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A Special Friendship: The Rav and the Rebbe

When writing about two of Torah’s giants, it takes time, care, data, meticulous research and clarity.

Rabbi Chaim Dalfin’s recently published book “Rav and Rebbe” (Jewish Enrichment Press) takes us through the close friendship between Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, the Rav (1903-1993), and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbe (1902-1994), two leaders whose impact on Yiddishkeit will be everlasting.

Author Rabbi Chaim Dalfin said that he had stored away many years of data on Schneerson, the Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, and Soloveitchik, the former chief rabbi of the Orthodox community of Boston before becoming head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. He was considered a foundational figure in the movement of Modern Orthodoxy.

Dalfin told The Jewish Link that it was at times difficult to obtain information about both men and their loving respect for one another because they were both hesitant to talk or write about themselves. This led Dalfin on a course of digging and interviewing over the course of years.

“I did have a great deal of information in my brain database,” he said. “But much of the data had to be substantiated and documented and it took time to find authentic and academic sources. To substantiate some of my own theories and ideas took two years of intense research.”

“Rav and Rebbe” is a thorough accounting of the religious worlds in which they each lived and how their relationship of admiration was just as close even if they were far apart physically or had not communicated for long stretches of time.

The book includes a chronological account of the meetings between the two great men, their correspondence and their overall friendship.

The author sees his book as a reference point. “I’ve been told from the right and from the left that I’ve succeeded in developing a certain style, one that is tasteful and interesting, and a balance between the truth and what the truth alluded to. My books are not couch-potato reading. They are scholarly works.”

Rabbi Dalfin has been writing for over 20 years. The idea for the “Rav and Rebbe” was percolating in his mind for about five years. He wrote the book, he said, to address questions that were asked about their relationship and how their relationship might have impacted Yeshiva University and Lubavitch.

“There were, of course, certain feelings within the upper echelons of Yeshiva University that felt that Lubavitch was using Rabbi Soloveitchik’s friendship with the Rebbe as a propaganda piece for Lubavitch,” he said. “Look, I realized that this relationship was an important issue. For the sake of history and for the sake of understanding, Rav Soloveitchik was a student of Chabad as well even though he was a Misnaged from Brisk.

“Of course he wasn’t forsaking his mesorah,” continued Rabbi Dalfin. “He argued his mesorah in its authentic form.” Dalfin writes in the introduction of his book, “Today, there are thousands of the Rav’s students worldwide. Some are teachers, or rabbis in Jewish leadership positions; others are laymen, professors or businessmen. In this work, I venture forth the argument that to properly understand the Rav’s thought, one must also understand his sources and influences. Therefore, to properly learn the Rav, one must be deeply engaged in understanding Chabad Chassidus.”

Rabbi Dalfin charged that Rav Soloveitchik wanted the YU world to start learning Chassidus, because, according to the Rav, the learning of Chassidus would open up a new vista in their lives.

The book, Dalfin said, presents the real message that YU students, alumnae and faculty and Chabad members could learn from one another.

He said that if there is a foundation of explanation for the relationship between the two leaders it was that “friendship is not about when you see each other or how many times you speak on the phone. Friendship is when you do meet, you understand each other because you share a similar past and the culture around them was the same. They shared their past together, and that was with them every day of their lives.”

Jonathan Garb Scholem, chair in Kabbalah at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, wrote that “‘Rav and Rebbe’ reveals the surprisingly close connection between two of the giants of post-war American Jewry, bridging their different lineages and traditions. This is not a mere work of comparison as it illuminates many facets of the personalities of these two innovators.”

In the preface of the book, Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, a student of the Rav’s who wrote “The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,” uses a paragraph from his book that introduces the relationship between the two leaders.

“In Berlin, the young Soloveitchik sought out other devotees and interpreters of Torah Judaism. Among his contemporaries at the university was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), who was to succeed his father-in-law as the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1950. Decades later, in 1980, the Rav was to attend the public Hasidic gathering (farbrengen) in honor of the Rebbe’s 30th anniversary as the head of Lubavitch.”

Excerpt from “Rav and Rebbe” that follows up Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff’s preface:

“On Sunday, January 27, 1980, the Rav told his daughter Dr. Atara Twersky that he would be leaving for New York earlier than usual because he plans on attending the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s farbrengen, which was being held on Monday night, January 28. The news spread quickly among his intimate family members who were in Boston at the time. They were upset with the Rav’s decision as they were concerned lest Lubavitch turn the Rav into a ‘propaganda’ piece for their own benefit. However, the Rav, who had an independent mind, did not back down and indeed left for New York on Monday. The Rav was accompanied to 770 by Rabbi Herschel Schacter. When they arrived at 770, they were greeted by Rabbi Sholom Ber Levine, the Chabad librarian, who escorted them into the crowded farbrengen hall. They arrived just a few minutes before the farbrengen was set to begin and the hall was already very crowded. Levine pushed through the crowd with the Rav and Rabbi Schacter behind him and they eventually made it to the dais and greeted the Rebbe. The Rebbe gave the Rav a strong welcome handshake, smiling from ear to ear. The genuine love between these two men could be felt by the thousands of people standing in the room. The Rebbe went to his seat but would not sit down until a chair was brought for the Rav. 

“Initially the Rav had told Rabbi Schacter that he only planned on staying at the farbrengen for 20 minutes due to his poor health. However, once he arrived he decided to stay for close to two hours, carefully listening to the Rebbe’s teachings on the weekly Torah portion.

“An extraordinary moment in history was made that night. The scion of the Volozhin-Brisk dynasty, the Rav, stood together with the Rebbe, the head of the Schneerson dynasty, and together they shattered 200 years of conflict imposed by the Misnagdic camp. On that chilly Monday evening in 770, the last chapter was written on the 200-year-old regrettable saga of divisiveness between the Chasidim and Misnagdim camps.  Two spiritual giants, with a pedigree of Jewish pride, self-sacrifice and Torah scholarship, met in a room with thousands of people. Years of unnecessary conflict were wiped away for eternity. These two men, leaders of their respective communities, with thousands of followers worldwide, came together to celebrate Torah and Jewish pride. Today, some 36 years later, the Rav and the Rebbe live on through their students, Torah teachings and implementation of their directives.”

A list of some of Rabbi Dalfin’s other books include: “Your Better Self,” “Demystifying the Mystical,” “A Model for Leadership,” “The Rebbe’s Advice 1-6,” “Who’s Who in Lubavitch, Women,” “A Lubavitcher in Boro Park,” “Conversations With the Rebbe,” “Practical Halacha,” “Habad Portraits, 1-4” “The Rebbe’s Emissary,” “Lubavitch Speak,” “Soul Journeys,” “The Invisible Hand,” “Chabad House,” “Chabad’s Secret,” “The Real Shlomo,” “Faces and Places: Boro Park,” “Satmar and Lubavitch.”

He also has materials on CDs and DVDs. His works can be found in Jewish book stores worldwide and on Amazon.com.

For further information on any of Rabbi Dalfin’s works, email him at [email protected].

By Phil Jacobs

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