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Messiah? Missionary? The Lubavitcher Rebbe was first and foremost a trailblazing social entrepreneur

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Published: 12 July 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

On the 120th anniversary of the birth of the Lubavitcher rebbe, the time has come to understand him as a social revolutionary

Since his death, the character of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was born 120 years ago and was the seventh leader of the Lubavitch Hasidic community, has been the subject of a dispute that continues to affect his image and his legacy.

Some of his followers are in denial of the very fact of his death, others anticipate his resurrection.

His opponents outside the community, both religious and secular, see him as a missionary who in his old age led his followers in an outburst of messianic belief that ended in bitter disappointment. The social activity of his followers – which is intertwined with religious activity, in some cases inextricably and indistinguishably – gives rise to suspicion about them. Many believe that it is missionary activity aimed at persuading innocent young Jewish people to become religiously observant.

My feeling is that everyone is missing the point. I suggest a different approach: to see Schneerson as a social entrepreneur, a person who challenged all the systems around him, who burned with an inner passion for change and who worked to realize the ideology he believed in, using diverse methods of operation.

Even if we don’t agree with the ideology or with his teachings (the rebbe, by the way, opposed activity done in his name that produced discord), even if we decline his suggestions to put on tefillin and light Shabbat candles, it is still possible, and worthwhile, to learn from his successes – precisely because he was Orthodox in a post-Holocaust world, precisely because he was a Haredi leader in the heart of New York. The rebbe was a leader who acted against the social conventions of his own community. His success is an invitation to learn about his modes of operation and about the means he employed to realise his vision.

Messiah? Missionary? The Lubavitcher Rebbe was first and foremost a trailblazing social entrepreneur

Photo: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in 1954 (JEM/Haaretz)

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