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Monday, May 24, 2010

New bios of Lubavitcher rebbe dig for the man behind the myth

By Sue Fishkoff · May 17, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- Sixteen years after the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a flurry of new publications indicates not only how enduring the interest is in his life and legacy, but how potent the minefield is surrounding his mythology.

Writing a biography of a larger-than-life figure is never easy. And when that figure is the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, the charismatic leader of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement, the usual challenges of sifting through sources and evaluating mountains of research material are complicated by internal politics, religious sensibilities, personal loyalties and a lack of reliable first-person information.

Then there’s the Messiah business.

Until now, the only recountings of Schneerson's life have been hagiographies written by Chabad followers. Now there are two new biographies by academics outside Chabad circles, with a third in the works.

New York University Professor Elliot Wolfson came out last fall with “Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson,” an examination of Schneerson’s leadership within the context of Jewish esoteric tradition.

Next month will see the publication of “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson,” by Samuel Heilman of City University of New York and Menachem Friedman of Bar-Ilan University, an examination of Schneerson’s early life and what the authors describe as his growing Messianic pretensions.

And Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of several best-selling books on Jewish life and thought, is in the early stages of a book focusing on the source of Schneerson’s charisma and the influence he continues to exert on people’s lives.

The Heilman-Friedman book is generating the most controversy. Written for a lay audience, it frames Schneerson’s mission, and that of the Chabad movement he led, as motivated by Messianism, here defined as the attempt to hasten the Messianic era through human actions. The Messianic mission was so much at the heart of the late rebbe’s leadership, the authors argue, that one cannot be a follower of the rebbe without full commitment to that goal.

The authors take a psycho-bio approach to Schneerson’s life, trying to get inside the man’s head to uncover his motivation -- always a tricky business.

They focus on Schneerson’s 14 years in Berlin and Paris -- the so-called “lost years” between his 1927 marriage to Chaya Mushka, the daughter of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, and 1941, when the couple escaped Nazi Europe and arrived in New York to rejoin the Lubavitch court.

Left to his own devices, they write, Schneerson would have preferred to “settle in Paris, become a French citizen, and live as a Jew of Hasidic background pursuing a career in engineering.”

While not explicitly claiming that Schneerson and his young wife fell away from their Chasidic roots, the authors return again and again to the short beard and secular dress Schneerson favored until his arrival in New York, along with other similar details, as evidence of an Orthodox but not haredi lifestyle.

“There is no question he was an observant Jew, but he lived in places where Chasidim didn’t live, and he did things they wouldn’t do,” Heilman told JTA.

It was, the authors write, a combination of survivor’s guilt -- Schneerson was the only member of his close family to escape the Holocaust -- and the improbability of his becoming an engineer in America that led him by the late 1940s to set his sights on a new career goal: succeeding his father-in-law to become the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe.

“Mendel’s whole world had collapsed,” they write. “Now he was a childless refugee in America nearly forty years old with little or no English facility, with no job prospects in what had been his chosen field … a man who must be feeling desperate in his anxiety, loneliness, confusion, and survivor guilt, whose prospects are unclear, looking for a way out, an answer from God.”

When Schneerson assumed leadership of Chabad, the authors continue, he was able to use this worldly experience to push a hitherto small Chasidic movement onto the world stage, launching the global outreach campaign that was to become its hallmark.

Eventually, they assert, Schneerson believed he was “the prophet of his generation,” the man destined to bring on the Messianic era. And because the rebbe was so alone, with no peers to contradict him, they ask rhetorically: Was he “getting lost in a culture of messianic delusion”?

This version of Schneerson’s life contradicts the official Lubavitch version of an unbroken journey toward the mantle of movement leadership and suggests a more nuanced life whose twists and turns might easily have led to a different outcome.

Even before its publication, the book has engendered considerable objections in Chabad circles. One female emissary said some of her colleagues "have been briefed by headquarters" to steer their people away from it.

Lubavitchers are ripping into it, disputing its details as well as its overall thesis, claiming it shows a lack of familiarity with readily available primary sources. According to these critics, the rebbe never trimmed his beard in Europe, he rolled it, and the rebbe attended synagogue regularly in Berlin -- videotaped interviews with Jews who saw him in shul prove it.

And the suggestion that Schneerson spent his European years divorced from Chabad activities?

Rubbish, they charge.

Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, a Lubavitch scholar and dean of Britain’s Machon Mayim Chayin, points to a wealth of correspondence that exists between Schneerson and his father showing the two engaging in deep Talmudic and kabbalistic discourse.

“All this is a far cry from" the claim by Heilman and Friedman "that the father was guiding a son who had but an elementary or, worse still, a cursory interest in a Chasidic lifestyle,” he says.

In response, Heilman said in an e-mail to JTA, "We do not deny and indeed suggest that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson was a primary religious and Chasidic guide for his son. Indeed, we quote from the letters they exchanged. We particularly note the exchanges around the time of the wedding of the son to the daughter of the Sixth Rebbe."

On the question of the rebbe's beard, Heilman said readers will be able to judge for themselves by looking at photographs of Schneerson, reading comments from his father-in-law and thinking about when those comments were made.

In general, Heilman says, it should come as no surprise that some Chasidim "see things differently from the way we do. But we have presented our viewpoint based on the facts we have gathered."

"Our book documents what we have learned about the years in Europe," Heilman said. "We explain that most of the activities of those years were focused around the primary activity that brought the young Schneersons to Berlin and Paris. That activity was pursuit of education, career, and a life distant from Lubavitcher areas of settlement. When they wanted more of the Lubavitcher life, they either returned to the Sixth Rebbe's court or visited with him when he came to where they were.

"We never question the future Rebbe's knowledge of Chabad or even his interest in it. But as we document, that interest was not always the center of his concerns while he pursued his engineering studies."

Chabad itself, through Jewish Educational Media, is about to release more than 1,200 documents related to Schneerson’s life and work, in English and Hebrew, including his own diaries and important correspondence between him, his father and his father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe.

One volume will come out in late June, followed later by others, both in print at online at chabad.org. Chabad sources say this information will “clear up many misunderstandings.”

Wolfson, a philosopher, presents a much different take on Schneerson’s Messianism than sociologists Heilman and Friedman.

The NYU professor portrays Schneerson as having a very deep and radical understanding of Jewish esoterica.

“In his prime, his teaching was very dense, very laden with kabbalistic terminology," Wolfson said. "I don’t know how many really understood him; most were simply mesmerized by his style of presentation.”

Schneerson’s teachings are rife with internal contradictions, Wolfson says, including the subverting of Judaism’s gender hierarchy and the boundaries between the permissible and the non-permissible. But most of this was destined for the realm of theory. Schneerson never intended for them to be actualized -- not in this world.

“What the implications would be sociologically, what a Jewish community would look like if the Torah were superseded by the ‘new Torah’ he spoke about, a kind of law beyond the law, I don’t think he thought that through,” Wolfson said.

Wolfson agrees with Heilman and Friedman that Schneerson’s Messianic vision “was there from the beginning.”

“I feel he is using the rhetoric of a personal Messiah to mark not so much a political change but a change in consciousness that … involves reaching a state of personal perfection that exceeds the need for the Torah as we have it,” he said. “I don’t think he understood the impossibility of his own vision. And he took no steps to remedy that. He took no steps to name a successor. The whole history of Chabad from the Alter Rebbe [18th-century founder of Chabad-Lubavitch] to [Schneerson] is a Messianic line that comes to a close with him.”

Neither book will satisfy Chabad’s strongest critics, nor its closest friends. It remains to be seen whether the deluge of new material about to be published by JEM will cast further light on the most elusive aspects of Schneerson’s life and leadership.

“Like many mythic figures, he was a combination of opposites,” Heilman muses. “But you can’t really be sure what was inside his head. Who was he really?”

This article was made possible by the support of readers like you. Donate to JTA now.

Lubavitch's nerve center

Julia Duin

The first people I saw when I climbed out of the Kingston subway station on Friday were men in long black coats, wide-brimmed black hats and beards. was in Crown Heights, the Brooklyn borough that is the "Jerusalem" of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, in which the black suits are the norm. Founded 250 years ago in what was White Russia, the movement survived under the leadership of inspired rebbes (teachers), the latest being Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994.

The dilapidated brick building I faced as I exited the subway was his movement's headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway. The interior was a rabbit warren of dingy hallways with sheets of paper - tacked onto various doors - identifying various agencies.

I stepped into one room claimed by Jewish Educational Media, where Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin showed me an array of multimedia archives of talks by the rebbe, plus video of almost every encounter he had had with the thousands of fans who had dropped by to see him on Sundays. He would give each a dollar bill, which they in turn were to contribute to charity.

The rebbe founded an amazing missionary corps of rabbinical couples who established beachheads of Jewish culture worldwide. I met such a couple in South Florida while reporting there in the early 1980s, and I've maintained contact with them to this day. Their synagogue turns 30 years old this month.

Other endings are not so happy. When terrorists attacked Jews in Mumbai in November 2008, it was a Chabad center that was targeted. Nine Jews died there.

I had long wanted to see the nerve center of the Chabad movement. A few hours later, the lower floor of 770, as they call it, overflowed with black-coated men saying prayers in preparation for the Jewish holiday of Purim. Up in the balcony in the women's section, a woman held out a card bearing Rabbi Schneerson's likeness, comparing him to the moshiach, the long-promised Jewish messiah.

A Lubavitch friend and I strolled through the snow up Kingston Avenue, "the Champs Elysees of the Lubavitch world," he told me, with delis, a bakery shop, Judaica stories, flower shops and butchers, all kosher. A glossy tourist brochure at a florist portrays a street map of where 43 shuls, or synagogues, can be found in a 77-square-block area.

Most impressive was the interactive Jewish Children's Museum across Kingston Avenue from the world headquarters. When the little ones enter on the third floor, they go through a walkway portraying the seven days of creation.

There were shofar-shaped microphones in front of an exhibit on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new-year holiday during which the shofar (ram's horn) is blown. There's an olive press to create oil for Hanukkah lamps, a chestful of Purim costumes and a kosher supermarket where children can practice selecting kosher products off the shelves.

Then there is a room devoted to observing the Sabbath, with computers instructing children how to construct a Sabbath menu and a talking wine bottle that describes how to say the kiddush blessing over the wine.

Lots of Christian youth groups visit the museum, I was told, because of its Bible-friendly atmosphere. And certainly, with a surrounding neighborhood and culture geared to making faith attractive, Crown Heights leaves the visitor almost wishing he or she could be Jewish.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Jewish center dedicates new Torah

CHESTNUT RIDGE — Nicky Zion waited in a line
Monday night to have a single letter written for her
family and, to her, it was entirely worth the wait.

"I just think it's so special because it's not every day
you get to do this," said the 41-year-old Valley
Cottage resident. "I think it's just a very special thing
to happen to you."

Zion was one of about 100 local Jews to take part in
the completion of the Chabad Jewish Enrichment
Center's new Torah scroll.

Rabbi Chaim Zvi Ehrenreich, director of the Chabad
Center, said that each of the 600,000 letters in the
Torah has a connection to a Jewish soul and that
writing a full Torah is actually considered a mitzvah,
a good deed, required by the Jewish text.

"Most people don't ever do that in its entirety," he
said. "And so today, every family that's here is going
to have the opportunity to have one letter inscribed
for them."

The Chabad Center, at 6 Whitefield Road in Chestnut
Ridge, is part of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch
movement to promote Judaism among all Jews and
was opened in 2001, Ehrenreich said. Since its
inception, the group has used older Torah scrolls
on loan from other Jewish organizations during
their observances.

The Torah scroll completed Monday was donated by
the Tseytin family of Saddle River, N.J. The scroll,
written by a trained scribe in feather and ink, took
about a year to complete. Ehrenreich described the
donation of the scroll as "very, very generous" and
estimated its cost to be between $25,000 and
$50,000.

"The religious meaning of it is beyond that," he said.
"This is the Torah that's handed down from
generation to generation to generation from Mount
Sinai until today. We're going forward now. This is
here for the next 50 years, for the next generation.
It's very, very special."

The ceremony couldn't have come at a more fitting
time. Shavuot, which begins tonight, is the Jewish
holiday during which Moses was given the Torah at
Mount Sinai 3,322 years ago by the Jewish calendar.

Monday's simcha, or celebration, included a series
of traditional Jewish observances such as the
picking up and tying of the Torah. Throughout the
entire event, guests ate and drank, and danced to
music.

Ella Tseytin said she is a spiritual person, but not
overly religious. She said one reason, among many,
that she and her husband, Michael, donated the text
was to honor her father, Yakov Shtivelman, who died
two years ago.

Tseytin said the family wanted to remember
Shtivelman, whom she described as an "amazing
person" who "believed in people," and the family h
oped that the people of Chabad would pray for him
as they read from the new Torah scroll.

She also said that, after consulting with another
rabbi, her family decided that it would be a good
idea to help a Jewish group in need.

"The idea was to do something good for someone
and to feel good doing it," she said. "Maybe it was a
little bit selfish, but the idea was to bring something
good to somebody else."

New Sefer Torah in Dnepropetrovsk

This past Sunday, Dnepropetrovsk was crowded with thousands of people from all over Ukraine at a ceremonial giving of a new Sefer Torah.

The Chief Rabbi of Romania flew in especially for the joyous occasion. Edward Sartan, a member of the board of the trustees, and Martin de Yung from Holland, donated the Sefer Torah.

A beautiful golden Kesser together with a Choshen and a Yad were donated by Uri Laber, a respected member of the local Jewish community. The Sefer Torah was completed by a local Sofer, Zeev Gelfand, in the Kotzubinskovo Shul.

The last few lines were written by the heads of all the local organizations and important members of the community. The procession was through the streets of Dnepropetrovsk to the Golden Rose Shul, the army band of musicians led the procession with joyous Chassidic music. People were dancing in the streets with great happiness of receiving a new Sefer Torah in their city of Dnepropetrovsk.

At the Golden Rose Shul, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky, the Chief Rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, said the first Atoh Horeisoh with great enthusiasm followed by dancing.

A very festive Seuda, was held thereafter in the courtyard of the Shul with the Dnepropetrovsk's Pirchei Ukraine choir livening up the event with their latest songs.

Jerry Weintraub talks about faith, lessons learned

The Desert Sun Profile

Bruce Fessier • The Desert Sun • May 16, 2010

Jerry Weintraub doesn't consider himself religious.

But, after making millions of dollars as a concert
promoter for the likes of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra,
Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan, and as a producer of
films such as “Diner,” “Oh, God!” and the “Karate
Kid” franchise, Weintraub began paying attention to
what he calls a higher power.

“I've had this turmoil about religion my whole life —
not just Judaism but Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism,”
he says from his walled, two-story estate in Beverly
Hills. “It seems like every war is fought over
religion. That's why I like to say I'm spiritual, not
religious. I believe in a higher power. I don't know
what that higher power is, but I believe in it.”

Weintraub, who also owns a modern marvel in the
Palm Desert foothills, recounts many of his show biz
stories in his new book, “When I Stop Talking, You'll
Know I'm Dead: Useful Stories From A Persuasive
Man.”

But he tells them from the perspective of a man who
has gained a new level of wisdom after 72 years on
this planet. He tries to pass along lessons he's
learned from his mistakes as well as his successes.

“One of those lessons is that, from the age of 20 to
40, I could have been a much better father,”
Weintraub says. “I didn't go to ballet recitals and
Little League games. I was so involved with what I
was doing and the life I was making for my family
and myself that I didn't realize how much I was
missing. I had a lot of trouble for not being there all
the time. On the other hand, I was able to give my
family a lot of things they never would have had. I'm
still learning about this.”

Weintraub said he has had many rather mystical
experiences in his life. Some might seem like
coincidences — like the day before his Desert Sun
interview when a Paramount Pictures executive told
him over lunch that he was seeking a script for a
team of older A-list actors for a project like “Ocean's
Eleven.”


Weintraub said his “Ocean's Eleven” screenwriters
had written just such a film, titled “The Belmont
Boys.” He told the studio head he'd contact them
ASAP. Then he called his secretary to tell her to find
the New York-based writers because a development
deal was on the line.

The next day, he said, he was having breakfast with
another studio head at the Four Seasons Hotel in
Beverly Hills when he looked around and, sitting in
the next booth, were those very “Ocean's Eleven”
writers.

“I cannot tell you how many hundreds and
hundreds of times this has happened to me,”
Weintraub said just hours after telling those writers
of their stroke of luck. “I don't know if it happens to
everybody, but it happens to me. That's not a talent.
That's a situation I'm put into.

“I'm not saying I don't work at it. I do. But somehow,
it's always there for me. It gets there. That's why I
believe there's something else.”

One of his most remarkable mystical experiences
prompted him to post a photograph over his bed in
Beverly Hills of the kind of religious figure he was
always conflicted about.

It isn't accompanied by pictures of his wife or kids
or celebrity friends such as Sinatra, George Clooney

Share Email PrintNew bios of Lubavitcher rebbe dig for the man behind the myth

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- Sixteen years after the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a flurry of new publications indicates not only how enduring the interest is in his life and legacy, but how potent the minefield is surrounding his mythology.

Writing a biography of a larger-than-life figure is never easy. And when that figure is the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, the charismatic leader of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement, the usual challenges of sifting through sources and evaluating mountains of research material are complicated by internal politics, religious sensibilities, personal loyalties and a lack of reliable first-person information.

Then there’s the Messiah business.

Until now, the only recountings of Schneerson's life have been hagiographies written by Chabad followers. Now there are two new biographies by academics outside Chabad circles, with a third in the works.

New York University Professor Elliot Wolfson came out last fall with “Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson,” an examination of Schneerson’s leadership within the context of Jewish esoteric tradition.

Next month will see the publication of “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson,” by Samuel Heilman of City University of New York and Menachem Friedman of Bar-Ilan University, an examination of Schneerson’s early life and what the authors describe as his growing Messianic pretensions.

And Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of several best-selling books on Jewish life and thought, is in the early stages of a book focusing on the source of Schneerson’s charisma and the influence he continues to exert on people’s lives.

The Heilman-Friedman book is generating the most controversy. Written for a lay audience, it frames Schneerson’s mission, and that of the Chabad movement he led, as motivated by Messianism, here defined as the attempt to hasten the Messianic era through human actions. The Messianic mission was so much at the heart of the late rebbe’s leadership, the authors argue, that one cannot be a follower of the rebbe without full commitment to that goal.

The authors take a psycho-bio approach to Schneerson’s life, trying to get inside the man’s head to uncover his motivation -- always a tricky business.

They focus on Schneerson’s 14 years in Berlin and Paris -- the so-called “lost years” between his 1927 marriage to Chaya Mushka, the daughter of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, and 1941, when the couple escaped Nazi Europe and arrived in New York to rejoin the Lubavitch court.

Left to his own devices, they write, Schneerson would have preferred to “settle in Paris, become a French citizen, and live as a Jew of Hasidic background pursuing a career in engineering.”

While not explicitly claiming that Schneerson and his young wife fell away from their Chasidic roots, the authors return again and again to the short beard and secular dress Schneerson favored until his arrival in New York, along with other similar details, as evidence of an Orthodox but not haredi lifestyle.

“There is no question he was an observant Jew, but he lived in places where Chasidim didn’t live, and he did things they wouldn’t do,” Heilman told JTA.

It was, the authors write, a combination of survivor’s guilt -- Schneerson was the only member of his close family to escape the Holocaust -- and the improbability of his becoming an engineer in America that led him by the late 1940s to set his sights on a new career goal: succeeding his father-in-law to become the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe.

“Mendel’s whole world had collapsed,” they write. “Now he was a childless refugee in America nearly forty years old with little or no English facility, with no job prospects in what had been his chosen field … a man who must be feeling desperate in his anxiety, loneliness, confusion, and survivor guilt, whose prospects are unclear, looking for a way out, an answer from God.”

When Schneerson assumed leadership of Chabad, the authors continue, he was able to use this worldly experience to push a hitherto small Chasidic movement onto the world stage, launching the global outreach campaign that was to become its hallmark.

Eventually, they assert, Schneerson believed he was “the prophet of his generation,” the man destined to bring on the Messianic era. And because the rebbe was so alone, with no peers to contradict him, they ask rhetorically: Was he “getting lost in a culture of messianic delusion”?

This version of Schneerson’s life contradicts the official Lubavitch version of an unbroken journey toward the mantle of movement leadership and suggests a more nuanced life whose twists and turns might easily have led to a different outcome.

Even before its publication, the book has engendered considerable objections in Chabad circles. One female emissary said some of her colleagues "have been briefed by headquarters" to steer their people away from it.

Lubavitchers are ripping into it, disputing its details as well as its overall thesis, claiming it shows a lack of familiarity with readily available primary sources. According to these critics, the rebbe never trimmed his beard in Europe, he rolled it, and the rebbe attended synagogue regularly in Berlin -- videotaped interviews with Jews who saw him in shul prove it.

And the suggestion that Schneerson spent his European years divorced from Chabad activities?

Rubbish, they charge.

Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, a Lubavitch scholar and dean of Britain’s Machon Mayim Chayin, points to a wealth of correspondence that exists between Schneerson and his father showing the two engaging in deep Talmudic and kabbalistic discourse.

“All this is a far cry from" the claim by Heilman and Friedman "that the father was guiding a son who had but an elementary or, worse still, a cursory interest in a Chasidic lifestyle,” he says.

In response, Heilman said in an e-mail to JTA, "We do not deny and indeed suggest that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson was a primary religious and Chasidic guide for his son. Indeed, we quote from the letters they exchanged. We particularly note the exchanges around the time of the wedding of the son to the daughter of the Sixth Rebbe."

On the question of the rebbe's beard, Heilman said readers will be able to judge for themselves by looking at photographs of Schneerson, reading comments from his father-in-law and thinking about when those comments were made.

In general, Heilman says, it should come as no surprise that some Chasidim "see things differently from the way we do. But we have presented our viewpoint based on the facts we have gathered."

"Our book documents what we have learned about the years in Europe," Heilman said. "We explain that most of the activities of those years were focused around the primary activity that brought the young Schneersons to Berlin and Paris. That activity was pursuit of education, career, and a life distant from Lubavitcher areas of settlement. When they wanted more of the Lubavitcher life, they either returned to the Sixth Rebbe's court or visited with him when he came to where they were.

"We never question the future Rebbe's knowledge of Chabad or even his interest in it. But as we document, that interest was not always the center of his concerns while he pursued his engineering studies."

Chabad itself, through Jewish Educational Media, is about to release more than 1,200 documents related to Schneerson’s life and work, in English and Hebrew, including his own diaries and important correspondence between him, his father and his father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe.

One volume will come out in late June, followed later by others, both in print at online at chabad.org. Chabad sources say this information will “clear up many misunderstandings.”

Wolfson, a philosopher, presents a much different take on Schneerson’s Messianism than sociologists Heilman and Friedman.

The NYU professor portrays Schneerson as having a very deep and radical understanding of Jewish esoterica.

“In his prime, his teaching was very dense, very laden with kabbalistic terminology," Wolfson said. "I don’t know how many really understood him; most were simply mesmerized by his style of presentation.”

Schneerson’s teachings are rife with internal contradictions, Wolfson says, including the subverting of Judaism’s gender hierarchy and the boundaries between the permissible and the non-permissible. But most of this was destined for the realm of theory. Schneerson never intended for them to be actualized -- not in this world.

“What the implications would be sociologically, what a Jewish community would look like if the Torah were superseded by the ‘new Torah’ he spoke about, a kind of law beyond the law, I don’t think he thought that through,” Wolfson said.

Wolfson agrees with Heilman and Friedman that Schneerson’s Messianic vision “was there from the beginning.”

“I feel he is using the rhetoric of a personal Messiah to mark not so much a political change but a change in consciousness that … involves reaching a state of personal perfection that exceeds the need for the Torah as we have it,” he said. “I don’t think he understood the impossibility of his own vision. And he took no steps to remedy that. He took no steps to name a successor. The whole history of Chabad from the Alter Rebbe [18th-century founder of Chabad-Lubavitch] to [Schneerson] is a Messianic line that comes to a close with him.”

Neither book will satisfy Chabad’s strongest critics, nor its closest friends. It remains to be seen whether the deluge of new material about to be published by JEM will cast further light on the most elusive aspects of Schneerson’s life and leadership.

“Like many mythic figures, he was a combination of opposites,” Heilman muses. “But you can’t really be sure what was inside his head. Who was he really?”