Sunday, November 16, 2008

On Hasidism

This letter was written to Rabbi Moshe Dov Baer Rivkin (1895-1976), a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in New York City for many decades and a prominent Lubavitcher hasid. It was translated from the Hebrew by Rabbi Yair Kahn.

Erev Rosh ha-Shana, 5715
[Sunday, September 28, 1955]

Honored friend, the great and brilliant rabbi, (gefen aderet) a pride to Israel, our esteemed teacher and Rabbi, Moshe Duvber Rivkin, shlita,

Blessings and greetings,

I received your letter. I am pressed to respond to it immediately, for wherever the shadow of slander is cast, the expeditious are quick to rectify the distortion and uncover the truth. I was deeply disturbed that your mind was agitated due to a mutilated and twisted report. You were informed of only an incomplete account, a partial statement. What actually occurred was as follows: When I received your book, I dedicated a good deal of time to it, and studied it all- which is out of character for me- with utmost seriousness. There are three reasons for my interest in your writings.

1. I profoundly respect you, and all that you write I will read with interest.

2. I possess a special fondness for the Lubavitch movement. As I speak, I recall the visions of my youth, paved with the pure impressions of childhood, enveloped by romantic splendor. Patriarchal images still hover before me, crowned with ancient glory. Behold, the likeness of my mentor, R. Barukh Ya'akov Reisberg, z'l, appears to me. I can still picture his facial expression, which radiated both solemnity and intelligence, as well as sweep and imagination. To this day, I hear his voice in the silence of the twilight, sad, saturated with sorrow and longing, his words emerging from the distance- words full of passion and fascination regarding his stay in Lubavitch during his youth. I still carry in the recesses of my soul, the image of the Alter Rebbe which gazed upon us, (tinokot shel beit rabban) from the whitewashed walls of the heder, a broad forehead, commanding intelligence, deep eyes gazing at Divine infinite distances, fastened upon wondrous visions. The beard which flowed upon his garments enchanted us with its majesty and mystery. My eyes still perceive the portrait of the Tzemah Tzedek, robed in white, who in our childhood fantasy appeared to us as the high priest exiting the Holy of Holies. My ears still detect strange sounds, both pleasant and appealing, detached phrases and scattered words uttered by the "hozrim" by dim candlelight during the long winter nights, referring to "all-encompassing lights" and "returning lights," concealment and revelation, internal love and the soul of Israel hewn from the celestial throne. As I continue to dream, I see the image of elderly hasidim on the night of Shemini Atzeret, dancing around my father and teacher of blessed memory in a quick rhythmic beat. Images such as these will not be erased from my heart; they are deeply rooted in the mystery of my being. Therefore, all that is written regarding this great movement is of enormous interest to me.

3. Your work fascinated me because of its unique character. I found in it a paradoxical blend of intellect and emotion, two traits which as a rule do not merge well. On the one hand I found sharp, clear halakhic logic, pleasing and accurate comments based upon subtle analysis. You use this to pinpoint the focal points of each and every issue. In a word, I found first-class Lithuanian lomdut. On the other hand, I encountered hasidic passion, with emotional excitement and honest, faithful devotion to the hasidic masters, which reaches the level of pure and rockfast faith in the righteous.

In the presence of friends and students I dealt with this phenomenon. I praised your book and related its wondrous characteristic, halakhic rigor and hasidic joy joined in harmony. As proof and example of this dualism which encompasses his entire work, I quoted your comments regarding the ritual defilement of kohanim via contact with graves of the righteous. I noted to those gathered, that the halakhist is wrestling with the faithful hasid. It is self-evident to the former that any grave defiles, irrespective of who was interred therein; there is no room here for sentimentality or a sense of veneration. However, the hasidic personality desires to be lenient regarding this issue. I believe that I subsequently stressed how you express astonishment regarding the custom of certain kohanim prostrating themselves over the graves of the righteous, but nevertheless both understands as well as senses the emotional need which drives them to it. The mind and the heart struggle, and the author admits the legitimacy of both. Believe me, my friend, that this schism- thought and feeling- sunders my soul as well. At times I tend to listen to the murmur of my heart. A strand of hasidut [hasidism] is buried deep within me.

Unfortunately, I still have not been able to properly study your work. My preoccupation prior to the days of grace and mercy overwhem me, and I hope to return to it later. However, I am confident that everything which flows from the pen of a great individual such as your honor is both proper and pleasing.

Please accept my blessing for the renewal of the year. May you be inscribed and sealed instantly in the book of the righteous for a year of life, peace and prosperity. May we all be privileged to fulfill the verse, "with trumpets and the sound of the shofar raise a shout before the Lord, the King" [Ps. 98:6].

Your friend, who admires and respects you,
Yosef Dov ha-Levi Soloveitchik

Community, Covenant and Commitment by the Rav, published posthumously, pages 289-291


Anonymous said...

I loved the letter - when I first read C-C-C I was struck by the honesty of "The mind and the heart struggle, and the author admits the legitimacy of both. Believe me, my friend, that this schism- thought and feeling- sunders my soul as well."
Joel Rich

duby said...

fascinating (this is, especially, b/c i once did research into this R' MD rivkin)

i believe r' rakeffet--in his bio on the Rav- -- has a description of the Rav's learning with his Lubavitch teacher Tanya and Likutei Amorim