Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill teaches comparative religion at Seton Hall University. Brill was driven out of Yeshiva University years ago, and his review of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's new book on the life of the late Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson gives the world a good look into the academic dishonesty inherent to Brill's work that was in part behind that move.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Modern Orthodox Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill teaches comparative religion at Seton Hall University. Brill was driven out of Yeshiva University years ago, and his review of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's new book on the life of the late Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994 but who is still considered to be the messiah by most of Chabad-Lubavitch followers today, gives the world a good look into the academic dishonesty inherent to Brill's work that was in part behind that move:
Sometimes I like reading haigiography, currently called sacred narrative, such as saint, zaddik, or mystic tales, not because of the historical truth or the miracles but because they sometimes reflect a worldview better than explicit statements . Adin Steinsaltz in his new book My Rebbe (Maggid Press, 2014) gives a completely romantic ahistorical account of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that is a good read and offers a few gems of insight. The book is written as a form of world wisdom literature so that it can be excerpted in general spirituality magazines on myth and story such as Parabola, to which Steinsaltz is a frequent contributor.…
In other words, Steinsaltz – who I personally like but argue with – has written a fantasy or a fairy tale about Schneerson and packaged it as a biography. And Brill – who as an academic is supposed to be concerned with truth – is fine with that.
Steinsaltz is actually more honest in a sense than Brill is, as this passage of Brill's review unintentionally shows:
The book tells some good stories and reveals much about Steinsaltz as image creator. Steinsaltz describes Isaiah [i.e., Yeshayahu] Leibowitz [the well-known Israeli philosopher and theologian who was the brother of Nehama Leibowitz] on the Rebbe and gives a ridiculous story taken from the oral reminiscences about Rav Soloveitchik and the Rebbe.
‘I knew him [the Rebbe], but he [later] went crazy.’ The caustic comment was typical of Leibowitz, but in Berlin they were on good terms.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik recalled that he once rescued the rebbe-to-be from jail. It was the joyous day of Purim, and the Rebbe observing the usual practice of the holiday – was on the Humboldt University campus, somewhat tipsy. Climbing onto a chair, Menachem Mendel began to speak loudly about religious observance and the meaning of the holiday. Holding a public event without a permit was illegal, and he was promptly arrested for creating a public disturbance. A man on the scene, a respected physician, telephoned Rabbi Soloveitchik and said something about Schneerson being in jail. After securing his release, Rabbi Soloveitchik joked with Menachem Mendel, telling him that he could now become a rebbe. He had been imprisoned as all of the Lubavitcher rebbes had once been.…
Brill writes off Leibowitz's remark about Schneerson's mental health to Leibowitz's eccentricities.
But the fact is that Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, the great non-hasidic haredi rosh yeshiva, studied with Schneerson one-on-one in the late 1940s and early 50s. Hutner held the same view as Leibowitz, telling several of his closest students that Schneerson was, and I paraphrase here only slightly, bat shit crazy.
Non-hasidic haredi leader Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach, who personally knew Schneerson and disliked him, also held that Schneerson was mentally ill.
Historically, Schneersons married cousins or nieces. (For example, the third Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe was both the grandson of the first rebbe and the son-in-law of the second, who was his uncle.
Not surprisingly, mental illness runs in the Schneerson family. The Rebbe's father in-law and grandfather-in-law, both his cousins, had known mental health problems, as did his great-grandfather.
All of these men were descended from the first Chabad rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Schneur Zalman had three sons. One of them, Moshe, converted to Christianity. Contemporaneous documents from the church, the Russian government and from Chabad sources all show that Moshe was also mentally ill.
There are several other Schneerso's with serious mental health issues who are less well known, including one I used to see in Israel in the late 1980s.
But Brill does not mention the well-known (at least in academic circles) mental health issues in that extended family. Instead, he writes off Leibowitz's remark to Leibowitz's well-known sharpness of tongue and leaves it at that – an academic crime considering the messianism that infects Chabad to this day that has a precedent only in the behavior of the Frankists and the followers of Shababtai Tzvi after their leaders died or converted.
Speaking of that messianism, Brill writes:
Finally, what about the messianism? Steinsaltz shows that the Rebbe was concerned with the topic since his youth, that he did not see himself as the mashiach, and that his followers are now adrift and forlorn.
From childhood, the Rebbe had dreams about the coming of the Mashiach. In a letter to Israel’s second president, Yitchak Ben-Zvi, the Rebbe wrote: “From the day I went to cheder [religious primary school] and even before, the picture of the final redemption started forming in my mind – the redemption of the Jews from their last exile, a redemption in such a way that through it will be understood the sufferings of exile, the decrees and the destruction….”
At a 1991 farbrengen, just a few months before his first stroke, some of the Chasidim began a song which clearly named the Rebbe as Mashiach. The Rebbe stopped them quickly and said, “I cannot leave here now, but after hearing such a claim I should leave this room as a protest.”
We may think of the famous Walt Whitman poem about Abraham Lincoln: “O Captain, My Captain.” But for Chabad the situation has been more perilous; the Rebbe’s ship has not reached port. It has not come to rest at the end of its intended course. While in the middle of the sea, it lost its captain.
The problem is that there are conflicting events and actions by Schneerson that indicated that Schneerson believed himself to be the messiah.
The vast majority of Chabad hasidim today consider Schneerson be the actual or presumptive messiah and even the so-called anti-messianists don't really argue against that. Instead, they argue against publicizing that because doing so hurts Chabad's fundraising and its outreach among large sections of Jews worldwide.
This is not secret information and Brill certainly knows it to be true.
But like the dishonest and needy man he is, Brill overlooks all that and gives Schneerson a free pass on the extreme messianism and cult of personality he created.
Yes, fantasy can be comforting and enjoyable – but it never should be allowed to supplant truth.
That Brill would opt for fantasy over fact and would do so in a way that misleads his readers in unforgivable.