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A Scholar in Paris: Signs of Things to Come

A Scholar in Paris: Signs of Things to Come

1935 - 1939

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The Rebbe photographed in a Paris park shortly after arriving in Paris in 1933. Courtesy of JEM.
The Rebbe photographed in a Paris park shortly after arriving in Paris in 1933. Courtesy of JEM.

With the return of Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his wife to Paris in the summer of 1935, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak encouraged his son-in-law to accept a role in the city’s rabbinic leadership. R. Yosef Yitzchak wrote that he had been approached by the chair of the union of orthodox congregations in Paris, who “greatly desire this.” In a slightly exasperated tone he further notes that the offer had previously been extended directly to R. Menachem Mendel, but “it remained, as usual, without an answer.”1

Two years earlier, after their initial arrival in Paris, R. Yosef Yitzchak had complained about his son-in-law’s avoidance of the limelight in a letter to his daughter, Chaya Mushka: “Concealing oneself from people doesn’t achieve anything… on certain occasions he should allow people to acquaint themselves with him through interesting conversation... it would bring about much good “Concealing oneself from people doesn’t achieve anything… on certain occasions he should allow people to acquaint themselves with him…"benefit…”2

By the mid 1930s Paris was home to increasing numbers of East European Jews and refugees from the threat of Nazism. A Chabad synagogue was established at 17 Rue des Rosiers, and there was growing pressure on R. Menachem Mendel to play a more public role. Berel Lax, a resident of Paris at the time, recalled that R. Menachem Mendel prefered to pray at the synagogue at 25 Rue des Rosiers to escape the attention he would receive among his father-in-law’s chassidim.3 Though he did not take a rabbinic post as proposed, he did agree to deliver public Torah classes in local synagogues.4

During this period, Polish law made it difficult for R. Yosef Yitzchak to transfer money internationally, and he directed that all funds sent by his supporters in Europe, the Americas and the Holy Land be handled by his son-in-law in Paris.5 R. Menachem Mendel also continued to prepare content for the Ha-tamim journel, and also annotated R. Yosef Yitzchak’s talks and discourses.6

Among R. Yosef Yitzchak’s followers R. Menachem Mendel’s address was becoming the destination not only for donations, but also for scholarly queries of a certain kind. In 1939, R. Schneur Zalman Shmotkin, a prominent Warsaw Chassid, published a new edition of a classic Chabad text, Torah Ohr by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Noticing that Torah Ohr’s account of the menorah lighting in the temple did not seem to be aligned with the accounts offered by classical authorities, Shmotkin wrote to R. Menachem Mendel seeking clarification.7

The issue was complex and Shmotkin seemed inclined to dismiss it as a typographical error. R. Menachem Mendel rejected this proposal based on his knowledge of manuscript versions of the discourse in Torah Ohr, and instead offered detailed clarification of the problem, demonstrating a strong command of all the varying sources and opinions. Apparently, Shmotkin showed R. Menachem Mendel’s reply to R. Yosef Yitzchak, for he subsequently asked his son-in-law to pen a full treatise dealing with all the Talmudic opinions and explaining their symbolic applications from a philosophical and ethical perspective.8 The resulting treatise was discovered among the Rebbe’s personal papers following his passing, and has since been published.9

R. Menachem Mendel rejected this proposal... demonstrating a strong command of all the varying sources and opinions.

In November 1938 R. Menachem Mendel registered as a student at the Sorbonne University of Paris. In March of the same year he graduated as a Mechanical and Electrical Engineer from the École Spéciale des Travaux Publics (ESTP), where he had first enrolled in 1933.10

Moshe Zev Reitzer, a young man who had studied at Yeshivot in Hungary before coming to study pharmacy at the Sorbonne, took classes alongside R. Menachem Mendel, and was deeply impressed by his character: “He would come directly to the lecture, speaking to no one. He would come in, and as soon as the lecture was over he would leave… When he did speak, he was very brief.” R. Menachem Mendel befriended the younger man and encouraged him to make better use of his abilities as a Torah scholar to educate local youngsters about their Jewish heritage. Like students generally, Reitzer found it difficult to make ends meet, but the tuition opportunities arranged for him by R. Menachem Mendel were both spiritually and materially rewarding.11

Several other people who became acquainted with R. Menachem Mendel in Paris confirm that his active organization of educational classes for Jewish children was well known at the time.12 Efraim Steinmetz, in 1939 a boy of eleven who had recently arrived from Hungary with his family, recalled that R. Menachem Mendel advised his father to enroll him and his brother in the local Chabad school. The care and friendliness extended by R. Menachem Mendel when they visited him in his apartment left a lasting impression on him.13 Education would become one of the defining trademarks of the Rebbe’s leadership. Positive Torah education, he argued, is the fundamental pillar of Jewish life and identity.14

Footnotes
1.
Igrot Ha-rayatz Vol. 15, pages 211-212.
2.
Ibid., page 172.
3.
Interview with Berel Lax, viewable here.
4.
The personal journals discovered following the Rebbe’s passing include notes of classes delivered in synagogues. See for example Reshimot #125. See also the account of Rivkah Marelus, viewable here, and the account of Asher Heber, viewable here.
5.
See Igrot Ha-rayatz Vol. 15, page 217 and other sources cited there.
6.
See Ibid. Pages 268-274, and other sources cited there.
7.
R. Menachem Mendel summarizes the query at the beginning of his reply, Reshimot #47.
8.
Igrot Ha-rayatz Vol. 15, page 346.
9.
Reshimat Ha-menorah, Kehot Publication Society 1998. Viewable here.
10.
The Early Years III, viewable here.
11.
The testimony of Reitzer’s son is viewable here.
12.
See for example the account of Meir Schochetman, here.
13.
Steimetz’s testimony is viewable here.
14.
See Sichot Kodesh 5719, talk delivered on Yud-Tes Kislev, sections 19 and 20.
Eli Rubin studied Chassidic literature and Jewish Law at the Rabbinical College of America and at Yeshivot in the UK, the US and Australia. He has been a research writer and editor at Chabad.org since 2011, focusing on the social and intellectual history of Chabad Chassidism. Through his writing, research, and editorial work he has successfully participated in a range of scholarly interchanges and collaborative endeavors.
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Twenty-eight articles, each encapsulating a period of the Rebbe’s life, and highlighting key themes that distinguish his ideas.
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