“The Rav and the Rebbe,” by Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, begins on January 28, 1980, at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, the headquarters of Chabad Lubavitch.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe, is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his leadership in the traditional chasidic way — with a farbrengen. The Yiddish word means joyous gathering, and it features singing, toasts, and because it was the rebbe’s farbrengen, a 90-minute Yiddish Torah lecture from him. Chabad videotaped it to preserve the rebbe’s teachings and you can watch a clip at theRebbe.org.
Watch as the rebbe walks through the room, stopping to shake the hands of another white-bearded rabbi. That’s Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Yeshiva University talmudist known as “the rav.” The two white-bearded rabbis — the rebbe was born in 1902 and died in 1994, and the rav was born in 1903 and died in 1993 — talk for 10 seconds, until the rebbe’s aide pulls him along, to take his seat at the head of the table. The video cuts to the rebbe speaking, then to Rabbi Soloveitchik, and then to Rabbi Schneerson talking with Rabbi Soloveitchik on his way out.
For Rabbi Dalfin, the 1980 encounter encapsulates the connection between two leaders of 20th century Orthodox Judaism. (Rabbi Dalfin will speak in Teaneck Sunday night; see box.)
In researching his book of 400 pages and 560 footnotes, Rabbi Dalfin, who had been at the farbrengen, watched the full video. “It brought back fond memories,” he said. “I studied that video, the facial expressions of the rebbe and Rav Soloveitchik when they shook hands, when they came into the room. I observed Rabbi Soloveitchik listening for an hour and a half while the rebbe talked. I saw the smile. I thought about their near embrace.”
Talking with Rabbi Dalfin, it becomes clear that he sees this meeting between two rabbis as a pivotal moment in the history of the Lubavitch movement and chasidism writ large, and therefore of Jewish history, and, perforce, the history of the world.
“This historic event is the end of two hundred years of divisiveness,” he said. “Two hundred years of the Vilna Gaon’s and the Baal Shem Tov’s edicts against each other.”
A refresher on 18th century Jewish communal politics: The Baal Shem Tov began teaching his doctrines of chasidism in the 1740s. He died in 1760, but the movement grew. So too did a backlash against it by its opponents, known as the misnagdim. In 1772 the Vilna Gaon — Rabbi Elijah — condemned the chasidim, and because in those days a simple press release did not suffice, excommunicated its adherents for good measure. In 1779 — 201 years before the Soloveitchik-Schneerson meeting — the Vilna Gaon again condemned and excommunicated the chasidim. This time he singled out Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who founded the Chabad movement and the Lubavitch rabbinic dynasty.
Chabad chasidim preserve the memory of that conflict through the annual celebration of 19 Kislev, the date Rabbi Zalman was released from a Russian prison after being set up by his ideological enemies, followers of the Vilna Gaon.
What does this have to do with Rabbi Soloveitchik?
Well, he was a sixth generation descendant of a student of the Vilna Gaon.
So the handshake between Rabbis Soloveitchik and Schneerson was the peaceful resolution of their 18th century ancestors, the chasidim and the misnagdim.
Historic indeed, from that perspective.
Though, from another, maybe not so much.
After the meeting, according to the book, Rabbi Soloveitchik told a student that the dispute between the chasidim and the followers of the Vilna Gaon “was already resolved by Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.” But actually it was resolved before then, at least for Rabbi Soloveitchik’s family. Back when he was 7 years old, his teacher was a Lubavitcher chasid.
“The rav spoke of him with such love, such admiration,” Rabbi Dalfin said. Under his teacher’s influence, “the rav developed a love of chasidus,” chasidic teachings.
Rabbis Soloveitchik and Schneerson first met in their youth in Berlin.
After coming to America — Rabbi Soloveitchik arrived in 1932 and Rabbi Schneerson in 1941 — “they didn’t meet much face-to-face,” Rabbi Dalfin said. “Nevertheless, their relationship was very deep and respecting. The relationship between the two men isn’t about meeting monthly or yearly. It’s correspondence, sending books and seforim to each other; it’s asking about their health.”
Among Rabbi Soloveitchik’s students whom Rabbi Dalfin quotes in his book are Rabbi Yosef Adler of Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael and Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah. Rabbi Dalfin also scoured the writings and recordings of Rabbi Soloveitchik for quotations of Chabad teachings.
And, according to a story Rabbi Dalfin was told by the son of a student of Rabbi Soloveitchik, at some point in the late 1940s Rabbi Soloveitchik requested a prayer for healing from Rabbi Schneerson. When Rabbi Soloveitchik got better, “he dedicated some time toward the end of each Talmud class to give a chasidic interpretation of that piece of Talmud,” Rabbi Dalfin said. “I only have one source for that.”
Rabbi Genack is the source for a report that when Rabbi Soloveitchik taught Talmud in the summer of 1968, he spent a few minutes at the end of each class teaching from the writings of the first Lubavitcher leader, Rabbi Shneur Zalman. “chasidic teachings complement the Talmud,” Rabbi Dalfin said. “chasidism takes the rational, logical, cold Talmud and brings it to life.”
Which leads to Rabbi Dalfin’s bottom line — one of the key messages he wants his book to bring across to “students of the rav, students of students of the rav, rabbis who are leading OU and Young Israel congregations — we need to communicate to the youth that it is important to emulate the rav. And how do you do that? By studying chasidism. And in particular Chabad chasidism. It’s chasidism that gives a person the ultimate love and depth of Judaism. That’s coming from the rav. I’m just paraphrasing and elaborating.
“You don’t have to be a Lubavitcher — you can still appreciate and study chasidism,” he said.
This interpretation of Rabbi Soloveitchik as a strong advocate for chasidism seems a bit forced, however. Most plainly, the two or three semesters where Rabbi Soloveitchik spent a little time teaching Chabad texts are outweighed by the dozens in which he didn’t.
Of course, measured by the standpoint of the 18th century excommunication, that’s giving a lot of respect to Chabad. And perhaps a desire for that respect is what motivated a senior Chabad official to venture to Yeshiva University in 1980 to invite Rabbi Soloveitchik to the 30th anniversary farbrengen in the first place.
As Rabbi Dalfin reports, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s son, Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, later lamented his father’s decision to go to the farbrengen. “If I had been in New York at the time, I never would have let my father go,” Rabbi Dalfin quotes him as saying.
Writes Rabbi Dalfin: “Haym and other family members were concerned lest Chabad turn the rav into a ‘propaganda’ piece for their own benefit.”
Who: Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, author of “Rav and Rebbe”
What: Book launch and talk
Where: Congregation Beth Aaron, 950 Queen Anne Road, Teaneck
When: Sunday, November 20, at 8 p.m.