Several hundred people gathered at Yeshiva University last week for an evening dedicated to the relationship between “two superlatively remarkable Torah leaders.”

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of righteous memory, were the scions of two distinguished Eastern European dynasties—heirs to two traditions that are to a great degree defined in contrast and in correspondence to one another.

The Rebbe was the son-in-law of the sixth Rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, and was himself a descendant of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad school of Chassidism. The Rav was the grandson of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, who had married into the family of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the foremost disciple of Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, both the Rebbe and the Rav emerged as leading forces for the revitalization of Jewish life in America.

Professor Lawrence Schiffman, who chaired the April 29 event and serves as vice provost at Yeshiva University, began by pointing out that “many Torah scholars impacted the Jewish world over the course of the last century, but the two who uniquely stand out are Rav Yosef Dov [Joseph B.] Soloveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”

They do so, he continued, not only “for their contributions to our understanding of Torah,” but also “for their contribution to the rebuilding of Jewish life.”

Unique Personal Relationship

Despite the differences in their backgrounds, the Rebbe and the Rav each drank deeply from the respective wellsprings of both the Chabad and Brisker traditions.

The Rebbe never restricted himself to Chassidic thought, but expounded widely on Talmudic topics, and often incorporated elements of the analytical method pioneered by Rabbi Chaim of Brisk into his discussion. Likewise, the Rav was profoundly influenced by Chabad Chassidus, which from his childhood years on played a seminal role in his understanding of Jewish thought and ethics. As Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, founding leader of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y., and Mashpia of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (RIETS, Yeshiva University) put it: “The Rav’s heart was drawn from Chabad Chassidus.” Despite the synthesis that each embodied, there were many issues on which they differed in both stark and subtle ways, a point that perhaps wasn’t emphasized enough at last week’s event.

Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky

Aside from their intellectual and communal affinities and distinctions, the Rebbe and the Rav had a unique personal relationship. They first met in prewar Berlin, where both studied at the Frederick William (Humboldt) University. In later life, they maintained various lines of contact, and on several occasions again met in person, most notably on the 10th of Shevat 1980, when the Rav attended the Rebbe’s farbrengen at Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.

‘Friendship, Appreciation, Admiration’

Commenting in the rarity of their face-to-face interactions, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter recalled that in discussing his relationship with the Rebbe, the Rav pointed out that friendship is not dependent on “how often” you see someone, but on “the nature of the relationship.”

Schacter’s father, Rabbi Hershel Schacter, of righteous memory, who arranged for the Rav to attend the 1980 farbrengen, said the Rav “had in his heart a string … his relationship with the Rebbe.”

A related episode was recounted by Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, longtime secretary to the Rebbe and now chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch. A Boston native, he had a personal connection with the Rav. In 1983, the Rebbe was invited to contribute to a volume of Torah scholarship that was to be published in honor of the Rav. In their letter, the organizers wrote, “we know how tight the bonds of friendship, appreciation and admiration are” between the Rebbe and the Rav. In response, the Rebbe circled this sentence and wrote “far more than is known.”

Krinsky shared many more pearls gleaned from his interactions with the Rav, in personal and professional capacities, testifying to the mutual regard that these two Torah giants had for one another.

Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, dean emeritus of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (RIETS, Yeshiva University), also shared memories about the Rebbe and the Rav. He dated the earliest official encounter between Yeshiva University and Chabad to 1929, when Charlop’s father was instructed by Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, the yeshiva’s founding dean, to invite the previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, to speak.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter
Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter

Schacter discussed not only his father’s connection with the Rebbe and the Rav, but also provided a general historical overview of the relationship between the Chabad and the Soloveitchik dynasties, going back to the last decade of the 19th century.

Rabbi Yossi Jacobson, a noted Chabad scholar and lecturer, concluded the evening by paying homage to the Rav’s inspiring oratory, highlighting the thematic influence of Chabad thought and the commonalities his teachings share with those of the Rebbe.

Despite the rich offerings shared by the event speakers, much more remains to be said about the similarities and differences between these exceptional scholars, innovative thinkers and great leaders, whose global influence continues to flourish.

The following is a full audio recording of the program's speakers