After more than 40 years as an iconic teacher of Chabad beliefs ranging from romance to redemption, the friends of Rabbi Manis Friedman are hoping he can find some personal redemption for himself.
Forgiveness is elusive after his feverish statement that the first Israeli leader to promise a merciless killing of all Arab “men, women and children (and cattle),” let alone Islamic holy sites, “will finally bring peace to the Middle East.”
Even though he apologized for those words in the May/June issue of Moment magazine and has been severely rebuked and corrected by Chabad headquarters, he’s managed to unite Arabs and Jews from every denomination in their ongoing damnation of the Minnesota rabbi.
That a nationally beloved rabbi could seemingly have advocated
genocide has provided a torrent of “bulletin board material” for jihadist bloggers.
It started when Rabbi Friedman responded to a question he wasn’t asked. The question he was asked, “How should Jews treat their Arab neighbors?” was part of an ongoing feature in Moment, “Ask The Rabbis,” in which the same question is posed to a panel of nine rabbis. Instead, Rabbi Friedman, who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1946, submitted a written response as if the question were about fighting a total war against Arabs: “I don’t believe in western morality, i.e. don’t kill civilians or children, don’t destroy holy sites, don’t fight during holiday seasons, don’t bomb cemeteries, don’t shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral. The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle). … First, the Arabs will stop using children as shields. Second, they will stop taking hostages knowing that we will not be intimidated. Third, with their holy sites destroyed, they will stop believing that G-d is on their side. Result: no civilian casualties, no children in the line of fire, no false sense of righteousness, in fact, no war.”
Additionally, “Zero tolerance for stone throwing, for rockets, for kidnapping … Living by Torah values will make us a light unto the nations who suffer defeat because of a disastrous morality of human invention.”
The blogosphere lit up the night. Josh Nathan-Kazis, editor of New Voices, the magazine of the Jewish Student Press Service, posted, “Most of the responses emphasize equality, morality, and restraint. Then a Chabad rabbi wheels out the crazy…”
Groups such as the Council for American-Islamic Relations, an anti-defamation group that frequently has to condemn terrorist acts and plots against Jews, had a chance to go on the offensive, pointing to Rabbi Friedman as an example of anti-Islamic genocidal extremism. Pro-Palestinian Web sites joined in, such as the Edinburgh-based Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign that headlined, “Bob Dylan’s Chabad rabbi calls for mass murder of women and children.”
In 1971, Rabbi Friedman was sent to be one of the Lubavitcher rebbe’s two emissaries to Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas. In time, Dylan, a Minnesota native, studied with Rabbi Friedman, who lives in Minneapolis with his wife and 14 children. Dylan and Rabbi Friedman went together to a farbrengen (chasidic gathering) with the rebbe, and Dylan wrote a blurb for the rabbi’s 1990 book, “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore,” a chasidic guide to reclaiming modesty and intimacy. Said Dylan: “Anyone who is married or thinking about getting married would do well to read this book.”
Asked if he’s heard from Dylan, who cemented his reputation writing songs protesting the Vietnam war, Rabbi Friedman told The Jewish Week, “Aw, he’s not going to get involved in this. It’s been a long time. But he’s still very connected to Chabad.”
Several Chabad shluchim, or emissaries, told The Jewish Week that their congregants and supporters were “furious,” “up in arms,” about what Friedman wrote in Moment. Rabbi Hershey Novack, Chabad’s emissary to Washington University in St. Louis, said, in a telephone interview, that Rabbi Friedman’s words were “vile, completely out of line.”
Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters said, “We vehemently disagree with any sentiment suggesting that Judaism allows for the wanton destruction of civilian life, even when at war. [All] human life is G-d given, precious, and must be treated with respect, dignity and compassion.”
Rabbi Friedman said that he intended his response as a way to prevent war, because showing uncompromising strength and deterrence will preclude having to fight. “I didn’t mean that we should be ruthless,” he said. “But if you talk ruthless, then you won’t have to be ruthless.” To advocate “wanton killing was never my intention. I was talking about a principle, rather than telling the army what to do.”
Rabbi Friedman apologized “for any misunderstanding,” but he told The Jewish Week, “This liberal narishkeit [foolishness] is becoming intolerable. There’s this ‘word police.’ They don’t care what you really mean, only about the words you use.”
Although many called Rabbi Friedman “irresponsible,” the rabbi said that if you want to talk about irresponsibility and incitement, “to say, after Mumbai [when Islamic terrorists invaded a Chabad House in India, killing six], that anyone Chabad is violent against Arabs is so blatantly untrue. Look at our response to Mumbai. There wasn’t a hint of revenge. Our response was ‘let’s create more light. Let’s create more goodness.’ For anyone to say to the wackos out there that, in effect, this really is the Chabad position, a threat to Arabs … they are putting every Chabad House and every shaliach [emissary] in danger.”
Rabbi Friedman did have some support. He forwarded one e-mail from a Vietnam veteran: “If I am to fight for my people, then let it be the bloodiest and most horrific battle that my enemy would never have been able to conceive of. Let him think in his mind an avenging angel or demon stepped upon the field and wielded power mercilessly … If my enemy has this fear, then my people will be safe and so will his.”
Rabbi Friedman is now back in Minneapolis, getting ready to start another session of Beis Chana, his educational program that he brings around the country introducing women to Judaism. “We rent a hotel and women can come for two weeks, or three weeks of learning,” said the rabbi. “We do 15 sessions a year, some for teenagers, some for college students, some for adults.” He is also a frequent scholar-in-residence at synagogues around the country and worldwide.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, administrator of Chabad-Lubavitch, and a member of the rebbe’s secretariat, said, “I know Manis from way, way back. We both lived on the same block in Crown Heights. I couldn’t find a more gentle, kind, generous, compassionate person, in his demeanor, life, speech. … His psychological insights are unique. He never tells anyone ‘I have no time’; he always has time and he always has patience.
“Now, I don’t know why he said what he said. I’m not justifying it,” said Rabbi Krinsky. “I give him the benefit of the doubt if his point was that if we exude weakness we invite danger. That’s always true — that’s human nature. But even people who know him are surprised that a statement of that magnitude could be made. It’s very fearful on its face. I could see people who take it at face value being very upset and turned off.”
Nevertheless, “What cannot be lost is who Manis really is, and why he was and will be a beloved figure in the community. I don’t think that this will affect the respect and affection that people have for him. He’s a good man.