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

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Newly Published Book and Letters Cast New Light on the Rebbe's Biography and Persona

Rabbi Chaim Rapoport has recently published a revised and expanded edition of The Afterlife of Scholarship, his critique of The Rebbe by Heilman and Freeman. R. Rapoport has gathered much interesting information and analysis, expanding and reorganising his detailed arguments, and also summarising specific elements of the debate that was played out between him and the authors of The Rebbe on the Seforim Blog (see here, here and here). R. Rapoport has also included an appendix entitled The Ten Lost Years (1941-1951) detailing the role the Rebbe played in the Lubavitch movement following his arrival in America, and the more controversial issue of his rise to the leadership of Lubavitch following his father-in-law's passing. Large parts of the newly published work can be viewed via Amazon's "Look Inside!" feature.

Since my own opinion could hardly be objective (R. Rapoport thanks me for my contribution in A Note To The Reader), here is what Professor Elliot R. Wolfson of New York University, author of Open Secret, has to say:
In Afterlife of Scholarship, Chaim Rapoport offers a meticulous critique of Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, published by Princeton University Press, 2010. Rapoport challenges many of the assumptions made by Heilman and Friedman, and argues, through close textual reading, that these assumptions are based on interpretive flaws and/or lack of knowledge of Hasidism in general and of Habad in particular. Despite the overtly polemical tone, Rapoport's criticisms are never offered ad hominem. On the contrary, he painstakingly documents every point of contention, and has thereby provided ample evidence to allow other readers to assess his arguments against the portrait of the Rebbe presented by Heilman and Friedman. Whatever one might decide on the merits of his analyses, Rapoport's volume provides an invaluable treasure-trove of sources for future generations of scholarship on the seventh Rebbe of Habad-Lubavitch.
While on the subject of the Rebbe's biography and persona, two recently published letters (available here pages 18-26) are worthy of attention:

The letters were both penned by the Rebbe (henceforth Ramash) in Berlin in the summer of 1928 (the summer before his marriage to Rebbetzen Chaya Mushkah), and are addressed to his future mother-in-law, Rebbetzen Nechamah Dina. Perhaps the most striking thing about them is that the content of these letters is uncharacteristically mundane, and the tone is light and carefree. To anyone familiar with Ramash's usual style, this is an extremely rare departure from the tersely written words of greeting, the businesslike, almost impersonal tone, and the sparse lines of cryptic scholarship. His style is usually very different from the far more expressive, descriptive and colourful style of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (Rayatz). This difference in writing style and personality is highlighted by an exchange of letters between the two early in 1930.

In response to his father-in-law's complaint to him that "your many letters of great length and many pages have, to my dismay, not yet been received, and apparently have not yet been written", Ramash wrote:
The reason I have not written is... that it is difficult for me to find in my life occurrences of interest to inform you of, with which to fill a page, [simply] writing a letter for the sake of a letter. Why should I steal your time for this...
(Igros Kodesh Rayatz Vol. 15, 74)
The Rebbe Rayatz replied:
I think it is clear that when you take note of the truth; of the deep relationship that must exist between us, you will always find something of interest that will extend over more than one page.Who is it that can limit the expression of inner feeling by the measure of pen, paper and the like?
(Ibib, 77)
In answer Ramash wrote:
There are individuals, for whom the central focus of their lives is in the realm of introspection, the world of thought (whether intelligent or empty), their main [direction of] 'movement' - for anything that lives moves - is inward, to the world that is placed in their heart, rather that the world that surrounds them and is external to them. After prefacing that even in my own eyes this is no great advantage, the fact is, that whether due to the nature of my soul, or due to external causes, it appears that I too am amongst them. My life has ever been poor in interesting events [as opposed to ideas], which are also of interest to me internally.
(Ibid, 78)
This exchange reveals a rare glimpse of the subtle clash of personalties and the depth and openness of the relationship that existed between the two; to no one else will you find Ramash laying bare his inner world. There is much to be said about to think about here, but we'll leave it for another time. In the light of this exchange, the letters written by Ramash to his future mother-in-law are noteworthy. The fact that Ramash so eagerly enters into discussions of the weather and descriptions of Berlin street scenes in a manner so reminiscent of the style of Rayatz, perhaps betrays a special effort on his part to accord her due respect and attention in the manner she was used to.

Another point of interest is that the second letter is dated "The day before Tisha BeAv, on which was born our righteous redeemer [Moshiach Tzidkainu], [56]88, Berlin". Clearly, the paradoxes of exile and redemption, the potential light within the darkness; the themes which would occur and reoccur in his talks and discourses decades later, were already then at the forefront of his mind.

In this letter too he keeps the tone light and carefree, finishing with a bitter-sweet Tisha BeAv joke:
The heat has dissipated somewhat. It will be an easy fast. How the Germans will manage when you can't say "gutten tag", I can't imagine...
I remain your relative who wishes you all the best. May the time come when these days will be turned to joy
Menachem Schneerson 
Getting back to The Afterlife of Scholarship, here's a selection of what some other commentators have written:
[Rapoport has crafted an] impressively knowledgeable critique… -- Adam Kirsch in Tablet Magazine 
Rapoport has gotten the better of the exchange… a failure of biographical research and imagination on Heilman and Friedman's part… -- Abraham Socher in the Jewish Review of Books  
[Heilman and Friedman] unfortunately play trivial pursuit… present hearsay as facts… and sometimes wade into the cynical end of the research pool with tabloid-style innuendos and suppositions. -- Joe Bobker in the Jerusalem Report 
[T]here are peculiar omissions and contradictions [in Heilman and Friedman's book…] Readers of this biography may wonder if the authors have failed to grasp their subject… -- David Klinghoffer in London's Jewish Chronicle


  1. there is a mistake in the year that you wrote the rebbe wrote a letter in sumer 1928 before his marriage the rebbe got married toward the end of 1927 so either the letter is summer 1927 before marraiage or its 1928 after marriage

  2. I do not think I am mistaken the date of the Rebbe's marriage was י"ד בכסלו ה'תרפ"ט, towards the end of 1928.


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