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.