Rav Soloveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe: An Unlikely Friendship

Left: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Photo: Hoberman Publishing / Alamy Stock Photo. Right: Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, the Rav Photo: Joel Orent

 

At first glance, one would think that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, widely known as “the Rav,” and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, better known as “the Rebbe,” would not have shared much in common. These two great men were representatives of two opposing schools within Judaism. The Rav was a seventh-generation descendant of Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, the founder of the Volozhin Yeshiva, the template for all Lithuanian yeshivos. Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner was also the outstanding disciple of the Gaon of Vilna, the leader of the opposition to Chassidism. The Rav’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all leading rabbis in the Lithuanian mold, without an ounce of Chassidism between them. Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (Reb Chaim Brisker), the Rav’s grandfather, was the innovator of the “Brisker derech,” a method of Talmudic study that seeks to uncover the concepts underlying the halachah, but which never ventures beyond halachah into the realm of mysticism or philosophy. The intellectual and sometimes austere Talmudism of the Rav’s forebears is depicted in his work Halakhic Man:

Halakhic man’s approach to reality is, at the outset, devoid of any element of transcendence. . . . To whom may he be compared? To a mathematician who fashions an ideal world and then uses it for the purpose of establishing a relationship between it and the real world. . . . When halakhic man comes across a spring bubbling quietly, he already possesses a fixed, a priori relationship with this real phenomenon: the complex of laws regarding the halakhic construct of a spring. . . . When halakhic man looks to the western horizon and sees the fading rays of the setting sun or to the eastern horizon and sees the first light of dawn and the glowing rays of the rising sun, he knows that this sunset or sunrise imposes upon him anew obligations and commandments.

By contrast, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was the seventh-generation leader of the Chabad Chassidic dynasty. The dynasty’s founder, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Baal HaTanya, bore the brunt of the opposition to Chassidism by the followers of the Vilna Gaon. While the Soloveitchik dynasty focused on the study of halachah, especially as formulated by the rationalist Maimonides, Chassidim, and particularly Chabad, emphasized the study of mystical texts and the spiritual and emotional dimensions of Judaism. In fact, the Baal HaTanya was a halachist as well—his Shulchan Aruch HaRav to this day remains an important source of halachah for non-Chassidim as well as for Chassidim. But for Brisk, the height of Torah study was delving into the intricacies of the law, explaining a dispute between Maimonides and his chief critic Ravad about the categorization of disqualifications of sacrifices, or the impurity of corpses; for Chabad, the mystical realm was both the pinnacle and sine qua non of Torah study.

Yet the Rav bore a strong affinity for Chabad, and even referred to himself on one occasion as a “clandestine Chabadnik.” What explains this affinity for Chabad? The Rav was brought up in Chaslavitch, a town with a strong Chabad presence, as immortalized in the song “Fun Chaslavitch biz Lubavitch—From Chaslavitch to Lubavitch,” about the pilgrimage Chassidim would make to see their Rebbe in Lubavitch. The Rav’s father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, was the rabbi of the town. How did a Chabad town come to have a Soloveitchik and descendant of Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner as its rabbi? The Rav told the following story: When Napoleon invaded Russia, the Baal HaTanya sided with the Czar. (He was afraid that Napoleon’s policy of emancipation would lead to assimilation.) The Baal HaTanya received information from Napoleon’s cartographer, Moshe Meizlish, which he passed on to the Russians. Napoleon’s army did a house-to-house search for the Baal HaTanya in Chaslavitch, where he was hiding. When they reached the house of the town’s rabbi, Rabbi Yisrael, who was a student of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Yisrael told the French soldiers that were the Baal HaTanya hiding in his house, he would gladly turn him over. The French, apparently aware of the enmity between the two groups, accepted this and did not search the house where the Baal HaTanya was in fact hiding. As a result, the Baal HaTanya declared that Chaslavitch should henceforth always have a Misnaged as its rabbi.

The Rav and the Rebbe at a dinner for the Lubavitch Yeshiva in 1942. From left: The Rav, who delivered the keynote address that evening; Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, brother-in-law of the Rebbe; Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Rebbe’s father-in-law and the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe; and the Rebbe. Courtesy of JEM

 

The Rav’s cheder teacher was a Chabad Chassid, who emphasized the study of the Tanya at the expense of the Talmud. Once, after Rav Chaim tested his young grandson Yoshe Ber, he recommended that Rav Moshe tutor his son on his own, which he did from that point forward. Nevertheless, the Rav’s Chabad melamed had a profound impact upon his precocious pupil. The Rav discussed his melamed’s influence on his trajectory in life in a letter he wrote to his friend and colleague Rabbi Moshe Dov-Ber Rivkin, a distinguished Lubavitcher talmid chacham and rosh yeshivah of Torah Vodaath:

As I speak, I remember a vision of my youth, wrapped in childlike innocence, clothed in nostalgic splendor. . . . The image of my teacher, Rabbi Baruch Yaakov Reisberg, stands before me. I still see his face, emiting calmness and wisdom, imagination and ingenuity. To this day, I hear his voice in the silence of twilight, suffused with sorrow and longing. His words cross the chasm—words full of passion and wonder about the time in his youth spent in Lubavitch. I still carry deep in my soul the picture of the Alter Rebbe which looked down on us students from the walls of the cheder: that broad forehead and commanding intellect, the large eyes which peered into Divine infinities, eternally captured in wonder. . . . I still see the picture of the Tzemach Tzedek, dressed in white, which, in our childhood fantasy, metamorphosed into the Kohen Gadol, exiting the Holy of Holies. . . . I still dream about the elderly Chassidim dancing rapidly around my father on the night of Shemini Atzeret. These impressions will never be erased from my heart; they are deeply rooted in the recesses of my being.

After Rabbi Rivkin passed away in 1976, the Rav eulogized him for a full hour after one of his regular Gemara shiurim in the Moriah shul:1  

What do I know about Habad? I know quite a bit, since as a child I had a melamed who was a Habad hasid. Instead of teaching me Gemara, he taught me hasidut. Even today, I still know sections of the Tanya by heart, especially the Sha’ar ha-Yihud ve-ha-Emunah, dealing with faith and the attributes of the Almighty. It was my father who taught me Gemara and enabled me to master the rabbinic idiom. Nevertheless, if not for my Habad melamed, I would today be lacking in an entire dimension of knowledge. Many of my drashot are based upon the knowledge imparted to me by that melamed. Those who enjoy my drashot owe him a thank-you. His name was Reb Baruch Yaakov Reisberg, and I remember that he told me that he was a descendant of the author of the Tanya, the founder of Habad.

I vividly recall how Reb Baruch would teach Tanya. During this period, my father would visit the hadarim in Khaslavichy on either Thursday or Friday. The melamed had lookouts who would inform him when the rabbi was on his way. Immediately, the volumes of Tanya would be hidden. The Tanya was a small book, and it was easy to hide. We would quickly take out the large gemorot and shout as if deeply involved in talmudic study. Somehow we always shouted when we studied Gemara. My father would look around and not notice anything out of the ordinary.

Once, however, when I accompanied my father to a wedding in Brisk, my grandfather Reb Chaim tested me. Instead of reciting portions of Merubah [the seventh chapter of Baba Kama] which we were supposedly studying, I recited sections of the Tanya by heart. My father and grandfather may have been angry, but I am in debt to the melamed. His teachings broadened my horizons in Judaism. The melamed inspired me with his descriptions of the Kingship of G-d and of the sefirot, or emanations, from the Divine Presence. The melamed had studied in the Yeshiva in Lubavitch, and his method of speech uplifted and transformed me. At the time I was too young to truly comprehend many of his teachings. Only later did I understand and appreciate the lessons in their full depth. He taught me how to pray with emotion and ecstasy, and gave me an appreciation for the High Holy Day prayers. I often think of him on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“Do something simple,” he would say, “but do it with emotion and feeling.” That is the basic message of Habad. Do something mundane and simple, but do it with divine inspiration and meaning! That is the general message of hasidut and certainly the touchstone of Habad.

The Rav bore a strong affinity for Chabad, and even referred to himself on one occasion as a ‘clandestine Chabadnik.’

I remember when my friend, Menachem Kasdan, a fellow student of the Rav, visited the Soviet Union in 1968 and met the Rav’s teacher, Rabbi Reisberg. When Kasdan reported his encounter to the Rav, the Rav was flabbergasted to discover that his teacher was still alive. Kasdan described what took place:2

As we walked in the corridor a man came out of the Beit Medrash and told us that somebody there desires to meet with us. I was amazed. I did not know anyone in Russia. Who wants to meet me? A tall thin man came out and said to us in Yiddish: “I hear that you studied with a student of mine.” I did not have the foggiest notion of what this man was talking about. He continued: “Yesterday you said that you studied with Rabbi Soloveitchik.” I remember his next phrase clearly, even though my Yiddish was not the best. “Er iz geven meiner ah talmid” (He was my student). . . . I asked the man: “Do you want me to send a message to the Rav?” He said: “Send him regards from Reb Baruch.” “Reb Baruch whom?” I asked. He said: “Reb Baruch from Khaslavichy. That will be enough.” While I heard the Rav speak about this melamed many times, I never heard his actual name mentioned. Now, for the first time, I learned that his name was Baruch.

When I returned to New York, I went up to the Rav after his shiur to tell him about this experience. The Rav was very tired after his lecture. I said to the Rav that I have regards for him.

“From whom?” the Rav asked.

I answered: “He would not tell me his full name. He just said tell the Rav that he has regards from Reb Baruch from Khaslavichy.”

Upon hearing this name, there was an electrifying response on the part of the Rav. His entire body came to life as he exclaimed: “It cannot be. It cannot be. Reb Baruch Reisberg cannot be alive. He must be dead!”

“But, Rebbe,” I said, “you have never mentioned the name. I could not have told you his name without hearing it from Reb Baruch.”

“All right,” said the Rav. “Then he must be a very old man.” Subsequently, I heard that over the ensuing years when the Rav retold stories about his melamed he would mention that one of his students met the melamed in Russia.

Interestingly, the Rav was fond of quoting a teaching from his melamed about Joseph and his brothers when Joseph asked his brothers whether they had a father (as recorded in Chumash Mesoras HaRav, pp. 328-29):

I recall an incident from my childhood. I was seven or eight years old in a small town in White Russia, and like all Jewish boys, I attended the little cheder school. I still remember that dreary winter day in January; it was cloudy and overcast. The Torah portion of the week was Vayigash, and Chanukah had just ended, taking away with it the joyous holiday spirit from our small town. A long, dark winter lay ahead for us cheder boys. We had to rise when it was still dark, and return home holding a lantern, because nightfall was so early. That day, we cheder boys were in a depressed mood, lazy and listless. We chanted mechanically the first verses of Vayigash in a dull monotone, droning the words in Hebrew and translating them into Yiddish. One boy finished reciting Joseph’s question: “Hayesh lachem av, Do you have a father,” and the reply: “Yesh lanu av zaken: Yes, we have an old father.”

Then something unusual happened. Our teacher, a Chabadnik, suddenly jumped to his feet and with a gleam in his eyes motioned to the reader to stop. He turned to me and addressed me with the Russian word podrabin, meaning assistant to the rabbi. The teacher asked me: “What kind of question did Joseph ask his brothers—‘Hayesh lachem av, Do you have a father?’ Of course they had a father, everybody has a father! The only person who had no father was Adam, created by G-d. But everyone else born into this world has a father. What kind of a question was that?” I tried to offer the answer, “Joseph simply wanted to find out whether the father was still alive. ‘Do you have a father?’ actually means, ‘Is he alive, or is he dead?’”

“If so,” our teacher thundered back at me, “Joseph should have phrased the question differently: ‘Is your father still alive?’” It was useless to argue with our teacher. He was now no longer addressing only us little boys. He began to speak rhetorically as if some mysterious guest had just entered that cold room. “Joseph,” our teacher pronounced as if from a pulpit, “wanted to know whether his brothers were still attached to their roots and origins. ‘Are you,’ Joseph was asking, ‘rooted in your father? Do you look at him the way the branches or blossoms look on their roots? Do you see your father as the foundation of your existence? Do you see him as your provider and sustainer? Or are you just like rootless shepherds wandering from place to place, from pasture to pasture, who forget their origin?’” Our teacher suddenly stopped addressing the invisible visitor and turned his focus directly to us. Raising his voice, he asked us: “Are you truly humble? Do you look down condescendingly at your old father as representing an archaic tradition? Do you think that your old father is also capable of telling you something new and exciting? Something challenging? Something you didn’t know before? Or are you so arrogant and vain, that you deny dependence on your father, upon your source?” Our teacher exclaimed, “Hayesh lachem av, Do you have a father?!” pointing at my study-mate Isaac, who was considered the town’s prodigy. The teacher turned to him and said, “Who do you think knows more? Do you know more because you are so well-versed in Talmud, or does your father, Jacob the blacksmith, know more even though he can barely read Hebrew? Are you proud of your father? When we recognize the supremacy of our father, then, ipso facto, we accept the supremacy of our Universal Father in Heaven.”

I will never forget our teacher’s novel interpretation of the Joseph story.

The Rav’s attachment to the teachings of the Baal HaTanya continued throughout his life. One summer when I was learning with the Rav with a small group of students in Boston, the Rav told us, “Min ken nisht farshteyn Elul ohn Likkutei Torah—You cannot understand Elul without studying the Baal HaTanya’s work Likkutei Torah.” He obtained copies of Likkutei Torah for all of us, but he taught it only once. He thought that we students—especially me—were not so interested, but in truth we were completely innocent of his charge. At the time, he told us Y. L. Peretz’s (fictional) story about the Beis HaLevi, who arrived at the beis midrash of a former student who had become a Chassid and was now the Bialer Rebbe. According to the story, as the Bialer Rebbe spoke, the wintry afternoon was transformed, the sun emerged, the snow melted and the trees began to bloom. Then the Beis HaLevi looked at his watch and said, “It is almost sunset. We must daven Minchah,” and the icy cold winter returned. The Rav looked at me and said, “Genack, that’s you!” (though again, I emphasize that I did not actually have any objection to his teaching the Baal HaTanya).

Among his fellow students of the Maggid of Mezritch, the Baal HaTanya was known as “Der Litvak.” Perhaps the Rav felt a kinship with his fellow Litvak. Even though the Rav did not succeed in transmitting it to us, he thought that the Baal HaTanya was a profound thinker and that his sefarim were essential for understanding the religious experience of Elul and of Yahadus in general.

Rabbi Yudel Krinsky, who was then the Rebbe’s chief assistant, wrote a letter to the Rebbe to inform him that the Rav was teaching Likkutei Torah to his students. The Rebbe responded that it would be worthwhile to show the Rav—underlining the words “not in my name”—the Tzemach Tzedek’s comments on these passages in Likkutei Torah.

The Rebbe warmly greeting the Rav at a farbrengen the latter attended in honor of the Rebbe’s thirtieth anniversary as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, January 28, 1980. Courtesy of JEM

 

After Rav Moshe Soloveichik passed away, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (known as the Rayatz), wrote a letter in support of the Rav assuming his father’s position at Yeshiva University. After the Rav took the position, the Rayatz wrote a congratulatory letter to the Rav, describing the friendship between his father, the fifth Rebbe (known as Rashab), and Reb Chaim Brisker, including how they once spent Shavuos together in St. Petersburg following the rabbinic conference in the city.

When the Rav was in the year of mourning for his father, he visited Chabad, where he acted as the shaliach tzibbur. The Rayatz reminded him that as the shaliach tzibbur he would have to daven Nusach Ari, as is the Chabad custom, even in his silent Amidah. The Rav responded, “Of course. The Pe’as Hashulchan says so”—ironically citing a work by Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, one of the leading students of the Vilna Gaon.

When the Rav’s mother, Rebbetzin Pesia Soloveichik, passed away, it was during a gravedigger’s strike. The Rav called Rabbi Krinsky, who found some Lubavitcher students to dig the grave. Only the Lubavitcher students were allowed in by the strikers because they had beards and therefore looked like rabbis, while the Rav’s own students did not have beards.

The following are some anecdotes about interactions between the Rav and the Rebbe that I know either directly from the Rav or secondhand.

Rabbi Chaim Ciment, who was the Chabad rabbi in Brookline, Massachusetts, once asked the Rav to tell him about his time in Berlin with the Rebbe. The Rav told Rabbi Ciment that once on Purim in Berlin, the Rebbe was arrested after fulfilling the mitzvah of ad d’lo yada (which the Rebbe achieved through inebriation). The Rav vouched for the Rebbe and got him out of jail. Upon his release, the Rav, alluding to the difficulties the Rebbe’s illustrious predecessors had faced with Czarist authorities, told him: “Now that you have been arrested, you are qualified to become a rebbe.”3

The Rav once told me that Yaakov Herzog, the Israeli diplomat, told him in the name of a high-ranking State Department official that the only one who knows what is going on in the Soviet Union is “an old rabbi living in Brooklyn”—i.e., the Rebbe.

The Rebbe also shared with the Rav a love for the Rambam. He instituted a program for daily study of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah for his followers. In the Rebbe’s Sichos, the Rambam is often the focus of his interpretations, in a way which even a non-Chassid can appreciate. In particular, the Rebbe was fond of the Tzofnas Pane’ach by Rabbi Yosef Rosen, the Rogatchover Gaon, from whom the Rebbe also received semichah. According to lore, the Rogatchover and Reb Chaim studied together as youngsters with Reb Chaim’s father, the Beis HaLevi. While the Rogatchover’s approach is different from that of Brisk, both see the Rambam as the foremost authority with whom to reckon, and both seek to find the conceptual underpinnings beneath the surface of the laws.

The Rebbe wrote that his relationship with the Rav was ‘much greater than people knew.’

The Rav paid a shivah visit to the Rebbe when the Rebbe’s mother passed away in 1964. During the visit, the Rebbe referred to the Rambam’s view that aninus, the status of mourning immediately following the death of a relative, persists only until burial. The Rav responded that this was not the view of the Rambam. As the Rebbe began getting up from his seat to locate the Rambam, the Rav assured him (respectfully) that he need not bother because there was no such Rambam. In a subsequent letter to the Rav written on erev Sukkos, the Rebbe pointed to the Rambam’s commentary on the Mishnah (Demai 1:2) as the source for this view of the Rambam, but he notes that in Rabbi Kapach’s translation of the commentary, the Rambam’s view is different, in keeping with his view elsewhere. (In fact, even in the standard edition of the commentary, the Rambam does not say that aninus only persists until burial, and it is unclear what the Rebbe saw in the Rambam’s words here.) The Rebbe then wrote to Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, the founding editor of Encyclopedia Talmudit and a Chabad Chassid, asking why the Rambam’s view in his commentary on Demai is not recorded in the Encyclopedia.

When the Rav went to the Rebbe’s farbrengen, on the tenth of Shevat 5740 (January 28, 1980), in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the Rebbe’s leadership, the Rebbe showed the Rav tremendous respect. When the Rav got up to leave, the Rebbe stood and remained standing until the Rav left the room.4 I asked the Rav the next day if the reason he attended the farbrengen was because the Rebbe had access to lost writings of Reb Chaim. The Rav said this rumor was absolutely false: the reasons he attended were, “He is my friend, I admire him, and they asked me to go.” 

The Rav and the Rebbe had certain profound commonalities that overrode their ancestral differences. Both of these seventh-generation scions of their respective rabbinic dynasties departed from the path of their ancestors by traveling to Berlin to attain a secular education. Subsequently, this Western education enabled both the Rav and the Rebbe to connect to the “New World” Jews of America in a way that others could not. The Rav’s feelings toward the Rebbe were fully reciprocated. The Rebbe wrote that his relationship with the Rav was “much greater than people knew.” This does not mean that they were in frequent contact—I do not think they were—but they felt a deep kinship and mutual respect. The Rav famously spoke of the “loneliness” of the man of faith, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe embodied this in his own life. They were both very private individuals, introverts who nevertheless would reveal their inner selves before large crowds. Both devoted their lives to transplanting Judaism in a foreign continent, at a time when Torah was far from flourishing. And both achieved great success in their missions.

Notes 

1. A synopsis of this eulogy, given December 14, 1976, is published in Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet−Rothkoff’s The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, vol. 1, pp. 147-48.

2. Ibid., p. 155

3. A video of Rabbi Ciment telling this story and others about the Rav and the Rebbe in Berlin is available at chabad.org/therebbe/livingtorah/player_cdo/aid/640817/jewish/Purim-in-Berlin.htm. 

4. A video of the encounter is available at chabad.org/therebbe/livingtorah/player_cdo/aid/343068/jewish/Yud-Shevat-Farbrengen.htm. Rabbi Abraham Shemtov and Rabbi Herschel Schacter solicited the Rav to attend the farbrengen.

Rabbi Menachem Genack is CEO of OU Kosher.

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This article was featured in the Fall 2022 issue of Jewish Action.
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