the question of why he spends years in Berlin and Paris.  Profs Heilman and Friedman believe this was his way of living a cosmopolitan, secular life.  This is assumed for the simple reason as there seems not to be another legitimate reason for R. Schneerson spending time in the decadence of the west. 

Another disappointment of the book was that the book seems to die immediately after R. Schneerson dies.  They devote one chapter to the movement post R. Schneerson.  In the chapter, they seem to argue that Chabad-Lubavitch can'[t last without someone in charge.  I would beg to differ on the following grounds.  One, we cannot conjecture from other movements because Chabad is the first chasidic movement to have losts its Rebbe physically but to have a vast library of audio and video that can keep him alive.  Regarding his teachings, let me just state one word, Breslov.  Chasidic movements can exist without a Rebbe if the movement believes the Rebbe continues to lead even after life.  Third, in our world, many of the major Orthodox movements, such as Lakewood or YU Orthodoxy continue to thrive without the visionary figurehead.  Their followers, whether they were impacted directly by the particular rabbi, continue to look to the rabbi’s books to find inspiration and answers in this world. 

Not to say this book is a complete waste, I do want to delve briefly into one aspect of R. Schneerson’s personality which I do believe the authors were able to stress.  R. Schneerson was alone.  He seems to have not had a human confidante other than his wife with whom he could express his fears, doubts, etc.  Heilman and Friedman claim this is part of led to his supposed increasing sense of messiahship, based on their belief that R. Schneerson believed and hence acted as if he would be the Messiah.  Their argument was that if he had people to whom he could turn who weren’t his Hasidim, then perhaps he wouldn’t have been caught up in his own hype.  Again, I do think they lack evidence to fully justify their comments on this subject, yet I do concede that R. Schneerson partially spent much time at his father in law’s grave so as to have time to be alone with someone whom he could “talk to” about his problems, etc. 

I may have more thoughts on their book later in the week.   Meanwhile, again, please read some of these reviews for different perspectives on The Rebbe.

For additional and informative reviews of this book see the following links:

Chaim Rapoport Review

“Giving the Rebbe a Biography”

No Holds Barred: Did the Lubavitcher Rebbe con the world?

How The Lubavitcher Rebbe Lives On

Rabbi’s Biography Disturbs Followers

The Life (and Death and Life) Of the Rebbe

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.