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“It could seem awful, in essence is good”
Alone with the Rebbe in the year 1952 - part one
I arrived for my appointment with the Rebbe at 10 P.M. one evening, but was still waiting after midnight when a young student ran into the outer office to announce that the “case” from California, a man who had flown in to consult with the Lubavitcher Rebbe about a business problem, had just left. That meant it was my turn, and clutching my notebook, I hurried past several people in the hallways whose appointments with the Rebbe would be even later. Remembering that there are thousands who depend on the Rebbe for major and even minor decisions in their lives, and that a worldwide spiritual network, including schools and charities and publications, waited on the personal attention of this one man, I made a resolution not to stay long.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, was folding some papers at a desk in the far corner of a large; rather bare room. His fedora hat, neatly tailored frock coat, and carefully arranged tie, all black, set off the pallor of his face. The brim of his hat was bent, casting a shadow over his deep blue eyes, which looked up with a direct but good-humored expression. I extended my hand, forgetting for the moment that the Hasidim do not offer their hands to the Rebbe, who is to them a holy vessel and not to be touched casually. But Rabbi Menachem Mendel didn’t seem to mind the impropriety; he shook my hand and motioned gently toward the chair by his desk, suggesting in a soft voice that I address him in English, although he would reply in Yiddish.
Before I could begin my inquiries, he asked me what kind of work I was engaged in and what I had studied. My notebook with its proposed questions remained closed, and I found myself chatting freely about matters I had not expected to discuss. The Rebbe listened, nodding his head from time to time to indicate understanding, and gradually the sense of urgent haste I had felt in the hall way began to ebb away. We spoke about religious leaders in Israel, particularly the former chief rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook.
Suddenly a buzzer sounded, a signal from Rabbi Hodakov, the Rebbe’s secretary, that almost a full hour had passed since my interview began. Hastily I turned to my prepared questions and asked how Lubavitcher Hasidism, a mystical movement, had become so skillful in worldly matters like public relations and methods of business efficiency. The Rebbe folded his hands on his desk and in a measured voice outlined his answer, which was punctuated by an occasional mild cough.
Lubavitch’s interest in public relations was simply a practical extension of its special interpretation of the oneness of G-d. G-d was in everything, and therefore evil had no real existence. But it must appear to have real existence, so that man might have freedom of choice. It might seem to us an evil thing for one man to cut an other with a knife, yet there were occasions, as for example a medical operation, when a good and not an evil purpose was served by the cutting of a man. So also, what appeared evil in our sight was, in the light of a higher wisdom, really good. To believe otherwise, to believe that evil has a positive existence, was to be driven in the end of the conviction that there are two divine powers rather than one. The oneness of G-d implied that everything was ultimately justified; in this way, the Rebbe concluded, “We try to understand Hitler and similar matters.”
Again the buzzer sounded, but the Rebbe indicated that I need not hurry. I turned to my central question: how could the Rebbe assume responsibility for giving advice to his Hasidim not only on religious matters, but on medical problems or business affairs, especially when he knew that his advice was binding?
Menachem Mendel did not seem offended. “To begin with, it is always pleasant to run away from responsibility. But what if running might destroy the congregation, and suppose”—the good-humored smile in the Rebbe’s eyes stronger — “they put the key into your pocket and walk away? What can you do then — permit the books to be stolen?”
I was surprised to hear him hint at the well-known fact that it had taken the Hasidim more than a year to persuade Rabbi Menachem Mendel to become the seventh Rebbe of the Lubavitcher movement. But this wasn’t the answer to my question, which I tried to press by leafing through a copy of the Tanya (a collection of the writings of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Schneur Zalman) to find a letter in which the Alter Rebbe tells his Hasidim that they must not ask him for help in non spiritual matters. The Rebbe interrupted my search to say that I was probably looking for Letter 22. “That letter,” he pointed out quietly, “was printed after Schneur Zalman’s death, and besides,” he smiled, “despite the letter, he did give advice in material matters.”
Sensing after a moment that his explanation did not satisfy me, the Rebbe cleared his throat and continued. “When a man comes with a problem, there are only two alternatives — either send him away, or try to help him. A man knows his own problem best, so one must try to unite oneself with him and become nullified, as dissociated as possible from one’s own ego. Then, in concert with the other person, one tries to understand the rule of divine Providence in this particular case. And, of course, if the man who comes to you shares your ideas and faith, there is immediate empathy” (he used the English word).
But didn’t the power of the Lubavitcher movement stem directly from this faith of the Hasid in his Rebbe? Rabbi Menachem Mendel demurred gently, “I’m not so sure.”
The buzzer rang again, and I looked at the Rebbe to see if my interview was over. Instead of sending me away, however, he began talking about Conservative and Re form Judaism. His voice remained soft, but the opinions were firm. “The great fault of Conservative and Reform Judaism is not that they compromise, but that they sanctify the compromise, still the conscience, and leave no possibility for return.” The Rebbe went on to explain that though the Lubavitcher movement encouraged every Jew to observe as many of the commandments as he could, even if only a few, it insisted that the Jewish religion as such should be identified exclusively with the Orthodox tradition; otherwise, a repentant Jew who wanted o “re turn” would not know what there was to return to.
When the buzzer rang once again, I rose to leave, but Rabbi Menachem Mendel stopped me: “Wait — now I would like to ask you a question,” he said, and I sat down again. “How is it that you are not Orthodox?” Surprised, I offered something about not being able to believe that the whole of the Torah was given by G-d.
“Yet you believe in the oneness of G-d,” the Rebbe pressed. “And if you follow out the implication of that belief logically, then you must come to the commandments, as surely as theorems follow from axioms.” Again the Rebbe used English words. I remained silent, and after a moment he leaned back in his chair and spoke as if answering himself, “But I guess in America people don’t feel the need for a full logical system of belief, as they do in Europe.”
For the fifth time the buzzer rang and, disturbed at the thought of all those people waiting outside, I made a determined effort to leave. But as I stood up the Rebbe stopped me again “You haven’t asked, but probably you would like to know, what Hasidim think about miracles?” I remained standing while Rabbi Menachem Mendel asserted that even science recognized all “laws” as mere probabilities and that there was no way to foretell every event in nature with certainty. He cited the throwing of dice as an example, a strange parable, I thought to myself, for a Hasid to use.
After he had finished expounding the Hasidic view of miracles, I asked him if it would be possible to see him again when I had become more familiar with the Lubavitcher movement. “Gladly,” he smiled, “but not until after the High Holy days” which were only a month away.
Actually, my first
meeting with the Rebbe had brought me no closer to understanding what
it was that made a Lubavitcher Hasid. I knew now that Rabbi Menachem Mendel
was a warm and sincere leader, a man who, though in absolute control of
a large and influential organization, lived modestly and devoted every
minute of his waking hours to the advancement of Torah and the needs of
other human beings. That such a man could arouse love and admiration in
his followers was not at all surprising, but this alone could not be the
explanation of the amazing vitality of the movement.
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