The Rebbe and Me
The Rebbe is an elusive character. Since I have spent time around the Chabad movement (although not affiliated), I have seen many pictures of him over time, a kind-eyed man with a long white beard. I have heard stories about him over the years, both from people who love the Rebbe dearly and visit his gravesite to those who feel that some of the people who follow him too closely are like early Christians, thinking that he is actually the messiah.
I spoke with a friend of mine about it at a Torah study before I left for Israel. He was at one point trying to go Orthodox, but this became problematic as he was coming out as gay.
“There have been centuries and centuries of rebbes in different communities that have served as masters or teachers,” he explained to me. “Each one typically appoints a successor. There has even been a female rebbe. Usually they are incredibly learned, speak multiple languages and are able to respond to everyone, no matter their religious background.”
However, when people today speak of the rebbe, they usually refer to Rabbi Manachem Mendel Schneerson, or the Lubavitcher rebbe. This rebbe is probably best known for the reason why Chabad is so prominent in modern Jewish life. His idea was to spread Judaism throughout the globe so that no matter where someone went, they always could get a kosher meal or find a place for Shabbat. Chabad centers are now everywhere, from Mumbai to the Congo.
However, here’s the catch: This rebbe died in 1994 and there was no successor to him as he never had children. Since there was no one appointed to follow him up, many people have grown to idolize him. If you visit any person who is affiliated deeply with the Chabad movement, you will find numerous pictures of him throughout the house, usually looking very peaceful or acknowledging a throng of men. There is a contingency in the Chabad movement of people who believe that the rebbe is actually not dead, that he is coming back and he is actually the messiah that Jewish people have been praying for.
“That’s not all people in the Chabad movement,” he pointed out to me. “In fact, many of the Chabadnicks view these people as being out of touch with the Jewish community or too much like idolatry. But the supporters are fervent and strong. In fact, when you are in Israel, you might go to areas where you’ll see yellow flags with a crown on it, and underneath it says ‘Masiach’ in Hebrew letters. These are often those believers.”
As a person who really marches to the beat of her own drummer when it comes to faith, I have often viewed the rebbe through a filter of the secular world. I’m confident in that he was a brilliant and learned man who changed the face of Judaism in the modern world. But beyond that, his effect on my life had been relatively small. And especially as someone who was shunned by the religious community after her divorce, I was attempting to keep my distance from such zeal.
So imagine my shock when I arrived in Tzfat, the city of the Kabbalists, when I saw those yellow flags flying. My heart dropped, afraid and nervous. Why would a secular girl come here, where she is bombarded by the teachings of Chabad? Sure, I was Jewishly educated and deathly smart when it came to my faith, but I rejected a lot of the dogma after my divorce and that sense of religious betrayal that came as a result. But I knew what I wanted: I wanted to connect to the mystics my ears heard about all those years. My soul yearned to sing Lecha Dodi, one of my favorite prayers, in the land where it was created. I wanted to find a tzadik (righteous person) for guidance. I needed spiritual cleansing after two years of wandering and simply trying to survive, so when it was time to go back to Los Angeles I returned spiritually clean.
As I arrived at the hostel and got ready for Shabbat in the cold of the mountains, I was incredibly guarded as the girls started roaming around and laying out the candles for Shabbat. I was blending in by wearing a long skirt, shirt and tights, but nothing felt right. There were ebbs and flows of comfort and distress. Then, as if it were waiting for me to relax, I started finding a rhythm in the day. It was foreign and strange because it wasn’t a part of me, unlike these people who followed the rebbe and didn’t ask why. As I began to communicate and keep the Sabbath, something seemed to change, particularly Saturday afternoon.
After lunch in the Kabbalah cave at the hostel, I went upstairs and laid in bed. I didn’t sleep, but I wasn’t awake either. My mind tried to tell my body to wake up, to move, but it wouldn’t obey my call. It kept me in this state, to the point where my soul was moving through the land around me, and all of sudden he was there: the rebbe. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there. Was this real? How could a secular Jew see him? And there was an open book in front of me, bound in brown leather. I, a woman, was studying with the rebbe.
I sat there reading with him very quietly when all of a sudden a woman ran in. In this state I recognized her, although I couldn’t see her face either.
“Reina,” she said to me. “Remember I told you about that girl and her Muslim friend? She is alone and there’s no one talking to her. You need to go make her laugh.”
“But I’m studying,” I said.
“She needs you, and you are so funny. It’s who you are.”
I looked at the rebbe and without a word he waved his hand and sent me away from him and study. I turned away and walked out the door, and then woke in shock. A woman, not to mention a secular Jew, had a vision of the rebbe.
When I shared this with one of the religious women in the hostel, she was amazed. “Very few people have visions of the rebbe,” she said, her mouth ajar. “Not even Hassids. You need to take it seriously. Use it to guide you.”
Everyone I spoke to about the vision had their own interpretation, but I decided in the end to go with mine, which included steering myself away from religion and towards humor. No matter how much I love G-d, my place was with the rest of the universe, making it smile, think, feel good. I’m sure even the rebbe knew that not everyone was meant to follow him, but some were meant to be away from that. I was put on this earth for something; maybe I just needed a divine kick in the pants.
Whether this was real or not, I felt that it was something I was going to follow for myself as a person who balances a world between modern life and a Jewish spiritual point of view. After all, the rebbe was an individual guide, and he represents different things to different people. Where that vision would take me, I didn’t know. But I was looking forward to seeing the path ahead.