This book tells me more about penguins than I care to know," writes the (perhaps mythical) 10-year-old book critic. For some, the same may seem true about this book. Yet the subject of this reverent but not un-critical volume merits close study.
Born in 1902 in Nikolaiev in what is now Ukraine, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, is the Rebbe. Formally, he was the seventh and last Chabad (or Lubavitch) Rebbe -- the only one without an adjective before his name. His late father-in-law, the sixth Rebbe, for instance, is known as the Frierdicke, or Earlier, Rebbe.
Largely because of the Rebbe's efforts to spread the practice of Orthodox Judaism among Jews throughout the world, Chabad is the largest offshoot of the larger-than-life Chasidic approach to God, marked by devout study of God's word and celebration of life.
He was a charismatic man -- an astonishing but true statement, because he neither looked nor acted as charismatic people seem to do. (Go to www.chabad.org for hours of recordings of his talks on the holy books, integrated with commentaries on modern issues and ethical choices.)
With his thick straight beard and Chasidic uniform, he looked like any one of thousands of his disciples -- or, for that matter, any one of hundreds of thousands of Chasids over the centuries. When he spoke at length, he spoke in Yiddish, a language that is now the first language of mostly other Chasids. Although he spoke English (and many languages) articulately and eruditely, he sounds like SCTV's Sid Dithers.
Once he made his way to the U.S., he rarely journeyed outside a small enclave in Brooklyn, spending much of his time encouraging Jewish men and women to take on traditional rituals. If he had a personal life (aside from his devotion to his wife), author Telushkin, himself a respected rabbi and interpreter of Judaism, has been unable to find it.
Not exactly the makings of a charismatic man. Yet he was consulted by non-Jewish as well as Jewish politicians. He was honoured by presidents Reagan and Clinton and revered by Lech Walesa. Some members of his sect considered him the Messiah.
As this book (sometimes too) abundantly demonstrates, he lived and breathed what he believed. His charisma came from an inner peace, a sense of certainty about who he was and his role, his unswerving charitable disposition to all, his apparently perfect memory coupled with brilliance, and his consistency.
In the first talk he gave, his reluctant 1951 acceptance of the mantle of Rebbe, he said that there were three loves: of God, of Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), and of one's fellows. They are, however, only one love; none can exist without the other.
He demonstrated his loves in many ways. He lived modestly, took no vacations, and met with people at all hours of the day and night. He corresponded extensively and personally with thousands of people, never failing to show faith in his God as well as in people and their ability to change.
He welcomed non-Orthodox, even non-practising Jews, into his life, and pushed the boundaries of traditions. In a fascinating chapter, Telushkin tells how the Rebbe discouraged people from going to university, but at the same discouraged those who went to university from leaving it. Although he was opposed to adoption into Judaism, he would refer Jewish parents who wanted to adopt to another Rabbi who did not oppose it.
His politics were hawkish and right-wing; even though he had a degree in mechanical and electrical engineering, he believed the world was 6,000 years old and that the sun revolved around the Earth. But his actions and attitudes were kind, compassionate, and open to others' opinions and feelings.
The book is arranged according to the Rebbe's passions and interests, ranging from arcane Judaic issues to world events. The last part of the book contains a lengthy timeline which is as close to a biography of the enigmatic Rebbe as we will ever get.
The Rebbe is a curiously good, well-written read for anyone interested in Judaism.
Lawrie Cherniack is a third-generation secular cultural Jew.