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A Marginal Biography
on September 28, 2014
I agree with EPA18’s rating but for exactly the opposite reasons. This is a mediocre biography of a very interesting, devoted, religious man who pursued admirable objectives with an honest, open heart. The author has several problems. His remarkable position, being so close to his subject and privileged to witness the Rebbe’s inner thoughts and confidences, promises readers a unique opportunity. Rabbi Steinsaltz’a potential objectivity was wasted, and worse, it was whitewashed. The result is a boring account and lost opportunity.
I am one of EPA18’s interested, unenlightened observers who wants to learn about Chabad and Orthodox Jewish thought and reasoning. I welcomed my chance to read his biography and gain a simple if not complete explanation of Jewish Orthodoxy written by an insider. Perhaps it’s impossible to do in biography and I should have chosen an elementary textbook beginning with alef and ending with zed. However biography imputes a potential of instruction. Unfortunately this one isn’t fulfilled. I came away with little understanding of Chabad, its leaders, how their organization functions or why it even exists in the first place. This is not my fault, I am a careful, patient reader. I waited for instruction, waded through pages of admiration and stylized formality, and it never appeared. Give me something, I thought, anything to grasp, a foothold, a chance to gain the simplest understanding of why the Rebbe is so important, what brought people to mentally prostrate themselves and give their entire lives to his instructions. Why does it happen? Rabbi Steinsaltz failed because there were so few facts, illustrations or explanations, and I closed the book discouraged and disappointed.
Rabbi Steinsaltz is a solidly good writer. His devotional purity is transparent and quite beautiful, admirable and encouraging. This reader was jealous he had such a mentor. The Rebbe appears truth seeking and wonderfully religious, so close to God it is almost painful to think of him as less than angelic. Although not a sanctified or even a punctilious comparison for some, if Jews could consider the Catholic doctrine of sainthood, the Rebbe would qualify.
I cannot comment on technical, religious issues. I leave that to more qualified readers, and such comments are already addressed. I comment only on Rabbi Steinsaltz’s book as a standard, approachable biography that competes with accounts of other famous people. This book does not play in that venue. It is an ode, a praise and almost a psalm. Regrettably, it is as a marginal biography.