Monday, June 14, 2010

Chaim Rapoport Review

In response to a request from the editorial board of the Seforim blog, we are pleased to present a monograph-length review essay of Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Princeton University Press, 2010), by Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, who is a frequent contributor to the Seforim blog (see here for his earlier essays at the Seforim blog).

We believe that Chaim Rapoport, "The Afterlife of Scholarship: A Critical Exploration of Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman’s Presentation of the Rebbe’s Life," the Seforim blog (14 June 2010), available here (http://seforim.blogspot.com/2010/06/chaim-rapoport-review.html) greatly contributes to the growing study of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement during the latter half of the twentieth century.

The Afterlife of Scholarship: A Critical Exploration of Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman’s Presentation of the Rebbe’s Life

Two Books for the Price of One
‘The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson’ by Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman (Princeton University Press, 2010), 382 pages.

This book is comprised of two studies.

Firstly, we have a sociological study of the Lubavitch ‘mission establishment’ (shlichus); a layman’s guide to the now global phenomenon of shluchim,[1], shluchos and their Chabad Houses – at least as they have become consolidated over the last two or three decades. The authors describe the dedication of these emissaries; their ambitions, achievements and the (messianic) ethos that spurs them to work tirelessly with the aim of drawing the hearts of all Jewish People closer to their Father in Heaven.

In this section they speak, often quite fondly, of the sterling work performed by the shluchim and their families who go and live in small towns, far-flung cities and secular university campuses in order to re-ignite religious life; providing Jewish amenities for both residents and itinerants, observant or otherwise, across the globe. They emphasize the novelty of this phenomenon, in contradistinction to other chasidic and haredi groups who tend to retreat into their insular communities, shunning exposure to the outside world and its religiously threatening elements. They depict the ‘equal rights’ and privileges of women on shlichus, describing the uniqueness of this somewhat ‘egalitarian’ phenomenon within an otherwise ultra-traditional group. They explore the motives that they believe drive so many young, talented and charismatic couples to choose such a challenging life-long career, and describe how they maintain the high level of inspiration, stamina and perseverance that are essential for success in this vocation. Finally, they demonstrate how such families see themselves, as astonishing as this may seem, to be acting as emissaries of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the seventh Rebbe of the Chabad Lubavitch dynasty [henceforth: ‘the Rebbe’]; who passed away in 1994.

Secondly, and most importantly, we have an attempt to present the life-story of the Rebbe, the man who created this mission, and the one who, to this day, inspires those who have embraced it. The authors do not merely endeavor to reconstruct the factual data of his life, much of which, they allege, is shrouded in mystery, but they also venture to penetrate the deepest recesses of his psyche. They purport to reveal his unspoken thoughts, feelings, incentives, and they sometimes even second guess his actions or reactions at any given time of his life. As Sue Fishkoff has put it, Heilman and Friedman “take a psycho-bio approach to Schneerson’s life, trying to get inside the man’s head to uncover his motivation” [2] – a tall order indeed!

The Focus of This Review
Although the biography of the Rebbe and the history of his movement are presented as intrinsically intertwined, the critical analysis I offer hereby, will focus primarily on the biographical section of the book. I propose to appraise the methodology of its authors, their sources, inferences, pre-suppositions and conclusions, and ultimately judge the quality of this biography as a work of scholarly research. At the conclusion, however, I will also make some remarks that are relevant to the work of the Chabad emissaries and the future of their mission, inasmuch as these are related to the concept of the Messiah and Redemption, subjects that are central to both the biographical and sociological sections of Heilman and Friedman’s work.

A reliable biography of a 20th century figure usually relies on several sources of information: (a) hard documentation; (b) autobiographical testimony of the subject; (c) [interviews with eye] witnesses; (d) anecdotal evidence and hearsay: “mi-pee ha-shemuah”; (e) the objective, un-prejudiced analysis and interpretation of a, b, c and d.

The subject of the biography will be ‘constructed’ by the reasonable and balanced usage of these five construction tools. This equilibrium requires that priority is given to (a) over (b) and (c) over (d) etc. [To an extent, the credentials of the biographer as a historian in general can be tested by the way he utilizes these five informants].

It is, working from this vantage point that I proceed to explore the work of Heilman and Friedman. But before I commence this task, a preliminary remark is called for. [3]

To read the entire (forty-five page) review essay, click here (PDF).

Notes:
[1] In their first endnote on the book Heilman and Friedman express surprise that Lubavitch emissaries are referred to as shluchim: “The precise Hebrew or Yiddish word for emissaries would be ‘shlichim,’ but for whatever reason, Lubavitchers have chosen to use the term ‘shluchim,’ perhaps to distinguish themselves from all other types of emissaries, religious or otherwise.” Heilman and Friedman, chapter 1, note 1. This comment bespeaks ignorance in the Hebrew language. Whilst it is true that in Modern Hebrew (the Ivrit of Ben Yehudah) the plural shlichim is used, in rabbinic Hebrew (and therefore Yiddish) it is virtually unused. The term shluchim and its derivatives are found in hundreds of places in rabbinic writings.
[2] Sue Fishkoff, “New bios of Lubavitcher rebbe dig for the man behind the myth,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency (17th May 2010), available here (http://www.jta.org/news/article/2010/05/17/2394846/new-bios-of-lubavitcher-rebbe-dig-for-the-man-behind-the-myth).
[3] There are those who would have it that only non-Israeli’s can pass judgment on the Arab-Israeli conflict; only indifferent Jews can assess the qualities of Jewish Orthodoxy; only atheists can write impartially about religion; and only academic sociologists can write objective history. I disagree.

I am an orthodox Jew. I consider myself to be a disciple of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, and although I studied in other Yeshivot (Manchester and Gateshead), and I am familiar with a broad array of orthodox theologies, my main training was in Lubavitch. Nevertheless I consider myself to be a fair and reasonable thinker, even with regards to matters that relate to Judaism, orthodoxy, and, yes, Lubavitch. I acknowledge that I may not be able to achieve the maximum possible degree of objectivity with regard to any of the above, but on the other hand, I believe that my first-hand experience of Jewish, Orthodox and Chasidic life affords me advantages that outside scholars often lack.

Moreover, as many recent studies have demonstrated, the vantage point of the outsider is not always free from bias and prejudice. All too often, the so-called detached scholars have their own axes to grind. Not all ‘external’ expertise is objective, and, not all insiders are blind. I therefore appeal to readers to avoid pre-judging the value of my essay, by resorting to the knee-jerk: “Well, he is a Lubavitcher; what else do you expect him to say?!” Rather, listen to my argumentation, look up the sources, and judge for yourself with the maximum possible degree of objectivity that you are able to achieve.

Chaim Rapoport, “The Afterlife of Scholarship: A Critical Exploration of Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman’s Presentation of the Rebbe’s Life,” the Seforim blog (14 June 2010): 3, available here (http://seforim.blogspot.com/2010/06/chaim-rapoport-review.html).

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Not having read the book, and not being an expert on Chabad , it is clear that he has shown many deficiencies in Heilman and Friedman. However, his treatment of the messianic issue at the end does not succeed in clarifying the view of the Rebbe in any way, especially given the views of many of his Hasidim that the Rebbe himself decreed his Messianism.

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