VCU Menorah Review
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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2014
Number 81
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Education: Yeshivah style

A Review essay by Matthew Schwartz

Shaul Stampfer, a professor of Jewish History at Hebrew University, has written a serious work of exhaustive scholarship, heavy with footnotes, mostly to Hebrew language sources. It relies on memoirs as well as documents and contemporary published articles, from all of which it quotes extensively. The book discusses the organization and functioning of three major Lithuanian yeshivas of the nineteenth century, as representative of the whole. Professor Stampfer notes that other areas of the history of the yeshivas also need study, but not everything could be covered in one volume.

Volozhin, 1803-1892, was the mother of all later yeshivas, and its story occupies most of the book. Telz and Slobodka began in the 1870’s and functioned for a shorter time before 1914 and World War I, the book’s terminus. The yeshivas reacted to new trends of the era, and there was much new in them. The old Polish yeshivas had been destroyed in the Cossack War of 1648-9 and had been replaced by batei midrash in the various towns, usually loosely supervised by the town rabbi, who might give an occasional lecture. Volozhin was the first of the new type of yeshiva. These were separate from the local community. The town of Volozhin was a small, out of the way place, which certainly could not support a major yeshiva by its own means. The head of the yeshiva was independent of the community, and students organized, over time, their own support groups for health care, financial aid and the like.

Founded in 1803 by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the yeshiva was led through its 90 years by noted scholars, e.g. R. Yitzchok (R. Chaim’s son) and later R. Naftali T. Y. Berlin (Netziv), R. Yosef Ber Soloveichik and his son R. Chaim. Contrary to a widespread belief, the yeshiva was founded to provide a good place for young men to devote themselves to the study of Torah and personal growth. It was not a reaction to any decline in Torah study in the general Jewish population at that time. There were no diplomas or titles, and rabbinic ordination was not typically part of the program. Success was measured by a student’s accomplishments in Talmud and in human behavior.

Volozhin was not without political disputes and internal factions, while from outside, the Russian government sought several times to close it, finally succeeding in 1892. Maskilim too were actively antagonistic to the yeshivas and strongly opposed their concentration on Talmud. External socio-economic pressures on the yeshiva increased through the century, and many young men began to find universities attractive, with their promises of prestige, better earning power and acceptance into the wider world.

A professor of linguistics recently retired from thirty years of teaching at a major university remarked to me that the most noticeable change during his teaching career was the decline in students’ reading ability. Be that as it may, the problems of educating are in constant discussion nowadays in all sorts of media with no easy solutions in sight. Professor Stampfer’s book brings a unique perspective to the discussion. How does a school produce seriously knowledgeable students? It is interesting that as all this takes place in America, Jewish Studies proliferates in universities, Jewish Day schools of all types shoot up all over the U.S., and advanced yeshivas and kollels grow far beyond anything predictable a generation ago. In addition, Jewish learning for adults flourishes in many venues, much of it at a highly serious level, with tens of thousands participating faithfully in daf yomi programs.

From this standpoint, the nineteenth century yeshivas are of particular interest to compare with modern schools. For example, in Volozhin, study was continuous. The students studied through the Talmud page by page, and when they completed it, after a number of years, they would start over again. Despite or indeed perhaps because of the rigorous demands, most students found their studies in Volozhin to be a highly positive experience, despite the lack of set requirements and diplomas. Tests too were unimportant. They could be used for specific purposes, e.g., R. Berlin would ask the very young “Meitsheter Ilui” challenging questions so that the boy would boost his confidence by answering them. There were no structured classes. The yeshiva heads did lecture regularly, but attendance was not mandatory, and the lecture was seen only as an ancillary to personal study. Students studied on their own for long hours, sometimes for many years. There were no set semester beginnings or ends and no vacations. Most students remained in the yeshiva even through Passover, and many attended the Seders at R. Berlin’s. Even Yom Kippur was not exactly a day off; prayers went fairly quickly, and the students had a three-hour study session between morning and afternoon prayers. Study knew little schedule and no limitations — day and night, weekdays, Sabbaths and holidays. Some studied eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. Avraham Yitzchak Kook, later chief rabbi of the Yishuv, is said to have put in eighteen hours and studied sixty folios of Talmud every day, an astounding feat but not wholly unusual in Volozhin.

The yeshiva did not maintain a dormitory or a kitchen, but typically helped the students to pay for room and board in the town, although as can be imagined, wealthier students found it easier to get along.

Passages cited from memoirs are often fascinating for who wrote them as well as for their content. Professor Simha Assaf’s memoir was based on his ten years of study in Telz. Professor Ben Zion Dinur too was a student in Telz. Scholars who would become prominent in other areas included historian Gedalia Alon, who studied in Slobodka, and the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, who studied in Volozhin.

In a time when universities turn more and more to on-line courses, the relationship of students to the heads of the yeshivas is noteworthy for its personal attention. A description of the lectures given by R. Eliezer Gordon in Telz is fascinating. R. Gordon would begin by raising questions on the day’s Talmud topic. Almost always, students would begin to interrupt freely with questions and interpretations arguing with both R. Gordon and each other, the whole making a lively scene. If the debating had not started within ten minutes, R. Gordon would feel that the lecture was unsuccessful. The goal was thinking and discussing, not memorizing.

There were no classrooms in Volozhin, only the one large study hall. Students would become accustomed to the noise level, and the lecture would be given in the same room, mingling its sounds with the studies of the students who were not attending the lecture but studying on their own.

Secular studies were not taught in these yeshivas. Indeed, the Russian government used this as an excuse to close the Volozhin yeshiva in 1892, although the real reason was more likely a paranoid fear of revolutionary activity as well as the usual anti-Semitism. The yeshivas did not necessarily oppose secular learning per se — math, science, languages and the like. However, R. Berlin in Volozhin felt that the yeshiva could not successfully teach both at the same time. R. Berlin himself is reported to have known several European languages, and he had his son Meir (Bar-Ilan) learn Russian. R. Gordon in Telz had read Russian literature and Russian law. R. Chaim of Volozhin wanted to have major works of science translated into Hebrew. The yeshiva in Lida did actually include secular studies in its curriculum, though Lida is not a major topic in Professor Stampfer’s book. There were students in every Lithuanian yeshiva who read more widely, including even haskala literature. This was viewed as in some measure bitul Torah, (time wasted from Torah study) but not a major problem in terms of the content of the books.

Students could take sides in administrative arguments within the yeshiva. In Volozhin, there was tension between R. Berlin and R. Yosef Ber Soloveichik for a time, two very different men with very different teaching styles, and many students preferred one over the other. This particular tension was resolved amicably enough, and R. Berlin’s daughter married R. Soloveichik’s son Chaim who also would teach in Volozhin. There could be tension between students and yeshiva heads even in cases when the bond between them was very strong, and students could stage a protest or a strike. In Telz at one point, a protest was led by Yosef Kahaneman (the future Ponovezher Rav and a favorite of R. Gordon). In several instances, major arguments arose over the introduction of the study of musar literature and musar teachers

The Telz yeshiva was organized in a more structured form. It was founded about 1870, perhaps to counter the influence of the poet Y. L. Gordon, a major figure in the haskala, who lived in Telz at the time. Under R Eliezer Gordon (no relation to Y. L.), who became the head in 1883, Telz presented five classes at different levels. All the students studied the same tractate of the Talmud. Punctuality was emphasized. Students were admitted according to quotas for different regions, and the admission standards were strict. The yeshiva monitored the students’ housing and their landlords, although it provided no dormitories or kitchen of its own.

Professor Stampfer suggests that one of the most striking legacies of these yeshivas and perhaps most noteworthy for today’s educators of all types is the faith in the supreme value of education, a faith which enabled them to triumph over external challenges and their own human imperfections.

Matthew Schwartz is a professor in the history department of Wayne State University and a contributing editor.

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