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Menachem Mendel Schneerson (April 18, 1902 - June 12, 1994) Jewish Orthodox haredi rabbi who was the 7th Rebbe of the Lubavitch hasidim, their movement being known as Chabad Lubavitch. He is sixth in a direct paternal line to the third Chabad Lubavitch Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel, his namesake.

He is one of the most controversial rabbis in 20th century Judaism, and is regarded by some as being the creator of a new form of messianic Judaism. He is one of the best known rabbis of modern times due to his movement's on-going advertising and high profile activities.

The picture below shows Rabbi Schneerson, on the left leaning on the lectern, delivering one of his maamarim (talks) to his disciples c.1990.

In 1950, upon the death of his father-in-law and cousin Rabbi Joseph Isaac (Yosef Yitzchok) Schneersohn, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (known as "The Rebbe", MaMaSh) became the last Lubavitcher rebbe, or paramount spiritual leader, of the Chabad (from the Hebrew acronym for "Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom"), sect of Hasidic Judaism.

Table of contents
1 Controversial Concepts of Hasidism
2 Analysis of the Aftermath
3 Controversial Article

Early life and education

Born in Nikolaiev, Ukraine, he received mostly private tuition. He was enrolled in the secular Yekaterinoslav University for part-time study of mathematics at the age of 16. His father Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, who was the "Chief Rabbi" of Yekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk) from 1907-1939 was his primary teacher. He also intensively studied Talmud and Rabbinic literature , including the hasidic view of mysticism and Kabbalah. He married Chaya Mushka in 1928 and went to live in Berlin, Germany, and study philosophy at university. Lubavitch publications state that he received "degrees at Heidelberg". During this time he forged friendships with two other young rabbis studying in Berlin: Joseph Soloveitchik and Yitzchok Hutner. Some claim that in later years Rabbi Soloveitchik disassociated himself from Rabbi Schneerson, supposedly because he was dismayed by Schneerson's apparent messianic pretensions, saying that "He thinks he's the messiah." Nevertheless close to the end of their lives, Soloveitchik openly attended a farbrengen honoring Schneerson with his presence. Soloveitck was fond of telling people that his first formal tutor was a Lubavitcher who illicitly taught him their classic text the Tanya.

In 1933 Rabbi Schneerson moved to France. According to histories authorized by Lubavitch, he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris where he received degrees in "higher engineering", though official school records show that he attended a technical school. He learned to speak French which he put to use in establishing his movement there after the war. The Chabad movement in France attracted many Jews who immigrated there from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

Rabbi Schneerson rarely chose to involve himself with questions of halakha, usually referring his followers to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein[?], with whom he had frequent correspondence. One notable exception was with regard to the use of electrical appliances on the Sabbath. Responsa literature on the subject reflect the great deference that prominent modern decisors of halakha showed Rabbi Schneerson.

Rabbi Schneerson's activities spread to many surprising parts of Judaism. Since the time of the Rebbe Shalom Dovber, Chabad had been involved with the Sephardic world. Rabbi Schneerson had a close connection with Rabbi Israel Abuchatzirah[?], Rabbi Meir Abuchatzirah[?], Rabbi Yitzchak Kaduri[?] and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu[?]. The latter two often visited him in New York. In the late 1970s, Rabbi Schneerson joined with many other organizations to orchestrate an exodus of Jews from countries like Iran, laying the framework for Sephardic Hasidim. There are currently several Sephardic Chabad congregations.

In later life, scientists who came to talk with him, such as Herman Baranover[?], professor of physics at the Ben-Gurion University[?] in Beer-Sheva, Israel, noted that for a rabbi (i.e. a non-scientist) he had an unusually good grasp of scientific issues. Baranover himself, a Russian-Israeli authority on solar energy, is an active member of the Lubavitch sect. According to his wealthiest disciple, the billionaire mining magnate Joseph Gutnick[?] of Australia, it was Rabbi Schneerson who personally called upon him and pointed to the exact geological points on a map of Australia to commence mining for gold displaying a keen sense of geography and geology. He was also given guidelines in his search for diamonds. Gutnick was subsequently appointed by Schneerson as his main representative to the Isreali government,and was instrumental in the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel in 1996. He is also the chief Lubavitch lobbyist against the Oslo Accords.

America and leadership

In 1941 Schneerson escaped from France, and joined his father-in-law in New York City. They began building a Jewish educational and hasidic outreach empire. There was some question who would inherit the title from the previous Rebbe, who had no sons, and the movement almost split over those who were loyal to Schneerson and those who were loyal to his brother-in-law, Shemaryahu Gurary. According to what is now a folk legend, the previous Rebbe settled the dispute from his death-bed by confering his streimel (the fur hat worn by many hasidic Jews) on Gurary and the title of Rebbe on Schneerson. Metaphorically, Gurary received the "crown" and Schneerson received the "title". What is known is that followers of Lubavitch abandoned wearing a streimel with the ascension of this Rebbe in 1950.

Schneerson intensified the outreach program (kiruv rechokim in Hebrew) of the movement, bringing in new followers from all walks of life, and aggresively sought the expansion of the Baal teshuva movement. Other Orthodox Jews were bothered by the fact that Lubavitch outreach efforts extended to them as well as to non-affiliated Jews. The proximity of Crown Heights[?] to Satmar enclaves in Brooklyn, and the conversion of Satmar Hasidim to Chabad caused friction. At one point, there was open violence between the groups, although Rabbi Schneerson and Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum always spoke about each other with respect.

By the time of Schneerson's death in 1994, he had overseen the training of thousands of young Chabad rabbis and their wives, and sent them all over the world as shluchim ("emissaries" in Hebrew) to spread his vision of Judaism.

Methodology and critique

Many of them worked through a system of "mitzvah campaigns"; these encouraged Jews to be keep kosher, observe Shabbat, learn more Torah, help in writing a Torah scroll[?], taught women to observe the niddah[?] laws of Jewish family purity (laws pertaining to menstruation and ritual immersion afterwards in a pool of water known as a mikveh[?]), accepting a belief in Moshiach (the Jewish messiah). They went out to street-corners, and rode in "mitzva tanks", mobile outreach centers, welcoming Jews in for a drink of wine and say lechaim (Hebrew, "to life"). These campaigns strongly stressed the centrality of Rabbi Schneerson himself often displaying huge posters of his face.

He hardly ever left his home in a building in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn at 770 Eastern Parkway which became known as "770" - "Lubavitch World Headquarters", except for regular lengthy visits to his father-in-law's grave, the ohel ("tent"), in Queens.

It was from "770" that he directed his emissaries' work. He would hold court around the clock involving himself in every detail of his far-flung movements' developments. People making appointments to see him would be summoned at all hours of the night. He did not sleep much. The highlight of his public role would be displayed during special celebrations called farbrengens on Sabbaths, holy days, and special days on the Chabad calendar when he would lead the packed hall with long talks called maamorim or sichos, and with songs called nigunim, that would last all night. They would many times be brodacast via satellite to Lubavitch branches all over the world.

He oversaw the building of schools, community centers, youth camps, college campus centers (known as Chabad houses,) and reached out to the most powerful Jewish lay leaders and non-Jewish government leaders wherever they found themselves. His followers believed that they were successful at fundraising for their causes due to their rebbe's blessings. His followers have lobbied the United States Congress and President to issue annual proclamations declaring that the Rebbes personal birthday, usually a day in March or April that co-incides with his Hebrew calendar birth-date of 11 Nisan (a Hebrew month), be observed as Education Day[?] in the United States.

Political activities

Politicians of all stripes came to see him, regardless of their party political affiliations. Be they Democrats or Republicans, they sought his support. Generally, Lubavitch tends to support more conservative politicians such as those who back school prayer[?], are anti-abortion, pro-Israel, and are generally supportive of Bible values, about which Rabbi Schneerson was very publicly vocal. Aspirants for the job of mayor, governor, congressman, senator, in the states of New York and New Jersey would come calling and have their pictures with the rebbe published in newspapers with large Jewish readerships and voters. Towards the end of his life, thousands of ordinary people would line up to receive a dollar bill from him personally, which was to be donated to charity, and a quick blessing from him.

Following the death of his wife in 1988 he withdrew from some public functions as a sign of mourning, and became generally more reclusive, particularly having survived two previous serious heart attacks all of which served as a reminder of his frailty and very real mortality. He said to some that he is "no longer the rebbe", but no-one accepted this. At a subsequent gathering he stated that: "I have done everything I can do to bring Moshiach, now I am handing over to you (his followers) the keys to bring Moshiach." A final campaign was started to bring the messianic age through acts of "goodness and kindness" and massive advertising in the mass media such as many full-page ads in the New York Times, covering the New York metropolitan area[?] where the greatest numbers of Hasidim reside, urging everyone to open themselves to the messiah's imminent arrival.

Rabbi Schneerson paid close attention to, and rejoiced in, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe starting in 1989. Under the Bolsheviks his father-in-law had been imprisoned and tortured and had his massive collection of writings confiscated, and the movement banned on pain of exile to Siberia. Once the Iron Curtain fell, he wasted no time in flooding the former Soviet Union with hundreds of new shluchim, young rabbis who actually established themselves as the new "chief rabbis" of various former Soviet republics. During the Desert Storm war against Iraq in 1990-1991, messianic fever ran high as Rabbi Schneerson interpreted events in the light of Torah and midrash, declaring that: "Moshiach is already here, all we need to do is to reach out to see and feel him."

Israel and politics

Rabbi Schneerson never visited the State of Israel, where he had many admirers and critics. One of Israel's presidents, Zalman Shazar[?], was a religiously observant person of Lubavitch ancestry and his visit to Schneerson was a reunion of sorts. Prime Minister Menachem Begin and later Benjamin Netanyahu also paid visits and supposedly sought advice. In the elections that brought Yitzhak Shamir to power, Rabbi Schneerson publicly cajoled his followers and the Orthodox members in the Knesset to vote against the Labor aligment leading to articles in Time and Newsweek and many newspapers and TV programs.

During the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, he called in public for the Israel Defence Forces to capture Damascus in Syria and Cairo in Egypt. He was vehemently opposed to any withdrawals by Israel's armies from captured territories, and was against any concessions to the Palestinians. He lobbied Israeli politicians to legislate on Who is a Jew[?] to declare that "only one who is born of a Jewish mother or converted according to halakha (Jewish biblical religious law) is Jewish". This caused a furor in the United States where members of the Jewish philanthropies began cutting their financial support of Lubavitch.

At the their small village called Kfar Chabad[?] a Lubavitch enclave near Lod[?] Israel, the Israeli Lubavitchers built an exact replica of Rabbi Scheerson's home at "770" during his lifetime. So that had he moved to Israel he could have lived in a home that he was familiar with in Brooklyn, but this was not to be.

Stroke and death

In 1992 he was felled by a serious stroke, having just dealt with a notorious anti-Jewish riot in his home neighborhood of Crown Heights which became known as the Crown Heights Riot[?] of 1992 which was triggered when a car accompanying Rabbi Scneerson from one of his regular cemetery visits to his father-in-law's grave knocked down an African American child who subsequently died.

Rabbi Schneerson died childless and was buried right next to the previous rebbe, his father-in-law. In his will he did not specify any successor whatsoever. This has puzzled many people. One other hasidic group, Breslov[?] has functioned for almost 200 years without a live rebbe , deliberately not choosing one after the death of Rav Nachman[?] (1772-1810). Since no-one was named to succeed Rabbi Schneerson, his followers have adopted a system of delving into his voluminous published correspondence and writings that are examined for their guidance in all situations. The world-wide movement holds regular annual and semi-annual meetings and conferences where they plan more activities in the name of their deceased Rebbe . This is combined with de rigueur regular visits to his grave in Queens, New York, which has become a shrine to the Lubavitch hasidim.

His legacy of spreading Lubavitch all over the world, political activism wherever they may be, stressing that he is the greatest of all the Rebbes , huge fund-raising and publicity, having his picture placed in all homes and institutions of members, and above all else talk about the messianic age about to dawn, remain the hall-marks of his disciples.

What makes them "tick"? A famous letter by the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of Hasidism printed in the book Keter Shem Tov]] relates that he ascended to the higher realms. There the Baal Shem Tov met the Messiah and asked when he would come. The Messiah replied Lichsheyafutzu maayenotecha hachutza - (Hebrew:) "When the wellsprings of your (teachings) will spread outwards (over the world)". Thus spreading the doctrines of Hasidism is every Hasid's creed and connection to the original mission of the movement.

Controversial Legacy

Hasidism has been charged with by other Orthodox Jews of creating a cult of personality since its inception. These charges resurfaced with greater intensity as Rabbi Schneerson's influence increased. His followers had an extremely high level of devotion to him; they believed that he was infallible, and many proclaimed that he was the messiah. They believed implicitly in his vision, that he had supernatural powers of insight, prophecy, and powers to change the world. Behind closed doors many other Orthodox Jews began to call Lubavitch a cult. The bitter opposition against Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer Baal Shem Tov was reborn, with the primary antagonists being disciples of the Vilna Gaon[?].

There was talk of publicly crowning him with a gold crown, but it never happened since he could not give his verbal assent.The stroke rendered him immobile and speechless and he died in 1994. In an odd twist of events, some of his followers actually celebrated his death with a fabrengen, or hasidic festival at his funeral inside "770". Rabbi Schneerson's death was a major event in Orthodox Judaism. Many of Chabad's opponents rejoiced in what they thought would be the end of a rivalry. Some Chabad Hasidim were thrown into shock and disbelief. Others were disillusioned. Yet others proclaimed that it barely mattered. Accustomed to believing that he was the Messiah, they believed that another vital step in the drama of Messianic redemption had been played out, and that he would soon return to redeem the world. During the funeral procession many Chabad Hasidim cried, but some danced in joy at what they believed was the signal of the messianic age, which they stated would certainly appear within a few hours, if not a few days. Many of his followers are still waiting for him to appear. As the number of Chabad Hasidim is difficult to estimate, and no formal surveys have ever been conducted, it is virtually impossible to guess how many people reacted.

There are reports of Hasidim openly declaring Rabbi Schneerson had not, in fact, died at all; some saying that he had shed his mortal body or that he was in hiding, waiting for an appropriate time to reveal himself, in keeping with Schneerson's interpretation of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) that he articulated after the passing of Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn.

This has caused a large part of the Jewish community to renew their denouncements of Chabad as being outside the pale of Judaism altogether. Many Orthodox rabbis associated with Lithuanian Judaism[?] teach that Chabad is effectively becoming a new religion, similar in its development to Christianity. These accusation are in dispute as the Lubavitch continues to lead a very strict Orthodox life-style adhering to the Shulkhan Arukh (also known as the Shulchan Aruch or Shulchan Oruch) (code of law) and halakha. This opposition has not stymied the Lubavitchers; for some it has hardened their resolve to fulfil their rebbe's mission of ushering in the messianic age[?].

The controversy is aggravated by the fact that the charges come from a long standing opposition to Chabad and Hasidism. His main critic in the Orthodox "Lithuanian" yeshiva haredi world in Israel, was their own paramount leader, Rabbi Elazar Shach[?]. The late Rabbi Shach was the scion of an older generation that existed before the Holocaust, when opposition to Hasidim was more rampant. He was Rabbi Schneerson's fiercest critic, continuously denounced Lubavitch as "heretics" and their leader as misguided or worse. The prominent hasidic rebbes in Israel such as those of Ger, Vizhnits[?], Belz[?], never said anything in public against Rabbi Schneerson, viewing him as part of the world of chasidus - hasidism.

Another major proponent of the opposition to Chabad is Professor David Berger, a Modern Orthodox Rabbi and professor of history at the City College of New York. Berger gained prominence for his fierce opposition to Chabad, advocating ostracism of prominent Rabbis affiliated with the movement and boycots. He has been behind efforts to bring about condemnations and written books on the subject. Berger specialized in earlier messsianic movements in Judaism, has written essays and a book proporting to show that many followers of the late Lubavitch Rebbe revere him not just a Messiah, but literally as God Himself. Berger is affiliated with Modern Orthodoxy, with its roots in Germany , France after the Enlightenment , and the United States, that the Rebbe referred to as a "new form of Conservative Judaism."

There is a continuing battle within Chabad Lubavitch over the legacy of Rabbi Schneerson. As few are willing to discuss their private views, and there is no mechanism for reading minds, there is little that can be truly known about what is mainstream in Chabad views, but such a high profile movement can be studied given its gigantic output of religious and political materials.

Controversial Concepts of Hasidism

A controversial belief among Hasidim first appeared in the Tanya mentioning that every human being is endowed with a "spark of holiness" that is from the Creator. Based on the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Baal Shem Tov and the Ohr Ha'Chaim[?], Rabbi Shneur Zalman taught in the name of the Zohar that "He who breathed life into man, breathed from Himself." He taught that the "Holy One Blessed Be He, Torah, and the people of Israel are one." Further, he taught that a person became a vehicle (merkava in Hebrew) for the deity when he performed a mitzvah. The tsaddik[?] as a human who performed only that which was commanded, was constantly such a vehicle. The reaction was immediate. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin[?] wrote a book length response named Nefesh Ha'Chaim[?] (Breath of Life), defending the traditional views of Eastern European Orthodox Judaism.

The views of Rabbi Schneur Zalman[?] were adopted and expounded upon by various leaders of Hasidism including Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk[?]. Rabbi Schneerson, in the year after the passing of his father-in-law, termed these beliefs into the concept of atzmut v'mahut melubash b'guf (Essence and Being constricted into a body). Quoting his late father-in-law, Rabbi Schneerson taught that a Rebbe is literally Atzmus unget'n in a guf ( Yiddish:) the essence [of God] clothed/incarnated in a human body. (Source: Likutei Sichos II: p. 510-511). While the term recieved little attention at the time, it was later used to shock those who have no exposure to these sources.

Various concepts of extraordinary knowledge, miracles and healing powers are attributed by Hasidim to their leaders. The followers would ask their leaders for help, asking them to intercede on their behalf. These works were often criticized by members of Lithuanian Judaism[?] during the time of the Baal Shem Tov as idolatry, and later resurfaced with regards to Rabbi Schneerson. One website offers stories of prayers to the Rebbe by Chabad Jews, and their claimed results.

  • Prayer Results (http://www.universalperfection.com/html/morethanlifetime.htm)

Judaism teaches that there is a potential Messiah in every generation. For instance, the Kabbalists identified Rabbi Isaac Luria as the Messiah of his generation. Often Hasidism identifies the leader of its sect as the Messiah. During the time of the Vilna Gaon[?], these views were actively discouraged due to a spate of false Messiahs[?] such as Sabbatai Tzvi. Hasidism was condemned as a new incarnation of false Messianism. Over strenuous objections, Hasidim continued to proclaim their leaders as the Messiah. Breslov[?] for instance, never selected a successor to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov[?], believing that he will be the Messiah. Similarly, many Chabad Hasidim believe that Rabbi Schneerson is the Messiah.

A list of Chabad books (with much material already online) which teach that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe is indeed the messiah:

  • Moshiach (http://moshiach.net/blind/books.htm)

Orthodox rabbis reject claim rebbe was Messiah

Hasidim also tend to revere past leaders more highly than followers of Lithuanian Judaism[?]. Members of Breslov[?], for instance, make annual pilgrimages to the burial site of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov[?]. Menachem Mendlel Schneerson himself spent hours several days every week meditating at the grave-site of his father-in-law.

These idea, while it has origins in hundreds of years of Hasidism, Jewish practice and Jewish mysticism[?], still outrage members of Lithuanian Judaism[?] who identify it with Christianity and idolatry.

Analysis of the Aftermath

Some claim that Chabad Judaism has in effect separated into three main theological factions (with some overlap). Based on informal surveys, they divide Chabad into various ideological factions that share schools, yeshivot, rabbinical courts for adjudicating disputes, and finances, as well as being tied together by family bonds. This analysis is largely based on the published works of Professor Berger. It divides between older Chabad families, Messianists and those that he would call idolators[?]. While it is almost impossible to estimate any numbers by informal surveys, Berger purports to do so. He asserts that a minority fall into his traditional classification, a majority into his Messianic classification, and a small number into his idolatrous classification. Some view Berger as a fanatic "crusader" out to destroy Chabad, most ignore him and a small number see him as a "savior" out to save Judaism from the ravages of idolatry.

  • Berger (http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Hall/8701/religion/schneer.txt)

Controversial Article

After the death of the Rebbe, 'The Rebbe's Answer: A Dream Come True', by Aryeh A. Gotfryd was published in Beis Moshiach magazine. The magazine has no official standing in Chabad and the author is a baal teshuvah with little formal Jewish education. The article was immediately condemned by Chabad. Both the author and the magazine apologized for it. But the article became an indictment of Chabad. For an attack on Chabad based on the article, see Rabbi Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller's essay:

  • [1] (http://www.cyberus.ca/~dbclinton/essay/rabbikeller)

Rabbis in Modern Orthodox Judaism, specifically the Rabbinical Council of America[?] as well as those of Agudath Israel of America, have denounced these views expressed in the article as being outside Judaism, and as being essentially identical to Christianity. What needs to be born in mind however, is that rabbis tend to speak in hyperbole when engaged in their own heated theoligical disputations. Thus comparisons to "Christianity", "idolatry" and "idols" , "crusader", "heretic" , "fanatic", and "false" beliefs and such like, need to be tempered with an awareness that these are many times just exaggerated figures of speech being used stridently in heated debate, and most often definitely not meant to be taken in their literal sense, even though some individuals would like to smear co-religionists.

Preceded by:
Joseph Isaac Schneersohn
Chabad Lubavitch No successor.

Global scope and reach:

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