The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, spiritual leader of some 500,000 Hasidic Jews, spoke for six hours on the occasion of his birthday Sunday night.
It used to be, when the rebbe gave a talk, he would go for six, seven hours, but on account of his age--80--it was expected he would slow down. He did not. He spoke, seated in a red velvet armchair, sonorously and strongly, in Yiddish, of course, and now and then paused for the Hasidim--in black felt hats and dark beards and side-curls--to break into spontaneous song. "How wonderful is our heritage, how happy are we in our lot!" they sang in Hebrew, holding their cups of wine or vodka in the air, waiting--before drinking it down--for a sign from the rebbe, a nod.
Who is this Rabbi Schneerson, you ask, and make it snappy; rather as the man came to Hillel and said, "Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot."
The answer in time, but first a tale.
A Lubavitcher Hasid is serving in the Israeli army, during the Yom Kippur War. His superior tells him they anticipate chemical warfare and those with beards must shave them, so their gas masks will properly fit. The Hasid is distraught: Shaving, of course, is forbidden. He phones his wife, who gets a message through to the rebbe, in Lubavitcher headquarters, Brooklyn, New York. The rebbe advises that the soldier go into battle with scissors in his pocket, so that he can quickly shave; but not to worry, because there definitely will be no chemical warfare. The Hasid does as he is advised. But he never needs the scissors. Because, of course, there never is any chemical warfare.
Who is this Rabbi Schneerson and what is a Lubavitcher? Better to start with Hasidism, itself. It began in the 18th century, in Eastern Europe, and is based on the teaching of the Baal Shem-Tov (Master of The Good Heart), a wandering mystic, who taught that a simple man who prayed sincerely was better than a Talmudic scholar whose heart was cold. Various Orthodox Jewish sects emerged from this and still exist today, including the Chabad-Lubavitch. It took its name from the town of Lubavitch in Russia. The town no longer exists, but the name, translated, means "City of Love." Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, born in Russia, is a direct descendant of the founders. Lore says from early childhood he displayed a "prodigious mental acuity" and was so far ahead of his childhood classmates he required a special tutor. On the purely historical side, it may be important to note that in his young manhood, both his father and father-in-law, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, were incarcerated in Russia for preaching Jewish Law. The rebbe's mother, when his father was sent to prison, followed her husband, though it was not required, and because he lacked writing material made him ink from herbs. Because the rabbi also lacked paper he was required to write his commentaries in the margins of his books. Years later, through a stroke of unusual luck, the rebbe found these books and published his father's work. It came to five volumes.
He is a mix of the Talmudist and the scientist, the traditional and the modern man.
He holds a degree in electrical engineering from the Sorbonne and worked briefly, on arrival in this country from France in 1941, for the Navy, as an engineer; yet on the Sabbath--like all Lubavitcher--he would not so much as shut off a light and certainly not answer the phone. He has followers all over the world, with centers now in 20 countries, but has not been out of the neighborhood--except to visit the grave of his father-in-law in Queens--in 32 years. ("Why should he travel?" a personal secretary, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, asks. "When there is somebody who wants to see him--the prime minister of Israel--they come to him. And a vacation, he has never taken.") He will not grant a formal interview, yet has been, for most of his life, available for advice to his followers on any problem--a question of business, the failure of a woman to conceive.
He has been, as well, an aggressive leader. Eight years ago he initiated a reach-out program, with young men in vans, to try and reacquaint Jews--but only Jews--with the tenets of traditional law. ("Mitzvah mobiles," the tanks were called by the Lubavitcher, "tanks against assimilation.") On his 70th birthday, when asked what he wanted for a present, he told his followers he wished 71 new Lubavitcher centers. This year, in honor of his 80th birthday, his followers planned a farbrengen--a gathering--at which the faithful would gather from all over the world.
The rebbe again had a selfless request.
"He said everybody should sit at home, nobody should come," says Rabbi Krinksy, who helped organize the massive birthday celebration that 10,000 of the faithful attended. "And they should take the money they would have spent and divide it in half, and use one half to celebrate Passover which starts tomorrow night and give the other half to charity."
He accepted, however, an honor his followers had organized: a proclamation, passed by Congress and signed by the president, which made April 4th, the rebbe's birthday, "National Day of Reflection."
It was noted, at a birthday dinner, that the president had signed the bill on Shabbos. But as the president was not Jewish, the learned took pains to point out, it was okay--he had not broken the law.
The Right Advice
The world of the Lubavitcher is a strange, strongly structured world to the outsider. It is a world where the intimacies of marriage--the time when a husband and wife may make love--are prescribed by Talmudic law; where the rules of Kashrut are so strict that one would not even wear fabric made from the skin of a forbidden animal. It is a world, where, as Orthodox Jews, the men say a prayer every morning thanking the Creator for not having made them women; and the women, in the main synagogue, sit separate from the men, invisible behind a dark screen.
Parts of this world were discernible Sunday evening, with the opening festivity--a dinner at the Brooklyn Museum--in honor of the rebbe's birthday. The guests, predominantly visiting rabbis from out of town, wore wide-brimmed hats and dark clothing, their prayer shawls under their jackets. They were careful to avoid physical contact with a woman, politely declining to shake hands. Most of the few women at the reception ate at a separate table. The rebbe himself did not attend, the occasion of his birthday, according to one of his people, calling for more serious reflection and meditation. But his admirers were there in force, raising their glasses in the old toast--"Bis hundredt und tzvonitich"--"He should live to 120 years."
Legends about Rabbi Schneerson, as is common on these occasions, were abundant.
The Rabbi Aaron Dov Helpern, of Israel, who publishes a newspaper with a column devoted exclusively to the teachings of the rebbe, had many tales: the businessman who flew all over the world and asked the rebbe what day he should fly to Nicaragua; and the rebbe told him any day but this one; and arriving in Nicaragua, much later, the businessman learned there had been an earthquake on that day. The woman, barren, who came to the rebbe in tears and was told to go home and be happy, for she would have a daughter, and nine months to the day she gave birth to a girl. The man suffering heart pains who was told by the rebbe, when he went to ask for medical advice, to check his mezuza, the tiny parchments bearing excerpts from the Book of Deuteronomy that, according to Jewish law, are to be affixed to the doorpost of every Jewish home. Taking the mezuza to a scribe to be checked, it was learned that the Hebrew words "with all your heart" had somehow been erased. The moment the man put his hand on the mezuza the pain went away, by the way.
So many are the stories about the Lubavitcher Rebbe--and so universally excellent his advice--that a female visitor, immodestly seated with the men, has a question: "Hasn't the rebbe ever given anyone the wrong advice?"
The young Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, of Chicago, answers with a tale of his own.
"There is a story told about the Fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe," he says. "He had a Hasid who was in the lumber business in Poland. One time, for business, he had been traveling around, and in the evening, he was sitting with other Hasids from other dynasties and they were telling stories about their rebbes. Each story was bigger and better, and finally someone said, tell us about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He tells them a story about how he goes to the rebbe about a business decision, and the rebbe tells him to make a particular deal, and the business went bust--he loses all his money. All the other Hasids say, 'That's a terrible story, you should be ashamed to tell this, you should hide it.' The Lubavitcher says, no. 'I'm the same Hasid,' he says, 'I came out okay. If the rebbe gave me this advice, it is proper that this should have happened to me; it was necessary for my purpose for life, it helped me.' And this is our perspective. We trust the rebbe to be our leader and guide and if we don't understand the consequences immediately that's our right, because in the long run, we have always seen that the rebbe has been right."
A Place Out of Time
It is 9:15 Sunday night, 15 minutes before the rebbe is scheduled to begin his talk at the Lubavitch World Headquarters, on Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, and both the sections--men's and women's--are packed. Upstairs, in the balcony, behind a smoked glass screen that renders them invisible to the men, infants and female children and women, many elegantly dressed, are squeezed tightly together, belly to back. Downstairs, where the rebbe will speak and the men are assembled, it is so jammed that the honored guests must enter the room walking on a long platform table, and if a man raises a leg it may be 10 minutes before he can find a place to put it down.
Even so, spirits are high. The Hasids sing from the 81st Psalm--in honor of the 81st year the rebbe is beginning--the women, upstairs, sway in time with the music, or sing softly, under their breath. You never sing when the men are singing, or when they could hear you--distracting, the women explain; though it is permitted to sing for your husband, of course. They say this without resentment; "Is my value how close I am to the men?" laughs Mrs. Keny Deren, who has come in from Pittsburgh. "This is not a love based on geographical closeness." Her father and grandfather were both Hasids, and looking down on the crowded hall, where gray beards form a perfect horseshoe, she tries to explain. "Every one of those men is a legend," she says.
The hall, filled with the dark-suited men with side curls, looks, certainly, out of time. The men sing and sway to songs 200 years old--to "Napoleon's March of Victory," to an old Hasidic chant, sometimes updated with a modern verse.
"We're all soldiers for our rebbe," they sing in Hebrew. "He will lead us with our tanks and with our mitzvah campaigns. The Messiah will come and redeem us."
The voices rise, the room seems to move. The rebbe, a small, dark-suited man with a squared-off gray beard, enters and the voices roar. There is chanting. There are toasts. After 10 minutes, the rebbe sits in his velvet chair and begins the talk, extemporaneously. He speaks for education and for the growth of the individual and against mandatory retirement. He says every human being should conduct himself as an exemplary human being.
"You should be a vessel of light," he says in Yiddish, being simultaneously translated into English. "And a light may spread in all directions, unless something is blocking its light. A light has no boundaries, and spreads in infinite distance. The stars, which are lights, are very distant from the human beings who see them, nevertheless, we see the lights of the stars. So a man should be like the stars, and illuminate not only himself and his city, but the world around him . . ."
At length, he takes a break. The Hasidim pour each other wine and schnapps and drink to the health of the rebbe, chanting, dancing. Upstairs in the women's section the women sway. "The Hasidism believe music is the expression of the soul," says the woman who was the daughter and granddaughter of a Hasid. Downstairs, the Hasidim sing.
The answer to the Hillel puzzle:
The sage, Hillel, advises the man who wished to be taught the Torah while standing on one foot, in the following way: "What you don't want done upon yourself, don't do unto your fellow." Then he tells him, "Go study."