I come from a family with a strong Polish and Galician chasidic background. Even after my parents moved to Israel in 1935, as pioneers of the new settlement there, my father maintained ties with several chasidic Rebbes. Later on, I discovered that he had also corresponded with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
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After our marriage, my wife and I moved to the Chabad neighborhood in Lod, Israel, and became close to the community. Along with my work on Hebrew literature at the University of Tel Aviv, I helped found a large library and institute in Lod – the Haberman Institute – for literary studies, as well as the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which focuses on the literature of the Mizrachi and North African Jewish communities.
At the end of 1982 I traveled to the United States, together with my family, for a year-long sabbatical. Even more exciting than the skyscrapers of Manhattan was the prospect of meeting the Rebbe. Sometime before Shavuot of 1983, Rabbi Bentzion Lipsker of Arad, a warm-hearted Jew I had known from Lod, invited me to join him and spend the holiday in Crown Heights. I eagerly accepted.
For the duration of the festival, I participated in several public gatherings led by the Rebbe, and had the privilege of a more personal encounter as well: During the Kos Shel Brachah ceremony at the close of the holiday, while distributing wine to those present after the Havdalah service, the Rebbe asked Rabbi Lipsker, “Where is the professor?” I was standing nearby and immediately came over to receive some wine, which the Rebbe poured directly into my cup.
To my disappointment, I learned that the Rebbe had stopped holding private audiences. But, Rabbi Lipsker promised to try and arrange one for me. To what I owed the honor I don’t know, but somehow, he pulled it off.
And so, on Friday afternoon, the day after Shavuot, I found myself sitting alone on a bench outside the Rebbe’s room, waiting for his secretary to usher me in. The moment soon came, and the Rebbe greeted me with a cheerful smile.
I immediately handed him the petitionary note I had prepared earlier. In it, I had written various questions, including one about whether to continue working for a certain research institute affiliated with my university.
I had little doubt that, after my sabbatical, I would resume my primary work as a university lecturer. It was my livelihood. In addition, it gave me the opportunity to speak, as an observant Jew, to students who knew next to nothing about Judaism. I taught them about the liturgical poems, or piyutim, and about the holy, soulful hymns of Rabbi Shlomo ibn Gabirol and others. It seemed obvious to me that through this work I was fulfilling a spiritual mission of the first order, as students would often approach me after a lecture and ask: “Why was the Hebrew prayer book hidden from us? Why did they hide the beauty of these sacred piyutim?” I also knew that the Rebbe had always supported and encouraged similar efforts in academic institutions and among intellectuals.
But my question pertained to my administrative work for Tel Aviv University’s Katz Institute for Research in Hebrew Literature. I had run the institute successfully for two years, and during that time I had published various works of interest and had achieved quite a bit. At the same time, I’d also become caught up with fighting various people who, for reasons of jealousy, were intent on stirring the pot and making things difficult. I had become sick of the job and wanted to give it up. But the Rebbe encouraged me to carry on. “It’s better that this position be filled by an individual who is observant,” he explained, adding that I should also view this work as part of my mission.
I told the Rebbe about the institute and about the books we had published, especially the Torah works of several Tunisian rabbis, collections of piyutim, and biographies on several Jewish figures who were unknown in the West. “Is it possible to receive these books for our library here?” he asked. I replied that I had already given several copies to his secretariat and he thanked me.
In the course of our conversation, the Rebbe revealed great interest in my field; the subject of Jewish literature and manuscripts was close to his heart. A large share of my scientific research was based on the famous genizah, or trove of discarded writings, of Cairo. “Aside from the Cairo Genizah,” remarked the Rebbe, “there are other genizahs. It is a pity that not enough attention is paid to saving them.”
Indeed, there are a number of such troves, containing rare books and hand-written manuscripts, that have been left behind in many of the former Jewish communities of North Africa. I have personally visited Tunisia several times as part of my studies of the genizah of Djerba, and met with the Rebbe’s emissary there, Rabbi Nissan Pinson.
“The Rebbe has his emissaries spread throughout these countries; perhaps they can deal with this issue,” I suggested.
The Rebbe smiled, but rejected the idea: “They have other, no-less-important jobs to do,” he countered, referring of course to their work promoting Judaism. Still, I know that many Chabad emissaries in these countries sent the Rebbe a great number of manuscripts which are today sitting safely in the large library at Chabad Headquarters .
The Rebbe inquired about the subject I lecture on in university, the field of piyut, and especially the piyutim of the Avodah service of Yom Kippur, which formed the subject of my doctorate.
I related to the Rebbe that I had discovered many other ancient and entirely unknown piyutim that were composed over 1,500 years ago. I proceeded to share a theory I had developed regarding the name of one the most prominent composers of piyutim, Rabbi Elazar the Kalir. Several explanations and theories have been proposed as to the meaning of this word, but I discovered that his original name was Rabbi Elazar Birbi, meaning “great,” or “important.” The word kalir is apparently Greek for a cantor or a cleric who leads the prayers.
The Rebbe listened intently and I believe he accepted my theory. He seemed to relish the literary discussion about piyut, a subject that not too many people study, as well as that of the differences between the various prayer rites and prayer books, and the meaning of and customs associated with the prayers themselves. I was tremendously impressed with the vast scope of his knowledge, which is not commonly found in the world of traditional Torah scholarship. It felt that we were engaged in a genuinely scientific discussion.
Our conversation stretched on, and although it was a long summer’s Friday, Shabbat began to draw close. The Rebbe’s secretary entered the room several times to signal that it was time to conclude, but the Rebbe waved him away. Despite the gulf that exists between the chasidic and secular-academic worlds, I noticed that the Rebbe was neither dismissive nor afraid of the academy. Rather, he knew how to engage with it for his own purposes, and in a way that was in consilience with Torah pursuits.
Professor Zvi Malachi, a retired senior lecturer at the Department of Hebrew Literature in the University of Tel Aviv, is the founder of the Haberman Institute for Literary Research and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Israel. He was interviewed in January of 2015.