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Meeting with the Maimonides of Our Generation

Meeting with the Maimonides of Our Generation

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
Rabbi Marvin Tokayer (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)

As a Yeshiva University student in the early 1960s, I used to attend a Thursday night class on Chabad philosophy. The class was interesting and highly informative, and I was never shy about asking questions. How could you say such-and-such when other Jewish philosophers posit other theories? How do you reconcile their disagreements? The teacher’s recurrent answer was, “The Rebbe knows,” referring to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of saintly memory.

Although the teacher was very familiar with Chabad philosophy, he was not as informed about other Jewish philosophers like Maimonides and Rabbi Saadiah ben Joseph (882–942), known as Saadiah Gaon.

One day, after another round of my incessant questioning, the teacher suggested, “Why don’t you write a letter to the Rebbe requesting a private audience? There you can spend some time with the Rebbe, ask him all your questions, and receive the answers you need.”

One day, after another round of my incessant questioning, the teacher suggested, “Why don’t you write a letter to the Rebbe requesting a private audience?” I wrote a letter to the Rebbe, in Hebrew, outlining what I was studying, and explained that I had some philosophical questions that I would like to discuss with him, if possible.

Within a couple of days, I was contacted by the Rebbe’s secretariat and given an appointment for three weeks later at 3:00 AM. On certain nights of the week, the Rebbe would begin holding private audiences just after the time that most people would be coming home from work, continuing throughout the night until everyone had had their turn.

When the time arrived, I traveled by subway to the Rebbe’s office at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Before entering the Rebbe’s room I was instructed to listen closely for the sound of the bell, signifying the end of the audience.

At that time there were no mini-tape recorders, and I did not write any notes during the audience. Nevertheless, I remember the discussion quite well.

I asked the Rebbe my questions about the development of Jewish law and tradition. I was curious to know how Jewish law and tradition evolves and changes over time. After all, we don’t dress like the Jews who lived during the biblical period, and we don’t speak like them, either. I wanted to understand the evolution of Jewish thought and practice.

After a few short minutes the bell rang, and I excused myself, thanking the Rebbe. But the Rebbe said, “No, no, ignore the bell. Please continue.” We continued talking, and each time the bell rang, the Rebbe instructed me to stay.

We were getting into a serious dialogue. In all, I was with the Rebbe for a couple of hours!

I asked the Rebbe my questions about the development of Jewish law and tradition. I was curious to know how Jewish law and tradition evolves and changes over time. The Rebbe explained to me that when it comes to the evolution of Jewish tradition, we can add to the tradition to enhance and protect it, but we may not subtract from the practice. Tradition that has been practiced for generations is hallowed by time by our scholars.

I asked the Rebbe where Chassidism comes from. Chassidism did not exist four thousand years ago, or even five hundred years ago!

The Rebbe explained that Chassidism is an addition to Jewish tradition, reiterating that we have the right to add to and enhance the tradition.

By the time we finished, we had discussed a wide variety of subjects, and it was almost time for the morning prayers.

My clearest memory from my discussion with the Rebbe is his eyes. I looked into his eyes and he looked into mine. They were the most intriguing and beautiful eyes I had ever seen. I felt that the Rebbe was looking deep into my heart and soul. It is hard to convey this, but I felt he understood me more than I understood myself.

I knew that the Rebbe was one person, carrying an entire movement on his shoulders. Nothing was happening without his knowledge and approval. Thousands of people were coming to discuss thousands of matters with him, yet I knew that during the time I spent with the Rebbe, the Rebbe was focused on me alone. I felt that I had 110% of his concentration and interest, and that amazed me, for it is hard (or almost impossible!) for most of us to do that. He was a unique personality, genuinely interested in me as a human being, fellow Jew and future rabbi. I had his complete interest and concentration.

My impression of a chassidic rebbe was one who had interest in all human beings, an interest in fellow Jews, and an unparalleled understanding of human nature. What surprised me was that the Rebbe was also an excellent scholar. I cannot say that I was a scholar at that time, for when I met with the Rebbe I was still a student. But whatever text I cited, he was able to quote the next word or the next line. He was absolutely and totally familiar with everything I mentioned.

When we discussed Saadiah Gaon, the Rebbe pointed out when he lived, the events that took place during his life, and the philosophical issues of his time.

Saadiah Gaon’s book is titled Emunot Vede’ot, “Basic Beliefs and Knowledge.” The Rebbe spoke about the knowledge and belief during the life of Saadiah Gaon, who lived from 882 CE to 942 CE. He also explained the challenges the Jewish community faced at that time, and how Saadiah Gaon rose to the occasion.

In addition, he described the issues that Rabbi Judah Halevi, who lived in Spain and authored the philosophical work Kuzari, had to deal with. During his lifetime he had to contend with atheistic, Christian and Muslim philosophies, and explain how Judaism can counteract them.

During my audience, I felt that the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s approach to Judaism was very close to the approach outlined in Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, a difficult and complicated volume. The Rebbe and Maimonides were trying to do the same thing: teach us how to live as intelligent, modern, devout and strictly observant Jews in the modern world.

From an interview with Dovid Zaklikowski.

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer is a noted scholar and historian residing in Great Neck, New York. For many years he was the only rabbi living in Japan and served as the Vice President and Director of Culture, Religion and Education for the Jewish Communities of the Far East. Rabbi Tokayer has written 20 books in Japanese on Judaism and Jewish life, and upon returning to New York he founded and led the Cherry Lane Minyan.
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Daniel Tavera Long Beach California, USA, CALIFORNIA July 11, 2011

Traditions and Torah Observance agreed,
but please don't look for one more, don't make me forget the real misvoth Reply

Mordechai Manchester, UK via July 6, 2011

Reply to Rav Eliezer Zalmanov I see what you mean, but the Rambam's main philosophical reference is Aristotle, who lived about 1500 years before the Rambam. The Rambam's primary medical reference is Galen, who lived about 1000 years before the Rambam. So these philosophical and medical iseas were not exactly "modern". The ideas of Galen and Aristotle were common amongst the intellecltual elite in Rambam's host society. What the Rambam did was to take these ideas seriously and, in the case of Aristole's ideas, use them to test and refine Judaism, primarily in the Moreh Nebuchim. He thought these ideas were so important that he e.g. identified Aristotle's physics with Maasei Bereshit. Reply

Reuven Berry Brooklyn, NY July 6, 2011

Traditions and Torah Observance Daniel Tavera commented:
Nevertheless, when is enough when we have enough traditions?
are we giving more importance to traditions than the observance of Tora?
Answer: The Rebbe pointed out, based on the Talmud, that Jewish custom is Torah. Both are G-d's will. Also, the Rebbe explained that all novel ideas in Torah were given by G-d. Each one is meant for that time when it was "discovered," but the general principles from which all subsequent novel ideas in Torah come
were given at Mount Sinai. The fact that it was "discovered" at that time is a sign from G-d that it was meant for that time. This article focuses on traditions. However, the Rebbe is the same one who innovated the Mitzvah Campaign, which is meant to strengthen the observance of Torah. This shows us that both the observance of Torah and traditions are important and each one has its proper time for stressing it. In this article traditions was the focus, but was not meant to diminish the importance of Torah observance. Reply

Daniel Tavera Long Beach California, USA, CALIFORNIA July 6, 2011

Traditions the more importance we give to traditions, more traditions we have to follow, some of them, are far of being observed, how many traditions we can count from all Jewish around the world, we can see that are lot more than the misvoth.
of the torah. Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for July 5, 2011

To Mordechai The Rambam was a living example, as a physician and a philosopher, of utilizing modernity and contemporary advances for spiritual purposes. Reply

milton jones Huntsville, Alabama July 5, 2011

The RAMBAM Maimonides in Guide tries to take out "Superstition" without killing The Essence of Judaism, which he takes much care to respect. RAMBAM somewhat dismisses the Red Heifer as keenly important, and such a mystery that the meaning is known only to God. A bit of a political answer. Death, he says, exists for the individual so the type to which the individual belongs can survive. That is a semi-scientific idea. There is in Guide no single standard for determining truth. He moves from one standard to another so fluidly that the reader sees contradiction instead of the change of Standard. Reply

Anonymous ny July 5, 2011

the Rebbe and the Rambam As Daniel Tavera is asking; are we giving more importance to traditions than the observance of Tora? Also, some traditions were a result of specific circumstances of a given time. If the Rebbe was telling us to use modern science, etc. Do we also have to abide by some tradition which is not appropriate for our times? Reply

Mordechai MANCHESTER, UK via July 5, 2011

The Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch The Rambam records the halacha of a prayer apparently addressed to two accompanying angels on entering the bathroom (M.T. Hilchot tefillah; 7:5.) This halacha was rejected by the Beit Yosef and is not included in the Shulchan Aruch. However the Beit Yosef says it is permissible to continue to follow all the halacha according to the Rambam rather than the Shulchan Aruch (Avqat-Rochel #32) so the idea of adding to but not subtracting from tradition is not quite so linear. Reply

Anonymous Sydney, Australia July 5, 2011

Thank you! Can you please give more details of your hours with the Rebbe? Reply

Anonymous Wisconsin July 4, 2011

More detail? Thanks for the wonderful article. However, it would be wonderful if you could write an additional article with any more details you can remember from the Rebbe's argument about tradition. Many people struggle with believing in and observing all the details of observance, because they know that some observances were created anew by rabbis in Talmudic or later times. Knowing more of what the Rebbe said may help convince people (including my wife, b'ezrat Hashem!) that we should believe in and follow all the halacha and minhag of today. Reply

Mordechai Manchester, UK via July 4, 2011

To Rav Eliezer Zalmanov Thank you. The Rebbe clearly did as you said, but I am not sure what "contemporary advances" you could be referring to in the case of the Rambam. Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for July 3, 2011

To Mordechai The points you mention are debatable, but even if you are correct, it shouldn't change the fact that both the Rebbe and the Rambam encouraged people to use modernity and contemporary advances for spiritual purposes. Reply

Mordechai Manchester, UK via July 1, 2011

Rebbe = Rambam? It is no disrespect to either the Rebbe or the Rambam to note that their approach to Judaism is very different is several significant respects:
1. The relationship between Torah and Science, for example their interpretations of Bereshit Chaps 1 and 2 differ significantly. The Rebbe says it is a factual/historical account, not the Rambam.
2. The Rambam says that if science and Torah conflict your interpretation of Torah is incomplete. The Rebbe says that Science is wrong in that case.
3. The Rambam's views do not include segulot, looking for random messages in seferim, etc. Reply

Reb Buz Bogage Denver, CO/USA via June 29, 2011

R' Tokayer on the REBBE Thank you....for all your encounters with the East and the West...I, too, have had them.
BUT, even after such encounters, we live on and we are what we are.
Drishat Shalom and fond memories... Reply

Daniel Tavera Long Beach California, USA, CALIFORNIA June 5, 2011

Traditions Nevertheless, when is enough when we have enough traditions?
are we giving more importance to traditions than the observance of Tora? Reply

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