By the Grace of G‑d

Sunday evening,

the 39th day of the Omer,1


[24 Iyar,] 5688 (1928)

To my beloved son3 and son-in-law:4

I sit here alone in my little room, my thoughts wandering here and there, while on the table before me stands the picture of your cute children. Fond memories of you all are with me always. My love for you rouses my heart, and my soul yearns to see you and speak with you face to face. But alas! We are separated by an iron curtain. In my mind I count the days since the time we last saw each other, during those last moments before we parted. Now, too, in my mind’s eye I see the tear-stained face of each of you and the feelings that filled your hearts at the time.

However, these memories and mental pictures not only fail to quench the thirst of my restless soul, or to extinguish the yearning fire that burns within me, but moreover, those memories intensify my longing to the point that I literally shudder with emotion. So, weary with sighing and seeking tranquility, I decided to take pen in hand. If it has not been granted me to speak to you by word of mouth, let me speak to you by letter, for thus I will always be able to free my soul by pouring out my words on paper before you. To you will I uncover the hidden recesses of my heart, and thus overcome the unrest of my soul and bring repose to my exhaustion.

I consider the days and the months, in the past, present and future, and realize that the months of Sivan and Tammuz are close upon us. I am seized by awesome trembling and my spirit is agitated, for those are the memorable months during which, last year, we witnessed wondrous miracles with our own eyes. And this year, those two months are the first months of our holy Rebbe’s years of redemption. Those are the months during which we witnessed the rescue of his soul, which he surrendered to the hands of G‑d for the sake of preserving His law and His Torah. In those months we saw darkness and gloom, but also light and joy.

I have decided not to allow this thought to pass by without acting on it. After all, I was the first person to behold the time of his anguish,5 and I was the first person who was privileged to see him at the moment of his liberation.6 I am therefore dutybound to fulfill the directive to “relate My exploits [in Egypt] to your son and to your son’s son.”7 My reward will be that on the first day of the two-day ongoing festival of Yud-Beis-Yud-Gimmel Tammuz, in the course of the big festive meal that will be held at the location in which the miracle took place,8 you, my dear children, will read out this scroll,9 and thus make warm mention of my name to my beloved brethren over there. This reading will bring merit upon me and will soothe my soul.

I trust that G‑d will stand by my words and thoughts, guarding my path from misplaced speech and keeping me free of error, so that my narration will be as acceptable to Him as offerings on the altar. The fact is that I have been requested more than once or twice to record in writing everything that I saw and heard. People earnestly desired to drink such words thirstily, because the purest and clearest river water is that which is nearest to its source in the wellspring. Moreover, we have been admonished by Shlomo Hamelech: “Do not withhold good from one who deserves it, when you have the power to act.”10

The doubt that troubles me from within is whether I am able to do this, for I am afraid that I may err in either omission or commission. The solution is simple: I shall now write whatever I know in the form of a letter addressed to my children, and I ask that you make it available to whoever seeks to read it. I will thus not be answerable to anyone. Whoever wants to criticize – that is his problem. No one is entitled to criticize a private letter written by a private individual to his own children. So I am covered.

And now for the narrative.

We chassidim, those of us who felt closest to the Rebbe, were already fearful from the beginning of that year, 5687. We had an ominous hint [during the awesome moments that preceded the Sounding of the Shofar] on the first day of Rosh HaShanah of that year.11 It came in the course of the verses that begin Min hameitzar… – “From the straits of distress I called to G‑d.”12 From the depths of the Rebbe’s heart, a loud and bitter sigh escaped his lips, with the Yiddish phrase, Ay gevald!13 (I think it was just before the plea, Al yaashkuni zeidim! – “Let the wicked not oppress me!”14 )

The sensitive hearts of the chassidim who heard that outcry were so pained by it that it was soon known and urgently discussed by most of those present in the Rebbe’s minyan. Everyone found it hard to accept calmly, because whoever was close to the Rebbe knew how vigilant he always was with his words, even in ordinary conversation: he never uttered a word that might shock or surprise a listener. That was the case at any time throughout the year. How much more astonishing was this outcry, that was uttered during the Days of Awe, on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, and in the midst of the verses that precede the Sounding of the Shofar! It was clear to all the chassidim that this was a portentous omen, and each of them nursed his dread in his own way, according to his emotional and intellectual perception.

I found out much later that this man of stature, the Rebbe himself, had experienced that fear from the beginning of the year 5687. Together with R. Michael Dvorkin, I heard this explicitly from his holy mouth in Kostrama, before the liberation.

These were his very words: “I was very much afraid about the year 5687. I did not consider that it related to me; I was thinking about the chassidim.”

He went on to tell me that he remembered that at the very end of a certain year (he did not recall which year), his holy father15 had said that he had been “eagerly awaiting the end of that year.”

He then resumed what he had been saying about his own fear of the year 5687: “I experienced great difficulty in finally issuing the directive that people should start reciting Tehillim.”

I asked him: “When did you first direct us to recite Tehillim?”

“On the day of Simchas Torah,” he replied.

As is well known by all the members of the chassidic fraternity who were present on that Simchas Torah, [early] in the year 5687, on that day he repeatedly requested and directed that in all the minyanim everywhere, the chassidim should read – specifically together with the congregation – the daily allotment of Tehillim according to the monthly cycle. This reading was to be followed by Kaddish.

I had asked him on that occasion if I would discharge my obligation by the Tehillim that I read every day before Shacharis.

He replied: “The Tehillim that is read before [the morning’s] davenen is connected to Tikkun Chatzos.”

All in all, the talks of the Rebbe on that Simchas Torah day, until the night, were pervaded by a spirit of bitterness, coming from a contrite and shattered heart.

Throughout the winter of the year 5687, heavy clouds hung over him and over all of Anash, though we did not know why. At that time in particular, the atmosphere in his home was charged with dread. By day and by night he gave himself no rest from his holy labors, even though, in all the seven years since he accepted the mantle of leadership in 5680 (1920),16 he had toiled at buttressing the practice of Yiddishkeit throughout the country, particularly by maintaining and establishing chadarim for children and yeshivos for youths, as is widely known. And through all that time, not a single day passed without an obstacle planted by the malicious band known as the “Bund,”17 or by the wicked sinners known as the Yevsektsia,18 who cut themselves off from all the tribes of Israel. It was they alone who obstructed his movements. It was those evildoers who dug pits before his every step by maligning him to the authorities with false accusations.

However, the G‑d of Avraham and Yitzchak stood by his right hand at every threatening moment to save him from those who would pass judgment over his soul. Thus, after all the tracking and monitoring by the government’s Politbureau and after all the activities of their henchmen, the Secret Service, they finally discovered that our Rebbe had no shadow of a link with anything to do with their politics. They finally realized that he opposed them in none of their affairs except for matters of Torah and mitzvos – which in fact should also not have concerned them, because there exists no law that allows the hounding of individuals or communities by coercing them to transgress the dictates of their religion. Indeed, if not for the Yevsektsia, which has spread like a plague in Jewish homes, then as far as the government itself was concerned, it would have been possible to teach G‑d’s Torah even in public and to observe His mitzvos without disguise.

Ultimately, those villains realized that they could not overpower the Rebbe and that G‑d stood by his side in whatever he did. They demolished the batei midrash, the mikvaos, the chadarim and the yeshivos – and he, utterly disregarding them, rebuilt the batei midrash, the mikvaos, the chadarim and the yeshivos. So, realizing their failure, they made a firm decision to simply remove him (Heaven forfend!) from this world. In order to implement their crooked plot, those blasphemers energetically fabricated unimaginably slanderous accusations that brought havoc and destruction upon G‑d’s community. May the name of evildoers rot! Their malicious fury intensified during the winter of 5687. At that time, as we later discovered, they held conspiratorial meetings and assembled files of falsified data with which they would be able to incriminate the Rebbe at an opportune moment.

It was during that same winter that his secretary, our dearly-loved friend R. Elchanan Dov Morozov, was arrested and imprisoned on a trumped-up charge,19 together with some other chassidim who were likewise guilty of nothing. The Yevsektsia had dispatched spies to participate in the festive meal held at his home on Yud-Tes Kislev. There, true to his custom, he shared time-honored teachings that would rouse the hearts of his fellow chassidim in their avodah – and those spies hoped that from his pure lips they would hear words that they could twist into the threads of a network that would ensnare him. Throughout that winter they monitored every person who entered and left his home. They counted his every step and, as we later found out, they knew almost every word that he spoke.

With his pure spirit, the Rebbe knew and sensed all of this. We, the closest chassidim, also knew, and we were afraid. That winter, in the first month of Adar, he took a train to Moscow to deal with matters of public concern, and I was at the station to see him off. When I entered his cabin to wish him well and to receive his blessings, he uttered these bitter words: “A chapter of Tehillim wouldn’t go amiss. Say a chapter of Tehillim for me!”

I shuddered at the sound of those words. They revealed to me that he lived in fear: he knew that he was endangering his life, but understood that he was obligated to be prepared for literal self-sacrifice. He had no substitutes on whom he could rely. All of us who observed what was happening clearly saw that it was he alone that saved and reconstructed the ruins of the House of Jacob in our country. If not for him, the Torah would have been forgotten by the Jews who live here, and if there is no […], there will be no wheat.20 All the chadarim in this country, together with their supporters and their teachers, survived only by virtue of his vigor and courage and self-sacrifice on their behalf.

On many occasions I heard him say, “I’m not engaging in the subjects that relate to me. I am meant to be studying and teaching Chassidus. That is what I was directed to do. All the public activities that relate to Yiddishkeit and religious matters should have a special committee comprising the rabbanim, the religious leaders of their respective communities. It is they who are obligated to undertake this task.”

More than once or twice in the course of his [first] seven years as Rebbe, he convened meetings of the leading rabbanim in the main towns and pleaded with them that they should assume responsibility for this holy work. He undertook to help them whenever he was called upon – provided that they saw it as their task to provide our unfortunate brethren with batei midrash, chadarim for children, yeshivos for youths, and mikvaos. However, to his bitter disappointment, not a single one of them consented to take up the challenge. Indeed, some even stipulated that their names not be mentioned, so that it should never become known (G‑d forbid) that they had some connection with such matters.

The fact is that it’s hard to criticize them – and certainly to judge them harshly – for their reluctance. After all, they were afraid to approach this work since they knew that the danger awaiting them on account of the accursed Yevsektsia could literally cost them their lives.

Thus it was that in the end, the Rebbe was obliged – against his will – to bear that entire burden singlehanded,21 and to endanger his pure soul at every single moment. This was literal self-sacrifice, and he certainly had no desire for it. You, my precious ones, together with me heard from his holy mouth about the contrast between the self-sacrifice of Avraham Avinu and of R. Akiva. Avraham Avinu did not seek self-sacrifice: he sought only to make the Name of G‑d known throughout the world and to fulfill His commands. With him, mesirus nefesh was incidental, whereas R. Akiva actively desired it.22 The Rebbe did not desire it at all. However, in order to save the situation, so that the Torah should not (G‑d forbid) be forgotten from the House of Israel, he readied himself – albeit unwillingly – for the actual self-sacrifice that this would entail. Day after day he underwent great fear on account of his activities. He clearly knew all about their consequences and was prepared for them in the winter of 5687 (1927), as is obvious from the maamar that he delivered in Moscow which begins with the words VeKibeil HaYehudim.23 In that discourse he explicitly stated that specifically in the era of exile, when “darkness covers the earth”24 with veils and obstacles that obstruct the study of Torah, Jews are empowered from Above to transform the darkness into light. Indeed, it is when their bruised hearts are crushed by suffering that the innermost essence of their souls comes to light. This takes place by virtue of “the children whom G‑d has given me,”25 when little schoolchildren are gathered together in great numbers and are taught Torah. This is the root and source of everything. Self-sacrifice is the ultimate purpose of the era of exile, which is thereby refined and elevated.

My dear ones, you no doubt recall how our emotions were aroused at the time, and the fear that we experienced after hearing that maamar with its explicit talk of “actual self-sacrifice.” During that winter his enemies came out against him – not only from the left, but also people from the right undermined him secretly, such as the softly-spoken “head of the community” of Leningrad,26 who craftily sought to win his trust in the summer of 5685 (1925). He claimed that he desired to rebuild the ruins of the House of Jacob in our country; he had observed that the state of neglect and regression in religious matters was worsening daily; and their last vestiges were now also in jeopardy. This head of his community declared that he was therefore bestirred to visit all the major towns in our country, to consult with all the leading rabbis and communal leaders and to rouse them from their slumbers. Moreover, he had undertaken to secure a governmental permit to convene in Leningrad a nationwide Rabbinical conference, or, as they called it, a nationwide community conference.27 He was certain beyond all doubt that he would secure this permit, as provided for in the national constitution. After all, the authorities had already granted such a permit to the gentile priests in Moscow. They duly convened and introduced reforms in their creed, whereas we Jews, this man argued, are so afraid that we sit idly and do nothing for the benefit of our religion!

Now the fact is that this communal leader did not observe mitzvos, was not Orthodox, ate treif food, desecrated Shabbos, and shaved his beard. Nevertheless, he considered himself to be ideologically impeccable, believing in G‑d and His Torah, and loving his people and his religion with his whole heart. As proof for this, he cited the fact that he had been elected chairman of Leningrad’s so-called “religious” community council. Not only that, but his views were always identical with those of the head of Leningrad’s rabbinical court, Rabbi D[avid] T[evel] [Katzenelenbogen].28 Surely, he claimed, all of the above testified to his credibility and to his noble intentions. Moreover, he himself was a lawyer, and as such was familiar with all the laws of the land.

In his opinion, the nationwide conference should be held not in Moscow, which might have been expected since it was the capital city and also closer to all the towns where Jews lived. He held that Leningrad should be preferred, because of its traditional precedence in nationwide Jewish matters – and also out of courtesy to the aged Rabbi D. T. and to his impious self, who headed Leningrad’s community council.

Thus, with smooth and cunning talk, he hoped to deceive our Rebbe just as he had succeeded in winning the support of his local [upright but gullible] rabbi. This of course was not going to happen, because here he encountered the wide-open eyes of one to whom G‑d had granted a pure heart and a clear and holy mind, and who therefore did not believe that pure, life-giving waters could issue from an impure wellspring.

However, the Rebbe did not want to broadcast the deceptiveness of these people to Jewry at large, so, rising above it, he answered: “By nature, I believe everyone, likewise what you describe, as utterly pure. Nevertheless, at first glance I am not in favor – though without detailed reasons – of what you propose. At the same time, I do not want to reject it only on the basis of ‘a lack of desire,’ as did my revered father, the Rebbe [Rashab].”

The Rebbe [Rayatz] explained his meaning by telling the chairman of a meeting that once took place in Warsaw between the Gerer Rebbe, the Radzyminer Rebbe and the Rebbe Rashab. (Their souls repose in Eden, and may their merit protect us!) They were debating the issue of the tzens,29 which the Polish government was imposing on the rabbis at the time, but before the Rebbe Rashab had heard all the arguments in favor, he stated explicitly that he was utterly opposed to the idea.

When he was asked for his reasons, his first answer was the expressive phrase, “I don’t feel like it.”30

The Gerer Rebbe queried: “Lubavitcher Rebbe! Are you basing your answer on that?”

“Yes,” replied the Rebbe Rashab. “I’m basing myself on my first unknowing thought, my ‘not feeling like it,’ because from my childhood I habituated all the 248 organs of my body not to desire whatever the Torah forbids. Likewise, I habituated every single organ to be a willing vessel that would desire to fulfill whatever mitzvah related to it. Through repeated practice, this became impressed in my body and became natural to it – to the point that I believe that if my body has no desire for something, then it should in fact not be desired.”31

Out of humility, the Rebbe [Rayatz] concluded by saying, “I won’t give the answer that my father did. However,” he added, “according to mortal reason, it would be most dangerous to hold a nationwide conference at this time. It would give rise to more damage than benefit, and it’s a pity that it was proposed in the first place. I have no objection to brotherly discussions involving the learned rabbis and the communal leaders, provided they are conducted without being publicly convened.”

[A few days later the Rebbe was visited by Shachnovitch, another member of the community council,] who asked the Rebbe to play a role in the Leningrad community, and to publish a manifesto against the organization called Azet.32

The Rebbe answered: “I never intervened and never got enmeshed in the affairs of the town I lived in. That’s not my business. Look: in Rostov, the city I now came from, I did not become involved in its communal affairs. And as to Azet, I don’t know exactly what it is; it is still unfamiliar to me.”

The chairman of the Leningrad community council and Shachnovitch wanted to have the Azet condemned by the Rebbe because, as Zionists, they fought against any settlement projects in the Diaspora. They cleverly sought to have him align himself with them, though they were not at all interested in his reasons for opposing Azet, namely, that in its colonies there was no beis midrash, no cheder, no rav, no shochet and no mikveh. Besides, they raised pigs and publicly desecrated Shabbos and Yom-Tov. For these reasons he strongly opposed Azet in its negative manifestations – but at the same time he held out hope for its colonies and dispatched emissaries to build batei midrash, mikvaos and chadarim, and also sent out shochtim. When they arrived at their respective destinations, their work on behalf of the local farmers was obstructed by the wicked hands of the Yevsektsia,33 whose aim was “to make them forget your Torah and violate the decrees of G‑d’s will.”34

From that time,35 the Leningrad community waged war against the Rebbe. The difference between the sides was that the Rebbe conducted himself with artless truth: the good words of his tongue always echoed the good feelings of his heart, and he made a point of speaking publicly and overtly. The wily representatives of the Leningrad community, by contrast, succeeded with their dishonest talk in deceiving many rabbis and their congregations. Officially, they declared that they aspired to advance the cause of religion by promoting the provision of kosher meat, the construction of mikvaos, and so on. In fact, however, the ideological platform worded by the committee that was headed by Shachnovitch spelled out the truth: they planned to establish a rabbinical seminary with an innovative creed, houses of prayer with a new siddur, and other novel projects in defiance of the Torah.

Once their real plans were unmasked by the G‑d-fearing townsmen of Leningrad, the community council became a cauldron of controversy between two camps: the chairman and the other non-observant members numbered about thirteen, leaving only ten Torah-observant members. All controversial religious issues were decided by a majority vote, and by the time the crucial question of the nationwide community conference was raised, the observant council members were aware of the danger it entailed and had learned that it was soon to receive a governmental permit. They also found out that in his recent countrywide tour, the chairman of the council had met and invited to the community conference only the Zionists and the non-observant people of every town. Likewise, only such delegates constituted the committee that had been elected by a majority vote. Not a single seat was available for any G‑d-fearing delegate.

They therefore feared that since they were part of the local community council and their names were associated with it, not only would they accomplish nothing because they were always outvoted, but in addition, their continued membership could cause untold damage. Relying on their conspicuous presence in the local council, people at large would be misled to assume that all of its decisions were pure and holy.

Accordingly, all of the G‑d-fearing members of Leningrad’s local community council decided to resign from it en bloc. This they announced on the day that the question of the nationwide community conference came up for the vote. “From now on,” their spokesman said, “you will be unable to delude the Jewish populace by falsely describing this community council as ‘religious,’ when you have usurped this term from us, the religious members. Would you have the Jews of Leningrad believe that individuals who eat treif food and desecrate Shabbos are really concerned about the provision of kosher meat and the construction of mikvaos?! Let people know that the Name of G‑d is unconnected to you. We shall see it as our duty to disclose your false pretences in every beis midrash and in every shul!”

This they did without delay. The Jews of Leningrad at large, and its observant citizens in particular, soon heard that their ten G‑d-fearing representatives had stood up in a manly fashion and were not prepared to swallow the accustomed insults to their religious beliefs. At a mass gathering which was held in one of the city’s synagogues [the next Sunday morning at 10:00 AM and which continued until Minchah time], those representatives explained what kind of unfair conduct had compelled them to resign and roused their hearts with their fiery eloquence.

These were the words of the first speaker:

“We, the ten representatives who were elected by you, the G‑d-fearing Jewish townsmen of Leningrad, want to thank you for the honor that you bestowed upon us by placing your trust in us. The Sages teach that it may be presumed that an agent carries out his mission. Accordingly, you have relied on us and have assumed that we will no doubt be vigilantly on the watch for anything impure. Now, painfully, we have been forced to resign from the local council, because every step taken by its chairman and by […] has defied G‑d and His Torah. In every holy matter we found ourselves in the opposition, and we were constantly overruled by a majority of thirteen to ten. The Torah directs that when the opinions of judges are divided, one must ‘follow the majority’ – but how could we observe that directive when this would mean contravening the word of G‑d?

“So by publicly resigning, we for our part have preserved the integrity of our souls. But as for you, we are obligated to let you know that the proposed nationwide community conference entails dangerous consequences, which have been initiated by the local council. The proposed conference is destined to distance the Jewish people from G‑d’s Torah and from carrying out His will!

“It is now up to you, our honored fellow townsmen, to do as you understand.”

The response was immediate. There was a unanimous expression of gratitude to the ten former representatives, and it was decided to establish a religious council that would be religious in fact and not only by name. A tentative committee was elected and charged with drawing up a platform and submitting it to the authorities for a permit.

These events fiercely enraged the chairman of the local council. [On the very same evening of the above-described gathering,] he called a meeting [in his home]. There he took an oath, together with some of his like-minded colleagues, such as Leon Rabinovitch, a former editor of HaMelitz,36 whose pen name was Ish Yehudi (“a Jewish man”), to take their revenge on the G‑d-fearing Jews. Knowing how highly esteemed the Rebbe [Rayatz] was in their eyes, they furiously attacked him and his chassidim, both overtly and in stealth.37 Their stratagem was to distract attention from their real aim and to cloak their attack in a controversy that by this time was no longer significant – as if this were a controversy between chassidim and misnagdim.

Many gullible people believed them. Thus, the target on whom they focused was the aged Rabbi Katzenelenbogen, whom they deluded by fabricating slanders, alleging that the chassidim hated him and insulted him behind his back. May G‑d grant him long and pleasant years, but in his weak old age he was impressed by their smooth talk. In this way they succeeded in cleaving a rift between him and the Rebbe [Rayatz] – between two figures who for decades had seen eye to eye on every holy subject. The council members worked so skillfully that “the way of the wicked prospered.”38 The controversy grew more intense, as they succeeded in making the aged rabbi envy the intense love that was felt for the Rebbe on account of his prolific activities – on account of the thousands of children whose Torah-true education G‑d had entrusted to his hands in the chadarim that he established; the hundreds of youths who studied in the yeshivos that he founded and maintained and who would eventually disseminate Torah; the regular study sessions in Gemara, Ein Yaakov and Midrash in numerous Houses of Study; and the establishment of mikvaos in every town.

His opponents could not deny any of this ongoing activity: they witnessed it all with their own eyes. The council’s hatred and enmity flared greater. However, not only were the two sides of unequal power, but in addition, the tactics that were employed by the two sides in this contest were very far from similar.

The G‑d-fearing minority could take no action publicly, because they did not yet have any governmental permit. Moreover, though penniless, they could not raise funds because that, too, required a permit. Above all they were under orders from the Rebbe to pursue peace: no one was to dare to write anything against the opposition; they were to keep their distance from controversy; no one was to take the slightest action without first having stated his intention in the presence of three of his colleagues; and they were to seek only the welfare of their opponents, in the hope that those opponents might regret their exploits and repent from their evil ways. Thus the G‑d-fearing minority had no weapons apart from observing these directives – to be wary of harm and to distance themselves from their attackers.

Very different were the tactics of the community council. They were authorized by the government to appoint rabbis and shochtim, to collect charitable funds, and to publish protests that were disseminated throughout Russian Jewry and defamed and tormented their G‑d-fearing brethren. Their abusive slanders soon reached the evil henchmen of the Yevsektsia, who joined forces with them. At first they helped the community council secretly, and soon after, in order to further their malicious agenda, they enlisted the help of the Politbureau which summoned many rabbis to its offices. There, efforts were made to persuade them that they would benefit by participating in the nationwide community conference, rather than following the counsel of Rabbi Schneersohn. Some of the poorer rabbis were offered traveling expenses, but then they had to sign a document affirming that they would never tell anyone of their present interview – on pain of death, according to the conventions of that time and place.

The aim of the Yevsektsia was to have the local council introduce religious reforms, just as the local Christians had introduced changes. However, since the Yevsektsia knew well that the rabbis would oppose even the slightest compromises in the faith of Israel, they themselves were afraid that if this aim of theirs were made public at the community conference, the entire purpose of the conference would be revealed. At the same time, they also realized that if the Rebbe could be deflected from his path, the conference would be held and they could hopefully execute their plan. In fact, the local council of Moscow, which was headed by pious Jews, withdrew from their intention of participating in the conference after they found out who spawned it and after they also heard that the Rebbe was opposed to it. Exactly the same happened in Minsk.

On the other hand, many people in the Jewish townships who heard of the conference mistakenly believed that the Rebbe approved of the chairman’s itinerary. After all, wherever he went he deceitfully claimed that before setting out he had met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe and had secured his consent. Those who doubted his claim asked the Rebbe by mail for his stance in this subject. Others, knowing no details of the proposed conference, and imagining that the House of Jacob was now experiencing “the beginning of the Redemption,”39 wrote to the Rebbe and innocently asked that he inform them of its program and when it would be held….

The Rebbe, for his part, after thoroughly investigating the proposed conference and the unrighteous people who were organizing it, refrained in his humility from publicizing his opposition and from voicing his protest until he had convened a meeting in his home of all the leading rabbis of the country. That was in the month of Cheshvan, 5686 (late 1925). There, too, rather than taking a lead and revealing his opinion, he asked that they debate the question earnestly from every positive and negative aspect, and told them that after hearing their conclusions he would speak last.

Throughout three days and nights they conducted their extensive investigations and discussions which involved the organizers, the Leningrad community, and its chief rabbi. Though they concluded unanimously that theoretically it would have been better if the proposal had never arisen,. Eruvin 13b. there were differences of opinion as to how they should relate to it, now that the proposal was a reality. The principled sages among them, who could see the future danger lurking behind the planned community conference, decided not to cooperate with it even for a moment, and to foil its plans wherever possible. Others, less zealous, held that once it was a fact they should participate, in an endeavor to secure a majority of G‑d-fearing delegates and thus to make the best of the situation. Moreover, the latter group held that it would be dangerous to boycott the conference. Their argument was that the secularists would then join hands with the other organizers and together they would pass heretical resolutions which would be sanctioned by the authorities and would then have to be obeyed by the G‑d-fearing Jews.

The Rebbe spoke last: “Without hesitation, I uphold the view of those who say that ‘it would have been better if it had never been created.’243 Now that it has arisen, I hope to G‑d that it will not materialize. However, if (Heaven forfend!) it does, then we shall not participate in it, our souls shall have no part in that assemblage,40 and ‘he who safeguards his soul will keep his distance from them.’41 I utterly oppose the view that we should try to become the majority in the hope that the resolutions will accord with our majority opinion. It would be dangerous for us to become thus entangled on the strength of a doubtful situation, for the Halachah rules that when a doubtful situation involves the possible transgression of a prohibition explicitly stated in the Torah, one must follow the stringent view.42 Moreover, ‘one may not take action [by altering the proportions in a combination of permitted and prohibited substances in order] to render the prohibited component permissible.’43 Furthermore, ‘even if outnumbered to the extent of one in a thousand, a living being can never be regarded as non-existent.’44 And in our case it is almost certain that whoever enters the proposed conference will not leave it unharmed.”45

Exactly those words I heard from his holy lips in his railway compartment (his son-in-law was also present) while we were traveling from Kostrama to Leningrad on Friday morning, 16 Tammuz. The conference was then about to come to light – or rather, darkness.

This is what the Rebbe said at that time, verbatim, letter by letter: “I earnestly hope that this move will never materialize, that there will confusion among them and that the conference will not take place. But if (G‑d forbid) it does get off the ground, ten buckets of water will not suffice to wash it off anyone who touches it!”

In the course of the above meeting in his home, the Rebbe, truly “pursuing peace,”46 asked some of the leading rabbis present to visit Rabbi D[avid] T[evel] [Katzenelenbogen],47 the chief rabbi of Leningrad, and to speak with him at length. The aim was to apprise him of the great danger that the proposed conference entailed, and to show him that he was being misled by the godless activists who planned it. The rabbis duly did as requested, but to the Rebbe’s deep distress, they failed to achieve their aim. Worse, their visit fanned the fires of jealousy within him, as he observed the Rebbe’s dynamism and self-sacrifice for every holy goal. He saw that in the midst of the prevailing darkness, the Rebbe had the power by a single invitation to summon together at one time all the dominant rabbis of the major towns, and they arrived without fear. Thus, the more he realized the extent of the Rebbe’s authority throughout the entire country, the more his hatred grew. Nevertheless, for the sake of the impression it would make, and as a courtesy to the visiting rabbis, he called a local meeting at which they would meet the organizers of the proposed “community conference.”

To this day, the memory of that awesome meeting stands alive before me. Some of the rabbis present asked the chairman of the Leningrad community council to reveal to them the real goals of the community conference. They argued that without knowing its agenda or its concealed aims and without a preliminary meeting, they would not be able to participate.

“Obviously,” they argued, “neither ‘kosher meat’ nor ‘kosher mikvaos,’ though flaunted in your publicity, are your real motives for convening this countrywide conference! After all, every G‑d-fearing rabbi can attend to those problems in his own town, without resorting to mass assemblages. We beg you: let us know what you are hiding!”

These words, proceeding from the heart, had such an effect on the chairman’s colleagues that they could not contain themselves. Against his will, they revealed their carefully-obscured motives – not kosher meat and mikvaos because, they explained, “those are private matters, in which every individual is entitled to decide for himself whether he prefers meat that is kosher or meat that is treif. Likewise, whether a mikveh contains – or doesn’t contain – [the halachically-required minimal volume of] 40 se’ah of water, it’s all the same to us. Our real agenda,” they said plainly, “is schools and education. We want to introduce reforms in the schools in accordance with the spirit of the age. That is what will save Jewish children from the Komsomol.48 It is difficult today to continue with the outdated schooling that our forefathers gave us, with unsophisticated teachers who were not professionally-trained pedagogues, and without a proper curriculum. This is a new age. Today we need new people, new teachers – and a new Torah!”

The moment those poisoned words ended, the most esteemed of the rabbis stood up and thundered eloquently: “Now, at long last, we know clearly that the proposed community conference presents us with a dangerous threat. Your plan was to seat us there against our will; instead, we have now discovered how to combat it!”

In a tone of rebuke, he went on to demonstrate to all those assembled that this new agenda would ruin Jewish youth and lead them to the brink of assimilation.

He declared with emotion: “The people of Israel, and the Torah, and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one and the same!”49

He continued: “They are eternal! Moreover, Avraham Avinu was one man against the many!”

With that he broke down in bitter tears – and literally fainted. There was an immediate upheaval. The chairman jumped up from his seat to bring some water. And those fiery words were so powerful that the meeting broke up without passing a single resolution.

After such a meeting, the rabbis who participated felt that it was their obligation to inform the chief rabbi of what they had heard from the organizers of the conference. They earnestly warned him that lending it the sanction of his highly-reputed name would mislead all the well-meaning and G‑d-fearing Jews. The rabbis therefore advised him: if it was beyond his power to halt the preparations and the invitations and to annul the conference altogether, then at least he could save his own soul by withdrawing his name and his auspices from it. Otherwise, they warned, he would be transgressing the prohibition to place an obstacle in the path of a blind man!50

Regrettably, however, this time too he was overwhelmed by his jealousy and his hatred. He rejected their pleas. His excuse was that the speakers at the meeting had expressed only their own private views, and did not reflect the official stance of the worthy council. He sought to prove this by pointing out that the words had not been spoken by the chairman personally, and surely the council could not be held responsible for oral statements that it no doubt objected to.

Out of deference to the hoary rabbi’s age and dignity, they overlooked the teaching of the Sages that “wherever the Name of Heaven is being desecrated, one is not obligated to defer to the honor of a sage.”51 They entreated him at least to convene a preliminary meeting of rabbis, to be invited at his discretion, at which he could take counsel on this weighty matter and then decide whether this was an appropriate time for the conference to be held, and whether more would be lost by it than gained.

This proposal, too, he rejected angrily: “Will those rabbis come along in response to my invitation?! You folk live in the shadow of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who has the power to summon and convene; he invited you and you came. My invitation will go out in vain!”

At that point, having duly warned and protested, the visiting rabbis took their leave and went their various ways.

The differences of opinion remained unresolved and the central question remained open until the month of Sivan, 5687 (1927). One party not only supported the proposed conference, but maintained moreover that it would create a great moment for the Jews, who would thereby gain a spiritual redemption. With their godless fire they incited their followers against the chassidim and their rabbis. They urged all the Russian communities by mail to stand ready for the big conference, and promised that as soon as they received the permit, they would notify everyone of the date. Their letters concluded exuberantly with a grateful blessing of Shehecheyanu “for the benevolence shown from Above.” Thus, in an orderly fashion, they exchanged greetings and circularized all the communities.

That was what was done publicly and visibly. At exactly the same time, however, the chairman and a few of his close collaborators sent out confidential letters to a few select non-believers in every city. There they stated the real aims of the conference and accordingly urged the recipients to exercise discretion when judiciously choosing the delegates from their respective cities.

Thus, on the one hand they held forth about the provision of kosher meat, rabbanim, shochtim, mikvaos and the like, and the importance of buttressing religious observance. On the other hand, at the very same time they secretly scorned “the outmoded customs that did not suit the spirit of the age”; they decried the leader of the G‑d-fearing camp as “an extremist zealot”; and they called for “a new education” and “extensive reforms” in defiance of time-honored tradition.

As these contradictory messages were disseminated, every town immediately split into two camps, the G‑d-fearing Jews and the non-observant secularists. The rabbis stood in the middle, between these two pillars of fire, in utter confusion.

On the one hand, the “comprehensive religious conference” was being organized by the religious council of Leningrad, which was headed by its chief rabbi – Rabbi David Tevel Katzenelenbogen, no less. Surely, many people thought, the sanction of that illustrious name was an unimpeachable guarantee that the proposed conference would bear sweet fruits!

On the other hand, they were perplexed. If everything was so promising, why were all the staunchly devout rabbinical leaders keeping their distance? Where was the Lubavitcher Rebbe? After all, on his shoulders alone he now bore the burden of rehabilitating the ruins of the House of Jacob by rescuing the Torah and its mitzvos from their attackers. Risking his life, literally and constantly, it was he who built and established yeshivos and chadarim in every town. And if his influence reached even remote communities, then surely it should be even more powerful in Leningrad, the city in which he himself lived!

Why, then, many communal rabbis wondered, do we neither see nor hear anything from him on this subject? How is it possible that only the secular and the Establishment Jews have taken hold of this mitzvah and seek to observe it more eagerly than the rest of Jewry? Hence, those communal rabbis concluded, the sanctimonious publicity for this conference no doubt cloaks a mysterious subtext.

Their perplexity was shared by many G‑d-fearing Jews throughout the country. Even those who wrote from their various towns asking the Rebbe to clarify this riddle and give them guidance received no answer. His reason, as above, was that he consistently sought paths of peace and love, in the hope that by gentle means the chief rabbi of Leningrad could be persuaded to recheck his bearings. Besides, the Rebbe still hoped that the conference might not take place.

Early in the month of Teves, the news spread that the organizers were dispatching eloquent representatives to the major congregations throughout the country, in order to promote the conference by addressing them from the pulpit. At this point some of the leading rabbinic figures requested the Rebbe to clarify his stance on this subject, at least to some of the bigger communities – because the wily organizers of the conference had convinced some of the farflung communities that the Rebbe had given his approval to their plans! Those leading rabbinic figures pointed out to the Rebbe that in the absence of a written disclaimer from him, they would be utterly unable to counter the designs of the Leningrad community council. They were afraid that they would be ignored by the remote communities, which would innocently go ahead and dispatch delegates to the conference.

Finally, in response to their entreaties, the Rebbe sent out a letter52 on 5 Teves, which I am reproducing below, verbatim:

Baruch HaShem
Tuesday, 5 Teves, 5686 [1925]

Greetings and blessings!

Basing himself on one of the regulations of the Leningrad congregation – that allows it to participate in a general conference convened by another religious congregation and likewise to convene a general conference of such congregations – its chairman proposed to call a general conference at which other congregations would also voice their opinions. That proposal was accepted.

An acquaintance of mine told me the above, and in response I told him that I am opposed to a general conference, in any manner, regardless of the preamble that was used to introduce it. It could (G‑d forbid) bring about harmful and undesirable results, and I have no doubt that many of those who are faithful to G‑d and the Torah and our faith, and who love our true brothers, are unequivocally opposed to it.

As word of the proposed conference became widespread, I received numerous letters from various places, almost all of which expressed significant doubts. All of them concluded that it would be best if it did not eventuate. As for myself, even though – as above – I am strongly and clearly opposed to a general conference of any kind, I did not find it necessary to publicize my stance, because I had not yet seen the direction of the winds that propel this proposal.

However, I then read letter after letter that naively stated that since the proposal to convene such a conference came from the congregation of Leningrad, the writer believed that it was no doubt to be held with my participation or approval. I then heard that in this spirit, when the initiator of the idea was asked in various communities what was my view on this matter, he had explicitly answered that we shared the same view, like brothers! (I was amazed that questions of principle could be allowed to rest on mere guesswork, or on words said in my name by people who are not in harmony with me in spirit nor in deed.)

Accordingly, for the good of our fellow Jews, the clear truth demands that I make my view public: the convening of the general conference is dangerous to everyone. The spring from which it wells forth is undeniably impure. I am utterly opposed to calling any kind of general conference of any kind, and likewise to calling a preliminary meeting to discuss a general conference. I see undesirable consequences arising from it, Heaven forfend.

I therefore call upon every individual who reads this letter, or who hears these words, to kindly pass them on to his friends and acquaintances, and then from one friend to the next, so that it will be widely known – that I have absolutely no connection of any kind with the members of the Leningrad community council that created the notion of convening this general conference. I am utterly opposed to a general conference of any kind and the Leningrad community council has no right to take this responsibility upon itself. All the members of the religious congregations are undoubtedly opposed to it likewise.

The Leningrad community council is now in the process of securing a permit for a preliminary meeting of several religious councils in order to discuss the question of whether or not a general conference is needed. I hereby call upon every religious council to elect delegates to that preliminary meeting, whose spirit and aspirations and activities are appropriate to a council that is truly religious. Thus, if a permit is in fact secured for the holding of a preliminary meeting, those delegates will fulfill their responsibilities in good faith and will declare their opinion, which any thinking man can understand – that we have no need for a general conference, and in fact even the preliminary discussion of it was superfluous – so that no vestige of it will remain.

Every man of understanding who loves his people and his faith, and who is familiar with the workings of public affairs for the good of the Jewish people, will himself understand whose view should be adopted and whose view should be spurned.

May G‑d grant His people strength and bless them with peace. May He grant the entire House of Israel abundant blessings, both spiritual and material.

With a threefold blessing,