The branch of Jewish mysticism known as Hasidism began with the Baal Shem Tov, born in the Ukraine in c. 1700. Orphaned at a young age, the Baal Shem Tov grew up to be an extraordinarily charismatic leader, someone whose love and understanding of God was so ardent that his influence spread like wildfire through eighteenth-century Europe and ignited a mystical revolution among hundreds of Jewish communities.
Two hundred years later, Menachem Mendel Schneerson was born in the Ukraine to a family of Lubavitcher Hasids. As a young boy, Menachem was already what Professor Lawrence Shiffman has called “a Torah genius of an unparalleled nature.” In his twenties he also studied science, mathematics, and the humanities at the University of Berlin and at the Sorbonne in Paris. When the Nazis invaded France during WWII, Schneerson was forced to flee with his wife, arriving in Brooklyn, New York, in the summer of 1941, where he would live until his death in 1994. He neither wanted nor sought a position of authority in the Jewish community. But in 1950, following the death of his father-in-law, who was the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe,* the Hasidic community begged him to take the title of Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe and accept the mantle of leadership. For a full year he refused before finally bowing to the pressure of his people and of international Jewish leaders.
According to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the most respected Jewish scholars and religious figures alive today, “the essence of being a rebbe is not his being a scholar or his being a leader—it is his being a human being in full. If he is there, everything is all right.” For Rabbi Steinsaltz, and for thousands of others who cherished Schneerson as they would a living saint, no one embodied this quality of a rebbe more completely than he did. Indeed, Rabbi Schneerson was almost universally revered for the depth of his humanity and wisdom. Even Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton found themselves united in shared awe when, in 1995, Clinton posthumously awarded the Rebbe the Congressional Gold Medal for his lasting contributions to the American people and the world at large. During the ceremony, the writer Elie Wiesel—himself a recipient of the same medal as well as the Nobel Peace Prize—said, “The Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe did not receive medals or honors—he bestowed them. It was an honor to be in his presence. It was an honor to listen to him. It was an honor to be seen by him. Every time I met him, he touched the depth in me. That is true of every person who saw the Rebbe . . . Oh, this medal. Believe me, he didn’t need it.”
Many of the Rebbe’s students believed that Schneerson was in fact the Messiah himself, as spoken of in the Torah, come to herald an age of goodness and perfection in the world. Although he made no claims to being the Promised One, it was Schneerson’s belief that ours is indeed the generation entrusted to carry out the purpose of creation itself—to bring heaven down to earth and make a dwelling place for God in the material world. It was this single purpose that gave the Rebbe’s life its form and essence.
* For orthodox Jews, a rebbe is more than just the leader of their congregation—he is also a spiritual advisor and mentor who people look to for guidance not just on matters of religion but on social and political issues as well. The Lubavitchers are a group of hasids who first lived in the small town of Lubavitch, Russia; today there are more than 250,000 worldwide, with 20,000 living in Brooklyn alone.