“From the forest itself comes  [the handle for]  the ax  [which fells the forest]”
(Cf. Sanhedrin 39b; Tanya chapter 31)

Scion of the Tradition of the Vilna Gaon Categorically Dispels the Basis of the Opposition to Chassidus

It is respectfully suggested that broad publicity be granted to the following recording of a groundbreaking address of the late Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) at Yeshiva University in New York City, the Gaon Rav J.B. (Yosef Dov ha-Levi) Soloveitchik obm, known as “The Rav.” This address was delivered at a 1968 Yud Tes Kislev community gathering in Boston, Massachusetts. CLICK HERE for recording .

This address is of profound historic significance. It authoritatively refutes the traditionally accepted basis for opposition to Chassidus.
As an alumnus of several prominent Litvish Yeshivos, I can attest to the frequently articulated argument (heard from Roshei Yeshiva and Mashgichim) that since the Vilna Gaon vehemently opposed Chassidus -- that position is sacrosanct and immutable and it is unconscionable to consider that the Vilna Gaon’s opposition was misled in any way.
In this captivating oration, Rav Soloveitchik dispels the foundations for this widely accepted approach to the opposition to Chassidus, so prevalent in the Litvish yeshiva world. Rav Soloveitchik’ s authority concerning this topic is  based on his family traditions , as a  scion of the Brisker dynasty and a direct descendant of the  most outstanding and foremost disciple and primary spiritual heir of the Vilna Gaon , Rav Chaim of Volozhin , who founded the Volozhin yeshiva, which became the mother of all Lithuanian-style yeshivas.
Thus, in the spirit of the Talmudic dictum “From the forest itself comes [the handle for] the ax [which fells the forest]” (Cf. Sanhedrin 39b; Tanya chapter 31) -- in this recording, Rav Soloveitchik,  representing the hierarchy of the  Misnagedim  --
  • attested that his family tradition confirms the failed attempt of the Ba’al HaTanya to meet with the Vilna Gaon in an attempt to demonstrate the unfounded nature of the charges made against Chassidus (except that in the Brisker family tradition it was Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchiv who accompanied the Ba’al HaTanya on this visit, whereas according to Chabad tradition, as recorded by the Baal HaTanya himself – see his Igros Kodesh letter 52 [in the 5772 expanded edition] -- it was Rav Mendel Horodoker who accompanied him)

  • revealed that the reason the Vilna Gaon refused to meet the Ba’al HaTanya was because the Vilna Gaon was so awestruck by the “inspiring, spellbinding, fascinating” countenance of the Ba’al HaTanya (which he saw through a crack in his door) that he felt that if he allowed the Ba’al HaTanya in, he would be persuaded to leave hand-in-hand with the Ba’al HaTanya and would (not only desist from opposing him, but, on the contrary would) join him in proclaiming and spreading Chabad Chassidus

  • contended that although Rav Chaim Volozhiner wrote his magnum opus “Nefesh Hachaim” at the request of the Vilna Gaon with the express purpose to contradict and refute the contents of the Tanya and demonstrate that its philosophy is contrary to the accepted beliefs of Torah – in reality, the opposite is true and the Nefesh Hachaim overwhelmingly confirms the tenets, principals and beliefs articulated by the Alter Rebbe in the Tanya (and the areas of apparent disagreement are marginal and primarily differences in semantics and terminology).

  • concludes that, based on all the above facts and factors, the “ruthless and cruel” opposition to Chassidus “was not warranted” and all its “tragic” consequences in dividing the Jewish people into two hostile camps (resulting in such malefactions as the mesira of the Ba’al HaTanya to the Russian government and his imprisonment) was misinformed and misguided and was due to the efforts of (in the words of Rav Soloveitchik): “troublemakers, slander-mongers, ruthless and corrupt people and psychopaths who found malicious delight in feuds and the promotion of hate and bigotry.”

  • Chasidei Chabad who populated the cities in Lithuania and Russia where Rav Soloveitchik grew up were great talmidei chachamim and great yirei HaShem of the highest caliber.
P.S. Although the Ba’al HaTanya wrote (published in Igros Kodesh of the Ba’al HaTanya, letter 52 [in the 5772 expanded edition]) that there were irreconcilable differences regarding basic tenets between the Chassidus Chabad and the Vilna Gaon, primarily concerning the concept of Tzimtzum (since the Vilna Gaon did not accept the kabbalah of the Arizal in its entirety) – nonetheless, as Rav Soloveitchik asserted above, the Vilna Gaon’s own primary disciple, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, in his Nefesh Hachaim, adapted the position of the Ba’al HaTanya and  not  of his own Rebbe the Vilna Gaon regarding this matter.
This incongruence was perceived (also) by no less a Litvish authority than Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (author of Michtav Me’Eliyahu who served as head of the Gateshead Kollel and then as Mashgiach Ruchani of Ponevezh) who challenged, after studying both works, that there was apparently  no disagreement  between the Tanya and the Nefesh Hachaim regarding the primary area of dispute between the Vilna Gaon and the Ba’al HaTanya – the concept of Tzimtzum. Rav Dessler’s correspondence regarding this matter is published in sefer Marbitzei Torah U’Musar volume 3 page 66. Response to Rav Dessler’s concern is reproduced in Kovetz Yagdil Torah NY volume 61 section 110 (see also Heichel Baal Shem Tov vol. 4 page 39-48 where this exchange is elucidated in more detail). Further response to Rav Dessler’s concerns, confirming that Rav Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh Hachaim does indeed disagree with his Rebbe the Vilna Gaon, may be also found in Igros Kodesh of the Lubavitcher Rebbe volume 1 letter 11 (and in an additional letter in his Igros Kodesh volume 3 letter 551).
For a systematic exposition of the Nefesh Hachaim’s views regarding Torah Lishmah in comparison and contrast with that of the Ba’al HaTanya, see sefer  Torah Lishmah  by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (published in Hebrew by Mosad Harav Kook in 1972 and in English by KTAV Publishing House in 1989).
Rabbi Moshe Wiener 
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