[Review] Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History

Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History by Joseph Telushkin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known simply as The Rebbe, was the leader of the Lubavitch group of chasidim, and the head of the worldwide organization known as Chabad, both headquartered in the neighborhood of Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, New York. The Rebbe, seventh and last person to hold that title, assumed leadership of the chasidic group in 1950, a year after the passing of his father-in-law, the sixth Rebbe, and over the next four decades proceeds to grow it from a small group recovering after having escaped Soviet Russia to arguably the most recognized Jewish outreach organization in the world through simple yet effective principles that emphasize the love of every Jew regardless of background, non-judgmental encouragement to practicing mitzvot (commandments), and an increase in acts of kindness by everyone.

The book is not a biography per se; to learn about the life of Rabbi Schneerson is to learn about the history of Chabad, for the two go hand in hand. As such, Telushkin makes the choice not to present the Rebbe’s life in chronological order, but rather as a collection of chapters that explore the life and teachings of the Rebbe regarding a different theme. By the time you’re done you have indeed read through the life of the Rebbe, and there even is a chronology of events that acts as a summary of the entire book, but you have also gained a wealth of knowledge about how the Rebbe thought, felt, believed, and taught. That said, as much as I enjoyed the book, I would’ve liked a more traditional biography that put together the pieces of the Rebbe’s history and life as they developed through the years.

My interest in this book stems from my association with Chabad. Since my conversion to Judaism 14 years ago, Chabad rabbis have been a constant presence in my life, providing spiritual guidance and a welcoming community regardless of what city I have found myself in. That attitude, that welcoming nature, that willingness to open their heart to me, regardless of where I’ve been in my spiritual journey, it all comes from the Rebbe, from his example, from his teachings. And even if I don’t necessarily agree with or follow all of the teachings or opinions held by the Rebbe, and in turn by Chabad, I hold them both in the greatest of esteem, and support their programs as much as I can.

A man of great humility, possessed of a keen intellect and knowledge in both secular and religious subjects, and most importantly, the ability to focus on individuals and help inspire them to be great in their own right, to use their talents to the benefit of humanity, and to become leaders in their own right, the Rebbe was truly the leader of his generation, and his influence continues to be felt more than 20 years after his passing. Although long, and perhaps a bit dry at times, Telushkin’s book is nevertheless a fitting tribute to a man who every single day of his life sought to do the best he could for the world, both through his own acts, and through a veritable army of emissaries, followers, friends, and even respectful opponents, around the world.