Menachem Mendel Schneerson

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Rabbi M.M. Schneerson

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Menachem Mendel Schneerson (April 18, 1902-June 12, 1994), referred to by Lubavitchers as The Rebbe, was a prominent Orthodox Jewish rabbi who was the seventh and last Rebbe (spiritual leader) of the Chabad Lubavitch branch of Hasidic Judaism (which is also part of Haredi Judaism.) He was fifth in a direct paternal line to the third Chabad Lubavitch Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (known as the Tzemach Tzedek), his namesake.

In 1950, upon the death of his predecessor, father-in-law, and cousin Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn (Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn), known as the "Previous Rebbe" or Rebbe Rayat"z (an acronym of his name), Menachem Mendel assumed the leadership of the Chabad branch of Hasidic Judaism. Their last names differed: The new Rebbe spelled his name "Schneerson", without the "h" of his predecessors' "Schneersohn". He was to lead the movement until his death in 1994, greatly expanding its worldwide activities and founding a network of institutions of Jewish study and Torah outreach.

Contents

Biography

Early life

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A photo of Schneerson in his youth

Born in Nikolaiev, Ukraine, Schneerson 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 Schneerson, a renowned kabbalist who served as the Chief Rabbi of Yekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk) from 1907-1939, was his primary teacher. He intensively studied Talmud and rabbinic literature, as well as the hasidic view of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. He married Chaya Mushka Schneerson in 1929 and went to live in Berlin, Germany, and study engineering and philosophy at one of its universities. Lubavitch publications state that he received "degrees at Heidelberg", although some surmise that this is "anecdotal". During his time in Berlin, he forged friendships with two other young rabbis studying in Berlin: Joseph Soloveitchik and Yitzchok Hutner.

France

In 1933 Schneerson moved to France. According to histories authorized by Lubavitch, he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, though official school records are ambiguous on this matter. 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.

America and leadership

In 1941 Schneerson escaped from France and joined his father-in-law Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn in the Crown Heights section Brooklyn, New York. He spent some time working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1942, his father-in-law appointed him director of the movement's central organizations, placing him at the helm of a budding Jewish educational and hasidic outreach empire across the United States, Canada, Israel, and North Africa.

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Schneerson is on the right

His father-in-law passed away in 1950. His followers immediately began pressuring Schneerson, then known as the Rama"sh--an acronym of his name, to succeed his father-in-law. At first he steadfastly refused, saying that his father-in-law "lived on". In that "vacuum", another candidate for leadership emerged: Rabbi Shemaryahu Gurary, Joseph Isaac Schneersohn's elder son-in-law, married to his elder daughter. Gurary, known as the Rasha"g, failed to capture support among the Hasidim, who continued pressuring Schneerson to relent and accept the position of "Rebbe". On the first anniversary of his father-in-law's passing, he finally relented and became The Rebbe.

Gurary became a devoted follower; however, his son Barry Gurary resented what he perceived as Schneerson's "usurpation" of what he thought should have been his father's position. Various intra-family disputes arose. For example, when invaluable books and manuscripts from the Chabad library began to go missing, Schneerson's wife, Chaya Mushka, suspected her nephew Barry and ordered a surveillance camera installed, which then confirmed her suspicions. This led to a protracted battle in Federal Court over the library's ownership. Barry Gurary claimed that the library was a family heirloom and as the previous Rebbe's sole grandson, he claimed ownership of it. Schneerson countered that the library was the collective property of the Chabad movement. Barry's mother, Hanna, sided with him, while his father remained staunchly devoted to Schneerson, leading to a deep rift in the Gurary family. On the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet, the court handed down its decision--an overwhelming victory for Schneerson. His followers commemorate this day each year as Didan Natzach ("We did triumph") a kind of "V-Day".

Schneerson undertook to intensify the outreach program of the movement, bringing in new followers from all walks of life, and aggresively sought the expansion of the baal teshuva movement. His two most famous early experimental emissaries were Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, both of whom eventually veered away from Lubavitch.

Other Orthodox Jews were bothered by the fact that Lubavitch outreach efforts extended to them as well as to non-affiliated Jews. The Satmar sect attacked him for not sufficiently opposing Zionism, a philosophy considered heretical by that group. The proximity of Crown Heights to Satmar enclaves in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the "conversion" of some prominent Satmar Hasidim to Chabad caused friction, culminating in an incident one year in which a group of Lubavitchers walking through the Satmar enclave in Williamsburg on their way to visit a synagogue to spread Schneerson's message were set upon and beaten by a mob. Nonetheless, Schneerson and Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, held each other in high esteem.

Vision

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A photo of Schneerson in the 50's

Part of Schneerson's vision was the training of thousands of young Chabad rabbis and their wives, who were sent all over the world by him as shluchim (Hebrew: "emissaries") to further Jewish observance.

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. The United States Congress and President issue annual proclamations declaring that the Rebbe's 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.

Schneerson instituted a system of "mitzvah campaigns" called mivtzoim; 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 "Mitzvah tanks", mobile outreach centers, encouraging Jews to increase their religious observance. He also launched a campaign to promote observance of the Noahide Laws among gentiles.

Schneerson's activities spread to many surprising parts of Judaism. Since the time of the Rebbe Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, Chabad had been involved with the Sephardic world. Schneerson was revered by Rabbis Israel Abuchatzirah (known as Babba Sali), Meir Abuchatzirah, Yitzchak Kaduri and Mordechai Eliyahu (a former Chief Rabbi of Israel). The latter two often visited him in Brooklyn, while the others maintained a correspondence with him. In the late 1970s, Schneerson joined with other organizations to orchestrate an exodus of Jews from countries such as Iran, laying the framework for Sephardic Hasidim. There are currently several Sephardic Chabad congregations.

Scientists who called on him, such as Herman Branover, professor of physics at Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, Israel, noted that he had a keen understanding of scientific issues. Branover himself, a Russian-Israeli authority on solar energy, is an active member of the Lubavitch movement. He frequently turned to Schneerson for advice on his scientific research. According to the billionaire mining magnate Joseph Gutnick of Australia, it was Schneerson who pointed out to him the precise geological points on a map of Australia to commence mining for gold. He was also given guidelines in his search for diamonds. Gutnick was subsequently appointed by Schneerson as his main representative to the Israeli government, and was instrumental in the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel in 1996. Another mining company Shefa Yamim (http://www.shefayamim.com) (Bounty of the Seas) has recently found diamonds, other precious stones and gold based on the Rebbe's prediction.

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Schneerson giving a public speech

Schneerson rarely chose to involve himself with questions of halakha (Jewish law). Some notable exception were with regard to the use of electrical appliances on the Sabbath, sailing on Israeli boats staffed by Jews, and halakhic dilemmas created when crossing the International Date Line. Responsa literature on the subject reflect the great deference that prominent arbiters of halakha showed Schneerson.

He hardly ever left Crown Heights in Brooklyn, except for frequent lengthy visits to his father-in-law's gravesite, the ohel ("tent"), in Queens, New York. Upon the death of his wife in 1988, he further secluded himself, first in his home on President Street and after the traditional year of Jewish mourning, moved into his study above the central Lubavitch synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway which is known as "Lubavitch World Headquarters".

It was from "770" that Schneerson 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 ("celebrations") on Sabbaths, holy days, and special days on the Chabad calendar when he would lead the packed hall with long talks called maamorim ("[scholarly] talks") or sichos "[scholarly] discussions"), and with songs called nigunim, that would last all night. They would often be broadcast via satellite to Lubavitch branches all over the world.

Later life

In 1977 Schneerson suffered a massive heart attack while celebrating the hakafot ("circling" [in the synagogue]) ceremony on Shmini Atzeret. Nonetheless, he insisted on finishing the ceremony with the customary dancing. Despite the best efforts of his doctors to convince him to change his mind, Schneerson refused to be hospitalized. This necessitated building a mini-hospital in "770." Although he did not appear in public for several weeks, he continued to deliver talks and discourses from his study via intercom. On Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the first day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, he left his study for the first time in over a month to go home. His followers celebrate this day as a great holiday each year with a feast of thanksgiving to God for his miraculous recovery.

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Schneerson in later life

Following the death of Scheerson's wife in 1988 he withdrew from some public functions and became generally more reclusive. In 1991, he stated that: "I have done everything I can do to bring Moshiach (the Jewish Messiah), 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 his followers placed advertising in the mass media such as many full-page ads in the New York Times urging everyone to contribute toward the messiah's imminent arrival, by increasing in their good deeds.

In 1991, Scheerson faced an anti-Semitic riot in his neighborhood of Crown Heights which became known as the Crown Heights Riot of 1991. The riot began when a car accompanying his motorcade returning from one of his regular cemetery visits to his father-in-law's grave accidentally struck an African American child who subsequently died. In the rioting, a young rabbinic student was murdered, many Lubavitchers were badly beaten, and much property was destroyed.

In 1992 he was felled by a serious stroke while at the grave of his father-in-law. The stroke left him unable to speak and paralyzed on the right side of his body. Nonetheless, he continued to respond daily to thousands of queries and requests for blessings from around the world. His secretaries would read the letters to him and he would indicate his response with head and hand motions.

Despite his deteriorating health, Scheerson once again refused to leave "Seven-seventy" . Several months into his illness, a small room with tinted glass windows with an attached balcony was built overlooking the main synagogue. This allowed him to pray with his followers, beginning with the Rosh Hashana services and after services, to appear before them by either having the window opened or by being carried onto the balcony.

During these appearances his followers would chant, what would come to be a very controversial "mantra" among the Lubavitchers : Yechi Adonenu Moreinu v'Rabbeinu Melech Hamoshiach l'olam voed! - "Long live our Master our Teacher and our Rabbi King Messiah forever and ever!" When sung before him in has last months, Schneerson evidently vigorously encouraged the singing by swaying to and fro and swinging his hand, as he had done at the numerous farbrengens over the years. From this and his previous public statements his followers "extrapolated" that he acceded to their wish that he be the "Messiah". But that moment never arrived, as he died unable to verbalize and say anything to confirm his followers' longed-for dream that he be the actual long-promised Jewish Messiah.

Succession

The Messiah question, combined with a Chabad tradition that the Messiah would come after the seventh Rebbe, probably complicated his succession. Chabad Hasidim believe that there is no successor to Rabbi Schneerson, and that he is in that sense still their leader. Many believe that he will return as the Messiah; this view has led to controversy with other Orthodox groups. Many, quoting Talmudic passages such as Ya'akov avinu lo meis ("our forefather Jacob did not die") (Talmud Ta'anit 5b) insist he has not died at all and refuse to put the typical honorifics for the dead (e.g. zt"l or Zecher Tzaddik Livrocho, "may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing") after his name.

As for the organisation's activities, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky now serves as chairman of the Chabad-Lubavitch Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch education establishment and the Kehot Publication Society. Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky heads Machne Israel fundraising for Chabad's congregational work. Rabbi Avrohom Shemtov now serves as chairman of the Executive Committee of Agudas Chasidei Chabad. Schneerson was president of the above mentioned organizations during his lifetime as leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

Many Chabad Hasidim practice a custom of attempting to communicate with him through his writings, based on his statement in 1991 that placing of a letter to him in a volume of his teachings at random is a way of receiving his guidance. In this view, the late rebbe is held to guide the questioner to open a book to a specific page, and to gaze at a specific verse, in order to communicate a message from beyond the grave. While there are a small number of references in Jewish tradition for opening books of the Tanach on random pages in order to receive divine inspiration, the practice of opening books of a deceased Rebbe's writings in order to receive communication from him appears unique to Chabad.

Political activities

United States

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Schneerson had a weekly practice of distributing dollar bills to recipients so they could in-turn give them to the needy.

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 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.

Schneerson predicted 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. During the Desert Storm war against Iraq in 1990-1991, messianic fever ran high as Schneerson interpreted events in the light of Torah and midrash, declaring that: "Moshiach is already here, all we need to do is to open our eyes to see him."

Israel

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 visits to Schneerson were reunions of sorts. Prime Minister Menachem Begin and later Benjamin Netanyahu also paid visits and sought advice. In the elections that brought Yitzhak Shamir to power, 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 Jewish philanthropies cut off their financial support of Lubavitch since most of their members were connected with Reform and Conservative Judaism .

Books by Schneerson

  • Haggadah Im Likkutei Taamim Uminhagim - The Haggadah with a commentary written by Schneerson.
  • Hayom Yom - An anthology of Chabad aphorisms and customs arranged according to the days of the year.
  • Igrot Kodesh - 26 volume set of Schneerson's letters. (11,948pp)
  • Likkutei Sichot - 39 volume set of the Schneerson's talks on the Torah portions, Jewish Holidays, and other issues. (16,867pp)
  • Reshimot - 7 volume set of Schneerson's writings of discovered after his death. (2,190pp)
  • Sefer Hasichot 10 volume set of the Schneerson's talks from 1987-1992. (4,136pp)
  • Torat Menachem - 27 volume set of Maamarim and Sichos from 1950-1959. (Based on participants' recollections and notes, not proofread by Schneerson).
  • Torat Menachem Hisvaaduyot - 43 volume set of Maamarim and Sichos from 1982-1992. (Based on participants' recollections and notes, not proofread by Schneerson).

Rebbes of Lubavitch

  1. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812)
  2. Dovber Schneersohn (1773-1827)
  3. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1789-1866)
  4. Shmuel Schneersohn (1834-1882)
  5. Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (1860-1920)
  6. Joseph Isaac Schneersohn (1880-1950)
  7. Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994)

See also

External links

Writings available online

Chabad sites

Messianic sites

Historical sites

Time-line of Lubavitcher rebbes

Preceded by:
Joseph Isaac Schneersohn

Chabad Lubavitch

No successor

he:מנחם מנדל שניאורסון
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