I came to the army from yeshivah in 1951, and met Rabbi Shlomo Goren right away. As the Chief Rabbi of the IDF, he transferred me into chaplaincy to work alongside him. Although we didn’t agree on everything, we became very close.
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Rabbi Goren admired the Rebbe because the Rebbe said what he believed, whether or not it was popular. Both the Rebbe and he, and to a degree myself, were nonconformists, who were unafraid of the backlash that came with going against the grain.
This was also the relationship I forged with the Rebbe. As the rabbi of the moshavim, Israel’s agricultural settlements, and later as a member of Knesset, I would have an audience with the Rebbe every time I was in the US. Sometimes, I would express views that I knew he did not share, but he always heard me out. “I know that you think what you say and you say what you think,” he once complimented me.
The Rebbe brought up my independent spirit, indirectly, the very first time I met him in 1959. It was a late-night meeting that went for hours, and at the end, just before the Rebbe went to morning prayers, I remember he had one more question for me:
“Reb Menachem, are you a chasid or a misnagid?” he asked, using the term for the historical opponents of Chasidism.
“I am a chasid,” I replied.
He waited a few more seconds, looking at me. The Rebbe’s eyes, his smile, were something I will remember all my life. “What kind of a chasid are you?”
“I am a Breslover chasid,” I answered, referring to followers of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Famously, no successor to the chasidic master was ever named after his passing over two hundred years ago. Now, I wasn’t exactly a Breslover, but I used to pray in their synagogue in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem so that was what I told the Rebbe in the moment.
The Rebbe looked at me for what felt like a minute and gave me a big smile. “I understand that you are Breslover chasid,” he said, “because they don’t have a Rebbe!” Still, I think the Rebbe liked that I had my own opinion on things.
When I was elected to the Knesset in the ‘70s, I didn’t join one of the religious parties, but the more left-wing HaMa’arakh. The religious parties used to give me a hard time; they’d write articles against me because I was an exception, a rebel. Once, I came to the Rebbe during a period when I was really being attacked by them, especially by the religious Zionist party Mafdal – with whom the Rebbe did not see eye to eye – and I told him that I was thinking of retiring.
“Maybe I’ll just leave this entire business. What do I need it for?” I asked.
But the Rebbe told me that I had to continue. “What you are doing is good; you mustn’t stop. And you shouldn’t be afraid of anybody.”
Then he shared a tremendous idea: “The chasidic movement became stronger because it had opponents. When a person no longer has any opponents, they need to examine themselves; perhaps they are not doing what they are supposed to.”
“Your friend Rabbi Goren,” added the Rebbe, “succeeded in his role in the army because he wasn’t afraid of all those who were against him.”
On one occasion, I came to the Rebbe around the time that the controversial issue of Mihu Yehudi – the legal definition of Jewish identity – had been raised in Israeli politics. Before I went into the Rebbe’s room, his secretary Rabbi Leibel Groner told me that the Rebbe would want to talk about Mihu Yehudi. Another prominent Israeli politician had been there earlier that day, and they had discussed it, so he was sure we would do the same. “The Rebbe is very distressed by it,” Rabbi Groner warned, “and it is bad for his health. Please try not to give him any cause to be upset.”
I went in, we talked about various things, but the Rebbe didn’t even mention Mihu Yehudi. So, when we finished, I brought it up myself: “Leibel said that the Rebbe wants to talk to me about Mihu Yehudi.”
The Rebbe smiled, and thought for a moment. “Reb Menachem,” he said, “there are those to whom there is no need to talk about this subject, and there are others with whom it won’t help to talk about it.”
I asked him, “Well, which category does the Rebbe think I am in?”
“This, you know yourself,” he replied, and so he didn’t talk to me about Mihu Yehudi. The truth is, though, that whenever this matter was brought up for a vote. I always wound up abstaining or voting as the Rebbe wanted; maybe it was because of that little chasidic voice inside of me.
In 1972, Rabbi Goren became the Chief Rabbi of Israel, after his predecessor, Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, had been pushed aside. The Rebbe thought that this was wrong and he strongly objected to the appointment. Over a decade later, I found myself in a similar scenario.
I was still serving in the Knesset at the time, and the head chaplain of the IDF was Rabbi Gad Navon. Mafdal, which had a strong voice within the government, decided that they didn’t want him in that position so they asked Yitzchak Rabin, then minister of defense, to have him removed.
So after asking one other rabbi, Rabin offered me to be the chief rabbi of the army. I was reluctant at first; it was an apolitical position and I was a political figure. “Can you imagine the uproar you will create,” I asked Rabin, “by taking a Knesset member from your own party to be the chief rabbi of the army?”
But, I began asking around and found that Prime Minister Shamir said he wouldn’t oppose it, and I even had the support of a couple members of the opposition. Then, while I was sitting in the Knesset restaurant, Avraham Verdiger, another religious member of Knesset, came over to me. He was with Berke Wolf, a Chabad representative whom we used to call the “121st Member of the Knesset,” and another activist.
“You are the right man,” they told me. “You have to take the position.” Since I was still undecided, Berke offered to ask the Rebbe for me. That night, after midnight, I received a phone call; Berke had received an answer from the Rebbe via fax. The Rebbe said that I should make every effort to take the role, “only if it would not be an infringement on Gad Navon.”
It seemed I had everyone’s support, but the Rebbe reminded me of something: Gad Navon was a friend of mine, and they wanted to remove him. And so, I went to Yitzchak Rabin and told him that I was not taking it. “Give him another year,” I said. They did, and Rabbi Navon ended up staying in the army for over fifteen more years. In the end, he was happy, I was happy, and my family was happy too.
I’ve spent time with many prominent leaders in my life, but I only consider three of them to be truly great men: David Ben Gurion, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Being with the Rebbe made me feel small; I thought: Here is someone with vision, who looked not to the past, but to the future.
Rabbi Menachem Hacohen is an Israeli author, scholar, and former Knesset member who has been serving as the chief rabbi of the Moshavim Movement and the Histadrut for over sixty years. He was interviewed in January and March of 2010.