Friday, May 14, 2010

Lubavitcher Rebbe, frustrated engineer

A new biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by two experts on the strictly Orthodox community is coming out at the end of the month.

Shmuley Boteach, getting in with an early review, gives a sneak preview:

Heilman and Friedman’s central thesis is that Menachem Schneerson, son of a renowned rabbinic scholar and scion of a distinguished chasidic family, was never completely engaged by his chasidic upbringing, preferring instead the modernizing and secularizing influences that made such significant inroads among young Jewish intellectuals in early 20th-century Russia and Europe. The rebbe’s dream was to live the life of a bourgeois European intellectual and become an engineer, they contend. He yearned not for the chasidic study halls of Warsaw or Lubavitch but for the intellectual cafes of Berlin and Paris. As such, he chose, according to the authors, to trim his beard, wear modern suits, and distance himself from the chasidic community in Paris, where he and his wife, the daughter of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe (whose place Menachem Schneerson would eventually fill), lived after their marriage.

The rebbe’s ultimate career goal, the authors maintain, was to be a successful engineer. However, after fleeing Hitler to the United States and the court in Brooklyn of his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, he gradually accepted the undeniable facts that he was a forty-something immigrant with little English and less chance of making significant inroads as a successful secular professional. Hence, after his father-in-law passed away in July 1950, he reluctantly accepted that a career as a chasidic rebbe would have to do.

Of course, speculation over the Rebbe's life in Europe is nothing new (and Menachem Friedman, one of the authors, discussed many of his most controversial findings about the Lubavitcher Rebbe's early life in a series in Haaretz a couple of years back), but this new book will inevitably provoke heated discussion - and strong denials from those who are inconvenienced / threatened by such 'subversive' material.

Looking forward to reading it.

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