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).
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.
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: