Rebbe by Joseph Telushkin is a wonderful read – it is like having a conversation with someone telling you about the most interesting Jew in the world. And Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was an innovator, a man of strong conviction, and a Mensch of the first order.
When I was growing up in Syracuse and into early adulthood, the Rebbe was hardly on my radar, beyond an impression that he claimed to be the Messiah. That alone was turn off enough to keep me away from the book. Let me clear that up right away. Telushkin makes it abundantly clear that the Rebbe did not consider himself the Messiah, nor did the majority of his followers. And even most of those who considered him the Messiah really only thought of him as a potential Messiah. There is a teaching that a Messiah is born in every generation. Such people of outstanding character walk among us, and after reading about the Rebbe’s life, I can understand why people revered him so deeply. You do not need to be Orthodox, or familiar with the chasidic world to appreciate this book. In fact, I thought it was really interesting to get a view into this world.
Here are a few of the things I particularly appreciated about the Rebbe’s life.
Love and Pride of Judaism.
The Rebbe was passionate that every Jewish life was sacred, and that no one should be left behind. He sent young couples to live all over the world to open Chabbad houses, to offer observant and non-observant Jews a place to go. I share this passion – there is so much more to Judaism than most people know. The Rebbe instructed his followers to offer an opportunity to do just one traditional observance, like putting on tefillin or lighting shabbat candles. While such ritual observances are not a priority for me, I am moved by the love behind the Rebbe’s plan.
Passionate Disagreement While Staying In Relationship
He was a man of extraordinary influence, who knew the secret of disagreeing with someone while at the same time finding common cause with them. Such is the soul trait of Honor. His secret – he never criticized someone by name.The Rebbe once said, “I don’t speak about people, I speak about opinions.” And the Rebbe was fearless about stating his opinion. Telushkin wrote, “Confidence in your idea means that you don’t have to make other people wrong for you to be right.” Rebbe Schneerson took many positions that I disagree with. For example, we was for prayer in schools, and against public protests against the Soviet Union. Inevitably, his positions were motivated by a sincere belief in what he thought was best for the Jewish people, and often, best for humanity in toto.
Values Are Primary
While Rebbe is not a Mussar book per se, and the Rebbe did not as far as I know follow the Mussar masters, he lived a life of kindness, focused on the needs of the other, that is the primary goal of Mussar practice. While the Rebbe was a stickler for traditional Jewish practice, he felt the commandments about slander were just as important as the dietary laws. In fact, he was critical of Orthodox Jews who shamed others for not being traditionally observant. There was a great anecdote about a time when he chastened a follower who was so wrapped up in studying Torah that he didn’t hear a child crying in the other room. Again and again throughout the book, Telushkin shared examples of the Rebbe’s thoughtfulness. He even went so far as to conceal the deal of his younger brother from his mother for 12 years for fear that news of his death would harm her health.
In summary, I highly recommend Rebbe by Joseph Telushkin. If you read it, you’ll be uplifted, and inspired to be your best self.
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