Editor’s Note: This column first appeared in The Jewish Week in June 1994, 20 years ago, a few days after the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
I never met the Lubavitcher Rebbe, but I was in his presence several times, enough to understand the attraction he had as a holy man to his many followers.
My most vivid recollection was of a "farbrengen," a gathering of the rebbe and many hundreds of his chasidim, I attended when I was a college student in the mid-1960s. Anyone who fails to understand the bond between a rebbe and his chasidim should come to a farbrengen. The Rebbe would offer insights into the teachings of the Torah for 30 minutes or so, then they would sing spirited and wordless melodies to him for about the same amount of time. This could go on, and usually did, for many hours, far into the night.
When I first looked at the Rebbe from a distance, he was seated at a table amid a sea of black-hatted chasidim in what seemed to be on of the largest and certainly most crowded rooms I had ever been in. What stood out were his piercing blue eyes and crinkly smile as he looked around the room, giving a short, quick nod, then another, then another. I thought he had a nervous tic.
Instead, I soon learned, he was making eye contact with individuals who held up shot glasses of whiskey, waiting for him to acknowledge them before they offered a whispered “l’chaim” to their leader. I was encouraged to try it, and waited my turn before the Rebbe seemed to nod in my direction. I took a swig of scotch in his honor.
Perhaps emboldened by the spirits, I then joined several friends as we made our way up the rafters to the topmost row, our heads almost skimming the ceiling. I’ll never forget the sights and sounds of that room at Lubavitch world headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights. It was a swaying ocean of black-hatted men and yeshiva students, serenading the rebbe with lovely niggunim, or melodies. Most vivid was the symbiotic relationship between the leader and his followers; when he would indicate enthusiasm for the music by pounding his hand on the table, they would double their volume, the sound becoming a roar in the huge room. This, in turn, would move him to pound the table harder, or even rise from his chair a bit, and the sound became greater still.
I thought of that sound on Sunday as I stood opposite 770 for the rebbe’s funeral. It wasn’t a funeral in the traditional sense of the word. There were no eulogies, no services, no public recitation of Psalms, only an ever-growing crowd watching dignitaries enter the building to pay their last respects to the Rebbe and, for many chasidim, to see for themselves that their rebbe was indeed no longer among the living.
But late in the day, when the plain wooden coffin was borne above the crowd and placed into the back of a hearse-like station wagon, a sound erupted from the tens of thousands like nothing I had ever heard. It was a wail of grief, a collective cry that was piercing in its intensity.
I, too, felt a sense of loss. I admired the Rebbe and his mission to make the world a better place, and was impressed with his ability to send emissaries around the world to encourage Jews to perform mitzvot. No place was too out of the way, no mitzvah was too insignificant.
But I still have questions. As an outsider, I did not understand why he did not speak out against the effort within Lubavitch to portray him as the Messiah. Given his control over his followers, a phrase or even a word, seemingly, could have put an end to what proved to be a tragic and deeply divisive strain.
And I was disappointed when, during the Crown Heights riots of three years ago, the Rebbe did not extend a human hand of sympathy to the family of the black youngster who was accidentally killed by a Lubavitch driver. Indeed, the Rebbe had no direct statement to make at a time when a word or a gesture could have gone far to ease the pain.
I’m sure there are reasons for these actions, or, more accurately, inactions, but I have yet to hear one that is not wrapped in the nuance of chasidic logic. To me it meant that despite his greatness as a true Jewish leader, the Rebbe was only human. This week we were reminded of that fact.
Whether the movement he built up can survive the cult of his charisma will be determined in the coming days and months. But I will always remember the sound of grief at his death and, more happily, the joyous roar of song from his chasidim that resounded throughout his life.
Gary Rosenblatt has been the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week for 20 years and has written more than 1,000 "Between The Lines" columns since 1993. Now a collection of 80 of those columns, ranging from Mideast analysis to childhood remembrances as "the Jewish rabbi's son" in Annapolis, Md., is available. Click here for details.