In this first of a series of excerpts from the groundbreaking new biography-memoir of the Rebbe, “My Rebbe", the author explores the unique role Chabad Rebbes traditionally played for world Jewry.

While the ideal role of a rabbi is to teach Torah and decide matters of Jewish law, the chasidic rebbe’s role is to advise and guide in matters related to the human soul, its perfection and its individual path. One might have thought that chasidic rebbes remain aloof from mundane issues, and concentrate on spiritual leadership. However, like other rabbis, chasidic rebbes very often become involved in the everyday problems of their followers; it is to them that the Chasidim turn to complain about their troubles and ask for blessings and assistance in all matters.

Every chasidic rebbe takes his own approach. Even those rebbes who wanted to concentrate almost solely on the perfection of the soul could not avoid their Chasidim’s other problems. The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, complained that – instead of dealing with questions of Torah and the soul – he was being flooded with requests for advice and blessings on material issues1 . Still, he could not help addressing the more ordinary entreaties.

While prefering to concentrate on spirituality, Rebbes become involved in people’s everyday problems.

Many of the rebbes would make great efforts to assist their Chasidim – through blessings and spiritual remedies, of course, but also in immediate, practical and mundane ways. Some rebbes would collect large sums of money, which they would then distribute among the needy. In most such cases, the rebbes’ activities were private and local. Even when dealing with earthly matters, most rebbes were concerned mainly with their communities: the hiring or firing of rabbis, ritual slaughterers, and teachers. While they were often aware of wider issues, including political events and changes in the secular law, most rebbes would not intervene directly but would express their opinion. It was only in the early twentieth century that some rebbes of other movements began to engage with the world outside.

The Chabad rebbes were different. From the very start, they were active in broader social and public political spheres. The Alter Rebbe himself, for example, became politically active. When Napoleon threatened to invade Russia, he supported the Tsarist regime even though he had reasons enough to dislike them. He was concerned about the possible political, social and cultural outcomes of the French Revolution.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the "Alter Rebbe" (1745-1812)
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the "Alter Rebbe" (1745-1812)
He thought that while the Revolution might give the Jews their freedom, it could very well rob them of their souls. The Napoleonic Code did in fact give equal rights to the Jews while raising the specter of assimila- tion. To aid the Russians, the Alter Rebbe sent some of his Chasidim to serve as spies. The Russian authorities subsequently rewarded his family by granting them the honorary title of “Distinguished Citizens for All Generations.”

While the second Chabad rebbe, the Mitteler Rebbe, was extremely spiritual and mostly detached from worldly affairs, he called on his Chasidim to be economically productive and even established agricultural settlements in Russia. Government decrees then constrained Russian Jews to earn their livings only as intermediaries. Often enough, this work did not produce enough income, and life was precarious for many Jews. The Mitteler Rebbe encouraged his Chasidim to move to villages on land in southern Ukraine, supplied by the government. Several Chabad colonies were eventually established there.

Most chasidic rebbes were the spiritual leaders of a particular town, or perhaps a region. Chabad rebbes oversaw a movement throughout Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine. The Chasidim’s diverse backgrounds and situations meant that Chabad rebbes had to be familiar with issues that cut across thousands of miles. Chabad rebbes could see local issues in a wider context and understand national and geopolitical concerns more clearly. Throughout the earlier, Old World generations, they were not only spiritual leaders; they were leaders in every sphere of life.

However, Chabad rebbes did not limit their efforts and activities just to their own group of followers. They saw themselves as leaders of the entire Jewish world. They turned their Chasidim into the avant-garde, the “combat troops” of the Jewish people. They sent teachers and rabbis to faraway Russian locales such as Georgia and Bukhara – things no one else in the chasidic world was doing.

Tsarist Russia sought both to assimilate its Jewish residents into secular society and to persecute them for their differences. Chabad rebbes were active on both fronts. They vigorously fought the move to dilute the Jewish educational system. Chabad rebbes led the rabbinic opposition, and themselves negotiated with Tsarist officials. To stop local pogroms, they brought outside pressure from international Jewish bodies and powerful men like the Rothschilds.

The Chabad rebbes turned their Chasidim into avant-garde “troops” to serve the entire Jewish people.

True to this tradition, the sixth rebbe was the foremost leader of Russian Jewry in his time. In a perverse recognition of this, the Soviet government had first arrested and tortured him, then ordered him to Leningrad, away from the heartland of the Chabad movement. The government hoped that those actions would diminish his power and influence. It was when those tactics failed that he was ordered to leave the country entirely.

The book cover.
The book cover.

Chabad Chasidim saw their rebbes as exilarchs – Kings of the exiled Jews. Chabad rebbes had to be well-informed, through primary sources if possible. They were among the only chasidic leaders who spoke the local language, read the foreign press, and grasped the internal and external politics of their country. Rebbes outside Chabad mainly spoke and read only Yiddish and tended to isolate themselves from their countries’ social and political mainstream.

Chabad alone used the title nasi, a word combining “leader” and “king.” The word nasi, which appears quite often in the Bible, is used as a synonym for “king.” Calling their rebbes “nasi” was more than granting them merely an honorary title; it was an expression of the multi-faceted essence of their role. For instance, the great Rabbi Yosef Rozin, known as the Rogatchover and himself a Chabad Chasid, treated the Chabad rebbe of his time as an actual king.

The Rebbe’s approach to his role was a direct continuation of Chabad’s tradition of international leadership. He expanded his care to include Jews around the world, as Jews themselves had become more far-flung. His emissaries reached every continent and reported back to him about the local political issues that affected their Jewish communities.

Written with the admiration of a close disciple and the nuanced perceptiveness of a scholar, Rabbi Even-Israel (Steinsaltz)’s “My Rebbe” is sure to inform and provoke and, ultimately, to inspire us to think about our own missions and aspirations for a better world. Available now in bookstores worldwide, “My Rebbe” can also be purchased here.