Despite the persistence of cynics and critics who have challenged Chabad-Lubavitch in various communities, not least for Chabad’s considerable and ongoing veneration of its late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the leading international figure in Modern Orthodoxy, emotionally and defiantly identified himself as a protégé of the rebbe, hailing the rebbe as “one of the greatest Jewish leaders, not just of our time, but of all time.”
Speaking as the keynote to more than 4,800 in a vast shipping terminal along Brooklyn’s Red Hook piers, an industrial venue transformed into an unlikely but somehow elegant banquet hall for the annual international gathering of the rebbe’s shluchim (emissaries) along with some non-chasidic guests, Rabbi Sacks declared that the rebbe “changed my life,” remaining a mentor whose advice and insights Rabbi Sacks sought at every stage of his career.
The rebbe, said Rabbi Sacks, “was my satellite navigation system, showing me where to go and how. And though I didn’t always understand why at the time, in retrospect I see how extraordinary his advice was, and how wise.”
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, co-president of the pan-denominational CLAL – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, attended the banquet and said he was struck by the mutual respect and affection between the chief rabbi and the shluchim, iconic symbols of two distinctly different wings of Orthodoxy. That Chabad invited the chief rabbi to address what is perhaps the most important organizational event on the Chabad calendar, said Rabbi Hirschfield, “is itself as striking reminder of [Chabad’s] readiness, at least under certain circumstances, to genuinely celebrate non-Chabad rabbis.”
At the same time, added Rabbi Hirschfield, Rabbi Sacks, “with typical sensitivity, responded with a very chasidische talk. It was not only based on his experiences with the rebbe, but was infused with the rebbe’s hashkafa [spiritual outlook]. Rabbi Sacks responded to their reaching beyond their borders by reaching beyond his own. A powerful lesson from both sides, especially in a world where religion is too often used to defend borders rather than help us to cross them.”
Rabbi Sacks recalled how he first came to New York, while still a sophomore at Cambridge University, to meet “to meet the great rabbis of the day,” with each of those rabbis telling young Sacks that he “had to meet the rebbe.” When he was informed that a meeting was scheduled, Sacks, who was by then in Los Angeles visiting family, took a Greyhound bus for 72 hours back to New York. At their meeting, following an “intellectual, philosophical” conversation,” said Rabbi Sacks, the rebbe “started asking me questions. How many Jewish students are in Cambridge? How many get involved in Jewish life? What are you doing to bring other people in?”
The young Sacks was taken aback. “Here I was, a nobody from nowhere, and here was one of the greatest leaders in the Jewish world challenging me not to accept the situation, but to change it.” Sacks said he then realized that “good leaders create followers … but a great leader creates leaders. That’s what the rebbe did for me and for thousands of others.”
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of “Jewish Literacy,” and another one of the non-Lubavitchers at the gathering, observed that Rabbi Sacks “was brilliant in delineating the rebbe’s ability to challenge and transform a person without making the person defensive. When the young Sacks said to the rebbe, ‘I found myself in a situation,’ the rebbe broke in and said, ‘People don’t find themselves in a situation. They place themselves in a situation. And if you can place yourself in one situation, you then can place yourself in another.’”
Rabbi Telushkin, who is currently writing a book on the rebbe’s influence and significance, added, “I can’t think of anybody I know, Chabad or non-Chabad, Jew or non-Jew, who would not be both challenged and inspired by these words.”
Rabbi Sacks said that in 1978 he turned to the rebbe for advice when he was weighing which of three careers he should best pursue: as an academic, an economist or a lawyer. Instead, the rebbe said that British Jewry was short of rabbis and therefore “You must train rabbis,” specifying Jews College, the primary non-chasidic yeshiva in England.
And then, Sacks said, the rebbe added, “You yourself must become a congregational rabbi, so that your students will come and … they will hear you give sermons and they will learn.”
Said Rabbi Sacks to the gathered shluchim, “If the rebbe says do it, I did it. I gave up my three ambitions, I trained rabbis [and] I became a congregational rabbi,” though he noted that as chief rabbi he ended up being invited to fulfill each of his other three dreams, with a professorship at Oxford, and twice delivering Britain’s most prestigious economic lectures, along with giving a law lecture before 600 barristers and the Lord Chancellor, the highest lawyer in Britain.
“You know,” reflected Rabbi Sacks, “you never lose anything by putting Yiddishkeit first.”
Later, in 1990, Rabbi Sacks recalled writing to the rebbe for guidance when he was offered the chief rabbinate, and getting the rebbe’s blessing.
Rabbi Sacks said that as chief rabbi “I tried to do what I know the rebbe would have wanted me to do,” not the least of which was operating in line with “the vast foresight of the rebbe in understanding that the world was ready to hear a Jewish message.”
Additionally, said Rabbi Sacks, “and I want you never to forget these words,” he learnt from the rebbe that “non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism. And non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism … Let all the world see we are never ashamed to stand tall as Jews.”
Although there was not a single reference at the banquet to the rebbe being the Messiah, Rabbi Sacks sought to place the rebbe’s messianic dreams in perspective: “The rebbe, like every rebbe, set his goal to [end the exile and] bring Moshiach. But the rebbe was different from other rebbeim, because the rebbe did so with particular urgency, and although he never specified why, I’ve speculated on this, and… maybe I’m wrong, but I think not — [it was] because he was the first rebbe to become rebbe after the Holocaust.
“And how,” continued Rabbi Sacks, “can you redeem a world that had witnessed Hitler? [The] rebbe did something absolutely extraordinary. He said to himself: if the Nazis searched out every Jew in hate, we will search out every Jew in love. This was the most radical response to the Holocaust ever conceived and I don't know if we still — if the Jewish world still — understands it.”
The rebbe “changed lives … by showing people a greatness they did not know they had.” The rebbe showed people not only who they were, but “what they could become … And we are his shluchim.”
At the conclusion of the chief rabbi’s address came one of the most unique moments at any Jewish event, the roll call, country by country, state by state, of every Chabad location around the globe, each delegation rising when called, erupting into all 4,800 chasidim and non-chasidim dancing, stomping, hand-waving, bouncing the silverware off the tables, under the colored lights of the old pier.
One chasid reported being told by another dancer, in astonishment, “I just danced with the whole world.”