The Rebbe and the Rav

by | in People

There was a knock on the door when I was visiting my rebbe, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, to express my condolences upon the loss of his mother. It was 1967.

It was quite early and I was the only one with the Rav at that moment. I quickly opened the door to the apartment and was greeted by two patriarchal figures, Rabbis Yochanan Gordon and Yisroel Jacobson. I ushered them in and observed the Rav’s face brighten as they entered. They informed my rebbe that they were sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to convey his condolences on the Rav’s bereavement. They were soon engaged in animated conversation about Lubavitch in the “Alter Heim” (“Old Country”). They discussed the Rav’s formative years in Khaslavichy, White Russia, where his father, Reb Moshe, was the rabbi. The Khaslavichy Jewish community consisted of a large number of Lubavitch Chassidim, and here the young Soloveitchik was exposed to Chabad Chassidic literature and lifestyle. Their influence remained with the Rav for the rest of his life.1

When the Chabad emissaries left, the Rav turned to me and reminisced about the years he spent studying at the University of Berlin, where he first met the future seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. With a sense of admiration, the Rav said to me, “At the University, no one knew about my background and where I was coming from. Everyone knew who the future Lubavitcher Rebbe was!” Years later, I came across pictures of the Rav and the Rebbe during their Berlin days. My rebbe’s appearance was similar to that of most other students, while the Lubavitcher Rebbe attended university in Chassidic garb.

A student of the Rav discussed the Berlin era with him at a later period. This student later recapped what the Rav recounted:

The Rav was already in the University of Berlin when the Lubavitcher Rebbe first came there. The Rav showed him the ropes when he arrived, and introduced him to R. Chaim’s derech in learning. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a very quiet person during those years.2

The Rav was introduced to the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, when the latter visited his son-in-law in Berlin in 1929 and 1930. Rabbi Schneersohn wrote:

Regarding Rabbi Y. Soloveitchik, I know him already for many years. While he was still in Berlin, I was introduced to him by my son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. My son-in-law told me about his great in-depth understanding of Torah and how he studies assiduously. I was very delighted to become close to him . . . 3

In 1941, the relationship between the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Rav was helpful in enabling my rebbe to succeed his father, Rav Moshe Soloveichik, as the senior rosh yeshivah at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn sent a letter of support for the Rav, which greatly enhanced his candidacy. It read:

It is my hope that the great, excellent, and renowned gaon, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, will be selected to sit on his father’s chair as the rosh yeshivah of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. It is only fitting and proper that he inherit this position. He will bring abundant blessings to the Yeshiva after the recent loss of its two heads. The eminent gaon has the ability to restore the school’s former glory and through him solace will be attained.4

A member of the Rav’s immediate family declared that this communication was pivotal in the Rav being selected to replace his late father. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik related:

In fact, the Previous Rebbe was ultimately the deciding factor in my father getting the job. The committee was split in their opinion about my father. One of the members of the committee was Mr. Abraham Mazer, a well-known New York philanthropist. He was also a very big supporter of Lubavitch. The Previous Rebbe called Mr. Mazer and asked him to support my father. His vote was the key factor in the committee’s decision to offer my father the job.5

The Rav was able to publicly affirm his esteem for Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn shortly afterwards. On June 14, 1942, at a banquet celebrating the founding of the United Lubavitcher Yeshivoth in the United States, the keynote address was delivered by the Rav. In his speech, he compared the Rebbe to the first-century Tanna, Rav Chanina ben Dosa. Rabbi Soloveitchik cited the Talmudic passage which described one of the miracles that occurred for Rav Chanina ben Dosa:

Once on a Friday eve he noticed that his daughter was sad, and he said to her, “My daughter, why are you sad?” She replied, “My oil can got mixed up with my vinegar can and I kindled of it the Sabbath light.” He said to her, “Why should this trouble you? He who had commanded the oil to burn will also command the vinegar to burn.” A Tanna taught: “The light continued to burn the whole day until they took of it light for the Havdalah” (Ta’anit 25a).

The Rav declared that Lubavitch Chassidism, under the guidance of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, had also successfully demonstrated that vinegar can burn. Despite the obstacles engendered by the Godless Communist regime, Lubavitch Chassidism continued to function throughout the Russian realm. Similarly, the Rav was confident that the Lubavitch movement could succeed in kindling the flames of Torah in the United States. Despite the spirituality impoverished American soil, the vinegar would burn.6

During this period, both the Rav and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was now the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, became active on the American Torah educational scene. Rabbi Soloveitchik succeeded his father as the senior rosh yeshivah in May of 1941. He remained in this position until illness forced his retirement in December of 1985.

The Rebbe arrived in the United States on June 23, 1941. He quickly became instrumental in the establishment of two central Lubavitch organizations: Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch (Central Organization for Jewish Education) and Machne Israel, a social service agency. Following his father-in-law’s death in 1950, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson reluctantly assumed leadership of the movement.7 In the ensuing decades, the Rav and the Rebbe maintained an indirect but ongoing relationship. They corresponded before the High Holy Days and the yamim tovim.8 In 1964, when the Rebbe sat shivah for his mother, Rebbetzin Chana, he was visited by Rav Soloveitchik. The two scholars soon engaged in a learned discussion of the Sabbath and Festival status of the mourner before the burial (aninut). This exchange evolved from the Rebbetzin’s death on Shabbat. The Rebbe later wrote to the Rav, detailing his stance and his understanding of Maimonides’ commentary on this topic.9

The Rav was accompanied to the shivah by Rabbi Sholem Kowalsky. The latter transcribed his conversation with the Rav as they traveled to Crown Heights. Rabbi Kowalsky wrote:

The journey from Yeshiva University to Crown Heights took over an hour, affording me lots of time to discuss the Lubavitcher Rebbe with the Rav. During the discussion, I asked the Rav to tell me about the Lubavitcher Rebbe as a person—his imposing character, his personality and his great Torah scholarship, as well as his relationship with him.

The Rav told me that he was a great admirer of the Rebbe. He said their relationship began when they were in Berlin where they were both studying at the University of Berlin. During that period they would often meet at the home of the Gaon, Rabbi Chaim Heller. It was in the course of these meetings that a strong friendship developed between the two men, both of whom were destined to become outstanding spiritual leaders of the century.

The Rav recalled that the Rebbe always carried the key to the mikvah with him when he attended lectures at the university. “At about two or three o’clock every afternoon when he left the university, he would go straight to the mikvah. No one was aware of the minhag and I only learnt about it by chance,” the Rav said.

“On another occasion, I offered the Rebbe a drink. The Rebbe refused, but when I pressured him I understood that he was fasting that day. It was Monday and the Rebbe was fasting. Imagine that,” Rabbi Soloveitchik said to me. “A Berlin University student immersed in secular studies maintains this custom of mikvah and fasting.

“These things made huge impressions on me. Additionally, the Rebbe had an amazing memory.” The Rav described the Rebbe’s memory as “gevaldig” (astounding). “In all my life, I never encountered someone with such a memory.”

Then the Rav proceeded to describe his understanding of the Rebbe’s Torah.

“Those of us who emanate from Brisk don’t adhere to the pilpul system perpetuated in Poland,” the Rav said, “but the Rebbe has a gevaldiger comprehension of the Torah.

“There were other Jewish students from other communities in the university, studying together with us at the same time. Some of them are considered today to be famous gedolei Torah. In the university they behaved the same way as other university students, but this Jew (the Rebbe) behaved like a Jew from Warsaw or from Russia. Berlin made absolutely no impression upon him at all.”10

Levi Yitzhak HaYerushalmi, a writer for Ma’ariv, the Israeli daily newspaper, had an interview with Rabbi Soloveitchik when the former visited the United States. Their dialogue was published in the October 28, 1977 edition of Ma’ariv. HaYerushalmi raised the issue of the teshuvah movement, which was then becoming more widespread. In his response, the Rav praised the Lubavitch tefillin campaigns. Rabbi Soloveitchik declared:

With this act of placing Tefillin upon Jews, the Chabad devotees remind their brethren that they are Jewish. This is praiseworthy. The tyro experiencing the Tefillin performance may begin to wonder what this precept is all about. He may start to question his spirituality. When a member of the Jewish people starts to explore his religious status, we never know how the process will culminate!

The Rav then detailed for HaYerushalmi his own experiences as a youngster growing up in Khaslavichy.11 The Rav then continued his evaluation of Chabad activities on the American scene:

No other organization could achieve what Chabad has accomplished in America. Chabad has placed Judaism in the public thoroughfare. Even though Chabad adherents are a minority among the American Torah community, its success is highly visible. It has taught the observant Jew to assert “chutzpah.” It has stressed disseminating the Torah to the Jewish people on every street corner. At times I may not agree with some of their methods. Nevertheless, this accomplishment is one of a kind. It has rejuvenated religious Jewry in America.

For instance, in the past whenever a Jewish topic arose, the leading newspapers such as The New York Times would quote Reform rabbis. The Torah world no longer existed for these newspapers. Chabad has placed Torah in the headlines of the newspapers, radio and television.

There is another aspect of Chabad thinking which I consider very important. They comprehend reality and act accordingly. They open centers for Judaism on college campuses. This is most admirable. Many religious Jews look down upon these Jewish youngsters attending secular universities. Here I totally agree with Chabad. We must recognize the environment in which these Jewish men and women function. Most of these students are not observant, yet they possess a spark of Judaism in their hearts. We must attempt to set alight this flame.

In 1980, on Yud Shevat, the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Chabad also celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s ascendancy to leadership. The Rav attended this farbrengen in a public display of acquaintanceship with Lubavitch. Among those who accompanied Rabbi Soloveitchik to this event was Rabbi Herschel Schacter, a 1941 graduate of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and the spiritual leader of the Mosholu Jewish Center in the Bronx from 1947 until it closed in 1999. Rabbi Schacter was later interviewed by Jewish Educational Media regarding this event. The Rebbe entered the beit hamidrash right after the Rav arrived. Rabbi Schacter described the public demonstration of their relationship that night:

They came up, they shook hands with each other, and the Rebbe motions to the Rav to walk ahead, and the Rav motions to the Rebbe to walk ahead, so the Rebbe walked ahead. And he sat down. There are a million other people piling in around, but in front, right [at] the front table was only the Rebbe and the Rav, zatzal, and I. They wanted to give me a chair, I said, “No, no, no.” I was standing. . . right behind the Rav, and I did not sit down the whole time. . .

The Rav listened very carefully to the Rebbe, and he had said he’s going to be there only for a half hour. An hour passed, then I myself said to him, “Maybe the Rav is not comfortable?” He said, “No, no, no. I want to stay.” I think he was there for close to two hours.

The moment he stood up, the Rebbe jumped up. The Rav didn’t wait for the Rebbe to come to him, he went to the Rebbe to shake hands and say goodbye, and I walked with the Rav, right behind. And they talked to each other for a few minutes. Very warm. You could see on their faces that these two men liked each other, they really liked one another . . .

Those words are not on any manuscript, but I was standing right there, and I heard . . . you can take on my word of honor, that the Rebbe said to the Rav, and he’s looking at me . . . He says, “Du host, Baruch Hashem, voile talmidim! You have wonderful students.” In a hundred years, when I come before the kise hakavod, I am going to remind the Ribbono shel Olam of what these two Geonim said to one another.

It [was] very nice, it was very warm. After two, three minutes they shook hands and we started to walk back. And everybody was standing, even those people who were sitting. As soon as the Rebbe got up, everybody got up. And everybody was standing, until . . . we, the two of us, walked through.

We walked back to the car, we sat down. I said to the Rav, “Nu, what does the Rav say? What do you say about the Rebbe?”

He’s sitting in the front, I can’t see his face. He hesitated for a minute and he says, “Er iz a Gaon. Er iz a Gadol. Er iz a Manhig Yisroel. He is a genius, he is a great man, he is a leader of the Jewish people.”12

The account of this farbrengen quickly circulated throughout the Torah world. For many, it was an ecstatic moment that the Rav and the Rebbe could publicly exemplify the Talmudic aphorism that “the disciples of the sages increase peace in the world” (Berachot 64a). This was particularly on target at this event as both protagonists descended from families that represented different configurations of Torah civilization.

Perhaps there was also a basic subliminal thought behind the Rav’s participation. He was expressing his gratitude to Chabad for the additional Torah perspectives they set in motion for him. In a talk he delivered at Lincoln Square Synagogue in 1975, the Rav related:

By sheer association I recall an experience from my early youth. Let me give you the background of that experience.

I was then about seven or eight years old. I attended a heder in a small town on the border of White Russia and Russia proper. The town was called Khaslavichy; you certainly have never heard of it. My father was the rabbi in the town. I, like every other Jewish boy, attended the heder. My teacher was not a great scholar, but he was [a] hasid, a Habbadnik [a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe]. His expertise in the study and teaching of Talmud was then under a question mark. As a young boy, I too questioned his scholarship. I know now that he was not a great scholar.

Nonetheless, I have been grateful to him all my life, because he taught me something that no one else taught me. Perhaps there is one exception, my mother. Namely, he instructed me in how to behold a vision. He did not train my mind but somehow addressed himself to my soul and my heart. He taught me how a Jew can be imaginative in religious matters. Many people practice Judaism but do so unimaginatively. He taught me how to practice Judaism, Torah, and mitzvot in an imaginative way. He showed us how to see a vision and make it come to life. Not many heder boys knew what a vision was and certainly not how to make a dream real. He taught me how to live Judaism and not just practice it.13

Some two hundred years earlier, it was noted that the Vilna Gaon departed from his city rather than meet with Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Lubavitch. The chasm between their Torah outlooks were too great to be bridged. In 1980, the Rav, a direct descendant of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, a leading student of the Gaon, embraced the Rebbe, a scion of the “Alter Rebbe.” Fascinatingly, at this historic event in 1980, these two imposing worlds merged into one elevated reality.

Listen to Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff discuss the relationship between the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Rav at www.ou.org/life/inspiration/savitsky-rakeffet/.

Notes

1. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Vol. I (New Jersey, 1999), 23-24 and Shulamith Soloveitchik Meiselman, The Soloveitchik Heritage: A Daughter’s Memoir (New Jersey, 1995), 124-125.

2. David Holzer, The Rav: Thinking Aloud

(Florida, 2009), 42.

3. Cited by Shaul Shimon Deutsch, Larger Than Life: The Life and Times of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Vol. II (Brooklyn, 1997), 113.

4. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Silver Era: Rabbi Eliezer Silver And His Generation (Jerusalem, 2000), 270.

5. Cited by Deutsch, Larger Than Life, II, 116.

6. Shalom Dover HaLevi Wolpo, Shemen Sasson Meichaveirecha, Vol. III (Holon, 2003), 178-179.

7. Chabad-Lubavitch: The Lamplighters (Brooklyn, 1988), 7.

8. Examples of this correspondence are reproduced in Shalom Dover HaLevi Wolpo’s Shemen Sasson Meichaveirecha, 184-188.

9. Ibid., 181-184.

10. Sholem B. Kowalsky, From My Zaidy’s House (Jerusalem, 2000), 274-275.

11. Cf. Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav, 23-24; 255-265.

12. YouTube video entitled “Excerpt: The Rebbe and the Rav,” interview with Rabbi Herschel Schacter by Jewish Educational Media. Circulated in transcript form by Jewish Educational Media. A more negative assessment of this event is attributed to Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik by Deutsch in Larger Than Life, Vol. II, 119.

13. Cited by Rakeffet-Rothkoff in The Rav, 149-150.

Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff is rosh yeshivah and professor of rabbinic literature at Yeshiva University’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem. He is a noted scholar, author and teacher who has taught thousands of students throughout his over fifty years of teaching. He would like to express gratitude to Mrs. Cheri Levy, student liaison, S. Daniel Abraham Israel Program and the RIETS Israel Kollel, for help in preparing the article for publication.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2014.

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