"Why are we going to the Hasidic Rabbi in Anaheim instead of the one in Los Angeles?" I asked my assistant, Chris Rodriguez.
"Rabbi Eliezrie is one of the main Hasidic spokesmen here in Southern California," she replied. "He’s one of the chief public relations men for the Hasidics. I guess they’re so often misunderstood." She grinned playfully, her dark eyes sparkling.
Rabbi David Eliezrie
Rabbi David Eliezrie, Director of the Chabad Community Center in Anaheim, California, beckoned us into his office. A frank, straightforward, and very kindly man, he shook hands. He was medium height, with short, dark hair and dark brown eyes magnified by glasses. When he spoke, his voice was soft, gracious. He wore regular clothing — a shirt and pants — not the braids or hat I was expecting. I found him an intellectually rich man who thought very quickly. Later in our interview, when he placed a phone call to his beloved Rebbe who was giving a talk in New York, and he heard the Rebbe’s voice, Rabbi Eliezrie revealed a sweet, beaming happiness.
However, let’s begin at the beginning.
Rabbi Eliezrie explained that Hasidism is a dimension within traditional Judaism. "Really, you don’t have to label Jews as different kinds of Jews. We see Jews as Jews. We see Jews who perhaps use different tools or different mediums within Judaism to grow spiritually." Hasidism is a medium which helps an individual "reach to a level of spiritual perfection, spiritual development," he explained. "You will not necessarily find that there is a card-carrying Hasidic Jew, but rather Hasidic philosophy helps an individual have a greater awareness of spirituality and godliness. We hope that this awareness will serve as a catalyst for a greater sense of observance and commitment.
"I mean there’s a lot more to it," he said. "This is a simplistic introduction. There are some Hasidic groups which are more emotional, focusing more on emotional aspects, like Belz or Ger. The emotional forms are found in Hasidic groups that evolved in Poland.
"Chabador Lubavitch, which are really two interchangeable words, is a much more intellectual approach. It evolved in Lithuania, which was the center of Jewish intellectualism and scholarship two hundred years ago. The works of the great rabbis of Chabad are considered to be classics of Jewish philosophy and theology. These classics are studied in many universities and almost every center of academic studies, as well as Biblical studies. You’ll find the works of Chabad philosophy studied by a significant constituency. There are many people who, while they are not Hasidim, find they’re interested in Hasidic philosophy.
"Now, our Chabad focus is basically on developing an intellectual awareness and understanding of spirituality," Rabbi Eliezrie clarified. "Then, through that awareness we develop a sensitivity to godliness which affects our day-to-day living." He explained that the Jew observes six hundred and thirteen commandments and is obligated to fulfill his role in sharing basic values of belief in God and morality with all of society.
While many people enjoy the study of Jewish philosophy, "to study the philosophy without doing anything about it doesn’t bring the philosophy to its purpose," he underscored. "We see the six hundred and thirteen commandments as a manifestation of God’s will in the physical world. And the Torah, the body of knowledge which tells us how to do the commandments, is a manifestation in this world of God’s intellect. We unify ourselves with that intellectually through the study of his Torah and, more spiritually, through the fulfillment of his commandments — mitzvahs — by doing these actual deeds."
"Mitzvahs are. . . ?" I questioned.
"Mitzvah means commandment, but philosophically it means the bond of unification, a connection between man and God. The relationship is like six hundred and thirteen pieces of twine that all tie together into one rope. Each one of these little thin strands represents one piece of twine and they all link together and become one. So, this is what binds us, connects us, with God — the six hundred thirteen commandments.
"So, in Chabad," he went on, "we focus on spirituality, and on intellectual awareness of God, according to man’s ability. But, human intellect being limited and God being infinite, we can only understand things within a finite context. We can’t understand what the essence of God is. We know what he does, but do not know how he does it. So, the goal of Hasidism is to help people — Jewish people particularly — to realize their spiritual potential," he summed up.
The Key is Study
"Well, the key, we believe, is study — study of Hasidic philosophy — which talks at great lengths about spirituality and godliness.
"In Chabad, the key which opens the door is prayer. The key which Rabbi Schneur Zalman developed was a system called Hit Bononut, which means contemplation. We study a work of Hasidic philosophy that deals with spirituality and godliness. Then, before you sit and pray, you contemplate a particular idea from Hasidic philosophy. After you contemplate, you pray and the emotion flows within the structure of the prayer," he explained.
Rabbi Eliezrie clarified that all the ideas of Hasidic thought are not new ideas to Judaism, but rather that the Hasidim — those who practice Hasidic Judaism — reemphasized ideas that often existed already within Jewish philosophy. The Hasidim developed a number of these ideas, revealing them more to the average public. The concepts, ideas, and philosophies of the Hasidim have existed throughout the Jewish mystical tradition. However, what the Hasidim did was to popularize these ideas and make them more widely known because there was a spiritual need in the Jewish religion.
Making a Blessing
"There’s a story told about a Hasid (a Hasid means a follower of a Rabbi, mentor, or spiritual leader who is commonly called a Rebbe) who went to his Rebbe prior to Bar Mitzvah at thirteen. He asked the Rebbe to give him spiritual direction. The Rebbe told the young boy that every time he made a blessing — before he ate, or whatever — he was to think to whom he was making the blessing. That was in the 1840’s or 50’s. Some seventy, eighty years later, people who traveled the many miles to meet this man who had become so spiritually great would ask him, ‘What made you so spiritually sensitive?’ The holy man would reply, ‘I listened to the words of the Rebbe when he told me as a child that whenever I make a blessing to God I should think who I am making that blessing to,"’ Rabbi Eliezrie smiled.
Being Lifted Up
"When a Hasid directs the emotion in the prayer, what happens then?" I asked.
"Then a person reaches a certain level of spiritual ecstasy and opens himself up spiritually. He has thought about godliness; he has thought about spirituality; he has thought about the things that God accomplished in the world; then he focuses his prayer on the greatness of God, the spirituality of God. Then he comes out of the prayer with a tremendous feeling of upliftedness," the Rabbi explained.
"Could you give me some examples of states or characteristics which occur in this ecstasy and upliftedness?"
"Characteristics…." He thought a moment. "I think, mainly, there is an awe-ness of God. I think it is a realization by a person of what is important and what is secondary. You look around the world..." he reached for words.
"You are saying there is tremendous insight? Would that be fair?"
He tried to explain. "I’ll take it a step further. You look at the world around us and you see the physical. Judaism tells us — and in Hasidic philosophy we emphasize the idea — that the physical is only an extension of the spiritual. The story is told about one of the great Hasidic masters in the last days he was alive. He said, ‘I don’t see the physical wall. I can only see the spirituality in the wall.’
"Another story is told about Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. He was sitting and praying and he was saying, ‘I don’t want this, I don’t want that, all I want is God himself.’
"You develop a proper sense of priorities. You realize what is primary, what is important and what is not important. You have the realization that the essence of this world is really spiritual and that the physical only hides the true qualities of the world."
"What conclusions, then, does one have about oneself?" I asked.
"That we have to work a little harder with ourselves. For Hasidim, there’s a tremendous emphasis on self-analysis — what we’ve done till now, what we need to accomplish, what we need to rectify. There’s always this theme that you can accomplish more. You’ve got to challenge yourself. You’ve got to motivate yourself. A person can’t be docile. He has to be moving in some spiritual direction constantly," he said.
Relationship With God
"What conclusion does one gain about one’s relationship with God?" I inquired, while thinking his answer would be fascinating.
"A much greater sensitivity and awareness," he said, "and the realization that spirituality and godliness is the most important thing of all — that everything else doesn’t really count that much."
The Nature of God
"What conclusion does one have about the nature of God?" I continued quietly.
The rabbi seemed absorbed in reflection. "That God manifests himself in everything in the world. You see that the world, in essence, extends from godliness and spirituality. That the world in itself is not a true existence because it’s really dependent totally on God and God constantly interacts with the world physically. God makes the world exist. There is this link between the physical world and spirit."
Purpose of Life
"What does one conclude about the point of life, or the meaning of life?" I pressed.
"The purpose of man’s existence in the world is to serve God," he spoke slowly, emphasizing each word.
"And, what is the nature of one’s service? For example, how does one characterize oneself as a result of this experience?"
"Well, first is the question of how you know what to do. I mean, some guy can come around and say, ‘Hey! I’m serving God,’ when he is, in fact, being very destructive and definitely not serving God at all. We tell a story about a man who’s about to rob a house. He’s sitting outside the house and says, ‘God, please help me pull off this robbery! "‘ The Rabbi laughed. My assistant and I joined him.
"Is that serving God?" Rabbi Eliezrie asked. "So, the first question is how do we know what is service of God? We must have a certain level of intellectual and spiritual humility because to find the answer to that question we look into the Torah. When we believe that God gave the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai and that the Torah gives a direction, a mission, to the Jews to fulfill the six hundred thirteen mitzvahs, we seek to do the will of the Lord as expressed to us through the Torah." His penetrating eyes met mine. "By the way, God gave a mission to the non-Jews to fulfill seven commandments which are really inclusive of many more of the six hundred and thirteen commandments."
"Would you be willing to say what those seven commandments are?" I asked.
"We call these the seven commandments of Noah — meaning commandments for the whole of society. Some religions believe that the only way you’re going to be saved is to believe what they believe. We don’t. Judaism believes in different religions. In other words, we have different approaches to God throughout the world, and the fact that Judaism is valid does not invalidate somebody else’s approach. However, we believe the non-Jew has an obligation to keep these seven different mitzvahs and that he, the non-Jew, will have a portion of the world to come if he does these things." 1
Levels of Consciousness
"You speak of the world to come. Please tell me what are the qualities, or characteristics, of the world to come?" I asked.
"I haven’t been there yet!" he laughed.
I leaned forward, "Perhaps I should say that yogis, mystics, and most religious people speak of experiences of a higher world or a superconscious state. I’m particularly interested in knowing what are these levels or planes of consciousness that the Hasidic Jew experiences from his contemplation and prayer? For example, in the yogi’s state of samadhi, the meditator suddenly catches a glimpse of a transcendent reality and beholds what he is meditating upon in its full light. Other meditators are, through God’s grace, able to adore God so much that they become absorbed in that divine reality, forgetting ego, forgetting their personal past experience. Suddenly they experience this transformed state due to their absorption."
He nodded. "There are certain stages you can rise to. However, there’s another important thing: your feet have to be on the floor. There is a critical place where you have to bring spirituality and godliness into the physical world," the Rabbi replied. "So, there are certain states that a person can rise to, states of closer bonding with God. We don’t so much give these states titles. There’s a status of bonding and cleaving, each person according to their level, according to their experience," he said.
"You use the word ‘levels.’ Are you willing to tell me the characteristics of these levels?"
He nodded. "I think levels is a critical word because we find the term throughout Jewish mysticism. The word in Hebrew is called madrigot which in English is levels, and the person rises from level to level."
"Could you tell me what they are?"
"Well, there happen to be four different spiritual worlds. We view our world as the lowest level, or the fourth world. This is called the world of Asiyah, the world of action. The highest world is the world of Atzilut, where there is no sense of self-identity, where everything is ‘bonded to God spiritually,"’ he said.
Baal Shem Tov
"Can one be in God while on this planet earth?" I asked.
Yes, by observing his commandments as articulated in the Torah. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism (also, Chassidism or Hassidism), writes that he rose to the spiritual worlds. He had an out-of-the-body experience and he writes about the levels, how he went up to the palace of the Messiah and asked the Messiah when he’s going to come to the earth. Baal Shem Tov wrote these letters to his brother-in-law and we have the original manuscripts — they’ve been published," he said.
"Well, please tell me, when did Baal Shem Tov say the Messiah is going to come?" I asked.
"We hope soon," he said. "Jews believe the Messiah is to come by the year 6000. We’re at the year 5749, according to the Jewish calendar. One of the critical components of Jewish theology is the belief that the Messiah will come anytime. He could come today."
A Tremendous Bonding
Then he added, "There was a great Rabbi in the last generation called Chofetz Chaim. He used to pack his bags every Saturday night and wait for the Messiah.
"The idea is that God created us," Rabbi Eliezrie continued. "We are, in a sense, like children of the Lord, but there’s a tremendous bonding between God and mankind because each person possesses a certain element of God, a soul. A human being basically has two components—the physical and the spiritual. Death is the separation of body and soul. After death, even if you repair the body, it will not come to life, because it lacks the soul. The soul is the essence of the individual."
"Is that soul the presence of God in the person?" I asked.
"Yes," the Rabbi responded.
"It is God’s presence in us?" I asked.
"It’s called neshama — a piece of God which actually exists within man," he explained.
"Will you tell me something more about the soul?" I requested. "What are the attributes of the individual soul — as different from the infinite Lord?"
"There are ten basic attributes of the soul — three intellectual ones and seven emotional ones. 2 God, as an essence, is not limited at all. We can’t say God is finite or infinite because then we are trying to limit him.
"The only way we can talk about God accurately is to say he’s not just finite, he’s not just infinite, and he’s not just this or that because the minute we label him into something, we’re limiting him," Rabbi Eliezrie explained.
Fascinated by the classification of different worlds and the ten basic attributes of a human soul, I asked, "How does a Hasid become fulfilled?"
"The question is how does a Jew become fulfilled. Hasidism is only a tool. A Jew becomes fulfilled by observing God’s commandments," he underscored.
"So, in fulfilling God’s commandments, what happens?" I asked.
"Then you raise your spiritual state and, more importantly, the spiritual state of the world," he said quietly.
"How does that work? When your spiritual state goes up, how does the spiritual state of the world also go up?"
"When you do a mitzvah, when you do God’s command, you bring holiness into the world. For example, if you take food and eat it, the strength and energy you get from eating a piece of meat, for instance, gives you energy for a higher purpose. You have elevated that meat to a higher level of existence. There are four levels of existence — there are dormant things, growing things, living things, and human beings. So, each level is dependent on the level below it for its existence. The fourth level is mankind. We call mankind the communicator," he added.
Holiness in Everything
I felt my mind reaching, "Would you tell me more about how the world is changed by doing acts of...."
"You’re bringing spirituality into the world," the Rabbi explained. "There’s holiness in everything, and the question is how do you bring it to revelation. By doing a mitzvah, you reveal the holiness in each thing."
"So, you’re saying there is great hope for the world," I suggested.
"There’s definitely hope for the world. The essence of the world is good and holy. The problem is it’s all covered up," he said.
"How does a Hasidic Jew view this regular world of activity?"
"A world that you have to live in," Rabbi Eliezrie responded. "This is the world of purpose and creation. At the same time, you have to be like oil in water. You have to be in the world but you have to retain your specialness."
"And the obligation is to follow the commandments, the six hundred and thirteen commandments?" I asked.
"The six hundred and thirteen commandments. Again, it’s not specifically a responsibility of the Hasidic Jew, it’s for every Jew."
Spirituality in Everything
"And a Hasidic Jew has, perhaps, the emotional approach, or perhaps the intellectual approach, through his or her particular Rebbe?" I continued.
"Through a particular Rebbe, or an approach within a particular Hasidic movement," he explained. "You see, these different names for the different movements were usually names of towns where the different Hasidic Rebbes lived in Europe."
"Now that we’ve covered the goal of Hasidic Judaism, how do you live in permanent spiritual realization? Since your path and the path of Chabad is that of intellectual realization, how do you do it successfully? Do you simply strive to be mindful of God at all times, or... ?" I struggled to formulate my question.
"That’s critical," he responded. "In all your ways you should know God. In everything you do, you should come to a recognition of spirituality. Everything you do has a purpose and we have to bring out that purpose constantly."
Trying and Failing
"When you encourage people to do this, how do you tell them to do it? Don’t they say, ‘Rabbi, I try, but I fail?"’
"You’re supposed to try and fail. That’s the essence of what being a human being is all about — it’s trying and failing, as well as succeeding," he answered.
"What if someone comes to you and says, ‘Rabbi, I’m discouraged. I don’t know what to do next. I don’t seem to be able to progress.’"
"That’s why we have a Rebbe," Rabbi Eliezrie seemed to sympathize. "Our Rebbe gives us a little bit of warmth and vitality and energy and he helps us go forward. People right this minute, in Israel, in Australia, can listen to him. He is speaking right now in New York to about three to five thousand Jewish children. He speaks in Yiddish usually. People can listen to him on the radio, on cable television, and even phone and listen to his discourses. The Rebbe speaks and teaches and gives the Hasid guidance, strength and support. Right now, for the holidays, I know that there will be seven to eight thousand people traveling from all over the world to New York to be near the Rebbe. While he speaks in Yiddish, it’s translated into English and many other languages and broadcast over the whole world."
"You raise a very interesting point. This Rebbe who is being listened to throughout the world is obviously not considered an ordinary man or merely a teacher. There must be some kind of spiritual grace or blessing upon him and upon his sharing, must there not?" I asked.
"Judaism believes, from the very dawn of Jewish history, that there are in every generation certain individuals who are called tzadikim, which means people with unusual spiritual qualities. All throughout history every generation has such people and these tzadikim are of special spiritual caliber and have unusual qualities of leadership. Hasidism only reemphasizes the idea to a certain degree but you will see this throughout Jewish history. Nowadays you hear a Rebbe on cable TV. Two thousand years ago, you had to travel to the great centers of Jewish learning in Babylonia; but it’s basically the same thing."
"Would the Rebbe be called a saint?" I asked.
"We don’t use that word. It’s a Christian concept. Rather than saint, I would use the term tzadik, a person who uses all his potential and all his abilities for spirituality and godliness," he concluded.
The Rebbe's Blessing
"Does God’s love and grace pour out through the Rebbe? There is a concept in yoga of darshan, which is that God’s love and grace shines out through such a person and that God uses that person to bless others," I offered.
"Every person can give another a blessing," he smiled. "Tzadik is on a high spiritual level and therefore his blessing has the potential for greater impact."
"How does one who goes before the Rebbe humble himself appropriately? What does one do to be in that state of humility and service?" I asked.
"A Hasid who goes to the Rebbe prepares himself spiritually for that meeting. I travel to New York often. I know myself that the Rebbe gives one that extra motivation," Rabbi Eliezrie spoke happily. "In Chabad philosophy, the bond which is important is the intellectual bond between the Hasid and his or her Rebbe through the Rebbe’s teaching of Torah."
"It would seem, then, from what you’ve said, that intellectual also means something like revelation."
"Yes, one hundred percent," he exclaimed. "A lot of what the Rebbe teaches is knowledge of great, spiritual, mystical character."
"Then I’d better clarify. We’ve talked about this intellectual path of Hasidism. I’ve been assuming that this intellectual path, or direction, is one of the mind, but I believe now that you’re not saying that at all. You’re saying that your intellectual path is of the mental faculty in addition to an intuitive or revelatory faculty. Please help us understand: what do you mean by intellectual?" I asked.
"The key to developing spirituality is by understanding as much as we can. The word ‘Chabad’ means wisdom, understanding and knowledge — which is the intellectual process."
Understanding to the Best of Our Ability
"Understanding as much as you can seems to be some kind of superconscious activity rather than the employment of regular consciousness," I thought aloud. "Correct?"
"No, superconsciousness is at a later stage," he explained. "Every one of us can understand according to our ability."
"Are you saying it’s your first duty, in a way, to understand according to your abilities?" I asked.
"Yes, that’s true. We can’t expect the same from a simple, non-intellectual person which we can expect from a great intellect, but each can use the same basic process to elevate himself."
State of Awe
"That’s wonderful," I felt moved to comment. "So, everyone has a duty to understand according to his or her abilities. Then, obviously something happens. What happens?"
"What happens is you reach a state of awe, of spirituality and godliness. That’s what it comes to," he said.
"Rabbi Stern, who suggested I interview an Hasidic Rabbi, thought I might like to ask you about the theological concept of Shekinah."
"Yes?" Rabbi Eliezrie waited for my question.
"My dictionary says Shekinah is: ‘the manifestation of the presence of God; or Divine Presence.' 3 Would you agree with this definition?"
"Yes," he agreed, "basically, Shekinah is the manifestation in the physical world of the Divine Presence.
"If I were to come into your place of worship, would I see a physical object? Is Shekinah a physical object?"
"There were times when Shekinah was physically present in the world," the Rabbi spoke thoughtfully. "When the temple was in existence. And, today, when people get together and study the Torah, Shekinah is present. Shekinah can be brought about when the temple is here or when ten or more Jews get together and study the Torah. Or, when people are together in a holy act. When people fulfill a mitzvah, Shekinah can be present."
A Spiritual Presence
"What I’m trying to understand," I explained, "is does Shekinah have any form whatever?"
"No form. It’s a holy, spiritual force.
I was striving to understand man’s relationship to the Shekinah and how it is experienced and what it does, as Rabbi Stern had suggested to me during our interview.
"When ten people are together studying the Torah, do they ask Shekinah to come?"
"It’s automatically there," Rabbi Eliezrie responded.
"What is that like," I asked, "when you study the Torah and Shekinah comes?"
"There are times when people feel in themselves a spiritual sensitivity and holiness — Shekinah is the Presence of God," he answered.
When the Messiah Comes
"Are we looking forward to a time when all will be living in the Presence of God?" This thought seemed only logical to me.
"That will happen when the Messiah comes. When the Messiah comes, the spiritual becomes revealed in the physical. Then we will see the Presence of God within every physical object," the Rabbi spoke with conviction.
"And, what does the word ‘Shekinah’ derive from?" I asked him.
"Residing, to reside. Shekinah is God residing together with his people."
"This Presence, when people are sitting together reading the Torah or doing a holy act, does the Presence occur within them, or does everyone in the room feel it?"
"That depends," he said. "It depends on their sensitivity. For instance, you can be willing to give somebody something but they may not be able to accept it. God is present but not all may be sensitive enough to feel the Divine Presence.
"How, then, can one become sensitive to Shekinah?"
"You become sensitive through learning, praying, and going through a period of spiritual development. Spiritual development in our religion primarily relates to prayer," he said.
The thought of all men consciously coming into the Presence of God thrilled me. Why can’t all of us pray together one day or do a mitzvah and see what happens, I thought silently.
Giving a Blessing
"Before I reluctantly conclude this fascinating interview, can you tell me what you mean when you say ‘give a blessing’? I often hear Jewish people speak of giving a blessing and it would be wonderful to conclude this chapter with a blessing. How do you give a blessing, please?"
"You say, ‘I bless you.’"
I waited for the Rabbi to say more. He merely smiled back at me.
"Well," I urged him, "what are the dynamics? How does this work?"
"I say, ‘I’m giving you a blessing.’ This is an action and it represents a flow of spirituality and energy into the world."
"So a blessing is a flow of spirituality into the world?" I tried to get him to explain more.
"So, you just say, ‘I bless you,’ and energy is generated because of the power of God and because of your intellectual and emotional attunement with God?"
"We believe that, in general, every individual can give another individual a blessing." Rabbi Eliezrie gave us his hand in farewell.
Oh, I thought, when will the great day dawn when people throughout the world attune with God and continually, appreciatively, give one another blessings?