Lithuan­ian Yeshiv­as of the Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry: Cre­at­ing a Tra­di­tion of Learning

Shaul Stampfer; Lind­sey Tay­lor-Guthartz, trans.
  • Review
By – December 16, 2013

Jew­ish life in nine­teenth cen­tu­ry East­ern Europe is often mythol­o­gized and roman­ti­cized. For most Jews today, it exists as a dim past based on old pho­tos and col­lec­tions of Hasidic sto­ries. How­ev­er, the ever-expand­ing yeshi­va move­ment through­out the con­tem­po­rary Ortho­dox world still car­ries forth at least one cru­cial lega­cy of this lifestyle — the fer­vent com­mit­ment to the study of Tal­mud prac­ticed by a large per­cent­age of the East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish male pop­u­la­tion start­ing in pre-puberty.

In The Lega­cy: Teach­ings for Life from the Great Lithuan­ian Rab­bis, Rab­bis Wein and Gold­stein pro­vide a hagio­graph­ic trib­ute to their teach­ers and their teach­ers’ teach­ers who came from this milieu. Sto­ries, anec­dotes, and back­ground infor­ma­tion about some of the illus­tri­ous scions of the Lithuan­ian yeshi­va expe­ri­ence pro­vide inter­est­ing and instruc­tive read­ing. The sec­tion on the influ­ence of the Mus­sar move­ment is par­tic­u­lar­ly worth­while. The qual­i­ties of refine­ment, char­ac­ter develop­ment, reserve, and dis­ci­pline ele­vat­ed to a lifestyle left their mark on those who car­ried on this lega­cy in the yeshiv­as of the twen­ti­eth and twen­ty-first centuries.

Many Lithuan­ian lumi­nar­ies are por­trayed in lov­ing vignettes. We are privy to con­ver­sa­tions and sto­ries that reflect the char­ac­ter of these Torah giants. Until recent­ly this type of lit­er­a­ture focused on Hasidic rab­bis. Rab­bis Wein and Gold­stein have added to the cor­pus of non-Hasidic rab­binic por­tray­als start­ed by ArtScroll.

One of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Wis­senschaft des Juden­tums (sci­ence of Judaism) was the begin­ning of seri­ous his­tor­i­cal stud­ies of Hasidism. It wasn’t until recent­ly, how­ev­er, that equal research was devot­ed to the oppo­nents of Hasidism, the Lithuan­ian yeshi­va heads, most promi­nent­ly the Gaon of Vil­na and his stu­dents. One of their essen­tial dif­fer­ences is the empha­sis on study as op­posed to more expres­sive forms of devo­tion. First pub­lished in Hebrew in 1995, revised in 2005 and now trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, Lithuan­ian Yeshiv­as of the Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry pro­vides that coun­ter­point. Although this is a work of prodi­gious schol­ar­ship, it is writ­ten in a way that non-his­to­ri­ans can also appreciate.

Although there were many yeshiv­as through­out East­ern Europe, Volozhin, Telz, Slo­bod­ka, and the Kovno Kol­lel were select­ed for this book because they were the mod­els for the great yeshiv­as of today. Each was rev­o­lu­tion­ary in its own way, espe­cial­ly Volozhin. Much space is devot­ed to ana­lyz­ing how and why the yeshi­va sys­tem pro­vid­ed an anti­dote to the cri­sis of assimilation.

One of the inno­va­tions of the Volozhin yeshi­va, found­ed by the main dis­ci­ple of the Gaon of Vil­na, R. Chaim of Volozhin, was its indepen­dence from the town in which it was sit­u­at­ed. Fund­ing came from emis­saries who trav­eled all over. There were no terms and no vaca­tions, no begin­ning and no end. Stu­dents came through­out the year, and study took place 24/7. Even fol­low­ing the fast of Yom Kip­pur, many stu­dents remained immersed in their Tal­mu­dic tomes while oth­ers broke the fast. The only require­ment for entry was advanced knowl­edge of Tal­mud and the abil­i­ty to study inde­pen­dent­ly. Some lec­tures were giv­en on the trac­tate being stud­ied, but stu­dents had total free­dom as long as time was used pro­duc­tive­ly. The most griev­ous offense was wast­ing one’s time.

The inter­nal struc­ture, study sched­ule, pol­i­tics, finances, stu­dent activ­i­ties, stu­dent activism, per­son­al­i­ties of the var­i­ous deans, dis­putes, fam­i­ly feuds, atti­tude to the Haskalah, Zion­ism, sec­u­lar stud­ies, and the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment, are all care­ful­ly doc­u­ment­ed and ana­lyzed based on first hand accounts, mem­oirs, offi­cial doc­u­ments, Tsarist archives, and rab­binic writ­ings by the prin­ci­pal rab­bis. Of impor­tance is the sec­tion deal­ing with the inno­v­a­tive ana­lyt­i­cal method of study intro­duced by R. Hayy­im Soloveitchik of Brisk dur­ing his tenure at Volozhin. This approach was dis­sem­i­nat­ed in Israel by his son Rab­bi Yizhaq Ze’ev Soloveitchik, and in Amer­i­ca by his grand­son, Rab­bi Joseph Soloveitchik of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty and his disciples.

The Slo­bod­ka Yeshi­va was heav­i­ly influ­enced by the Mus­sar move­ment advo­cat­ed by R. Yis­rael Salanter (18101883) and Mus­sar was treat­ed as an aux­il­iary field of study next to the Tal­mud. The Telz Yeshi­va intro­duced for­mal exam­i­na­tions, divi­sion into class­es based on abil­i­ty, and cer­tain oth­er prac­tices found in sec­u­lar schools, though Tal­mud still remained the main­stay of the cur­ricu­lum. The Kovno Kol­lel enabled young mar­ried men to study unen­cum­bered by wives and chil­dren. This almost monas­tic envi­ron­ment has evolved into the present kol­lel sys­tem (insti­tute for advanced Tal­mud study), which is not celibate.

Study for its own sake was the goal of the yeshi­va. Those seek­ing rab­binic ordi­na­tion in order to secure employ­ment would study cer­tain law codes of prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion and be cer­ti­fied as rab­bis by their teach­ers. The yeshi­va was not a rab­bini­cal school to train rab­bis, although at times they may have indi­cat­ed this to the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment for polit­i­cal purposes.

These two books offer entré into a lost world. How­ev­er, the val­ues embod­ied in these insti­tu­tions are still pro­mul­gat­ed in hun­dreds of yeshiv­as through­out the world. The great yeshiv­as in Jerusalem, Lake­wood, Cleve­land, New York, Brook­lyn, Lon­don, and else­where are direct descen­dants of the insti­tu­tions pro­filed in this book.

Addi­tion­al Title Fea­tured in Review

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions