Title: Seventy Conversations in Transit – With HaGaon HaRav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l
By Aaron Adler
OU Press – Urim Publications
A new generation or two have grown who “did not know Yosef.” They have certainly heard his name, or have heard about him. They have heard countless teachings in his name; they have been inspired by his students, or by his student’s students, or perhaps even by their students in turn – but they didn’t know him. Of course, I am referring to the towering, undisputed leader of twentieth-century centrist Orthodoxy, Rabbi Dr. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik – “The Rav.”
For the most part, the youngest students in the Rav’s last shiurim in the early 1980s are by now grandparents (including the writer of these lines).
The Rav, who was notoriously hesitant to publish in his lifetime, became prolific only posthumously. As it turns out, The Rav was meticulous in his preparation of each and every lecture, shiur and public address, and he left a library of notes that have blossomed into full-scale publications, articles and books. Coupled with recordings and students’ notes, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Torah has not been forgotten, and his direct impact on the larger community, while certainly changed, continues to grow.
This being said, there is a vast difference between hearing something cited in someone’s name, or reading a book in which his thoughts are interpreted by others, versus sitting in a classroom and hearing the thought process unfold. Only those who knew him, those who heard him day after day and year after year, knew there was a difference between something said with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, and a well-developed svara which he laid out and shared in a shiur. Perhaps even more striking was the difference between the towering intellect on display in the classroom or lecture hall and the gracious gentleman who by the time I knew him was very grandfatherly in demeanor.
These differences are what makes Rabbi Adler’s new book so significant: He knew the Rav both in the classroom and in person. Driving him to and from the airport (and other places) on a weekly basis, Rabbi Adler had a unique opportunity to “chat” with The Rav – to explore learned topics and the thought process through which The Rav formulated his paradigmatic conclusions, while observing the human side of the great man and his great ideas. Rabbi Adler’s volume, Seventy Conversations in Transit, shares conversations and insights that reveal both the human being and the epic religious thinker and communal leader. Even those of us who had the tremendous privilege of attending The Rav’s shiur had only an occasional glimpse from the vantage point Rabbi Adler so generously offers us.
Seventy Conversations in Transit is divided into five sections: Halachic Decisions and Reasoning; Teaching Torah; Israel and the Jewish Nation; Integrity and Sensitivity; and Personal Conduct and Relationships.
For better or worse, while teeming with Torah thoughts, halachic implications and practical lessons in character refinement, this book is not a work of halacha per se. Occasionally, Rabbi Adler strays somewhat and reports things he heard from other sources, which, while interesting, dilute the power of his first-hand observations.
While he includes some very important back-stories for a number of historical episodes, Rabbi Adler makes no attempt in this volume to be historically rigorous. While this is a legitimate choice given the objective of this work, the reader should be aware that oral histories have a tendency to sacrifice historical truth to some degree. Thus, for example, the section on “Personal Conduct and Relationships” includes two chapters on the relationship between arguably the two most important Jewish leaders of the time – Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. One chapter tells of the days when they were both young men in Berlin, while the other reports on Rav Soloveitchik’s attendance at a “farbrengen” decades later, in 1980.
Rabbi Adler reports that while in university, the future Lubavitcher Rebbe split his attention in the classroom between the lecture in progress and the holy books he was reading at the same time; although it appeared that he was inattentive to the lecturer, at the end of the semester he “received the highest grades.” Apparently, this statement is hyperbole; Rabbi Schneerson audited classes and was not taking them for credit, thus he would not have been graded for achievement.
Rabbi Adler adds some hearsay (which he attributes to Rabbi Menachem Genack) that on one fateful Purim in Berlin, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson was arrested for public drunkenness and Rabbi Soloveitchik went to the police station and bailed out his friend, to whom he then quipped that as an “ex-convict” he was finally fit to take the helm of the Chabad Movement (whose leaders had historically been jailed by czarist and then Soviet authorities for their support of Judaism).
Rabbi Adler’s account of the Rav’s visit to “770” in 1980 is most certainly not first-hand testimony, as Rabbi Adler had emigrated to Israel at an earlier stage and was no longer the Rav’s driver at that point. Rabbi Adler reports that as they parted ways, the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that he was certain that in heaven the Baal Hatanya and the Vilna Gaon had reconciled their differences upon seeing the love and friendship between their (biological and spiritual) descendants. Months later, while visiting the United States, Rabbi Adler asked the Rav about the event, and the Rav confirmed that the report was accurate, but added that, in his opinion, reconciliation had taken place years earlier, when chasidim and Litvaks, and Jews of every stripe, were indiscriminately murdered in Nazi Germany.
I heard the Rav tell a similar story about their days in Berlin while I was in his shiur (although the version I heard made no mention of an arrest!). The Rav added that he believed the Vilna Gaon had been mistaken when he avoided a meeting with the Baal Hatanya, who wanted to clear the air between them.
While Rabbi Adler adds some footnotes providing additional details or sources regarding the 1980 visit, the account lacks historical context that would illuminate the episode in a different light altogether. Was this visit an expression of friendship? In the decades the two had been living in the United States prior to this visit, were there additional meetings? Was the timing of this particular visit related to the attacks against the Rebbe by the “standard bearers of the Litvish approach” emanating from Bnei Brak, who also attacked Rabbi Soloveitchik?
There are many more details about this visit that I personally heard from others who were in the car in which the Rav traveled to Crown Heights; one fellow even lent The Rav his black hat because the Rav had flown in from Boston wearing a blue hat, and he felt it would stand out at the farbrengen. The Rav discussed the content of the “farbrengen” with those in the car afterward, sharing his impressions.
The Rav was raised in a town that was predominantly Chabad; it was a part of his upbringing, and he maintained a certain sentimentality toward the days of his youth. Rabbi Adler adds that the Rav mentioned that he had authored a commentary on the Tanya and quipped: “One day we’ll see who understood the Tanya better – me or the Rebbe!” (I recall a similar statement by Rav Yehuda Amital regarding his understanding of the writings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook – as opposed to the interpretation by Rav Tzvi Yehuda).
Seventy Conversations includes a chapter on the historic Gemara shiur delivered by the Rav at Stern College for Women in 1976, an event that has greatly contributed to the change of curriculum for Orthodox women. Rabbi Adler called the Rav a “revolutionary,” which the Rav denied; that distinction, he explained, belongs to Sarah Shneirer and her supporters. Subsequent generations are merely adjusting the syllabus to keep up with her.
Several years ago, an article about that lecture in Stern College was published, in which it was described as having been identical to the parallel Talmud shiur for men. I mentioned this to my father, Rabbi Dr. Pinchas Kahn, who shared a fascinating piece of information with me: Several years ago, he was asked to catalog some recordings of the Rav’s shiurim. As he listened to these recordings, one shiur struck him as completely different in tenor from the others: the mood was very light, and more stories and humor peppered the Torah ideas.
When my father mentioned this to a member of the Soloveitchik family, the date of the shiur was checked; lo and behold, they discovered that this unusual shiur was, in fact, the groundbreaking one delivered at Stern College. Checking their records, they found the Rav’s notes for this shiur and compared them to those of the parallel shiur for men. They found that the content was identical; apparently, upon sensing the tension, the heaviness and seriousness in the room, the Rav decided to lighten the mood and put the young women at ease. So, while he had prepared a “regular shiur,” he changed the tone of its delivery, making it more appropriate for the specific audience on that particular day.
Many years ago, a confluence of circumstances arose which resulted in an opportunity for me to drive the Rav to the airport. This was a singular experience for me, and it remains forever etched in my memory. Rabbi Adler was blessed to have had this privilege many times, and we in turn are blessed that he has decided to share them with us. I highly recommend this book – both to those “who did not know Yosef” and to those who knew him well.