Rabbi Manis Friedman is an internationally renowned lecturer, counsellor and philosopher. Based in Minnesota, he gives talks about Judaism, relationships, marriage, and many others topics, around the world.
He has written two books, has been a marriage, parenting and family counsellor for 50 years and is the dean and co-founder of Bais Chana Women International, a Jewish learning institute for women. He also served as a live translator for the Lubavitcher rebbe’s televised talks in the 1980s.
On July 30, Rabbi Friedman was in Toronto to give a lecture at Chabad Israeli.
Your lecture was titled, “Is Religion Good for the World.” Could you summarize what it was about?
Well, the conflicts between religions has brought a lot of grief to the world. So the question is: do the benefits outweigh the costs? It’s a pretty good question, because the costs have been horrendous, and they still are. Religious wars or religiously motivated wars – they’re just endless. So the question is: why? And how do we separate the good part from the bad part, and salvage the good? And is that even possible?
And is there an answer for that?
Well, first we have to separate God from religion. Even if religion is not good for the world, belief in God is. It’s fine if there are religious differences, as long as there’s not a difference in morality. If one religion says, ‘Thou shalt not murder,’ and one says it’s OK, we’re going to have problems. So what we need is a universal morality, even if we’re worshipping differently, or have different customs or different ways of relating to God. That’s fine, just don’t have two sets of commandments.
You travel quite a bit for lectures, what would you say motivates you to do so?
Every Chabad Hasid is raised from childhood to feel responsible and to not be comfortable or content with personal achievement. You have to do something for the Jewish community, you have to do something for the world. It’s not enough to be a private citizen. So that’s in every Hasid’s blood.
You were a simultaneous translator for the Lubavitcher rebbe for a while. That must have been pretty surreal. What was it like?
Surreal is a good word, because I look back at it now and I don’t know how I did it, because the Rebbe spoke quite rapidly and quickly switched subjects. You never knew what he was going to come up with next. He tied things together that didn’t seem to be connected at all.
I don’t remember those talks, because when you’re translating simultaneously, you can’t be thinking, you have to go on automatic pilot and just let your mouth go.
I didn’t realize it then, but just to think about the responsibility – the trust that the rebbe had to allow his words to be translated like that. Wow. Jonathan Sacks says, “Good leaders create followers, great leaders create leaders.” The rebbe empowered people to do things that they never thought they could do on their own.
I translated for eight years, the end of the 1970s to ’88, six times a year, five hours a night. That’s a lot of stuff. And now so many of the videos that everybody watches of the rebbe, a lot of it comes from those televised farbrengens.
You’re really active on social media – YouTube, Facebook – what has this done for your outreach?
It’s got me into a lot of trouble, because almost everything I say goes out live. So I really have to be so precise in my language. A tweet can be understood or misunderstood, but it’s the only way to reach the masses.
I get out of the car and this guy comes over and says, “Hi, I’m Christian, I listen to your talks and I’m telling all the other Christians to listen.” How would that happen without the Internet? Is it important that non-Jews hear what Jews are thinking? Absolutely. It’s indispensable.
As a marriage, parenting and family counsellor, what motivated you to first get involved in that?
If you’re a shaliach anywhere in the world – and I’m a shaliach in Minnesota – people will come to you with their family issues, even though they’re 30 years older than you. So it started with just local families or couples, but then when Bais Chana Women International started, and women from all over the world were coming, they would have the same questions.
The only topic that has been consistent throughout all the years as a major issue or a major subject is family. Everything else comes and goes pretty quickly: politics, eastern religions, food fads. They’re here one year and they’re gone the next year. But family is always a hot topic.
What would you say you’ve learned most from being a counsellor?
What I learned most is hasidus. When you go out to the world and you see what’s going on, that’s when you start to appreciate what you learned in yeshivah. Until then, it was all theoretical and hypothetical. So you start to appreciate that, and that’s why dealing with relationships on a human level made the relationship with God so much more real – because a relationship is a relationship.
You’ve published and spoken about this topic of love and relationships quite a bit recently. How do you decide when to change the topics that you focus on? Is it based on society?
It’s based on popular culture, because whatever is wrong needs to be corrected. There are new demons all the time and you have to fight them. So I think that today, the big demon is love. It’s destroying everything. It’s completely disproportionate and out of control. It’s worshipped – love is God. And it’s a fake, false God, so it’s going to disappoint.
What’s the biggest misconception about love in today’s society?
The biggest misconception is that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, and it’s so not true. Love is not a reason to marry, love can’t carry a marriage, it can’t sustain a marriage. So all those songs and slogans, you know: “Love will keep us together.” No, it won’t. In fact, it’ll prevent you from ever coming together. Love is destroying marriages, for a very simple reason: if love has become your objective, the person you end up marrying is only secondary to the love.
So the real painful tragedy is that being married for 20 years and happily married, people complain that they feel alone in the world. And that’s a horrible feeling. It shouldn’t happen when you’re married. So what’s missing? I think it’s because everybody focuses on love. You have love in your life, but you’re still alone.
So real marriage means merging with another human being. It’s not an exchange of love (which is no better than an exchange of money). Love is an object, it’s a thing, and it distracts you from the person. But it’s really shocking for people to hear that, because you’re raised all your life believing that love is the most important thing. So the more you make love important, the more you destroy marriages.
So is there room for the heart in marriage?
Of course. But the heart has to be directed to the person, not to something you can get from the person. So the fact that you love love is not good for marriage. You have to love having someone other than yourself in your life. That’s a marriage. Like Tevye asks Golde in Fiddler on the Roof: “Do you love me?” And she says, “For 25 years, I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals.” What she’s saying is not, “be thankful that I did your laundry”; what she’s saying is “Am I giving you my love? Is that your question? I gave myself to you for 25 years, if that’s not love, then what is?”
So yes, there has to be emotion, but it has to be directed to a person, not to some goodies you can get from the person. So marrying someone for their money is no worse than marrying them for love. They’ll run out of money, they’ll run out of love – same thing. If you marry them for the money, it’s not really about them; if you marry them for love, it’s not really about them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.