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Me Among the Believers

A parade of diverse people—poets and politicians, generals and physicians, God-fearing and disbelievers—turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe for guidance. Why?

Liel Leibovitz
July 02, 2019
Photo: Yaacov Saar
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, July 17, 1977Photo: Yaacov Saar
Photo: Yaacov Saar
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, July 17, 1977Photo: Yaacov Saar

I’m failing a lot these days.

I’m failing at keeping my appetites in check, turning to peanut M&Ms late at night as a drunkard turns to gin. (I’m also turning to gin.) I’m failing at keeping my cool, reading the news and feeling that black bile swell up whenever I come across the latest outrage. When I hear about a fellow Jew who said or did something I find objectionable, I’m quick to judge, dismissing her or him as just another mindless muppet.

Whenever I succumb to these uncharitable thoughts, I reach for my wallet. In it, I’ve started keeping a small photograph of a smiling Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe.

If you told me six or seven years ago that I would do this one day, I would have probably laughed it off—and returned to my bacon cheeseburger. But over the past few years, as I’ve begun to find my way into a more robustly Jewish life, I realized that I needed a guide. In the Rebbe’s writings, in his lectures, I found not an attempt to overwhelm me into submission or shame me into compliance, but a reassurance that my path to God was good for one reason: because it was mine, and mine alone. Just as the treif was once mine, just as the late-night rants about some anonymous moron on Twitter are (tragically) mine still, so is the ability to move past these and be better.

Because this week marks the Rebbe’s 25th yahrzeit, I turned to the archives (with help from the folks at Jewish Educational Media) and found there a bundle of recollections from the women and the men who, like me, turned to him for advice, for a blessing, or for other forms of emotional and spiritual comfort. Start looking, and you’ll see a parade of diverse folks—poets and politicians, generals and physicians, some God-fearing and some merry disbelievers, Jews of every station and persuasion.

There, for example, was Avraham Shlonsky, one of the great Hebrew poets of the 20th century, corresponding with the Rebbe throughout the decades. In the 1930s, when they were both young students in Paris, the two took pleasure in unhurriedly easing into their future selves, Shlonsky as the rebellious writer who took pleasure in replacing the older generations’ reverence for biblical Hebrew with a fresher, vernacular-laden language, and Schneerson as a Torah scholar, engineering student, and a man of immaculate faith.

“Before we part,” writes the young rabbi, “I want to distill the essence of our meetings … this wondrous connection between us, between our souls, two people well-rooted in their minds and in their faiths, a connection that is as important to me as if it were a bond of blood.” In a comment that he was to repeat numerous times throughout their decades-long correspondence, the Rebbe assured the prickly poet that for all his protestations, he, too, was a man of faith, and that his belief will one day find its way to the fore.

“Don’t forget,” Schneerson continues, applying the language of the Tanya, Chabad’s foundational mystical text, “that we are both mediocre: We were destined to spend our entire life in struggle, torn between the two souls that operate within us—the Godly one and the beastly one. And don’t forget that forever there will be between us a special friendship.”

The Rebbe’s candor, his warmth, and his ability to see the other person’s life choices as just another way to commune with the Almighty won the poet over. Even as he was scandalizing pre-state Israel with his raunchy wordplay and, later, feted as the newly minted Jewish state’s mightiest literary lion, he kept writing to his friend. Much later, as a middle-aged man and an eminently respected poet who had bequeathed Hebrew its finest translations of Shakespeare, Pushkin, and Chekhov, Shlonsky traveled to New York and rushed straight to see his old friend. He emerged from this meeting with Poems of the Long Corridor, perhaps his finest collection of work; the book’s title and theme, he told the Israeli press, was inspired by his conversation with the Rebbe, the corridor being a metaphor for the transitory life of the soul in this world before it enters the real hall of splendors in the world to come. The Rebbe was right: Shlonsky always had faith, and only when he unleashed it did his finest verses flourish.

Arthur Miller, too, found in the Rebbe a surprising penchant for the poetic. When they met, in 1957, the Rebbe regaled the famous playwright with a well-known tale in which the great Hasidic master, Zusha of Hanipol, confessed that he had learned a lot about serving God from observing thieves. The latter, said Reb Zusha, did their work quietly, without anyone knowing, always ready to place themselves in great danger and forever attentive to the smallest details. They are eternally confident and optimistic, and should they fail the first time, they try and try again. It was Hasidic wisdom delivered in the cadence of the stage, and it left Miller deeply moved.

But the greatest pleasure, perhaps, of scouring Chabad’s voluminous archives is seeing the Rebbe interact with politicians. No sooner do you browse the record of Menachem Begin’s visit—the then-prime minister had arrived to ask the Rebbe’s blessing before continuing to Washington, D.C., to convene with then-President Carter—than you come across a monologue from Begin’s predecessor in power, Yitzhak Rabin. The late general and prime minister was notoriously unemotional, and famously removed from traditional Judaism; as the first Israeli prime minister to be born in the land of Israel, he was the embodiment of the sabra, the Zionist ideal of the Jew newly emancipated from the burdens of millennia in exile. But when he was appointed ambassador to the United States, he felt compelled, he said, to visit the Rebbe. Decades later, he spoke of the encounter to an Israeli radio reporter, breaking with his laconic habit and delivering a thorough account of the conversation.

“He asked me, ‘how do you feel as the representative of the only Jewish state among 120 representatives of states that aren’t Jewish; do you not feel lonely?’” Rabin delivered a calculated assessment of Israel’s diplomatic standing, but the Rebbe, he soon realized, was asking a larger question: Were the Jews destined to stand apart because they had been chosen by God to fulfill a special role, or were they merely doomed to be the victims of other nations’ prejudice? The Rebbe, Rabin recalled, spoke of divine election, seeing it as the Jewish people’s singular honor as well as the source of perpetual cosmic isolation. Rabin listened, rapt, and then the Rebbe got personal, asking the general who had just helped win the Six-Day War if he believed we should be content with our lot in life or strive for more. By now, Rabin was happy to let the Rebbe do most of the talking, and he paid close attention as Schneerson said that while being happy with all that one has achieved is key, we must never stop to work toward greater perfection in all fields of life. “We come from very different backgrounds,” Rabin, sounding emotional, concluded his account, “him with all his genius in the Torah and Judaism’s values, me as the fruit of the land of Israel and someone who isn’t religious, but, to me, it was a great privilege to hear how he sees things. I never had a chance to talk to someone about these topics, surely not someone on his level.”

As history, these accounts are fascinating. But they’re even more indispensable as a thoroughly contemporary guide to life in highly fractured times. Going through the archives, I imagined the Rebbe sitting there in his small study in 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, receiving all those dignitaries who’d come to see him. They weren’t there to curry favor with some crafty kingmaker; the Rebbe was influential, but he rarely meddled in partisan politics as have other rabbis (see under: Yosef, Ovadia) or conferred on his conversationalists worldly gifts greater than that famous dollar bill he asked they give to charity. His gift was of a different magnitude, and it was the only one that mattered to the celebrated and the obscure as they lined up outside his study and waited for him to wave them in with a smile. It was the gift of seeing the good in each one of them, in each one of us.

One final anecdote, shared in Positivity Bias, a terrific new book by Mendel Kalmenson about the Rebbe’s transformative teachings, illustrates this point. It tells of the Rebbe helping to start a nonprofit organization, and, understanding that the Jewish world is ever fractious, keeping his involvement under wraps. He didn’t want, he explained, to distract from the work at hand, and needed no reward other than good results. Still, word of the Lubavitch movement’s role in the organization became known, and, immediately, one of its key members, a rabbi from another Orthodox group, not only quit but started a competing organization of his own.

Enraged, the original organization’s director, himself not a Hasid, came to the Rebbe for advice. This other rabbi, he said, was jeopardizing the cause they were all committed to for no other reason than his own personal interest. How could he put petty politics above pure principle? Rather than succumb to his ire, the Rebbe began discussing a Talmudic debate, in Sahnhedrin 18b, in which the rabbis discuss the terms under which kings and priests must disqualify themselves from adjudicating cases in which they have clear financial interests. If even the most exalted among us, he continued, are liable to surrender to the temptations of personal profit every now and then, we should judge with the quality of mercy.

Besides, he went on, the rabbi in question had had his entire community devastated by the Holocaust, and was working hard to raise the funds necessary to build a new one in New York, a task for which he was dependent on donors who were not too keen on Chabad.

“This is all he has,” the Rebbe explained. “Can you blame him for wanting to ensure the success of his important work and life-legacy at all costs?”

Even when his own interests and aspirations were on the line, the Rebbe chose empathy over enmity. He engaged not in infighting but in Limud Zechus, a concept which Kalmenson translates beautifully: Seek merits, not mistakes, in everyone you meet.

Is there a more essential instruction? And is there a better advice to impart on those of us—really, all of us—who struggle with the thorniest part of faith, the part that calls you to community even with those who enrage you, disappoint you, rankle you or worse?

Whenever I feel ready, in a streak of righteous fury, to denounce my fellow Jews for their failures, real or imagined, I reach for my wallet and spend a moment looking at the smiling Rebbe.

Those of us who spend too much time on social media, who shout at the TV news, who are quick to ascribe disagreements to malice and end friendships at the first sign of discord, those of us prone to infighting and name-calling and purity tests, those content to cast out others until the tent is nearly empty: We need to follow in the footsteps of our elders—whether you consider your direct elder to be Avraham Shlonsky or Yitzhak Rabin or Arthur Miller—and listen to the Rebbe. The lesson he bequeaths us isn’t an easy one to learn, but it’s one we can’t afford to ignore. For Jewish life in America, more imperiled now than ever before, to continue, we need to relearn how to love—each other, ourselves, and our tradition. It takes a very great rabbi to teach us that.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.