If Vilna was “the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” Volozhin was Lithuania’s Sura. While the yeshiva at Volozhin did not endure as long as the famed Babylonian academy, its impact on Judaism and Zionism was significant. The reach of Volozhin extends to this day. It is remembered for its rabbis, its students—and its rebels.
The Lithuanian yeshiva was founded in the 19th century by Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, a disciple of the Gaon of Vilna. The founding of the academy was rooted in the crisis of new forces in the Jewish world that challenged the mitnagedic leadership in Vilna. Young Jews were embracing the newly emergent Hasidic movement, the Jewish enlightenment embodied in Haskalah, and the Musar movement of Rabbi Israel Salanter. The Volozhin Yeshiva represented a new mission for Talmudic academies. The support of the yeshiva was not solely local—financial support arrived from distant communities—and the new academy enjoyed an autonomy that made it the supreme authority for Lithuanian Jewry on a wide variety of issues, even those pertaining to daily life. Under the leadership of Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Yehuda Berlin, the Volozhin Yeshiva reached its peak of influence in Eastern Europe as a center of rigorous Torah and Talmudic study that became the model for the great Talmudic academies in the Ashkenazic world that followed it. The Russian authorities eventually closed the Volozhin Yeshiva in 1892 for its refusal to incorporate secular studies into its curriculum. Hayyim Nahman Bialik, the greatest modern Hebrew poet, called the Volozhin academy “the place where the soul of the nation was molded.” Bialik knew this well, having been a student there.
Among the alumni of the Volozhin academy were important figures in Zionist thought and action. Bialik, Michah Yosef Berdichevski, and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook were all students in the Lithuanian yeshiva. Students flocked to Volozhin, an institution not dominated by the reactionary forces of other yeshivas, and were the first rabbis to attempt to bridge the gap between Torah and Haskalah and to support the growing Zionist movement. In 1885, students at Volozhin established “Nes Ziyyonah,” to cultivate a new rabbinic leadership that would have broad influence in spreading Zionist activism and thought. This support of the movement to return to Erez Yisrael had to be accomplished in secret without even the knowledge of Rabbi Berlin. While Russian authorities discovered the existence of the group and closed it down, students soon founded a new Zionist society, Nezah Yisrael, that did not survive the closing of the yeshiva in 1892. While Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook continued in the underground spirit of Volozhin to seek a new Religious Zionism, both Bialik and Berdichevski chose a path away from the world of the yeshiva. Bialik embraced the Cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha-am while Berdichesvki rebelled against tradition and lacked the nostalgia that Bilaik possessed for the academy. Volozhin was unique as a magnet that attracted great minds and visionaries.