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Messiah of Brooklyn: Understanding Lubavitch Hasidism

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Overview The Messiah of Brooklyn:  Understanding Lubavitch Hasidism Past and Present is the fascinating story of the incredible expansion of the Habad - Lubavitch school of hasidic Judaism under the leadership of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.   Schneerson was the last in a dynasty of hasidic leaders who came to New York after the Holocaust. From a small band of refugees, he built a large, powerful international community of rabbis, emissaries and fervent disciples who committed their lives to his teachings and armed with his instructions lay See more details below
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The Messiah of Brooklyn:  Understanding Lubavitch Hasidism Past and Present is the fascinating story of the incredible expansion of the Habad - Lubavitch school of hasidic Judaism under the leadership of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.


Schneerson was the last in a dynasty of hasidic leaders who came to New York after the Holocaust. From a small band of refugees, he built a large, powerful international community of rabbis, emissaries and fervent disciples who committed their lives to his teachings and armed with his instructions lay the foundations of Habad’s messianic agenda. Primarily focused on outreach amongst Jews as the necessary condition for the “redemption”, Habad earned a reputation as the closest movement that Judaism has to evangelical Christianity. It succeeded in becoming the most influential religious group in the last fifty years of modern Judaism, affecting many layers of the Jewish experience ranging from the personal and spiritual influence of its philosophy on secular Jews, to the effect Habad rabbis have on thousands of communities they established around the world, to the movement’s impact on Israeli politics.


The author discusses the personality of Rabbi Schneerson, how he rose to eminence and how the messianic expectation around his personality developed. Many Lubavitch Hasidim viewed Rabbi Schneerson as the messiah and because of this, his death brought about a crisis of faith and leadership within the movement which the author analyzes.  The change in the movement, the factions and splinter groups developing variant theologies to explain the death of their messiah are subjects explored by Ehrlich together with the socio-religious undercurrents composing the movement’s identity.  Some of his views may be controversial.


About the author:

Dr Ehrlich is a philosopher of religion, Jewish social and political thought and theology. He received rabbinic ordination in a Hasidic yeshiva in Israel, studied theology at the Centre for Jewish Christian Relations in Cambridge and was a scholar at the Department of Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge University. He is a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This biography by Ehrlich, a rabbi and philosopher of religion, is an exhaustive and painstakingly researched study of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the charismatic Habad-Lubavitcher rebbe who died in Brooklyn in 1994. The book's first section uncovers the history of Hasidism and its influential subculture, Habad, as well as Schneerson's pre-rebbe life and his succession to leadership. Parts two and three deal with his activities as the rebbe, including a detailed examination of Habad institutions and Schneerson's unique style of managing them from his headquarters in Brooklyn. Finally, the book concludes by analyzing the contentious issues that have arisen since Schneerson's death; after 45 years in office, he left no apparent heir. The book contains many references to the question of whether Schneerson or his predecessor were (or are) the Messiah. Both this discussion and the entire presentation are marred by repetition, often preceded by tiresome reiterations of "as has been seen" and "as will be seen." Sensible editing might have rendered the book of interest to a wider readership by eliminating irksome duplication and broadening the subject. Its appeal is now limited to those who want to carefully study one important segment of Hasidism. Others would do better to peruse Sue Fishkoff's far more readable book The Rebbe's Army. (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780881258363
  • Publisher: KTAV Publishing House, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/1/2004
  • Pages: 332
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 1.19 (d)

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The Messiah of Brooklyn

Understanding Lubavitch Hasidism Past and Present
By M. Avrum Ehrlich

KTAV Publishing House, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 M. Avrum Ehrlich
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-88125-836-9

Chapter One

To contextualize the manner in which Menachem Schneerson consolidated his power over the Habad movement during his reign as Rebbe, and to understand the nature of the crisis of leadership in the Habad movement since the death of this powerful figure, it is necessary to examine the origins of Hasidism and the historical emergence of Habad and the concept of zaddik (saint). This will be the purpose of the next two chapters.

The Beginnings of Hasidism

The Hasidic revolution during the eighteenth century saw the emergence of a style of prophetic/mystical Jewish leadership that had previously been dormant, although latent, in the tradition. The new leadership model was considered marginal, undesirable, and even dangerous by the traditional leaders of the community, the so-called mitnagdim, who were themselves undergoing an internal crisis caused by the challenges to traditional Judaism offered by the Enlightenment, the rise of Hasidism, and general sociopolitical changes in Eastern Europe. Leadership models were beginning to change and the mystic, the miracle-worker, and the saint attracted stronger followings, particularly in Eastern Europe.

Traditionally, the mitnagdic religious hierarchy of East European Jewry ordered itself by the standards of scholarship, wealth, and family relationships. In this scheme, piety and fervor were complementary traits in a person, but were not the requisite for eminence, eligibility for marriage, or leadership in the community. The hallmark of honor, prestige, and envy, by tradition, was the pursuit of scholarship, through success at which an individual could win renown, a wealthy wife (and thus a handsome dowry), and positions of honor and standing. As scholarship was generally more accessible to the wealthy and excluded the impoverished masses, the latter were not often represented in honorable positions or in leadership circles. Although there were instances of nonscholarly, charismatic leadership, these were considered aberrations, dangerous, or simply exceptions to the rule. The purely charismatic leader did not usually play a dominant and consistent role in the community; moreover, there was no method for this type of leadership to perpetuate itself over more than one generation, so its irregular appearance was often short-lived.

This trend began to change in the eighteenth century, with the beginnings of what came to be known as Hasidism. Throughout this period, charismatic personalities began to attract a larger number of followers, including some from the disillusioned scholarly classes, as friction between the traditional intelligentsia and the unschooled masses brought on deep-seated support for change in the religious leadership. What emerged was a phenomenon that has been compared to the attraction of the masses to various false mashiachs and mystics throughout the ages.

While the precise reasons for the emergence of Hasidism are much debated in the academy, messianic/charismatic figures such as Sabbetai Zevi (1626-1676) and Jacob Frank (1726-1791), and other cultic personalities who preceded the rise of Hasidism, are often associated with the stirrings in this direction. The factors that gave rise to the Hasidic identity are not clear, but it is generally believed that Hasidism incorporated trends found in Sabbatianism, Frankism, and a general antinomianism found in the European Judaism of the time.

Where Hasidism differed from these earlier cults of personality, some of which were extremely long-lived and influential, was in its ability to stabilize popular sentiment into an institutionalized social dynamic that could not be halted by the mainstream hierarchy of mitnagdim. This may have been due in part, as Etkes suggests, to the fact that the early Hasidim often mingled with the upper echelons of society, a view supported by the social status of the traditional founder of Hasidism, the Ba'al Shem Tov. He was both a healer (and thus of high social status) and a mystic (and thereby a Hasidic teacher) who attracted many middle-class people to his night-time study sessions. He enjoyed the community's patronage until his death, at which time his privileges were passed to his son, thereby helping to establish an essential process of leadership succession in Hasidism that ensured its continuity, a factor absent in the earlier charismatic movements. According to Dubnow, the Ba'al Shem Tov's son was considered incapable of leadership, so the Hasidim found a new leader in the person of the Maggid of Mezritch, but the precedent of genealogical descent was established at least in principle.

The Ba'al Shem Tov

Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name," 1698-1760) is traditionally seen as the founder of the Hasidic movement. Until recently, little was known about him from primary sources-indeed, some speculated that his existence was entirely legendary-but there were many stories about his exploits, personality, and teachings. While the historical details surrounding the life of the Ba'al Shem Tov are important to the emergence of the Hasidic movement, it must be acknowledged that to his followers, such knowledge is of secondary importance. The stories of his life in the minds of his followers, although possibly (or probably) completely fictitious, have precedence, because they are the basis of Hasidic custom, theology, and tradition. This factor, more than any other, indicates the critical importance of popular perceptions in the establishment of leadership credibility, rather than any claim to independent truth as a basis of authority. Legends of the Hasidic masters are thus often exaggerated, a factor that must be kept in mind in the context of Schneerson's leadership of the Habad movement; the romantic mood and vision inspired by the stories of the Hasidic Rebbes is often much more important than historical actuality.

In this context, the presentation of the Ba'al Shem Tov in Hasidism is important; as the founder of the tradition, he sets the standard against which later leaders are measured, and his characteristics are exemplary for any Rebbe in the Hasidic tradition. The Ba'al Shem Tov has been characterized primarily on the basis of his ability to work miracles and perform wonders. To the world at large, he presented an image of apparent simplicity that, according to tradition, disguised a true genius. While famous for his emotional style of worship and simplistic presentation of complex theological principles, in contrast to the scholarly approach offered by the traditional mitnagdic Judaism of his era, later Hasidic tradition describes him as a brilliant scholar and talmudist. The ability for profound meditation, insight, prophecy, and awareness of the presence of God in every living thing was attributed to him, a quality shared in the public perception of other Hasidic leaders since, including Schneerson. This was also to be an important factor in the emergence of the idea of the leader as a zaddik (saint), to be examined in the next chapter. According to tradition, the Ba'al Shem Tov was often to be found in private study of intricate talmudic tractates and rabbinic scholarship, thus providing a connection between the charismatic and communal traditions of worship that he implemented, and the longer-held respect for scholarship and learning. This connection would later be exploited by Habad, as we shall see.

Recently found Polish municipal documents shed a more sobering light on the real personality of the Ba'al Shem Tov as a member of his community. As a registered doctor, he served as a healer and teacher to his community, with a tendency toward mysticism, but little of the aura of mystical reverence that was later to surround his name appears to have been present at the outset. It seems most likely that the Ba'al Shem Tov was used by later Hasidic figures and charismatic leaders as a repository for their own imaginative projections and aspirations. Whether these later personalities had known the Ba'al Shem Tov personally, or had a brief but significant encounter with a nondescript Lithuanian villager whom they later magnified into the personality of the Ba'al Shem Tov, is impossible to say. However, they and later Hasidic masters have all, unanimously, attributed their teachings and practices to the Ba'al Shem Yov.

The Maggid of Mezritch

The Ba'al Shem Tov had many disciples, including both his offspring and Yakov Yosef of Polonya, his alleged scribe, but it was the charismatic preacher Rabbi Dov Ber, also known as the Maggid of Mezritch (d. 1772), who became the most dominant Hasidic master after the Ba'al Shem Tov. The Maggid is generally regarded as the Ba'al Shem Tov's primary disciple and confidant, and was responsible for the education of the largest class of future Hasidic Rebbes. Hasidism as we know it emerged from the teachings and vision of this man, perhaps more than from any other, including the Ba'al Shem Tov. The Maggid was seen as a supreme mystic, saint, and scholar who, by virtue of his reputed discipleship with the Ba'al Shem Tov, became a legitimate interpreter of the new teachings of Hasidism. He was instrumental in carrying out the Ba'al Shem Tov's teachings, and executing the mission entrusted to him by his teacher to disseminate the esoteric secrets of the Torah to the Jewish masses. The success of this mission was seen as vital for the future messianic redemption.

Because of his dual status as both a learned rabbinic scholar, versed in classic Jewish argumentation and interpretation, and a mystic, able to elucidate the esoteric meaning behind the traditional interpretations, the Maggid attracted a wide range of people. All levels of Jewish society were drawn to his court, from rabbinical scholars of eminence and learning to illiterates drawn by the mystical and charismatic elements of his teaching. Many hundreds of students were taught by him, and he instructed them in mysticism and divine service. He also cultivated a more intimate group of around thirty disciples, who became, after the Maggid's death, the first generation of Hasidic Rebbes. These men are traditionally considered the second generation of Hasidism.

The work and teachings of the Maggid of Mezritch were instrumental in the eventual reintegration of Hasidism into mainstream Judaism. There was much suspicion of the popular new movement in the established authority structure, and indeed some Hasidic writings and behavior indicate a variance from traditional behavior and halakhic commitment. Under different circumstances, Hasidism could have split irrevocably from Judaism, but even so, its reintegration into the traditional mainstream took time. The success of the integrative trend may be attributed in the main to strong rabbinic and scholarly interest in the movement, fostered from the time of the Maggid of Mezritch, who was renowned for the depth of his scholarship. Despite opposition from traditional authorities, many scholars defected from the mitnagdic camp to Hasidism and were among the students of the Maggid who became Rebbes of later Hasidic dynasties. The emergence of strong scholarly and rabbinic figures in the movement during its formation counter-balanced its antinomian tendencies and possibly halted the movement's defection from Judaism. The Habad movement was to play a large part in this reconciliation, from the time of its foundation under Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812).

After the Maggid

After the death of the Maggid of Mezritch, many of his disciples returned to their respective places of origin and began to attract followers through a defined program inspired by the Maggid. Most of the Maggid's disciples came from Poland or Ukraine, but there were a few from Russia; two, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk (1730-1788) and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, were among this group of Russian leaders. The former, one of the senior disciples of the Maggid, left Russia with a large number of disciples, believing that Hasidism would not be permitted to succeed there; the latter became the founder of the Habad movement. They too returned to their homeland to disseminate the new Hasidic teachings to the large Jewish community in Russia. Many of the students of the Maggid of Mezritch were innovative men with their own personal charisma, ideas, and aspirations. They injected these qualities into the new movement with vigor.

The Hasidic movement, led by a number of charismatic individuals, became more or less a workshop for the frustrated and the gifted who had found themselves handicapped in the traditional community of mitnagdim, and desired to participate in the general spiritual renaissance offered by Hasidism. Their reverence for the Maggid had united them under his guidance. On his death, they were liberated from discipleship, and with their master's reputation preceding them, they managed to attract curiosity and interest among the masses, and the more successful among them were able to build a following. In time, the status of Rebbe within the Hasidic context became dependent on proving one's connection with the Ba'al Shem Tov and the Maggid. The deference given to the Ba'al Shem Tov and the Maggid by their followers was a central uniting factor of the new movement.

An unspoken tradition or pattern was emerging whereby, in order to be accepted as a Rebbe, one had to give proof of having been a disciple of the Maggid, and through him of the Ba'al Shem Tov. This was called hitkashrut ("connection"), and in certain cases the link to the master was no doubt fabricated as a means of securing authority and influence, although this is impossible to prove. Despite this, however, a tangible system of authority transferral between generations was in the process of formation, although it was not initially without problems. Within a generation, arguments over successional authority became widespread, and led to the development of nepotistic and patriarchal dynasties of Hasidic leadership, which became the norm, replacing leadership based on personal accomplishments and hitkashrut with the movement's founders. Arguments raged between the biological children and the disciples of the various Rebbes over the rights of succession within the movement and the integrity of the movement's principles.

Leadership theory reached a crisis point; there were many difficult questions to resolve. When a Rebbe had many sons, which would succeed him? Was a gifted disciple preferable to a less able son? Could a son-in-law be an acceptable, or even preferable, successor? Could the Rebbe's brother take the mantle away from the Rebbe's son? These questions did not have clear-cut answers in Jewish tradition, so each dynasty sought its own solution.


Excerpted from The Messiah of Brooklyn by M. Avrum Ehrlich Copyright © 2004 by M. Avrum Ehrlich. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : - difficulties with the proposed study - expositional difficulties - accessing material and information - a complex issue - messianism and succession
1 Historical context : - the beginnings of Hasidism - the Ba'al Shem Tov - the Maggid of Mezritch - after the Maggid - the emergence of the Habad movement 3
2 The ideal of the zaddik : - the concept of the zaddik - social functions of the zaddik - the idea of the zaddik in Habad - the Rebbe/Hasid relationship - the Rebbe/Hasid financial relationship 12
3 Habad in America : - Rabbi Dov Ber, the fifth Rebbe - Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak, the sixth Rebbe - location as a form of movement-building - Crown Heights 24
4 Schneerson's pre-Rebbe life : - the problem of sources - early life - the United States 34
5 Schneerson's succession 43
6 Transitional consolidation : - authority by virtue of office as Rebbe - Hasidic discourses : consolidation of public life 51
7 Consolidation through ritual : - the Farbrengen - Yehidut - letters from Schneerson - "dollars" - other rituals 57
8 Leadership qualities : - Schneerson's style - peculiarities of personality - personal contact - consolidation through charisma - the appearance of suffering - other personal characteristics - scholarship 70
9 The ideology of messianism : - the ideology of redemption - the importance of messianism - the effects of messianism on consolidation - messianism as a motivational device - Schneerson as a prophet Schneerson as the Mashiach - trying to be the Mashiach - messianic vacillation - isolation and messianism 81
10 Schneerson as a world leader : - the turning point in consolidation - a Jewish leader - modern orthodoxy - Sephardi Jewry - Russian Jewry - other Hasidic groups - the Mitnagdim - religious Zionism - Israeli personalities - beyond the Jewish world - the laws of Noah - Schneerson and world politics 95
11 Habad Zionism and Zionism : - coincidental timing? - opposition to Zionism - Zionist influences on Schneerson - the Six-Day War and after - never set foot in the Holy Land 111
12 Initial consolidation : - introduction - success of institutions - employment - a war economy - institutions and the dissipation of opposition - fundraising - the negative effects of fundraising 125
13 Consolidation of local authority : - the new Rebbe - the postwar period - challenge and response : the 1970s and after - what if Schneerson had relocated? - Crown Heights : religious significance 137
14 Administration and bureaucracy : - the Rebbe as "chief of state" - Schneerson's administrative qualities - delegation of authority - aides, secretaries, and assistants - the school of assistants - the bureaucratic hierarchy - the last years - the relationship between power and discipleship 148
15 Community services : - the outreach concept - campus outreach - synagogues - Ba'alei Teshuvah - emissaries - public relations - modern technology - the drawbacks of outreach - the Habad Yeshiva system - the Habad house - other organizations 166
16 Publishing houses and libraries : - dissemination through publication - the AGUCH collection - the Merkaz library - community libraries 189
17 Women's and youth organizations : - the role of women - the influences on Schneerson - women's initiatives - the family - a "fresh approach" - educational contributions - youth organization : the principle - symbolism of the organization - the growth of Zivot Hashem - the effects on consolidation - transfer symbolism 197
18 The issue of succession : - the passing of the Rebbe - what is transfer? - when does transfer occur? - the need for succession - the difficulty of succession - unrivaled personality - ideological prism - no obvious replacement - an extreme but active minority 215
19 Schneerson's intentions : - the question of intention - Yosef Yitzhak as the Rebbe - Schneerson's transfer of authority - cultivation of independent leadership - the aides - legal transfer - the Beit Din 232
20 Institutional authority : - the collective leadership model - the first will - the second will - the institutions 246
21 Other models of succession : - the no succession model - the fiefdom model - the slow succession model - the mission model - the ghost model - gravesite culture - the normalization model - Habad fallout - the Habad periphery : heretics, the disenchanted, and neo-Habadnikim 254
22 Factors of influence on succession : what's next? - the hasidic groupings - the international communities - the youth : a new constituency - the Ba'al Teshuvah movement - from local particularism to universal mission 275
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2005

    Phenomenal overview and glimpse into Lubavitch Chasidism,

    I purchased a copy of this book in December shortly after its publication when I was in the midst of writing a college research paper on.... current Lubavitch messianism. In that regard, this book was almost a godsend and I'm indebted to Dr. Ehrlich, especially pertinent Part Four: The Succession, for the paper. I would think that The Messiah of Brooklyn is probably the most comprehensive possible attempt in exploring the Rebbe's leadership techniques, personal characteristics, his psychology, and the own complex, often contradictory aspects of his enigmatic personality and how these all played out in his administration, the institutions, succession, messianism, with context provided of general Chasidic/Chabad history in Part One. To give one example, Ehrlich discusses the Rebbe's isolation, given the almost superhuman complex lavished upon him by all, including his secretaries, compounded by his childlessness. His one true confidant being his wife, Ehrlich speculates upon the impact of her passing in 1988, '...Schneerson was isolated as never before. Most of his few intimates had passed away due to advanced age, and with the passing of his wife he was left bereft of intimate companionship on an intimate basis. Schneerson's predicament was unusual for a Rebbe, for the absence of extended family required him to maintain the professional status of a `flawless leader' even to his closest associates. Throughout his life there was no one, except his wife, with whom he could be other than `the Rebbe,' a factor that no doubt made a deep impact on his psychology and required him to internalize his true personality. This fact alone might have contributed to the uniqueness and loneliness of his leadership, and perhaps to the development of the messianic element, especially in his later years.' I had never really understood the Rebbe's 'take' on Zionism (though I knew his two immediate predecessors, the Rashab and Rayatz, were vehemently against it), so Chapter 11: Habad Hasidism and Zionism, clarified a great deal on this matter. Ehrlich discusses the Rebbe's own youthful Zionist influences and understanding of the Chabad movement as a sort of opposing, alternative, more authentic form of 'Zionism' in that its mission purpose was to bring about the complete redemption of the Jewish people to offset the impression of Zionism being synonymous with the Jews' redemption. He makes the case that the Rebbe did admire the self-sacrifice of the Zionists in their cause and his employing his own 'Zionism and military symbolism in Habad' is important. Inasmuch as I was in somewhat of a hurry to read this book the first time around for the purpose of my paper, I look forward to rereading The Messiah of Brooklyn in the near future with greater focus. This is, without doubt, the best overview and glimpse into Lubavitch chasidism that I've encountered.

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