Yeshiva revolution

In the collective contemporary imagination, yeshivas were bastions of uninterrupted Torah study, blissful isolation from outside concerns.

September 19, 2012 12:20
Ultra-orthodox yeshiva students [illustrative]

Haredi ultra-orthodox yeshiva students 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)


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Shaul Stampfer, one of Israel’s foremost experts on Eastern European Jewry, is the most unlikely of iconoclasts. A thin, quiet, unassuming man, he gives the impression that he would have been happy as a simple melamed (elementary school teacher) in the shtetls he describes.

He has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the nicest people in Israeli academia (the competition is not stiff), but he seems to revel in challenging common assumptions, tweaking conventional wisdom, and making Eastern European Jewry look very different from what everyone seems to think.

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He does all these things in Lithuanian Yeshivas of the 19th Century: Creating a Tradition of Learning, an expanded translation of his masterful 1995 Hebrew book on the subject. Its publication should change the way English- speaking Jews think about what a yeshiva is and ought to be.

In the collective contemporary imagination, yeshivas were bastions of uninterrupted Torah study, respectful awe of great rabbis, and blissful isolation from outside concerns.

However, Stampfer’s meticulous research, based on letters, student memoirs, Russian government archival materials and Eastern European Jewish newspapers, paints a much more complicated picture. He examines the Lithuanian yeshivas’ structure, relationships with their broader communities, daily student life, curriculum, finances, staffing, and many issues related to the smooth and not-so-smooth running of these influential institutions.

In the early modern period, European yeshivas were local, semi-formal operations. Students would gather to study with a local rabbi, eating daily meals with some homeowner and sleeping on benches in the synagogue. In 1903, R’ Hayyim of Volozhin started a new kind of institution, separating the yeshiva from the local rabbi.

He gathered elite students from the furthest locations, raised funds from an international network of donors, constructed a separate building, offered stipends to cover the young men’s living costs, and provided more comfort in which to study Torah. His model spread rapidly and, albeit with many changes, still dominates yeshiva study world-wide.

These yeshivas educated thousands of great talmidei hachamim who swam, supported, in the sea of Talmud and commentaries.

But this model had unintended consequences. By concentrating young, energetic, gifted, spiritually intense young men in one place, yeshivas created intellectual and cultural tensions. Even as students learned Torah 12 and 14 hours a day, they actively participated in the great intellectual and ideological battles then engaging Eastern European Jews, arraying traditionalists, assimilationists, Zionists, socialists and maskilim against each other. And the students were not universally on the side of piety and tradition.

Memoirs abound of young men who arrived innocently in yeshiva only to encounter nontraditional literature and ideas for the first time.

Books and newspapers passed from hand to hand, and were read in bed late at night or in the privacy of the outhouse.

In the famed Volozhin yeshiva and elsewhere, some of the boldest students organized underground Haskalah societies, Zionist groups, even student newspapers. Staff members tried to shut them down but had limited success. Some students ignored these dangerous influences, piously continuing their uninterrupted Torah study. But for some, the exposure helped foster other things, like the diverse and complicated intellectual and mystical legacy of a figure like R’ Avraham Isaac Kook.

Time spent in Volozhin also set the stage for creative rebellion against religion by some of Zionism’s most influential secularists, such as Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Micha Yosef Berdyczewski.

Yeshivas also bred power struggles between students and staff members.

The stipend paid to students for living expenses was not a fixed sum: The rosh yeshiva could diminish it if a student broke rules and acted in ways deemed inappropriate or raise it for good behavior. This discretion gave the administration enormous power over the students – and created resentment.

Students were not shy about expressing their frustrations with yeshiva life, at times in creative and even violent ways. One year, when students thought that the rosh yeshiva, R’ Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the famed Netziv), had insulted a student, they refused to offer the rabbi the usual Shavuot greetings after prayers. The Netziv was forced to apologize. When students in the Telz yeshiva were unhappy with staff appointments, they staged a strike, refused to study, created public disturbances in the study hall, and in at least one instance rioted, shattering lights and destroying windows.

Some of the most striking conflicts involved mussar, an educational and ideological movement that increasingly influenced yeshivas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many students in mussar yeshivas were frustrated by the emphasis on character building at the expense of talmudic scholarship and with efforts by the mashgiach (spiritual adviser) to control their behavior. In 1897, students in the Slobodka yeshiva protested by stealing mussar books from the library and loudly interrupting classes.

The yeshiva was eventually forced to split into mussar and non-mussar yeshivot.

Much of this was not much more than the usual power struggle between self-important teenagers and their educators. But some of it also stemmed, ironically, from the students’ enormous respect for the institution of yeshiva, learned from the very teachers against whom they rebelled. Students were taught an ideal of what yeshiva and Jewish life should be, and that ideal was too cosmically important to be left to the whims and human foibles of the flesh-and-blood rabbis who led the institutions. Like later students in the 1960s, these yeshiva students were driven by arrogance, immaturity, a desire for fun and a deep-seated sense that they stood at the center of great social and intellectual trends.

Modern yeshivas imagine, nostalgically, that the great Lithuanian yeshivas were just like today’s, but they were not. Today, successful yeshivas create passion, enthusiasm and the desire to become a pious talmudic scholar; unsuccessful yeshivas merely create anger and resentment.

But today’s yeshivas work to create an atmosphere of submission, not only to Torah but to human rabbis, conventional dress, formulaic social habits and predigested ideas. Good yeshiva students don’t rock the boat.

After reading Stampfer, I feel nostalgic for something else, something like the stormy nature of the 19th-century yeshivas. I could skip the arrogance and violence, but I’m impressed with these young Torah scholars’ sense of group mission and pride. They wanted a yeshiva not only for followers but for leaders. They studied not only to preserve what was but to envision what would be. They might have been immature; but they were willing to challenge, press, demand change, even rebel. They envisioned themselves as not just conservators of the past but renegades, trying to construct a future.

The writer lives with his wife and five children in Beit Shemesh, Israel. He is the author of
Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy. This article originally appeared on Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with their permission.

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