When a coalition of secular U.S. Jewish groups joined the fight to oppose prayer in public schools, one of the most prominent rabbis stood virtually alone in vocally opposing them.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, commonly known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, or just “the Rebbe,” rejected as illogical the argument that prayer in public schools would result in some form of Christian domination over other religions in the U.S.
Schneerson, who lived most of his life in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, died in 1994. He was one of the most important Jewish leaders of the 20th century. His Chabad movement is famous for its legal efforts to publicly display menorahs in U.S. cities on the Hanukkah holiday.
These stories and more and documented in the just released biography “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History” by Joseph Telushkin.
The book has been climbing Amazon’s bestseller chart.
An entire chapter of the new book is dedicated to Schneerson’s campaign for prayer in public schools and for displaying menorahs in the streets.
In “Rebbe,” Telushkin recounts the legal battle that ensued when the New York Board of Regents in 1955 approved a brief, non-denominational, inclusive school prayer to be used in the public school system.
The board’s prayer declared: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country.”
The debate culminated in the 1962 landmark case of “Engel v. Vitale” in which the Supreme Court decided, with an 8-1 vote, to make recitation of the Regents` prayer in public schools unlawful.
Public opposition to the prayer came in large part from secular Jewish groups and liberal organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which, Telushkin recalls, had a high percentage of Jewish members.
Two Jewish groups, the Synagogue Council of America, a national organization of rabbinic leaders, and the National Jewish Community Relations Council, a secular group representing American Jewish communities, submitted a brief to the Supreme Court opposing the prayer.
Schneerson stood nearly alone as one of the only Jewish leaders to support prayer in public schools, even arguing after the Supreme Court ruling that all legal means should be exhausted to reverse the court’s decision.
Telushkin writes Schneerson’s campaign against the public school ban on prayers stemmed in part from the rabbi’s own experiences in the “aggressively atheistic and murderous Soviet Union, and his own later experience of living in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis (yet another antireligious ideology).”
Schneerson noted the importance of the Board of Regents prayer, which recognized “Almighty God.”
He argued American children should be taught to appreciate that “the world in which they live is not a jungle, where brute force, cunning, and unbridled passion rule supreme.”
Instead, Schneerson explained, the world has a supreme being who “takes a ‘personal interest’ in the affairs of each and every individual, and to Him everyone is accountable for [his or her] daily conduct.”
Schneerson believed each child should be taught he or she has a personal relationship with the “supreme being” and plays a crucial role in the supreme being’s world. After this, “it is necessary to engrave upon the child’s mind the idea that any wrongdoing is an offense against the divine authority and order,” Schneerson is quoted as stating.
The rabbi notably took issue with the concern, expressed by some Jewish groups that public prayer would result in some sort of Christian domination in the U.S.
Telushkin writes this kind of thinking was “illogical” to Schneerson, a throwback to medieval times when, Schneerson explained, religious zeal and intolerance reigned supreme.
Schneerson countered the problem in modern U.S. society was an indifference to religion.
In the 1980s, Schneerson campaigned for a moment of silence in the schools for the children to think about a “supreme being.”
HarperCollins, which published the book, described Schneerson as a “towering figure who saw beyond conventional boundaries to turn his movement into one of the most dynamic and widespread organizations ever seen in the Jewish world.”
“From his modest headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the Rebbe advised some of the world’s greatest leaders, and shaped matters of state and society,” reads a HarperCollins press release.
Indeed, the book describes Schneerson’s direct impact on national and international affairs and his correspondence with world leaders and U.S. presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
National radio talk-show host Dennis Prager called the new book “one of the greatest religious biographies ever written.”