Sunday, February 8, 2009
The Man, the University, the Mystery!
Do you recognize this man?
I decided to turn my attention to a man who has gained a great amount of popularity during his lifetime for his Torah, charisma, soul-stirring discourses and never-ending efforts for the sake of strengthening Judaism in America and the world-over; רבי מנחם מענדל שניאורסון (a name, I recently discovered, which was once changed from "שניאורי", which obviously meant "son of שני-אור", after שני-אור זלמן מליאדי).
I was having a conversation with some gentlemen over at "Dixie Yid"s blog last week (very nice blog by the way) about the ruling of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Scheerson concerning the impropriety of university attendance. I countered with something that has always bothered me about Chabad Chassidim; the fact that they adhere to relatively fundamentalist viewpoints of "the Rebbe", while Rabbi Schneerson himself could have been seen as somewhat of a modernizer. In this example Rabbi Schneerson advised against university attendance, while he himself had attended a number of universities in both Germany and France. Other obvious examples include his comparative "modernity" of dress (in his circles what he was wearing was quite outlandish!), while the official dress of his Chassidim is of much more of a Traditionalist-Polish-Jewish fashion, and his including sources from secular knowledge into is discourses, while he, again, advised against the acquisition of such knowledge.
The gentlemen I was talking with responded that Rabbi Schneerson's university studies cannot be taken as an example to others, considering he was less susceptible to the undesirable influences of the university environment. One of them suggested that it wasn't even the idea of Rabbi Menachem Mendel at all, but that he was sent by his father in law, the Rebbe of Lubavitch.
I started to take a bit of interest in this seeming shift in interests of Rabbi Sheersohn, and tried to discover for what reason he attended in the first place (according to records Rabbi Schneerson first attended University of Berlin for little more than a semester, then attended a technical school in Paris where he received a licence for engineering, and then studied math at the Sorbonne until the war broke out).
From what I read online, it seems that Rabbi Schneerson, having studied Torah under his illustrious father and having received Rabbinical ordination from the famed Rabbi Yosef Rosen (צפנת פענח), harbored a keen interest in general knowledge and languages, having learned Russian on his own while still at home. He later visited the (then) Rebbe of Lubavitch for the first time (who had only daughters), and quickly became engaged to one of his younger daughters (the conditions of which are not clear). After the marriage his father in law was criticized for his son's dressing in modern clothing, and having somewhat of a secular education.
The couple then made their famous trip to Germany, where both Rabbi Schneerson and his wife would be able to continue their studies. Rabbi Menachem Mendel audited a few interesting courses at the University of Berlin, and his newlywed wife, Chaya Mushka (Musenka), took some classes at the "Deutsche Institute". It seems that Rabbi Schnerson was somewhat dismayed by the lack of seriousness among the students, and decided instead to spend his time acquiring knowledge (both secular and holy) on his own pace, in the university library and at Hildesheimer (Rabbinical Seminary). During this time he was said to have met with men who were to themselves become Jewish leaders in America. I'm speaking of course about Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik and Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner. They both attested to his piety and his keeping of strict religious practices in unlikely conditions. The couple was supported by her father, who, it's suggested, took interest in the idea of his son in law learning a reasonable trade, in order to support himself.
He allowed himself the liberty of this secularism, seemingly, because he was not in line to become the next Rebbe. The Rebbe's eldest daughter was already married to someone by the name of Rabbi Shemaryah Gur-Ari (a name slightly familiar to me from hearing Crown Heights people talk Chabad politics with each other), who spent all his time with the Rebbe, and produced a healthy son, something Rabbi Schneerson had yet to produce.
An even more informing proof that that Rabbi Scheerson had an acute desire to acquire knowledge, and did not think he would succeed his father in law, is that the couple subsequently moved to Paris, and lived in an upscale neighborhood with their brother and sister in law (where they were reportedly "very modern"). He succeeded in completing a two year course at ESTP (a technological college for construction and industrial engineering), and obtained a licence for electrical engineering (which he ended up taking advantage of for Tikun-Olam in America towards the end of the war). He then continued to register at Sorbonne, where he studied math until the war broke out (obviously not to obtain a degree of any kind).
It has become my conviction, though, that his opinions about modernism changed radically when he came to the United States, and was found to be a more promising candidate for Rebbe then that Rabbi Shemaryah fellow. His piousness, Torah knowledge, general knowledge and charisma really left Rabbi Gur-Ari no match for him, and he was eventually chosen (by some sort of general consensus it seems) to be the next Rebbe. Once he was the Rebbe, and the movement started growing tremendously under his leadership, I think the movement started taking on some Polish-style colourisations. Though the Rebbe didn't wear the traditional fur hat, his adherents started looking more and more "Polish". He began advising against university study and began to adhere to a more supernatural approach to things as a result of the responsibilies and possibilities of his post.
This is a letter sent by the Rebbe, for example, about the ideologies of Samson Raphael Hirsch about secular university, and why he feels Hirsch's opinions cannot be applied to the situation in the United States. I must say, while I do not disagree with many of the points in this letter (but do admit that some of the points are debatable), I feel that it is possible that his change in his public stance on these subjects came as a direct result of the responsibility he felt he had to Jewry as the Lubavitcher Rebbe (in other words it wasn't his personal opinion, but his "professional" opinion).
These are some some of the sites I used to gather this somewhat controversial info:
Wikipedia. (Of course!)