My interview with the Rebbe
By Phil Cohen
At the darkening moment for the Jews in Europe, Rabbi Shlomo Dovid Schmelzer, the Kobliner Rebbe, set up shop in that now famous house in Lower Park Slope, Brooklyn, 896 5th Avenue. He arrived with of a small contingent of fellow immigrants, his devoted Hasidim, carrying in their pockets an even smaller grubstake from the Rebbe's followers who remained in Poland, most of whom would never to make it to these shores to join their leader in and around his Brooklyn domicile.
Rabbi Schmelzer the immigrant possessed all the limitations attending that condition. His English was non-existent upon arrival, and never rose above a weak and heavily accented grasp of his new country's tongue. He never learned to write or read English terribly well. To give him his due, though, his Yiddish, Hebrew, French, German and Russian were quite good. His failure to master English must have reflected something intentional. He never really came to understand America; he never acculturated to the American scene, not unusual for an immigrant, particularly one who arrived in the full bloom of middle age. The hope always is that the children will find a home in the place where the parents reveal their outsider status on every occasion they open their mouths.
But from some recess of his psyche he had a vision that transcended mere popular culture and his social limitations, a vision he proceeded to implement the moment the war was over. His zeal for this mission was no doubt amplified many-fold by the disaster that befell the Jewish people during the war. The Rebbe's vision was nothing less than to establish programs and centers all over America and the world to save the Jewish people from their assimilating selves, to bring them back to Judaism, preferably Orthodox Judaism, though any form of Judaism would do in a pinch.
To that end, the Rebbe and his staff exhibited an inexplicable genius for using the tools of American media to publicize the mission of his Hasidim. It was as if the driving force of his vision gave him the cultural power to transcend his worldly limitations. At different times during his career, you could see him passing along his message of God's love for His Chosen on closed-circuit television, over the Net, in newspapers, films, magazines, billboards, posters, comic books, whatever. You could see the image of this charismatic man, his deep-set, steel blue eyes, his long, square white beard out of which protruded an aquiline nose and red lips, throughout the length and breadth of their literature. The Rebbe himself was their logo.
No one with honest eyes could ever doubt that he was a genuinely remarkable man, probably a genius. He communicated a spiritual depth that was profound and, since it was rooted in Eastern European Hasidism, mystical. Whether you believed in the mystical dimension of reality or not, it was manifest that the Rebbe did. It showed in his speech, his writing, and on his face. There was never any doubt that he and his followers were wildly successful. These Hasidim, these followers, formed a growing number of men and women coming first from the highways and byways of America, then from wherever his emissaries landed. Single-handedly he did more to raise Jewish religious consciousness, Orthodox and otherwise, among Jews throughout the world than any other individual of his generation. This accomplishment drew much consternation and criticism, but much of this was the result of his detractors' dining too frequently on sour grapes. No movement could come close to replicating his movement's international success.
I once sought an audience with Rabbi Schmelzer, the Kobliner Rebbe.
It was at the time I was contemplating leaving Orthodox Judaism. At the beginning of my senior year of high school there was pressure exerted on all prospective graduates to study at a yeshiva in Israel for a year, or go on to Yeshiva University or some other institution of Orthodox higher learning in the States and acquire rabbinical ordination, even if one had no intention of ever practicing the fine rabbinical arts. Everyone negotiated with his adviser about the most appropriate placement for him.
As for me, I was fairly certain that I wanted to bag it all. I wanted to go to the best university that would accept me, take off my tsitsit, my fringes, and my yarmulke and take my chances with my religious identity as I strolled the halls of the school. I say 'take my chances,' but I realized, more or less intuitively at the time that this way of receiving my higher education probably meant leaving the Orthodox world behind. I couldn't guarantee that would be the outcome, but I certainly would have laid odds on it.
I'd heard it said that Reb Schmeltzer had great success in persuading such people as me to abandon their designs. Since my tentative decision to leave Orthodoxy was neither sudden nor capricious, I thought I ought at least to give Shmelzer the chance to talk me out of it, if, of course, he would even agree to see me. I figured that if he could lay out the reasons for staying, theoretically, like a kind of Jewish Pascal's Wager, or if he could make clear to me something I'd failed to comprehend, then I might be able to remain among the Orthodox. True, I felt the magnetic pull of the outside world, calling me to books less than approved, to a cultural world demandingI believed--the removal of my yarmulke. Yet I wasn't entirely overjoyed by its siren call. The rebbes at the yeshiva had left their mark, if not exactly the mark they desired to leave. This mark manifested itself as guiltor at least the anticipation of guilt, since I hadn't yet done anything, and distrust of anything not touched by Orthodoxy. Of course Orthodoxy was the only way to serve God, they taught. But it was also a safe haven from a corrupt and corrupting world.
So I called the Kobliner Center and explained my reason for wanting an audience with the Rebbe to the youngish male voice on the other end of the phone. He insisted I provide a detailed explanation of my agenda prior to setting an appointment and I was too slow to concoct a reasonable lie. After being put on hold for perhaps ten minutes, to my surprise, I received an appointment with the Rebbe for the very next day at 11:00 in the morning.
So it was on a fine autumn morning in late October, a Monday I'm fairly certain, that I set out from Flatbush for my visit with the Kobliner Rebbe. I got off the bus, which stopped right in front of a bodega. If I recall correctly the bodega had a sign in front for coconut soda in a new plastic bottle and for kosher foods. There was a clear Hispanic look to most of the pedestrians in the neighborhood. I say "most" of the pedestrians, since there was a significant minority of men and women who, by their attire, were Orthodox Jews, the Rebbe's congregants.
I looked half a block over toward the Kobliner Center building for the first time. I recall as I approached being struck that the place was exceedingly shabby. Most of the neighborhood was shabby, true, but not all of it, and "thy buildings shalt be shabby" surely wasn't a law. Not a lot of attention had been paid to the exterior paint; nor had much consideration been given to plants, shrubs, trees and suchlike. On the inside, I noticed almost immediately upon entering, no one had given much consideration to the quality of the furniture, or the artwork (of which there was none), or any of the rest of the décor. This was so in spite of rumors that by this time in its history the Kobliner movement was flush with cash. To that particular monetary end, by the way, there was a pushka, a charity box, hanging from the nearest leftward wall upon entry into which I dutifully pressed a dollar as I passed it as a thank-you for the Rebbe's time and in the hope of a successful visit.
As I entered, I spotted the main office across the foyer. I walked toward it, and as I entered the office, a boy of around fifteen looked up from the text he was studying. "Can I help you?" he asked. His voice could not have registered more annoyance at my very presence in his life.
"I'm here to see the Rebbe," I responded.
"Your name?" he asked, pulling a calendar toward him.
"Nick Friedman," I answered.
He looked at his list, then up at me with a look of purest disgust. "Oh yeah. You're the apikorus," he said matter-of-factly. Apikorus is Hebraicized from Epicurus, which long ago had become the Hebrew word for heretic. Originally a Jewish heretic was someone who indulged in the ancient Greek version of pleasure.
"Yes, I suppose I am," I answered. I had no wish to get into it with him. It was a fight without victor.
"Second floor and to the left," he said more perfunctorily than I would have believed possible from someone so young. And with not so much as a toodle-oo he returned to his text and, as far as he was concerned my existence ceased.
I climbed the stairs and turned left. There was only one door. I knocked. A short, dark man with jet black hair and a close-cropped graying beard opened the door. Not the Rebbe. "Please sit down. I'm Reb Yudel, the Rebbe's secretary. The Rebbe will be with you shortly. Have a seat," he said, directing me to a black leather chair across from an almost identical chair. With that, he walked out, leaving me alone in the room.
The room wasn't large, and, like everything else in the building, its appointments were less than elegant. There was a large wooden desk with no phone, a raggedy couch badly in need of upholstery, a couple of other chairs, wooden folding chairs as I remember, a fireplace that did not look as if it had been used of late, and all the walls filled with thousands of books. Books of all kinds: Jewish (of course) in both Hebrew and Yiddish, philosophy (a copy of Also Sprach Zarathustra lay open to about the middle), mathematics, history, physics.
I also remember experiencing a sense of quietude. There was peace in that space whose source I could not discern, since it was just the books and I resting there awaiting the Rebbe's arrival. It may have been purely psychological, reflecting my attitude and expectations, but I think not. I think the place itself emanated peace, which I, sitting there, simply absorbed. I remember enjoying that feeling of calmness, in particular because I had been so agitated of late as I obsessed about leaving the yeshiva world. I closed my eyes and took it in.
A door opened, not the door through which I had entered, but one off to the side which I now noticed for the first time.
The Rebbe entered.
I was surprised: He was a man of below average height and I was expecting a giant. He seemed trim. I noticed his white beard was stained with traces of yellow, the tell-tale sign that this man was a smoker. He was wearing his teffilin, his phylacteries. Evidently he was in the practice of wearing them into the day as he studied, well past their required usage for morning prayer. This practice is not unusual for a man of his piety.
There is always a moment for me when I meet someone for the first time of whom I have heard a great deal and about whom I have built up considerable expectation. At the moment of contact there is a kind of cross-over from the idealized mental image I hold of the person to the reality of the person as he stands before me. As is usually the case, so, too was it in the case of my meeting with Rabbi Schmeltzer: I remember thinking to myself as he approached me, yeah, this guy's a human being. He's flesh and blood just like me. Yet even in his ordinariness there was also a glow about him; the suggestion of peace of mind that comes with untrammeled belief in the spirit. This glow set him apart from the normal run of the mill person I met with, even in my yeshiva.
He came over to me slowly and as I rose from my chair he shook my hand. I noticed I, who had stopped growing when I reached six feet, was much taller than then Rebbe. He gestured that I sit down. Then he sat down next to me in the matching leather chair. We were facing each other. "You're Nicholas Friedman?" he asked in English with a thick Yiddish accent.
"Yes," I answered lamely.
"You speak Jewish?" he asked in Yiddish.
"Not really," I answered in English.
"But you're a yeshiva bachur, no?" he returned to English.
"Yes, but where I study we learn in Hebrew."
"Ah that's right, you go to the Yeshiva of Midwood," he said in a pretty good if oddly accented Hebrew. It was known that the language of instruction at YM was Hebrew.
"Yes," I answered in my pretty good if Americanized Hebrew.
"You've got a Hebrew name?" he continued.
"Nahman," I answered.
"A good name, Nahman. "The comforting one." Very nice. I don't imagine you're feeling much comfort yourself at the moment, are you?"
"No, I guess not."
"I can understand your uneasiness. My secretary tells me you came to see me because you want to leave the Torah and go out alone into the world. Is that correct?"
"I'm not sure. I came here to talk to you about it."
"You came because you thought I could change your mind for you?"
"No...Yes...Well, I guess I was hoping you could help me. I heard you did that. Help people."
"I do what I can. You were hoping for a formula or maybe a nice little Hasidic melody or maybe I'd identify your tikkun, your own particular mission, to protect you and keep you from the secular world?"
"I...I don't know. I heard that other people in my situation sometimes come to see you. Yeah, I guess I thought maybe you could help me."
"How can I help you? What can I do for you?" he asked, entirely unperturbed but without any sign of having the magic formula. "I could tell you my personal beliefs about God and the Torah and the Jews. I believe that God gave the Torah to the Jews for safekeeping and to bring good into the world for everyone, Jew and Gentile. I believe we're supposed to repair the world and leave it better for those who come after us until we finally perfect it so that the Messiah can reveal himself to everyone. I believe God is watching over us at all times, not to punish us, but to take care of us. But these things you already know, don't you, Nahman Friedman from the Yeshiva of Midwood?"
"Yeah, sure. Everything at the yeshiva stands on top of those ideas."
"But you no longer believe them?"
"It's not that I don't believe in God anymore. I think there's a God. I'm not an atheist. It's just that I'm having trouble accepting that everything that's forbidden to me by the Torah should be forbidden."
"You can't accept what's forbidden you should be forbidden? Ha! That's a good one. A very good one. So what do you think is forbidden to you by the Torah that's so valuable you're willing to give up the Torah for its sake?"
"The Torah doesn't forbid knowledge to you, Nahman, God forbid. Look at me. I have a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Marburg."
It was well known that Rabbi Schmeltzer had earned a doctorate under Edmond Husserl before Husserl's student, Martin Heidegger, took over his teacher's post in a Nazi putsch and then went about discrediting his teacher in every way he could. "My Torah beliefs didn't forbid me from pursuing non-Jewish philosophy. The two never conflicted with one another in a way that prevented me from reading whatever I wanted. We Jews don't censor, God forbid. You want to read something? So read it. Read anything you want. Anything. What's the problem? In my case, I was able to reject what I saw as wrong in Gentile philosophy. And what was right helped me better understand the Torah. I'll tell you more: Even what was wrong helped me understand the Torah better. These studies trained my mind like Talmudic study trained my mind but in a different way of thinking."
"I guess I mean a different kind of knowledge."
"Do you mean the knowledge of what it's like to eat pork on Yom Kippur afternoon?" he asked a twinkle in his eye.
"Because if you mean that kind of thing, you don't mean knowledge at all. You mean transgression. Transgression, as you know, or you should know, is the absence of knowledge, the exact opposite of knowledge. It's life in a moral vacuum."
I responded, "You see, I guess what I mean IS transgression in your eyes. I suppose I've come to believe that interacting with the world in ways forbidden to me by the Torah shouldn't always be considered a transgression. It should be considered experience, an opportunity to learn, the chance to see what it's like out there outside of the Torah world. I guess I'm willing to risk transgression for the chance to gain knowledge and experience."
"You don't mean you've stopped believing in right and wrong, do you, Nahman Friedman?"
"Oh no. That's not it. That's not it at all, Rebbe. I believe there is right and wrong. I'm just not convinced everything the Torah forbids me is necessarily wrong. And I'm not convinced all wrong is so wrong I shouldn't take some risk for the sake of experiencing it."
"For the sake of experience you'd throw off the yoke of the Commandments?"
"Yeah, I guess so," I said, even though I hadn't really thought about exactly what I wanted until this meeting.
The Rebbe shifted his body and leaned toward me. "I know what you mean, Nahman. I know exactly what you mean. I've seen it before. You want the opportunity to sample wine and food and not worry about dietary restrictions. Why not? They taste good and honest men have put their toil into preparing them. You want to see plays and read books and not worry about how to square them with the yarmulke that would be sitting on your head, or whether it's happening on Shabbos or not. You want to meet Gentiles and not have to worry about whether they're sympathetic to the Torah before you engage them in discourse, or whatever else you'll engage them in. And you want to do it without constraint. To you the Torah has become a constriction that ties you down to a world that for you has become too narrow."
He was right, of course. He gave voice to what I had until that moment never quite fully put together. I never expected he would understand what I was feeling, despite his reputation. And if I had thought he knew it, I never would have suspected he would say it. But he was astonishingly explicit.
He looked at me with those eyes of his, charming, hypnotic, and comforting. But the acknowledgment of my feelings did not draw me to him. I really wanted to feel a pull toward this man. I realized that I had come hoping that not only would he dissuade me from the path I was embarking upon. I was hoping the meeting would make me feel the necessity to join the Kobliners. It did not.
He continued, "Nahman. Listen to me. You're not the first nor will you be the last yeshiva boy who wanted to see the outside world without Torah limitations. I think you're wrong. No. I know you're wrong. But we won't get into a shouting match over it today. We could debate the Torah's views and why you should stick with them until your foreskin grows back," (he paused at the joke, which caught me off guard) "and I can see that I couldn't dissuade you from your convictions no matter how eloquent and rational my arguments might be, or how angry I might pretend to become in order to intimidate you into staying. My guess is that you probably have already made up your mind to go out into that great world that you see beckoning you, even if you don't know it yourself.
"You've made up your mind, and yet you came here to see me. You came hoping I had a talisman or a prayer or that I might wave my hands over your head and magically dissuade you from this course of action. I'm very flattered you came, even though to tell you the truth I have no magic for you Nahman Friedman." Here he stood up and began pacing about the office, lost in thought. After a few moments of this he said, "But since you came to see me, there are two things I will tell you."
"What are they?" I asked.
"The first is to tell you that you should always feel free to call me to talk. I'm a very busy man, much too busy they tell me to spend time with an apikorus like you whose mind is made up. But I tell them I've always believed that if I can help someone like you return to the Torah then that's what I must do. That's what I was put here in Brooklyn to do. From now on, Nahman, to me you're a priority. My top priority. You call me, I will always answer."
"Thank you, Rebbe, thank you very much," I said, touched at the genuineness of the offer. "And what is the second thing?"
"The second is to remind you that just as I will wait for your next phone call or visit and will respond quickly, so too does the Master of the Universe await your return. God is always there for you, just beyond you, waiting for your decision to cross back over into the Torah's world. I am a very patient man, Nahman, but God is infinitely more patient than I. Whenever you're ready to return, God will be there to help. But this you know already. This they taught you in that Hebrew speaking yeshiva you go to. But you can't only know it; you must believe it in your heart, and I'm not certain that you believe what you know."
He sat down, pulled his chair closer to me, and again leaned toward me. I could feel his breath on my cheek. His eyes radiated that great intensity. I remember thinking wistfully at that moment that if I could only carry that intensity inside of me wherever I went, then everything would be all right. I also knew that I had to go it alone, without this man's power as my companion, even if such a thing were possible.
He said with a distinct mixture of warmth and sadness, "So go my dear young friend. Go visit the world you think is lying beyond your door. Go to the schools, the museums, the films. Go see the plays. Enjoy the food and drink if you must. When you're ready to return, or even if you think you might want to try to return, call me here and we'll visit and talk some more."
And then he did something remarkable, unbelievable. He reached into his back pocket, pulled out a wrinkled business card and handed it to me. On it was written a phone number, nothing but a phone number. "Call me at that number if you want to talk to me on Shabbos. To me it's pikuah nefesh, saving a life." You understand, for someone of the Rebbe's religious practice using a telephone on the Sabbath is inconceivable unless it was necessary to save a life, at which point its use is mandated. To me he would talk on the telephone even on Saturday because he considered me in some way mortally wounded, and should I need to speak with him on Shabbat it would indicate a mood of desperation. Amazing.
His eyes lit on Also Sprach Zarathustra. "Have you read this book?" he asked.
"No, I haven't," I replied.
"It's a remarkable piece of writing, you know. Nietzsche eventually went insane. The burden of the world he was helping to make was just too great for him." At this questionable declaration, the Rebbe audibly sighed. He continued. "But before he left his senses, he wrote many wonderful books. Here, look at this," he said, and he leaned over and picked up the book. It was in German. He read a passage, and then he translated it into Hebrew. "Listen," he said: ""Man is a rope tied between beast and overman - a rope over an abyss.""
He paused and looked at me. "This is so profound I don't know where to begin interpreting it for you. In fact for you I won't interpret it, Nahman Friedman. I'll leave it for you to ponder on your own. Remember, you are no different than anyone else. You hang over the same abyss as everyone else. And an abyss can swallow you up at any moment. Don't let it. Do not surrender to the beast within you. Without the Torah, you will be treading dangerous waters my son. These waters are dangerous with the Torah. Without the Torah, the danger is far, far greater. Not insurmountable I will admit. There have been in history non-Jews who have lived lives as if they had the Torah. But it is almost so. Only a very morally sturdy person can survive the abyss or become a beast in the attempt. Even with the Torah men fall into that dark hole. Be careful, Nahman. I beg you, be very careful."
With that he rose from his seat and approached me. Sensing our meeting was coming to an end, I also stood. As he reached me, the Kobliner Rebbe extended his arms, hugging me warmly and firmly, kissing me on the cheek, revealing a physical strength I wouldn't have imagined he possessed. It was a gesture I never in a thousand lifetimes would have expected from the Kobliner Rebbe. He was so much shorter than I that it was an effort to bend down to allow him to put his arms around me. Clumsily, I hugged him back. Then, saying no more, he turned around and exited through the door from which he had entered.
I never saw the Kobliner Rebbe again, but I remember those eyes peering into mine with a sense of security so strong it could move you to action or to tears. If I try hard enough, I can also still remember those arms holding me close to him. To this day the remnants of that card, so yellowed and tattered, still rest in my wallet, though I never made use of it while he was alive, and, if you must know, I never thought of using it. Not once. But I kept the card. I kept the card, even after a heart attack took him at age eighty-two.
That was all a very long time ago.
To this day I am still dangling over the abyss. And though I haven't given in to the beast, there were times I almost succumbed. I haven't fallen into the abyss, either, though there have been isolated and frightening moments when I have sunk low and felt the mire grazing at my back.
from the September-October 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine