By Rabbi Yaacov Behrman
I recently read an op-ed written by my dear friend, Rabbi Gershon Avtzon, on Gimmel Tammuz, and I felt compelled to respond. It has been many years since I last wrote about this topic, but Rabbi Avtzon mentioned the importance of an open and honest conversation, which resonated with me. So let’s truly be open and honest.
I have some concerns regarding his article, starting from the very introduction. He begins by questioning why one should write about such a personal and sensitive topic. I am unclear why this topic should be considered personal or sensitive. The fact remains that the Rebbe passed away close to 30 years ago. This is an undeniable truth. Living as a Chassid without a living Rebbe is a reality that we all face, and there should be no shame in discussing it.
Rabbi Avtzon continues by stating that every yeshiva should have a specific agenda to instill in its students and emphasizes the dangers of uncertainty and confusion.
While I agree that open and honest conversations with students are necessary, I strongly disagree with the idea that a school or educator should have a predetermined agenda or that conflicting opinions among educators are problematic. I believe it is actually healthy for students to encounter different viewpoints, as what resonates with one student may not resonate with another. The world is complex, and we do not possess all the answers. Therefore, it is crucial to prioritize honesty and truthfulness rather than promoting agenda driven theories that may not be true.
One lesson we have learned in the realm of drug prevention is to never lie or exaggerate to children. For instance, we should avoid stating that smoking will inevitably lead to cancer, as this falsehood erodes their trust in everything we say once they discover the truth. The same dangers apply here: if we insist that certain concepts are absolute facts and students later observe evidence to the contrary, they may begin questioning the entirety of their religious beliefs.
Rabbi Avtzon discusses the importance of talking about the Rebbe in current terms, stating that doing so will deeply impact the child’s (sub)consciousness. He emphasizes the need to inform youth that they can write their questions, concerns, and feelings to the Rebbe and receive answers from him today. According to him, witnessing the transformative effect when bochurim receive their first personal response from the Rebbe through the Igros Kodesh is indescribable, as it ignites their Neshoma and opens their hearts to internalize the teachings of Chassidus.
However, I find this approach to be both dishonest and counterproductive. As Chassidim, we believe that the Rebbe has the ability to provide answers. I share this belief. However, referring to a letter in the Igros as a “personal answer” is misleading. It is either an answer or it isn’t, and we won’t truly know until the arrival of Moshiach. It is certainly different from before Gimmel Tammuz when the Rebbe was alive, and you would receive an actual response specifically written and addressed to you. To be clear, this issue isn’t unique to Igros; the Derher recently published a book about answers after visiting the Ohel, which was equally problematic.
Teaching students that the experience will be the same as before and assuring them they will receive an answer is a falsehood, and as they grow older, they will almost certainly question it. Furthermore, due to this reason, the entire concept of receiving answers from Igros Kodesh is questionable, and I am unaware of the source of this custom among Chabad Chassidim. Moreover, the Rebbe had general viewpoints on certain matters but also made exceptions in specific cases. Would you really tell a student to follow a letter in Igros that seems to directly contradict a directive of the Rebbe during his lifetime? Obviously not. This further demonstrates the hypocrisy of such an approach.
The bottom line is that the Rebbe is no longer physically present as he was before; based on all accounts, we don’t see or hear him. No amount of lecturing or agenda-driven classes can alter this reality.
The Rebbe’s sichos clearly do not address a Gimmel Tammuz situation, no matter how they are interpreted. It is impossible to study the Sichos from the late 80s and 90s and conclude that we would still be in Golus in 2023 without a living Rebbe. To suggest otherwise would be intellectually dishonest. As someone who was a child during those years, I remember exactly how I was taught to understand it back then. It is important to be honest with your students about this.
Chinuch should focus on teaching students Torah and Chassidus while instilling in them healthy behaviors. This is the only goal and Emes.
Therefore, when it comes to the Rebbe, you can share your beliefs, but it is crucial to make it clear that they are your personal beliefs and that you do not have all the answers. Some individuals may choose to follow your path, while others may opt for different paths.
You have built a beautiful Yeshiva in Cincinnati that I have visited and witnessed students learning and davining. Perhaps, during my next visit, you could allow me to share my thoughts with the students. Together, we can demonstrate that we can be friends, respect each other, and strongly disagree.