The Rebbe and secular Zionist

Learning how to talk together

THE TEL AVIV skyline (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE TEL AVIV skyline
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was an encounter of two people from two ends of the Jewish spectrum that concluded with a momentous lesson. In 1981, Jewish cultural icon Theodore Bikel attended a farbrengen, a hassidic gathering of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. These festive occasions were the moments of intense spiritual energy and rich intellectual inspiration. Thousands would gather at the iconic 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York, and there, the Rebbe would address a wide variety of topics, from dense Talmudic debates, lessons from the weekly Torah portion, to deep esoteric mystical teachings, and connect them to the challenges of modern Jewish life.
Theodore Bikel was the star of Fiddler on the Roof, the musical inspired by Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem, who championed secular Yiddish culture. Bikel grew up in a left-wing Socialist-Zionist family who lived by those same values. He was a staunch supporter of the Peace Now organization, advocating relinquishing Israel’s territory for promises of peace. The Rebbe, on the other hand, stood on the other side of the spectrum. To the Rebbe, the rejection of the central tenets of Jewish belief and practice by secular nationalism and Yiddish culture was a critical mistake. He repeatedly spoke out regarding Israel’s security, arguing that Jewish law prohibits giving up land, because it would open the door to terrorism.
Much can be learned from the brief encounter the two had. Especially now, in a time of religious and political contention, this lesson becomes even more relevant. At the Farbrengen, during a pause in the talking for singing and toasting l’chayim, Bikel approached the stage where the Rebbe sat in front of thousands of hassidim, offering a toast. The Rebbe turned to him and said, “You are a kohen (a member of the priestly family).” Bikel acknowledged that and then Rebbe requested a blessing from him.
First, Bikel responded in English wishing the Rebbe health and good life. Sensing what the Rebbe really intended, he then recited the classical priestly blessing of Yevorechicha in Hebrew, to which the Rebbe said, “I hope you will be a worthy emissary of G-d, to give His blessings.” Bikel answered, “Yes,” and the Rebbe upped the ante, telling him, “It depends on you.” Bikel responded positively, and the Rebbe took it another step, encouraging him to give these blessings in a synagogue as well.
In this encounter, lasting less than 60 seconds, a powerful lesson can be learned for our own interactions. Clearly, the Rebbe was aware of the many fundamental differences in worldview and religious ideology between him and Bikel. Still, the Rebbe chose to focus on the unique quality that Bikel possessed and empower it, even challenging him to use it for good in the future. Here was the Rebbe, a man to whom thousands came for blessings and advice, asking a secular Jew for his blessing that only he could give because he was kohen. sending him the message that there is something special and unique about him that not even the Rebbe possessed.
This Monday, October 22, in Tel Aviv, the General Assembly (GA) Jewish Federation conference opens in Tel Aviv, the theme being “It’s time to talk.” Yes, let’s talk. And let’s learn a lesson from this story on how we should talk. Yes, there are profound differences in the Jewish world. Some of them, let’s be honest, are irreconcilable. As I told a dear friend of mine, a leading Reform rabbi, the theological differences we have are unbridgeable. For the Jew who believes that the Torah is a Divine instruction given on Mt. Sinai three millennia ago, it is impossible to validate the rejection of this foundational principle of Judaism. Still, I have told him, our many conversations together have taught me that we both share a deep concern for the Jewish people.
The key to real communication is to acknowledge the unique contribution that each person makes. We cannot underestimate the real passion and commitment that people who may disagree with us have. At the same time, we must stay true to our ideals and beliefs without disrespecting others. It’s a difficult road to walk, a balancing act that I struggle with, especially in settings like the GA.
Unfortunately, the GA program appears to be predominantly tilted towards the perspectives of many American Liberal Jews and their supporters in Israel. There are few contradicting voices given the opportunity to be heard. But even with that shortfall, it should be an opportunity for some healthy dialogue.
As we gather, let us remember that all of us have the potential for goodness and sanctity, that we have traveled from near and far to this conclave because of our shared concern for Israel and Jewish destiny. If we disagree – and we undoubtedly will – let us do it in the spirit of dignity and ahavat Yisrael – true concern and love for our fellow Jew. Like the Rebbe and Theodore Bikel.
The writer is a rabbi, a Chabad emissary in California and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency. He can be reached at [email protected]