As I was standing outside the home of Rav Shneuer Kotler during shiva on a brutally hot early July night in Lakewood, a car pulled up and two men got out. They opened the back door and virtually carried Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik into the house. He was extremely frail and in declining health. I went inside and heard him say to Rav Malkiel Kotler, “I was a friend of your grandfather, I was a friend of your father and, im yirtzeh Hashem, I will be your friend.”
What was the relationship between Rav Aharon Kotler and Rav Soloveitchik? It often is difficult to pin down what is meant by friendship. In part, it is an expression of feelings and, in part, it arises from personal contacts. Among the Gedolei Torah who are overwhelmed by their communal responsibilities, what ordinarily is referred to as friendship is largely absent from their lives. There is too little time for indulgence in social transactions, such as casual visits, that exist among friends. This was certainly true of Rav Aharon whose crushing daily schedule included learning and shiurim, fundraising and an avalanche of klal commitments. Rav Soloveitchik was an essentially private, even reserved, person who in addition to his significant role at Yeshiva University had much on his plate in Boston. There also were the major lectures and writings that he crafted with much care.
Of course, Rav Aharon would find time to relax and reminisce about what had transpired in pre-Churban Europe, as when he ate with talmidim on Shabbos in the yeshiva and, as I witnessed, at Agudah conventions. I imagine that Rav Soloveitchik also had such moments of relaxation. Overall, these were men who eschewed the relationships that we commonly describe as friendship. Accordingly, when we speak of their friendship or relationship, what we essentially mean is that their relationship was one of personal respect and not that they had much ongoing and direct contact.
It is known that Rav Aharon did not have a favorable view of Yeshiva University. I was told that in his 1930s fundraising trip here, he gave shiurim at Yeshiva and was not happy about what he saw. Other eminent European Roshei Yeshiva also gave shiurim there during their trips to the United States, most notably Rav Shimon Shkopf, the Grodna Rosh Yeshiva. He was at Yeshiva for an extended period and entertained the notion of accepting a permanent position, but decided to return at the behest of the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzienski.
Rav Aharon’s objections to Yeshiva University also arose from his insistence that the primacy of Torah study requires the total exclusion, at least at the Beth Medrash level, of any secular study. Without going into the full history which has been recounted elsewhere, shortly after the Second World War a serious effort was made by officials at Torah Vodaath and Chaim Berlin to establish a joint university-level academic program that would take place in a yeshiva setting, the intent being to deter their students from attending Brooklyn College in the evening after the mandatory two sedarim in the Beth Medrash. When Rav Aharon heard of this initiative, he immediately instructed that it be abandoned and it was abandoned.
As I have noted, prior to Rav Aharon’s arrival, the American Agudah was a far cry from what it became later on. The core of the organization was the Zeirei Agudah. Rav Soloveitchik at that point identified with the Agudah. Indeed, when news came in 1941 that Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzienski had died, he gave the principal hesped on behalf of the American Agudah.
More well known, of course, is his subsequent embrace of Mizrachi and Religious Zionism, a conscious choice that he described in emotional and, at times, poetic language in “Chamesh Drashos” (Five Lectures), a revelatory work that is a key to understanding Rav Soloveitchik. As he wrote, he left the house of Brisk for whom Mizrachi was anathema. Rav Soloveitchik was immensely affected by the Holocaust and then the establishment of the State of Israel. Of historical interest, as he moved from Agudah to Mizrachi, there were notable Roshei Yeshiva who were taking the reverse course, moving from Mizrachi to Agudah, largely because of Rav Aharon’s influence.
Rav Soloveitchik’s active identification with Mizrachi – and it must be underscored that he played a major role in the movement – did not serve as an absolute barrier to a relationship with Rav Aharon. However, it was always Rav Aharon who reached out to Rav Soloveitchik, in much the same way that he reached out to countless others across the spectrum of Orthodox life. My assessment is that because they were in separate hashkafic camps, their interaction and cooperation were limited.
During the fervid 1953 battle over the draft of girls into military service in Israel, Rav Aharon reached out to Rav Soloveitchik, hoping that he would come out publicly against Ben-Gurion’s decree. There was a meeting at Rav Mendel Zaks’ apartment in Manhattan. Rabbi Dov Ber Weinberger drove Rav Aharon to the meeting and he was witness to what happened. This report, never before published, was told by him to me many years ago and was recently confirmed by him.
In line with their usual mode of address, Rav Zaks was referred to as the Radiner Rosh Yeshiva. Rav Aharon as the Kletsker Rosh Yeshiva and Rav Soloveitchik as the Bostoner Rav. After more than a half hour of futile effort to get Rav Soloveitchik to publicly oppose gius banos, Rav Aharon came up with the following brilliancy, of course in Yiddish. He said, Bostoner Rav, imagine that instead of the three of us discussing this issue, there were another three who were judging the appropriateness of drafting girls into military service. Instead of the Bostoner Rav, there was your zeyde, Reb Chaim. Instead of the Radiner Rosh Yeshiva, there was your father-in-law, the Chafetz Chaim. Instead of me, there was my father-in-law, Rav Iser Zalman Meltzer. Bostoner Rav, what would your zeyde have said?
This masterstroke did not result in a shift in Rav Soloveitchik’s position. He got up and said that he had to leave, “Kletsker Rosh Yeshiva and Radiner Rosh Yeshiva, a gutten tag” and left. He never opposed giyus banos or, for that matter, publicly the Mizrachi on any major hashkafic issue.
Yet, not long after this incident, in 1954 or 1955, Rav Aharon reached out again to him and enlisted him in efforts to raise funds for Chinuch Atzmai. The high point came at the first Chinuch Atzmai dinner where Rav Soloveitchik made the most remarkable speech I have ever heard. Rabbi Henoch Cohen who has served Chinuch Atzmai for nearly sixty years with great devotion and who, please G-D, is about to make aliyah with his wife Chana, has a disc of this memorable speech.
After explaining why though he is a Mizrachist he is helping Chinuch Atzmai, Rav Soloveitchik spoke warmly about Stephen Klein, Chinuch Atzmai’s chairman and the president of Barton’s Candy. He then lavished praise on Rav Aharon, comparing him in elaborate language, first to the Vilna Gaon, then to Rav Akiva Eger and finally to his zeide, Rav Chaim. I was standing directly behind Rav Aharon as Rav Soloveitchik spoke and as each of these comparisons were made, Rav Aharon tugged at Rav Soloveitchik’s jacket with one hand and implored him to stop and with the other hand he pounded on the table and intoned repeatedly, “Das iz nisht emes, das iz nisht emes.” As I looked more closely at Rav Aharon, I saw that he was crying.
In subsequent years, Rav Soloveitchik’s involvement with Chinuch Atzmai was intermittent, invariably after Rav Aharon asked for his help. Rabbi Cohen tells me that there were occasions after Rav Aharon passed away when Rav Soloveitchik assisted Chinuch Atzmai.
What is evident is that he had enormous respect for Rav Aharon. He came to the funeral at the Pike Street Synagogue, apparently with a hesped written out, but sadly and mistakenly, he was not given the opportunity to speak. When Rav Soloveitchik passed away, Lakewood was not represented at the funeral in Boston, although I suggested that the Yeshiva be represented. For all of Rav Aharon’s misgivings about Yeshiva University and Mizrachi, he respected Rav Soloveitchik, not because of his lineage and not only because from time to time he assisted Chinuch Atzmai, but because he regarded Rav Soloveitchik as a man of stature as a Torah scholar.
These feelings of mutual respect did not bridge their differences. As was often apparent in this period that now recedes from memory into history, intra-Orthodox differences did not serve as insurmountable barriers to cooperation or, for that matter, to civility and respect.