April 18 would have been the 115th birthday of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Schneerson, who took over a struggling Brooklyn-based Hasidic sect in 1951, was by his death in 1994 arguably “the most influential Jew since Maimonides,” and it is about that influence I wish to write — particularly because, in the 20-odd years since his death, recollections of the Rebbe’s personal charisma have largely eclipsed the record of his actual teaching.
I note at once that I have neither the expertise nor the desire to try to analyze the whole range of the Rebbe’s religious doctrine. Of his role as clergyman and community leader I have little to say, never having lived in a predominantly Lubavitch enclave. Moreover, since I had no contact with him, I am clearly unequipped to write about the Rebbe’s personal qualities; I am prepared to grant that these were impressive.
I am more concerned with the darker side of what the Rebbe taught.
For that darker side — the farrago of apocalyptic messianism and overt racism at the core of the Rebbe’s teaching — is likely to be his lasting contribution to the Jewish world, in which his prestige (thanks in no small part to popular hagiographies by Joseph Telushkin and Adin Steinsaltz) continues to rise even as serious discussion about his legacy has all but disappeared.
Worse, the Rebbe’s teaching invites serious practical consequences. Some of his most vehement sermons were devoted to the promotion of Mideast militarism. While Israel’s violence against its Palestinian Untermenschen intensified and its attacks on neighboring countries reached new heights of savagery, the Rebbe rationalized the occupation and egged on Israel’s military assault against Lebanon in 1982, as he would cheer on the American-led carnage in Iraq nine years later. Certainly a Muslim cleric who preached similar things would be anathematized throughout the Western world. Why, then, is the Rebbe given a pass for his warmongering in support of the oppression of Palestine — surely the ugliest blot on Jewish tradition in modern times?
The question cannot be shirked. The Rebbe didn’t just tolerate Israeli oppression. He encouraged it.
In Eyes Upon the Land, a book explicitly “based on the public statements and writings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” the reader is told that “every inch of territory in Israel,” including “the lands taken in the Six-Day War,” must be held by the use of Jewish military force, regardless of international law or the consequences for the non-Jewish population. Why? Because “the ordinary Arab in the street” seeks nothing less than “Arab dominion over the entire land of Palestine” and regards all Israelis with “deep-seated hatred.” The Rebbe never produced evidence that a nonexistent Palestinian army would somehow overwhelm Israel’s massive military forces — there being none — but the darker question is why the Rebbe’s insistence on Jewish dominion over the same land, and the deep-seated hatred of Palestinians and other Arabs he encouraged (during Israel’s slaughter of over 17,000 people in Lebanon in 1982, the Rebbe repeatedly criticized the Israelis for being too timid) didn’t justify the use of force by Arabs against their Jewish attackers. The only possible answer is the obvious one: Jews were different from non-Jews by definition. Jewish goals mattered to the Rebbe. Arab lives didn’t.
And Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? During the First Intifada, the Rebbe preached emphatically against the slightest easing of the oppressive conditions that had spurred the desperate (and overwhelmingly nonviolent) popular revolt. “[C]oncessions convince the Arabs of Israeli weakness,” he claimed. “Even mere talk of possible concessions is harmful because it encourages terrorist activity.” Meir Kahane himself could not have said it more brutally.
The mainstream reader seldom hears about any of this: much of what passes for commentary on the Rebbe’s work is mere propaganda. In Toward a Meaningful Life, a book intended as a distillation of the Rebbe’s teachings, Simon Jacobson claims that “the Rebbe taught – and embodied – a distinctly universal message, calling upon all humankind to lead productive and virtuous lives, and calling for unity between all people.” In fact, Schneerson based his teaching on the traditional Hasidic text known as Tanya, a deeply racist work according to which only Jews are endowed with fully human souls. True, Schneerson was far from being the world’s only racist preacher; but it is hard to imagine panegyrics like Jacobson’s being circulated about, say, David Duke.
Nor have only the faithful been playing such games. In her review of two recent biographies of Schneerson for the Wall Street Journal, Dara Horn – after describing the efforts of the Rebbe’s emissaries to persuade Jewish men to don phylacteries and Jewish women to light Friday evening candles — insists that although “[i]t all seems suspiciously cultlike,” these “bearded enthusiasts aren’t out to convert anyone.” Really? It’s true that the only targets of Lubavitch’s missionary activities are Jews — but to deny that they’re “out to convert anyone” makes sense only if you accept the underlying premise that all Jews ought to be Orthodox Jews, if not Lubavitch Hasidim, a position that aligns Ms. Horn with a highly tendentious theological position she fails to acknowledge, let alone to justify.
Schneerson’s warmongering was partly a product of his doctrinal Jewish chauvinism — but it also drew on his fanatical insistence that the end of days was rapidly approaching. “We are now very near the approaching footsteps of Messiah, indeed, we are at the conclusion of this period,” he claimed as far back as 1951. Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, in a relatively clear-headed review of the Rebbe’s career, call it “the story of how one man and some of his followers were swept away by his beliefs and expectations and led to assume that death could be denied and history manipulated.”
But Western media generally disdain religious fanatics who believe they can defy death and turn back the course of history. The Lubavitcher Rebbe alone is treated with kid gloves — even though violence was among the tools with which he sought to change reality. Witness the silence that followed this fulsome encomium from Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in the Observer:
“The Rebbe’s moral authority and unparalleled humanity inspired in all who met him a desire to be better…. Seeing the dignity he accorded all who came to seek his blessing his admirers ceased judging people who were different.”
Those fine sentiments will be news to Palestinians, for whom the Rebbe expressed nothing but loathing and contempt. And the Rebbe’s “unparalleled humanity” had no problem with extolling Israeli massacres in Lebanon and the slaughter of Iraqis in 1991.
Yes, religious leaders can be complicated figures, and I am willing to grant that other aspects of the Rebbe’s teaching may be genuinely inspirational. But until we come to terms with the dark side of his career, we will not be able to shake off his complicity — and ours — in the long-running crimes of the Jewish state which, in the Rebbe’s perverse preaching, became acts of piety.
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