This article first appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News, June 2, 1994.

My beloved friend and teacher, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson:

These are the same words, I see, with which I began a letter to you almost 20 years ago. Your response — both piercing and generous — also lies before me. It is part of a packet of letters from you, carefully preserved except for one small corner of blank paper given to an importuning woman who thought it would convey a blessing.

I do not expect a response to this letter. For as I write it, you lie in a coma with medical bulletins becoming graver by the moment.

All is still now waiting. Even the cacophony of chants heralding "our master, our teacher, the king Messiah," and the responding antiphony of mocking smiles and comments in the press, are stilled. I ask myself, as many thousands — for yours remains a spiritual realm stretching over every continent — also ask, is there is some appropriate word I can offer? It would, of course, have to be an utterly unauthoritive word. For not only am I unable to call myself a hasid. I am also, or have been throughout my professional life, among those lightly respected — to put it mildly — by your followers: namely, a Reform rabbi.

Yet, I have this packet of personal letters from you. So, it occurs to me, precisely because I am somewhat of an outsider, that my words and the letters may catch the interest of some to whom news reports about rebbes and messiahs seem too quaint for serious attention.

Also, outsiders can permit themselves to say things that a hasid would try to not even think. I refer to the cloud of unknowing that has recently enveloped the truly wondrous light and power of Lubavitch — a cloud manifested by controversy over holy mysteries like the messiah and unholy mysteries about internecine power struggles. Could, I wonder, these letters offer a glimpse of the Lubavitcher rebbe before all that began? Perhaps the fact that similar letters must have been received by thousands, their very ordinariness, makes the power of that light even more impressive.

As to the letters — not all of them were responses to my inquiries. One, when my mother died, was utterly unexpected both in its arrival and its form. It came in several stapled pages — the first, on a half sheet, was a simple, brief expression of sympathy. Then came three, full-length stenographic pages: "I deliberately separate these sections," you wrote, "lest you feel that I am taking advantage of your grief."

These latter pages were instructions for confronting the death of a dear one.

The word death is avoided by hasidim for it implies a reality that does not exist. But you were not interested in sending me philosophical meditations about the meaning of death. Rather, ma'aseh ikar — what do you do — the concrete life response that was the burden of your message. Then you told me what a person's response should be, basing your advice, as always, on quotations from the sages.

When I began writing this letter, I had not planned any references to the message you sent me when my mother died. But, as you point out to me in a later letter: "There are times when a person prophesies and doesn't know that he is prophesying."

So I wonder now — does the unplanned excursion of my words offer a message to the waiting stillness of this moment — to those who may soon be mourners for one with whom their soul is utterly bound up?

I leave that question, for the moment, to reveal the contents of the other letter, which, though written 20 years ago, deals with the subject topmost in the consciousness of your followers namely, leadership. For the question they and many others are asking is: If the messiah once again tarry, who will take your place as rebbe?

By definition, a hasid is the follower of a rebbe. The rebbe's soul contains the soul knots of all his followers; indeed, though they may not know it, of all Jews. Therefore, by untying their knots, he can help them achieve the tikun — the repair, that will allow shefa, life sustaining blessings — flow into their lives. That is why nothing of consequence in the large network of educational institutions that you have caused to be built on every continent, nothing in the life of an individual hasid, moves without your blessing. No wonder these months of your paralysis, your followers literally walk about like groggy, bewildered sheep.

You discuss in this letter your own leadership, the leadership of a rebbe.

Years ago, we had discussed that very question in your study. I was young, naive, almost disrespectful — a reporter trying for a story. I reread now my questions and your gentle answers.

Question: How did you become a rebbe?

Answer: What do you do if they put the key in your pocket and walk away? Permit the books to be stolen?

Question: Is a rebbe a human being like the rest of us, or something else?

Answer: We are, of course, all of us flesh and blood, and I am not responsible for all the stories in your heart. But yes, a rebbe can have special insight, see things and know things beyond the comprehension of most people.

Question: What about the rebbe's blessing?

Answer: It is possible for the tzadik, the rebbe, to awaken powers slumbering within a man. It is possible to bring him into contact with a higher level of powers outside his own soul.

And I reread now your response to the question that has become the question of this hour.

Question: Doesn't the power of the Lubavitcher movement stem from the faith of the hasid in his rebbe?

Answer: I am not so sure.

I accepted your response as an observation of truth from one who should know, and went on to search for other secrets of the Lubavitch success story.

Some of the reasons offered me as explanation for this success were rather prosaic — a flair for organization like bus arrangements for schools, aesthetic publications, skilled media manipulation extending to satellite shots of Hannuka celebrations on every continent. This skill in organization also extended to study of the mystic doctrines that are at the heart of Lubavitcher hasidism.

This same flair for organization characterized your relationships with thousands of followers and fellow travelers. I am a witness. Though a Reform rabbi, no event of consequence occurred in my professional or private life without notice from you, even if that attention consisted of a few pieces of honey cake delivered to my home on the eve of the High Holy Days. I gave them to my family and we ate them joyfully, believingly. Like me, there were, of course, thousands. Many of us were, consequently, eager to be the "rebbe's man" if some communal situation arose in which you wanted something to happen.

Thus, while my Reform organization opposed it I became an advocate for prayer in the public schools. Did I do this because I believed in it, or because you believed in it? Had I become influenced, as my colleagues officially decreed, by a "cult"? I don't think so. But though I did not become a hasid, my own liberal religious grouping seemed to me more and more like a cult — an aberration in an historic Jewish sense — than your followers. And like these followers, I came to think that the power of a tzadik to facilitate connections with the On High had roots in Judaism stretching back to Moses. So, from time to time, I turned to you for advice and a blessing.

At one of these turnings in the form of a letter, the subject of a rebbe's leadership arose. Introducing my own accounting of soul as a response to the question asked of Adam by G‑dAyecka — which Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of the Lubavitcher dynasty, takes to mean, where are you in terms of your life meaning, I went on to write the following words whose chutzpa still abashes me:

I'm afraid I have the impertinence to think of you as a human being who, while accepting his task as a very important leader in Israel, also has a private world with private "accounts." I even think of you as one who also asks himself from time to time, "Where am I?" and receives answers that make him wonder. For such occasions in your life, I want to add to the scales of your accounting, the very real gratitude and love of Herbert Weiner.

You replied only a week later. Limitations of space prevent me from revealing here the totality of your reply, but here are some portions:

"I appreciate the kind sentiments expressed in your letter. But I am mindful of the dictum of our sages of the Talmud (B.M. end of page 84A) to the effect that compliments and approbations, however justified, do not help to clarify issues, whereas a question or challenge, requiring an answer or explanation, can be more helpful to bring out important practical points and elucidations...

"There is no need, of course, to point out to you that when the question Ayecka is raised, it is likely to refer to the individual and his immediate family, while the same question put to a person of influence and communal responsibility... the question calls for an assessment as to where he stands and what he has accomplished in the public domain..."

The rebbe then expresses his conviction that efforts to win over the younger generation by offering them a diluted Judaism are self defeating for that "generation is not afraid of a challenge even if it should entail radical change and great hardship ...."

"I speak," the rebbe goes on, "of living Yiddishkeit in daily life and conduct in terms of actual observance ...not the kind of Judaism that is practiced on certain occasions, or on certain days of the year, but every day, until the habit becomes second nature....

"Now a word about my Ayecka to which you refer at the end of your letter. Certainly it includes all that has been said above, and more. I wonder what were the 'practical' results of our meeting and discussion with you and your wife, when I was not only a listener but a speaker. My Ayecka makes me wonder to what extent were my words effective — not in terms of pleasant recollections, but in terms of ma'aseh ikar.

"I will not dwell on this point, not out of apprehension that it may embarrass you, but because there is no need to elaborate on it to you.

"But I do wish to mention another pertinent point, though I may have mentioned it in the course of our conversation. I have in mind the matter of d'varim b'telim, 'useless words'... one may speak good words, even quoting words of Torah, but if they do not impress the listener and do not affect him in terms of ma'aseh ikar, then they are d'varim b'telim. The blame must be placed on the speaker, since we have the rule that 'words coming from the heart penetrate the heart and are eventually effective.'"

There follows a postscipt responding to my inquiries about a personal health problem. Rereading them now, I ask myself, Where in the world today is there a person to whom Jews of any or no religious persuasion, total strangers, can turn to request a word of advice, a blessing? And I ask myself again, What will be?

To Lubavitcher hasidim, I would not dare venture an answer. But as an — no, I will not call myself an outsider — as one of the many who have been deeply nourished by Lubavitch, I find both solace and encouragement in the words I have received from you orally and in writing.

And what was the full meaning of your answer to my observation that the power of Lubavitch depends solely on the rebbe? "I am not so sure," you said.