Or Rose: As a young man, you spent a decade studying and living in the Lubavitch community of Brooklyn, NY. What do you remember most vividly about your rebbe, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef Schneerson, the sixth leader of this storied dynasty?
Reb Zalman: To this day, I still feel that Reb Yosef Yitzchak was more my rebbe than anyone else. When he spoke or davenned (prayed), I felt a sense of attunement with him. When I was with him, I felt all of the fibers in my being drawn to him; it was not just what he said, but his facial expressions and body language. When Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak told a story, he would tell it with such rich detail, even though he had a speech impediment. But he did not want to deny us any part of the description because he wanted to take us into an imaginative space. And when he davenned, he opened my heart; I sensed that he was talking directly to God and inviting us to join him in this sacred landscape. The same was true at the rebbe’s tisch. While it wasn’t a beautifully ritualized experience like that of Bobov Hasidim, there was a palpable sense that, Zeh ha’shulchan asher lifnei Ha’Shem (This is a table before God). At the seder, there was an understanding that when you raised the first piece of matzah to your mouth, your kavannah (intention) was not simply to feed your body, but to feed your emunah, your faith, as well.
Or Rose: And what about Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe?
Reb Zalman: I actually met Rebbe Menachem Mendel before I met his father-in law. I first encountered him in Marseilles, France. I was immediately impressed by his intelligence and erudition, and I was very excited by the potential I saw in him to help people integrate religious and secular ideas. He was remarkable in his ability to communicate with all different types of people; his world spanned from the Sorbonne to Lubavitch. I must say that my connection to him was much more of the head than the heart.
Or Rose: While you were very close with both of these towering figures, you ultimately left the Lubavitch community. Can you say something about that decision?
Reb Zalman: Let me tell you a story: When Reb Noach of Lekovitch took over from his father and became the rebbe of his community, the followers saw that he wasn’t doing things as his father had done. So, they said, “Why don’t you do it as your father did?” And he said, “I’m doing exactly what my father did. My father didn’t copy anyone, and I don’t copy anyone.”
A second relevant story: When the Ishbitzer Rebbe decided that he had to leave Kotzk, he went to say goodbye to his chaverim (friends and colleagues). As he said goodbye to Reb Dovid, the son of the Kotzker Rebbe, the Kotzker’s son asked him for some money as a parting gift [a common practice among Hasidim]. When the Ishbitzer reached into his pocket for some money, a kvitel (a prayer note) fell out of his pocket. “Ah,” Reb Dovid said, “so you are already acting as a rebbe [by praying for a community member while still in the court of the Kotzker Rebbe].” So the Ishbitzer answered, “Reb Dovid, what do you think, I came to learn from your father — to be a shoemaker?”
There is a time when you have to leave the nest. Many things contributed to my departure from Lubavitch. This included my inability to maintain a certain set of Orthodox theological views and practices. There are times when you must say, “Ad kan, I can go with you this far, but from here on, I have to be my own person.” But I didn’t leave only because I needed more individual fulfillment, but because I wanted to be a good shepherd to the people who were coming to me for spiritual support. I simply couldn’t lead most of them in the direction of a traditional Lubavitch lifestyle.
Or Rose: Do you consider yourself a rebbe?
Reb Zalman: I function as a rebbe, but it is not constant. When I’m finished serving in that role, I’m done. I can go out, even take in a movie and get a pizza. This is very different from rebbes of the past. They were expected to maintain that role all the time. In the hierarchical world of traditional Hasidism, the roles of rebbe (master) and hasid (disciple) are clear; each needs the other, but they interact in specific ways. I believe that in our day, living as we do in a democratic context, we need different people — men and women — in a community to function as rebbes at different times, helping people grow in their relationships with God. Like the earlier Hasidic masters, Neo-Hasidic rebbes will bring different strengths and experiences to this work.
Or Rose: What do you when you function as a rebbe?
Reb Zalman: Mostly, I try to listen to what people say, how they say it, and when they say it, and then I ask what lies behind these presentations. What does this person’s neshamah (soul) need in order to live more harmoniously with God and creation? Unlike many rebbes of the past, I claim no supernatural abilities, but I have tried to cultivate my own inner life and my skills as a teacher, shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader), and counselor so that I can be of service to those who seek me out as a rebbe. It is important to add that as in traditional Hasidism, not every rebbe can serve every hasid. If I don’t feel a soul connection with a person, if we are not a good fit, I advise him or her to seek help from someone else. We must be honest with ourselves and others about our abilities and limits, knowing that we do not serve ourselves but a greater purpose.