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Alone with the Rebbe in the year 1952 - part two
Rabbi Hodakov sat straight in his chair and his eyes brightened. Then he spoke so forcefully that a student standing over in a corner of the office looked up in surprise. “I can tell you in one word — ‘leben’, life.” He paused for a moment. “There are other kinds of death besides the one of the grave. What is life for one creature on earth need not be life for another. A monkey may act like a man, and I don’t know how he feels then — but if a man acts like a monkey, he stops being a man — he stops living.
“What is it that makes life?” Rabbi Hodakov’s voice grew even stronger as he continued to speak. “It is the fulfillment of a mission and a purpose. In nature, we have different classes — mineral, vegetable, animal, and then man. Within the class of man, there is a species called the Jew. The Jew has his purpose like every other species, but what is this purpose?”
A few more students had entered the office and were now listening openly to our discussion.
Rabbi Hodakov went on passionately. “We would not have known the purpose if G-d had not done us a ‘chesed’ – a gracious favor. He gave us a Torah.”
The quiet of the Rebbe’s office and his soft-spoken greeting were like balm after the “disputation.”
“Peace onto you Rabbi Weiner,” Rabbi Menachem
Mendel smiled, extending his hand.
“We don’t have to begin that way,” he said, beckoning me toward a chair. He looked a bit paler than when I had first seen him a year ago and there was more gray in his black beard, but the same grave smile played in his deep blue eyes.
I opened my notebook and sat back in the chair, again conscious of how comfortable and relaxing it was in the Rebbe’s office. Then I remembered that this was my last chance and resolved to ask even the most embarrassing questions in an effort to solve the enigma of Lubavitch. I explained to the Rebbe that more than a year had passed since I began trying to understand the movement, and that I had come to him now with a confession: I did not understand. Would he mind if I started this interview by asking him about the character of a Hasid?
Rabbi Menachem Mendel smiled and told me to go ahead;
as before I could speak English but he would answer in Yiddish.
The Rebbe’s answer came without hesitation, as if he had dealt with the question before. “A weak person is usually overcome by the environment in which he finds himself. But our Hasidim can be sent into any environment, no matter how strange or hostile, and they maintain themselves within it. So how can we say that it is weakness which characterizes a Hasid?”
I pressed my question from another angle and told him that I sensed a desire in Chabad to oversimplify, to strip ideas of their complexity merely for the sake of a superficial clarity. As a matter of fact, I blurted out, all his Hasidim seemed to have one thing in common: a sort of open and naive look in their eyes that a sympathetic observer might call ‘t’mimut’ – purity but that might less kindly be interpreted as emptiness or simple-mindedness, the absence of inner struggle.
I found myself taken aback by my own boldness, but the Rebbe showed no resentment. He leaned forward. “What you see missing from their eyes is a kera!”
“A what?” I asked.
“Yes, a kern,” he repeated quietly, “a split.” The Rebbe hesitated for a moment. “I hope you will not take offense, but something tells me you don’t sleep well at night, and this is not good for ‘length of days.’ Perhaps if you had been raised wholly in one world or in another, it might be different. But this split is what comes from trying to live in two worlds.”
The Rebbe’s ad hominem answer encouraged me to be personal in return. “But you too have studied in two worlds, and your Hasidim are rather proud of the fact that you once attended the Sorbonne. Why then do you discourage them from studying in the ‘other world’?”
I have studied, and I know what the value of that study is,” the
Rebbe replied quickly. “I recognized its usefulness. If there are
people who think they can help G-d sustain the world, I have no objection
We need engineers and chemists, but engineering and chemistry are not
the most important things. Besides, to study does not mean only to learn
facts. It means exposure to certain circles and activities which conflict
with a believer’s values and faith. It’s like taking a person
from a warm environment and throwing him into a cold - water shock-treatment
several times a day. How long can he stand it? In addition, studies in
college take place at an age when a man’s character is not yet crystallized,
usually before the age of thirty. Exposure then is dangerous.”
“Yes,” said the Rebbe.
“And is this power given only to the Rebbe, or to other men also?”
“As a believer,” replied the Rebbe, “I am convinced that it can only be given to a ‘keeper of Torah and mitzvot.’”
At that moment, a question I had not planned to ask came to my lips. “What is a blessing?”
“What?” asked the Rebbe, slightly startled.
“What does it mean when somebody comes to ask you for a blessing?”
“Are you asking me what I mean by a blessing?” the Rebbe deflected the question. “Better that I tell you what Hasidism means by it. A man is affected by many levels, higher and lower. It is possible for the righteous, the Rebbe, to awaken powers slumbering within a man. It is also possible to bring him into contact with a higher level of powers outside his own soul. A person lives on one floor of a building and needs help from the floor above; if he can’t walk up himself, someone else must help him get that help.”
“Does that mean that the Rebbe can help a man up to a higher spiritual plane?”
“That’s the hardest way,” answered the Rebbe. “The easier way is to bring these powers down upon him.”
I asked about miracles, and this time the Rebbe replied immediately. “To believe in the creator, and to believe that there is a continuous relationship between the creator and the creation, is necessarily to believe that the creator can do anything with His creation.”
We spoke about religious faith and I suggested that many people would like to believe but found it hard. Rabbi Menachem Mendel disagreed. “It’s not so hard for people to believe. There are millions who believed in Gandhi and millions who believe in the Pope, and even atheists when pressed to a corner come up with belief.”
When I protested that in most cases doubt seemed to overwhelm faith, the Rebbe nodded. “There can be doubts. To question G-d, however, is the first indication that one believes in something. You have to know some thing about G-d even to question Him. But we must try to overcome doubts by a constant feeding of the spirit.
Just as a body that has been kept healthy can overcome a crisis, so a soul can defeat its crises and its doubts if it is constantly kept healthy.”
“In that case, why are there so many without faith?” The Rebbe looked at me directly. “They are afraid of their faith. They are afraid of following out the consequences of the faith which they would arrive at by honest observation of the facts. They are afraid that they might have to abandon some of their comfort or give up cherished ideas. They are afraid of changing their lives.”
I brought up another problem. Several weeks before I had heard him say that America, rather than Israel, was the place where Jewish life could flourish best. How did he reconcile this attitude with the commandment to leave the galut, the exile?
“What is exile? Exile means the estrangement of a person from his essential self. If a person moves from an environment where he observed the commandments and had a Jewish soul and comes to America where he for sakes the Torah while growing rich, free, and comfortable, he has nevertheless gone into exile, because he has left himself. It’s not just assimilation, it is worse, it is what we call in English an inferiority complex. It is the admission that one’s own values are inferior to the values of those around one. In Israel, too, it may be, possible to go into exile, to forsake the Torah and lose the spirit which is our essential nature, to be ‘like unto all the nations.’ In addition,” the Rebbe said quietly, “America has not only the largest Jewish population in the world, but great material resources. Even as the spiritual can affect the material, so with material resources one can do things for the spirit.”
The buzzer at the Rebbe’s desk sounded. Rabbi, Hodakov was reminding us that others were waiting. I decided to ask a final question. “Many Jews today are searching,” I said to the Rebbe, “they want to return, what would you say to them to help them find their way?”
The Rebbe paused for a moment. “I would say that
the most important thing is ‘no compromise.’ I would send
to them the words spoken by the prophet Elijah: ‘how long halt ye
between two opinions? If the Lord be G-d, follow Him; but if Baal, follow
him? Compromise is dangerous, because it sickens both the body and the
soul. A compromiser who tries to mediate between religion and the environment
is unable to go in either direction and unable to distinguish the truth.”
“This is the contribution of Chabad Hasidism,” the Rebbe pointed out. “It’s important to know that one must do everything, but at the same time we welcome the doing of even a part. If all we can accomplish is to save only one limb, we save that. Then we worry about saving another.”
The buzzer rang again, and I rose, but the Rebbe motioned for me to wait. To my surprise, he informed me that he had carefully read some articles about religion in Israel which I had published in Commentary (July and August, 1955). Another hour passed as Menachem Men del Schneersohn gently but firmly offered his criticism of the pieces. It was after three o’clock in the morning when I left the Rebbe’s office and guiltily passed a bearded young man who was still waiting for his appointment. The secretary’s office was closed, but from the street through a window I could see the Rabbi Hodakov was bent over his desk, his head buried in his arms.
The next morning when I returned to retrieve a brief case I had left in the office, Rabbi Hodakov was still at his desk. His eyes were red and the phylacteries were on his head and arm. While he recited the morning prayers, one of the boys attended to his busy telephone. Two of the older students came up to me as I was leaving the office. They had heard that I had spent almost three hours with the Rebbe early that morning, and they wanted to know what I thought now about their Rebbe. Their eyes shone with pride as they awaited my reply. I remembered that the Rebbe had said that the open look in a Hasid’s eyes was not naiveté but the absence of a ‘kera’, a split.
Indeed, I thought, there is no split at Lubavitch. It offered its followers a world in which the mind was never confused by contradictions; where life was not compartmentalized; where the tensions between heart and mind, flesh and soul, G-d and His creation were all dissolved in the unity of a higher plan. Within this plan the leather strip of the phylacteries and the gas chambers of Hitler both serve their function, for “there is no place empty of Him.” Arid any doubt or confusion that arose might be clarified by making oneself “as nothing” before the Rebbe, who in turn made himself “as nothing” before the will of G-d.
No, there was no ‘kera’ in the eyes of the Hasidim who awaited my answer. They nodded their heads enthusiastically as I expressed my admiration for their Rebbe. I confessed to them that before leaving early that morning, I had asked the Rebbe for his personal blessing. What was more, my cold of last night was much better. They shook my hand as if I were paying them a personal compliment, for, after all, in this respect too there is no split in Lubavitch, where the Hasidim “are only the branches and the Rebbe is the root.”
There is something
immensely attractive in a “way” which provides answers for
all questions, whether they be details of personal life or problems of
cosmic significance. It is reassuring to have a logical explanation for
chaos and to learn that G-d is most revealed where He seems to be most
absent. It is heartening to believe that, what seems like meaningless
accident is actually the revelation of G-d’s most hidden essence
and that pain the chastisement of love; but not all souls are able to
turn darkness into light with the help of such a clear system, There are
many individuals whose struggle with darkness is more agonized and torturous,
because they themselves are deeply touched and at times almost overcome
by this darkness. Such individuals may be drawn to another rabbi who called
himself a “moon man,” one whose strength and even faith was
subject to periods of waxing and waning.
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