ההשקפה החב"דית באספקלריית דברי ימי אדמור"י וחסידי חב"ד לדורותיהם

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Newly Published Correspondence Provides Unpercedented Insight into the Early Life of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

BOOK REVIEW: LETTERS OF RABBI YOSEF YITZCHAK SCHNEERSOHN VOL. XV, kehot publication society: brooklyn, 2010

As the subtitle of the book informs us, this volume contains the letters of the sixth Rebbe of the Chabad chasidic dynasty, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, to his son-in-law and eventual successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and to his daughter Rebbitzen Chaya Mushkah Schneerson. Significantly, the volume also includes relevant extracts from Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s letters to his father-in-law.

While it has been published as the fifteenth volume in a series it should in truth be viewed as an independent book, worthy of singular attention and an identity of its own. Other volumes in the series have collected a wide variety of letters, addressed to many different personalities and representing a very colorful tapestry of the R. Yosef Yitzchak’s activities and interests as well as a virtual treasure trove of historical narrative and anecdotal insight into the idealistic past of the Chassidic movement. This, however, is the first in the series to focus entirely on a single theme. These letters tell the story of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s private relationship with the individual upon whose shoulders his hopes and dreams for Jews and Judaism would be carried into the future. Perhaps herein lays a crucial key with which to decipher the journey of the Chabad dynasty, and the broader path of the Chabad movement, through the uncertainties of the twentieth century and into modernity.

The vast majority of these letters were written  between 1927 and 1941, during which the future Rebbe and his wife spent significant time in Berlin and Paris. Many details of his whereabouts and activities come to light, and more importantly we are granted deep insight into the very intimate and active relationship that he enjoyed with his father-in-law. This volume reveals aspects in the personalities of both men, which have never before been exposed on such a scale. While the combined correspondence of both fills more than fifty published volumes, the vast majority of letters published therein reveal them in their public roles. In this volume we are allowed a window into their lives as private individuals.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s correspondence, as published in the present volume, is sometimes surprisingly mundane, detailing his travels and describing his surroundings with  wry humor and requesting that the young couple write similar letters in reply. In one letter his son-in-law explains why he has not honored those requests, “there are individuals whose lives are strongly centered on the world of introspection… (either intellectual or vacant)… Inclining… to the world in their hearts rather than the world that surrounds them externally… Even from my own perspective I acknowledge that this is not necessarily an advantage … [but] apparently I am among them. My life has [therefore] always been poor in interesting incidents [to relate] .” Many errands of a private or communal nature are detailed, in which Rabbi Menachem Mendel was engaged on his father-in-law’s behalf. Correspondences regarding matters of religion, Divine service and Chassidic doctrine are almost always instigated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel rather than his father-in-law, and in his replies Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak enthusiastically responds to each of his observations and searching queries. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak clearly valued his son-in-law’s learned opinion, seeking it regarding the scholarship of other individuals whom Rabbi Menachem Mendel had met and even concerning his own writings.

Flowing so prominently through all of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s letters, is the powerful sentiment, hope, esteem and blessing of a father who truly loves his children, constantly yearns for their company and worries about their welfare. In one letter, which goes a long way to revealing the profundity of his feelings for his son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak expresses “great inner pain, that you did not merit to see the face of the Holy of Holies [a reference to his father, Rabbi Sholom DovBer, the fifth Rebbe of Chabad], the face that literally shone with G-dly light…” He continues to describe his personal memories and sentiments upon being in his father’s presence “specifically during Elul, the High Holidays… and the days of Joy… Also the sight of the Chasssidim in Lubavitch…” and concludes, “However, in every loss there must be gain, and that is the longing to commit yourself… to that which is truly good, to learn much Torah… to pray at length and with contemplation… and to implant character traits that are truly good and pleasant”.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s letters too, reveal a new dimension to a personality that has engaged, enraptured, sometimes antagonized and – more often than not – eluded, a wide segment of global Jewry. We have become used to seeing this great man in his role as “the Rebbe”, the Chassidic leader who did not retreat in the face of modernity but successfully harnessed it in the dissemination of his message and the realization of its ideal. In this volume, we are allowed a glimpse of the open and honest relationship he enjoyed as a devoted son-in-law and Chassid of his own Rebbe. As well as representing his father-in-law in various offices and being heavily involved in the publication of the journal “Hatomim”, it becomes clear that he himself was heavily engaged in the study and practice of Chassidism on a very personal level. It was perhaps his reticent nature (earlier alluded to), that allowed his inner life to remain so firmly centered on the sincere pursuit of Chassidic values, even as he lived in Weimar Berlin. In these days before Rosh Hashana, it is fitting to cite the following letter, penned in that city by Rabbi Menachem Mendel in the summer of 1929.

“I am reminded that the month of Elul is imminent, which is a month of preparation [for Rosh Hashana] and return [to closer communion with G-d]… Which is the way, and what is the solution that this should affect me, that it should finally touch my heart…?” In a very personal display of self analysis, he continues to bare the inner recesses of his heart, as only a true Chassid can before his Rebbe, “Looking deeply into my heart, perhaps all this is only externality on my part [i.e. the preoccupation with preparation and return is merely subconscious pretence] and it does not truly matter to me.” In reply, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak reassured him that he was in fact being true to himself in expressing his aspiration that the Divine service of Elul should affect him, for “when one learns Chassidus, especially matters of [Divine] service, in a way that it has its effect through service of the heart, which is prayer, with contemplation and communion – one begins to speak in a different language, one understands and grasps things differently, and automatically ones aspirations are very different…”

A review such as this cannot hope to portray the full depth and character of a volume of such unembellished simplicity, fascination and significance as this. I can only express my hope that the new opportunities presented herein will be utilized to better understand the enduring legacy of the Chabad ideal, its history, its present situation, its future and the lives of those who represented and perpetuated that ideal. We can only conclude by thanking Rabbi Berel Levin, archivist at the central Chabad library, and his team for painstakingly devoting themselves to the preparation of such a beautiful volume for print from the original manuscripts.  

This highly recommended volume can be purchased here. Below appears the book's preface.

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