My parents passed away at a relatively young age, and after that I was brought up in the home of my uncle, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, the world renowned Halachic authority and dean of Jerusalem’s Kol Torah yeshivah. Eventually, after my marriage, I entered the rabbinate myself, and was appointed rabbi of Ramat Chen, which is today a neighborhood of Ramat Gan, Israel.
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In 1971, I traveled to a wedding in the United States and stayed in the home of a certain well-off Jew in Queens, New York. “Rabbi Aurbach,” my host asked me, “what would you like to see while you are here?”
I replied that I would like to use this opportunity to see some of the great Torah sages of America, and since my host was well connected in rabbinic circles, he helped me to do just that. The first meeting he set up for me was with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
I walked into the Rebbe’s office with a feeling of reverence. The Rebbe invited me to sit down and asked for my name.
After I introduced myself, he asked, “Was your father Eliezer?” That was, in fact, my father’s name.
“Did you know that your father was here before?”
Again, I answered affirmatively. I remembered my father having an audience in 1952. It was before my Bar Mitzvah, and when my father returned from the US, he told us about the meeting. He had been especially taken by the Rebbe’s eyes, and how they seemed to look into the depths of his soul.
After nearly twenty years, and what must have been tens of thousands of other visitors, I was amazed that he remembered my father by name. Of course, for someone who has studied the Rebbe’s talks and witnessed his extraordinary erudition across Torah – in scripture, Talmud, Halachah, and aggadah – this is no great surprise, but I was deeply moved.
The Rebbe inquired as to how I occupied myself, and I told him about my position in Ramat Chen. “Isn’t there a large high school there called ‘Blich’?” he asked. Blich High School is well known for its high academic standards and the achievements of its students, who often go on to take up leading roles in Israel’s economic and political arenas. Still, I was surprised to hear it mentioned by a rabbi in New York.
The Rebbe was interested in hearing whether I was active in the school, so I told him the school had set aside a regular timeslot in which I would visit different classrooms to speak about Judaism and answer any questions the students had.
“That isn’t enough,” he declared. “You must use this time to instill faith in G-d and the Torah in their hearts. And you also have to get rid of the misleading ideas about Judaism that they are regularly exposed to.”
“But Rebbe,” I protested, “how?” I’d recently had a difficult experience at the school, after being invited to participate in a symposium for the older grades. During the event, the students were able to ask me all kinds of incisive questions on religion, about the role of women in Judaism, the Torah’s support for patriarchy, and so on. Shulamit Aloni, a member of Knesset, was also present, and apparently my answers weren’t to her liking. “Why do rabbis have access to our schools?” she fumed. She began raising this question in the Knesset and soon the school’s doors were closed to me. Although I managed to start coming back again, my influence there had been diminished.
The Rebbe listened attentively. “You mustn’t ease off,” he advised me. “Keep on trying – don’t give up!” He then referred to a concept from the laws of lost and found items: By Jewish law, a lost object can only be claimed by a finder once the original owner has despaired of recovering it. But what happens if the owner is not yet aware that he lost the object – can we presume that he has already given up? The Talmudic term “oblivious despair” refers to that person who has given up without knowing, but the Rebbe gave it his own original spin: “To despair,” he remarked, “is to be oblivious.” That is to say, it is irrational to give up hope. “You need to do everything you can, and to keep your spirits up,” he urged me.
At one point in our discussion, the Rebbe put his hand on my shoulder. “I wanted to ask: Have you been involved in the current debate taking place among the rabbis of Eretz Yisrael?” In those days, a heated Halachic controversy had erupted on some serious questions concerning Jewish matrimonial law and conversion to Judaism. Some rabbis had taken a “lenient” position on these issues, while other, more charedi authorities were more traditional.
Before walking into the Rebbe’s office, I had decided that I was prepared to answer any questions or discuss any issue the Rebbe brought up – except for this one. The Rebbe sensed that I wasn’t interested in speaking about this subject, but the look he gave me somehow opened me up. Despite my earlier resolve, I couldn’t not answer him.
Clarifying his questions, the Rebbe added: “I know that there are some rabbis in Israel who have become involved in politics, and their Halachic positions must be treated with caution, since they may be politically motivated. But I also know that your uncle, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman, has nothing to do with politics. That’s why I’d like to know his position.”
I told the Rebbe that I was very close with one of the rabbis at the heart of the debate, and because of all the controversy, I turned to my uncle for his views on the matter. He told me that he, too, had been personally acquainted with the same rabbi as a young man; they had both been considered prodigies, and they have studied together for a time. “His Halachic views,” my uncle asserted of this rabbi, “are mixed with private ambition and personal interests.”
When I pressed my uncle, he refused to elaborate: “I have told you what I needed to say; anything more is gossip. I don’t want to speak about it any further.”
Interestingly, on my return to Israel, I gave my uncle a detailed account of my audience with the Rebbe. When I mentioned what the Rebbe had said of him – that he was apolitical, and that his Halachic views were devoid of ulterior motives – he gave a slight nod. I know that my uncle had great respect for the Rebbe – he would occasionally hand me one of the Rebbe’s published talks and say that I would benefit from learning it – but he didn’t know how well the Rebbe knew him. When I told him how deeply affected I had been from my audience with the Rebbe, he gave another gesture with his head, acknowledging how fortunate I had been to meet him.
Before our meeting was over, the Rebbe asked about my family – how many children I had, and whether I was managing financially. We discussed several subjects of Torah scholarship, and then we bid each other farewell. I left the audience feeling deeply impressed, both by his erudition and by his thorough understanding of Israeli affairs in the fields of education, rabbinic matters, and numerous others. The meeting made an indescribable mark on me – one that I have not forgotten to this day.
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Auerbach served as the rabbi of Ramat Chen for close to fifty years. He was interviewed at his home in 2015, some two months before his passing.