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There were never any followers of the Rebbe -- followers couldn't keep up. The Rebbe had only leaders, those who rebelled with him

My Rebbe the Rebel

My Rebbe the Rebel

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No one rises above the earth by tugging at his own hairs. A prisoner cannot free himself from his prison. He needs first to bond with one who is already free.

And so, at an early age, I was looking for someone who could guide me -- a mentor, a guru. But who will be your guide when you beat your own path?

My path has always been like those of the deer in the forest -- skipping over, squeezing and breaking through, steering far from the clear highways that everyone else travels.

On my fifteenth birthday I dropped out of high school. The year before I had been on the honor roll, and this year I was the grade ten president -- but now I had no interest in following the established order.

When my parents made it clear that room and board were contingent upon my completing high school, I found a tutorial college that allowed me to take my exams that spring. And so, I found myself two years ahead of the game. Free -- in my father's words -- to associate with the fringe members of our society.

These were the early 70s in Vancouver -- Canada's San Francisco. I gave classical guitar lessons and organized the "Anarchist Discussion Group" of the Vancouver Free University. I learned Tai Chi, Yoga, became a strict vegetarian, and attended countless "Encounter Groups." I hitch-hiked around Canada, the U.S., Israel, Europe and the U.K. I found souls travelling and dabbling on every kind of path I never had imagined.

I returned with a broader mind, but still a craving, empty soul. None of what I found was for me. When you search, it doesn't matter where you look, the last thing youll find is your own self.

I decided it was important to be able to do something well, and for me that would be music. I approached a well-known composer who lived in Vancouver for private lessons. She agreed, but after a few sessions, commanded one of her graduate students to take me by the hand and register me at the music college of the University of British Columbia. This was not the place I wanted to be, but I decided I would learn something. At the same time I began seriously practicing meditation, teaching Yoga, and became fascinated with Lao Tse.

Nevertheless, my soul's stomach was as empty as ever. Perhaps, I wondered, what I need is to go off and hide in a Zen monastery for a few years. The conflict of spirituality and sensuality, the metaphysical and the material career was ripping me apart. There was no real direction, only confusion. I remember praying with all my heart -- not for any answers, not for any revelation -- only that I should be able to talk heart to heart with my G‑d, because life in such a complicated, convoluted world makes it very hard to talk sincerely with your G‑d.


When a fish finds the ocean, it must dive in. When I first heard a talk of Chassidic mysticism, it didn't matter that I had no comprehension of most of what was being said. Rain comes as a stranger to a land parched for generations by drought, but the earth remembers. What to my mind was foreign, to my guts was home.

That first splash of native waters came from a travelling student of the Rebbe. I recall how he explained to me that our purpose was to perceive the G‑dliness within every created thing. From between his words I perceived there was much more. At least a few thousand years of collective wisdom and beauty.

I wanted to know who taught this stuff. I wanted it explained to me. They told me there was a Rebbe in New York. "The Lubavitcher Rebbe."


"Rebbe" means a teacher. It is a term also used to refer to a master of the mystical path of Chassidic Judaism, as taught by the Baal Shem Tov.

"Lubavitch" is a town in Belorussia, a neighborhood in Brooklyn and an international association.

Lubavitch, the town, was the seat of a line of Chassidic masters, rabbis who followed in the practical/mystical path of the Baal Shem Tov, as his teachings were elaborated by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. At the outset of World War II, Lubavitch moved to Brooklyn.

"The Rebbe" is the title by which Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson has come to be known by Jewry worldwide. He was the person most responsible for the miraculous revival of traditional Judaism after its near burial with the holocaust.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson was born in 1902 to Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson and the kabalistic and legalist, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, chief rabbi of Dniprepetrovsk in the Ukraine. He studied at home, because the teacher at the Jewish school complained he had nothing to teach him.

In his teen years, his father gave him permission to study science, mathematics and languages -- but with the warning, "G‑d forbid any of this should take away from your sixteen hours a day of Torah study."

Young Menachem passed the government matriculation exams six months later. He also acquired a working knowledge of English, Italian, French, Gruzian and Latin at this time.

From the years 1932 to 1940, the Rebbe studied the sciences and humanities at the University of Berlin and at the Sorbonne in Paris.

In 1941, he fled Nazi-occupied France for the U.S.A. For a short time he was employed as an engineer with the U.S. Navy. His work was labeled as "classified."

When the previous rebbe of Lubavitch passed away in 1950, the surviving remnants of Lubavitchers around the world turned immediately to his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Although he hid himself by dressing in modern clothes and avoiding any sort of prestige, they knew him as a great scholar and leader.

The Chassidim begged that he take the leadership. He refused, repeatedly. He claimed he knew himself too well to imagine he might be fit for the job.

When a delegation of elder Chassidim came with a petition accepting Rabbi Schneerson as their Rebbe, he placed his head in his hands and began to cry. "Please, leave me alone," he begged. "This has nothing to do with me."

It was only after one complete year of such episodes the Rebbe finally accepted the position. Even then it was with a condition: "I will help," the Rebbe announced, "But each of you must carry out your own mission. Don't expect to hang on to the fringes of my prayer shawl."


My first reaction was inspiration. I had to find out more about this man. After that, friends, relatives and acquaintances began to cool me off. They told me this was idol worship. They told me I was surrendering my power of thought and independence.

My intellect had to concur. Where was all my background in anarchist philosophy? After all, these were the reasons I had failed to follow any other guru or mentor more than a few steps. I did not want my mind taken away. I wanted my own path. I did not want to be swallowed alive by a larger ego.

That conflict continued for many years. There are some things you know inside, but the ego and all your rationalization refuses to allow that inner knowledge to take charge.

Nevertheless, today I find myself a chassid of the Rebbe and still my own self. The Rebbe just never matched the ego-consuming demagogue I had so much feared.

For one thing, the trappings were always conspicuously absent. No majestic, flowing robes. No magnificent estate. No private jet. A modest home in good taste and a bare-bones office. Nothing on the outside to distinguish him from any of his Chassidim.

He didn't need the big show. There was no ego involved. The Rebbe was a master of simplicity, at being nothing and just allowing the essential G‑dliness of the soul to shine through. And so he was able to guide others without consuming them.

For many years, the Rebbe granted private audiences three nights a week. Aside from Lubavitcher Chassidim, there was just about every kind of person you could imagine -- Jewish activists, businessmen, scientists, politicians, journalists -- awaiting their turn at two o'clock in the morning. The Rebbe talked warmly with each one, providing guidance and advice when solicited, blessings whether solicited or not.

The audiences began at eight in the evening and generally finished in the early morning. There were exceptions. One night it wasn't until 10:30 the next morning that the Rebbe finally broke for morning prayers. The following night was booked for more audiences. The Rebbe's personal secretary asked the Rebbe if he could put off that night and get some rest. But the Rebbe replied that he couldn't put off people who had been waiting so long.

The Rebbe kept a full day as usual. That night, the audiences went until 11 the next morning.


As for my rebellious spirit, in the Rebbe I found the ultimate rebel. I could even say, you don't submit to the Rebbe -- you rebel with him. It's a long tradition of the rebbes of Lubavitch to defy the monster the world feigns to be, to follow an inner vision, rather than the superficial perception of the flesh eyes. It is no surprise that every one of the Rebbes predecessors spent time in czarist or communist prison. The Rebbe himself was forced into hiding before leaving Russia.

The Rebbe was an orthodox rebel, a traditional radical. In the sixties, the rest of the Jewish Establishment looked on in disdain at what was happening to their youth and cried, "Student unrest! Hippies and Freaks! This is certainly a deranged and lost generation."

The Rebbe declared, "Finally the iceberg of America is beginning to melt! Finally, its young people realize they do not have to conform! They have smashed the idols of their parents -- they need now only be led back to the living waters of their great-grandparents."

The Rebbe told his Chassidim to go out and bring Jewish youth in touch with their roots. He was ridiculed for it for years. Only after the strategy began to work did those who had mocked him jump on the band wagon as well.

He was always a maverick, not consulting with others on his strategies and campaigns, often ridiculed for what they considered outrageous decisions.

"I am used to their tactics already," the Rebbe shot back. "When I was a young boy, being the oldest son of the rabbi of a city in Russia, I was often taken for questioning by the authorities. They ridiculed me and showered me with abuse. I did not respond to any of their tactics. So too I will not respond to these."

The Rebbe took this radical attitude into his way of running things as well. Lubavitch became an organization where action came from the bottom up. Rarely, very rarely, did the Rebbe demand something specific be done. There were always suggestions. Chassidim were expected to take the initiative and do what they thought would work. Several times the Rebbe thwarted plans to create a rigid hierarchy of decision making within Lubavitch. Each person must find his mentor, and each mentor his mentor.

There were never any followers of the Rebbe -- followers couldn't keep up. The Rebbe had only leaders. Those who rebelled with him.


Simchat Torah is a festive Jewish holiday. Every year at this time, the Rebbes place of worship, 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY, packs in thousands of Chassidim and all sorts of Jews celebrating with the Torah scrolls throughout the night, singing and dancing.

On Simchat Torah, 1977, amidst the festivities, the Rebbe turned pale. Suddenly, he turned from his place, walked through the entire hall, up the stairs, into his office and locked the door behind him. Only his wife was able to persuade him to unlock the door.

It became apparent that the Rebbe had suffered a heart attack. Typically, he had not wanted to disturb the festive mood.

The best doctors were immediately called. They had to come to the Rebbe, because the Rebbe refused to leave his office.

When the Rebbe asked what the people were doing in the synagogue downstairs, he was told they were crying and praying. He made a request: "Tell them the more they sing and dance, the better I will feel."

The Chassidim danced and sang through the night like they never had before.

The Rebbe spent several weeks in his office under the doctors care. It was noted that the healthiest activity for the Rebbes heart was to study. The harshest activity was to read the letters that came to him. Many of the letters were from people in distress asking for blessing and advice. The Rebbes heart would pulsate erratically in empathy for their sorrows.

When the doctors attempted to stop the delivery of letters to the Rebbe, the Rebbe intervened.

"You are trying to take away my livelihood," he protested.


It is all futile, I tell you. As long as you stand on the outside, how can I describe to you the relationship of a chassid with his Rebbe? There is a profound inner bond, dense with emotions all beyond words.

Study his teachings. Yes, youll say, the Rebbes body is interred over five years now - but the bond is with his spirit and his spirit lives on even here in our world stronger than ever. By living with his teachings perhaps you could taste of that bond.

And then we may discuss what I have failed to put into words.

A well-known author came for a private audience with the Rebbe. After he left the Rebbes office, he turned to the Chassidim, and accused them, "You are thieves! You are stealing from the entire world! You have taken the Rebbe and made him exclusively your own, as though he were a Rebbe just for you Lubavitch Chassidim --

"But the Rebbe is the Rebbe of the entire world!"

Let us liberate him, you and I.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Da'el July 8, 2015

I saw the picture of the HK devotee and Chabadnik and it brought so many memories. I was in the Hare Krishna mission for over 37 years! I gave lectures around the world. I spent personal time with the leader who came from India. I bathed in the Ganges half submerged doing my prayers. I sat at the feet of India's holy men. I can tell you stories that will make your head spin. So I can relate to your story. But a few years as I was living on a remote island in the Philippines I returned to Judaism. It was the Chabad who helped me and to this day I am involved to some degree with Chabad. The Rebbe's teachings are so pure and go right to the soul. Reply

Chani UK April 29, 2015

And this is why I'm a Lubavitcher chasid. And off to buy your book right now! Reply

Anonymous Milan, Italy November 7, 2008

The Book Of Purpose Rabbi Freeman , I just got hold of this book and like all your previous works......it's brilliant!! Bli neder, I'm going to read a page of it every day to my Sem girls. However,
above all, the three most beautiful words in the whole book are; "my precious wife". Lucky she and lucky you. With much esteem, Reply

Tzvi Freeman (Author) Thornhill, ON November 26, 2006

for Robert This is one of the Rebbe's most radical positions: That it is time to announce to the world that you don't have to be Jewish to believe in Judaism. The Torah presents a universal path for every human being and provides the wisdom to follow that path. This is the path of Noah, as I mentioned at the end of that book. You'll also find more on this at this site. Reply

Robert Cooper Det., MI via theshul.org November 24, 2006

My Rebbe the Rebel Every since I read Bringing Heaven Down...I have a renewed interest in in spirituality. I want to rebel with living spirit of the Rebbe. If I could only be a thimble of lilght that the Rebbe is.
As an African - American who is not at home with any religion, how can I be mentored by a Chassid? I feel a kindred spirit with you and your writing about the Rebbe and the articles about Chassid Masters... Reply

Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, ON June 20, 2006

Author's response Just needs to be mentioned that this is actually the preface from my book, "Bringing Heaven Down To Earth". You can order that book at www.Judaism.com or anywhere else that sells good books. Reply

Russell June 18, 2006

Well said, Rabbi Freeman! Don't you just want to forward this to everyone on your e-mail list?
So many of us can identify with the seach for meaning in life - so many have travelled various roads until.... with G-d's help we were brought face to face with a "truth" like no other. The journey begins here.
To be a chasid of the Rebbe is an honor and privilege.. a badge which I wear proudly! We are all in this together.
Action speaks louder than words! Reply

MORRIS { MOE } AITKEN OWEN SOUND, ONTARIO January 22, 2006

CHASSIDIM At this time, I want to say to you that even though I am not that religious and have very little Hebrew, I consider Chassidim as the purest form of monotheism. I am on a disability pension, so have no finances to advance my studies. I want to congratulate you and your organization.... Reply

Michael F Marlboro, NJ December 30, 2005

Remarkable It's remarkable how your journey, Tzvi, is paralleling mine. The only difference is I found the ocean a couple years (age-wise) before you did. Reply

Anonymous skokie, IL August 27, 2004

Brought tears to my eyes. Reply