In 1942, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik—who a year before had succeeded his father as one of the chief Talmud instructors at Yeshiva University—delivered a speech at a large communal dinner celebrating the educational institutions of the Lubavitch Ḥasidim. The speech, delivered in Yiddish to an audience made up primarily of Lubavitchers, was an encomium to their leader, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn. Besides their first name, the two sages shared much else: both were born in the Russian empire (in what is now Belarus) to distinguished rabbinic dynasties, both became revered figures in American Orthodoxy, and both spent much of their lives trying to root the religious traditions they had inherited on new soil—aiming to adapt to modernity without sacrificing the integrity of Judaism as they understood it. At the same time, they represented opposite poles: Soloveitchik was an exemplar of study-focused, cerebral, non-ḥasidic “Lithuanian” Judaism, while Schneersohn led one of the world’s largest ḥasidic movements.
The speech, newly republished through the efforts of Menachem Butler alongside an original translation by Yossel Hoizman, has at its heart a comparison of Schneersohn to Ḥanina ben Dosa, a talmudic sage and miracle-worker who lived in the latter part of the 1st century CE. Although Soloveitchik makes no reference to the contemporaneous events in Europe, both he and his audience would have been well aware of them, if not of their horrific extent:
Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa was known for defying laws of nature. The [talmudic tractate of] Ta’anit tells how Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa told his daughter: “He who endowed oil with the ability to burn will endow vinegar with the ability to burn,” and the vinegar indeed caught fire. . . . The [Talmud in the same passage] states: “Each of the goats of Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa brought back a bear on its horns.” . . .
However, we find yet another tale regarding Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa, albeit not in the Tractate Ta’anit, where all the other stories about him are recorded, but rather in Midrash Kohelet, [the oldest rabbinic commentary on Ecclesiastes]. Apparently, in the meantime some great upheaval had transpired, and Ḥanina ben Dosa, who was world-renowned for defying the rules of nature, arrived in a vicinity where they, seemingly, knew little of his legacy.
The midrash relates that once Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa arrived at a deserted place, and noticed a certain stone. He polished and buffed it and exclaimed “I take it upon myself to bring this to Jerusalem.” He sought to hire workers to carry it but could not find any. God dispatched five angels in a human form; Ḥanina asked them, “Would you bring this for me?” and they responded, “Gladly, provided that you will also assist us with your hand and your finger.” He places his hand and finger under the stone along with them, and they instantly found themselves standing in Jerusalem.
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