Forward Thinking

Secrets of the Schneerson Library

By Paul Berger

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Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s predecessor, Yosef Yitchok Schneersohn, may have had too modern a taste in literature. That may be one reason why Chabad is so anxious to have the famed Schneerson Library returned to the U.S.

Why does Chabad want the Schneerson Library back so badly?

While researching this week’s story recounting the latest twists in Chabad’s decades-long struggle for the library, several people offered various explanations. Somehow, they seemed too speculative to include in the story — but interesting enough to raise here.

Rabbi Berel Levin, the chief librarian of the Chabad Library in Brooklyn, told me that Chabad has 250,000 books at its HQ in Crown Heights. But the thousands of books held in Moscow are, according to Levin, the “core of our library, gathered by the Rebbes of the generations.”

Levin said the books in Moscow are written mainly in Hebrew, and deal mostly in Torah, Gemara and Kabbalah. But because the Soviets and Russians never catalogued the library no one really knows for sure. Even the total number of books in the library is disputed. Russia claims there are about 4,000 volumes, Chabad says the number is closer to 10,000 volumes.

Pinchas Goldschmidt, a Moscow rabbi who has a contentious history with Chabad, said that for the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the battle for the library was about much more than ownership and theology. It was about politics and, perhaps, about something more.

“Maimonides spoke of the Messiah as king,” Goldschmidt said. And Schneerson, who died in 1994, wanted to show the world that he had fought like a king and “won against Communism.”

Samuel Heilman, a Queens College professor who recently co-authored a book on the Lubavitcher Rebbe, said Goldschmidt’s explanation might be true. But he believes that the most important reason Chabad wants the library back is because the books could damage Chabad’s reputation.

The Schneerson Library is comprised mainly of volumes collected by the first five Lubavitcher rebbes. But Heilman believes that the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yitchok Schneersohn, who was born in 1880, may also have contributed to the library — and in ways that Chabad would rather the world did not know about.

“He was a bibliophile,” said Heilman, who collected books on popular subjects “far beyond the realms of Hasidism.”

Heilman said that when Schneerson arrived in New York fleeing Nazism, in 1940, people worried that he was too modern because of the wide range of books he had read.

“If you had a catalogue of what’s in” the Schneerson Library in Moscow, said Heilman, “you would have a very interesting column to write.”

*Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger *


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