Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Closing of Volozhin; Jewish Urban Legend?

Cross-Posted to DovBear

It's impossible to traverse Chareidi circles without hearing that the famous Volozhin Yeshiva was closed by its Rosh Yeshiva, the "Netziv" (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (נפתלי צבי יהודה ברלין) -- because he would rather close the Yeshiva than for his students go to University and study secular subjects. This mantra is often repeated as a primary reason to avoid Yeshiva University, any combination of Yeshiva and College studies, or secular studies in general.

In May 1988, looking for a donation, the Lakewood Cheder School sent me a copy of the book, "My Uncle the Netziv" -- written by R' Baruch HaLevi Epstein (author of the Torah Temima) and nephew of the Netziv. The book was adapted into English by R' Moshe Dombey and under the general editorship of Artscroll Mesorah Rabbis and Publishers Nosson Sherman and Meir Zlotowitz. The book's jacket states, "This is the sort of book that cannot -- and should not -- be put down."



I enjoyed the book at the time, and found the life and times of the Netziv to be an interesting read. A few months later the Lakewood Cheder School sent me a bizarre letter (pictured at left) in which they sincerely apologized for sending me such an offensive book. They insisted the book not be read -- and they even offered to refund any donation I may have sent them.


Why was the book recalled and banned? What was so terrible in the book that caused such a radical reaction from Lakewood? The recall letter was rather vague about what was wrong with the book, but as a teenager I realized if they were recalling the book, it was worth keeping.

There are a few possibilities for the ban, but in my opinion there are 2 primary reasons.

1. Background into the closing of Volozhin
2. Women and Learning. (I wont address this point in this post).

Concerning "worldliness" of the students of Volozhin, and the value of secular education at Volozhin, R' Epstein writes:
Anyone with eyes in his head could see that the students of Volozhin were quite knowledgeable in secular studies: they took an interest in science, history and geography and knew many languages. In fact, those students who desired to pursue these disciplines succeeded in learning twice as much as any student at a state institution. In Volohzin, Torah and derech eretz walked hand in hand, neither one held captive by the other. It was the special achievement of the Volozhin student that when he left the yeshiva, he was able to converse with any man in any social setting on the highest intellectual plane. The Volohzin student was able to conquer both worlds -- the world of Torah and the world at large. A well-known adage among parents who were trying to best educate their children was, "Do you want your child to develop into a complete Jew, dedicated to Torah and derech eretz? Do you want him to be able to mingle with people and get along in the world? Send him to Volozhin! (page 204)
R' Epstein debunks the story that college and Volozhin could not mix, by stating -- in direct contradiction to the chareidi myth -- that the Netziv explicitly agreed to the introduction of secular studies to Volozhin at the 1887 Petersburg Congress, by incorporating the study of mathematics and the Russian language within the framework of the yeshiva program. The amount of time and part of day when these 2 subjects were to be taught was left entirely to the discretion of the Rosh Yeshiva. This continued for 5 full years prior to the yeshiva's closing in 1892. (pages 207, 208)

So what did college have to do with the closing of the Yeshiva? Assuming we accept the premise that the yeshiva was indeed closed over something connected to "secular studies", R' Epstein explains what was actually proposed, which caused his uncle to close the yeshiva.
On the twenty second of October 1891, the Minister of Education certified a system of changes to be established in the Volozhin Yeshiva, four of which struck at its main life-giving arteries and imperiled its existence. They consisted of the following:

1. The general studies program shall take place between nine o'clock in the morning and three in the afternoon.

2. There shall be no [yeshiva] studies at night at which time the yeshiva building shall be closed.

3. The entire study program shall be no longer than ten hours per twenty four hour period.

4. The Rosh yeshiva and all the instructors shall possess an educational degree.

The result of all this was that during the winter months no time at all would remain for studying the Talmud. Even in the summer, considering that the general studies program would finish at three in the afternoon followed by lunch, only minimal time would remain for Torah study. The students would also be exhausted from 5 or 6 hours of general studies, and thus the best hours of the day would have been wasted.

It is clear that these conditions, capped by the impossible demand that every single teacher from the Rosh yeshiva down to the instructor of the lowest shiur, have a degree, left my uncle with very little choice. "Under these conditions what do I need the yeshiva for and for what does the yeshiva need me? This will no longer be a yeshiva but a school. Aren't there enough schools in this country already? (pages 206-207)
The point of the maskilim, who pressed the issue in the first place to the Russian government, was to close the yeshiva -- and in the week of Parashat Bo, 1892, the yeshiva was closed.

R' Epstein's version of the story leaves little room for misinterpretation. The Netziv was not anti-secular studies, the students of Volozhin studied (at least) mathematics and Russian within the scope of the Volozhin curriculum, and the closing of the yeshiva was due to the outrageous order reducing yeshiva studies to a bare minimum (or none), with secular studies taking up the vast majority of the students' time.

While the majority of this posting is based on the actual book "My Uncle the Netziv", I came across some additional sources and good additional reading material as well:

Sources:
My Uncle the Netziv, Chapter 13, "An Act of Satan", pages 206-209.

Additional Reading:
Founding (1803) and Closure (1892) of Yeshivat Etz Hayyim of Volozhin. Michtavim Blog, Menachem Butler
"Haskalah, Secular Studies, and the close of Yeshiva of Volozhin in 1892", YU Torah, by Dr. Jacob J, Schachter

In closing, I must quote from Menachem Butler's post about a newly researched twist on the entire story...

Professor Shaul Stampfer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem discusses "The Closing of the Yeshiva of Volozhin" [Hebrew], in his Hebrew-University-dissertation-turned-volume, Ha-Yeshivah ha-Lita'it be-Hithavutah (Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 1st ed., 1995; 2nd ed., 2005), 208-250, with an appendix to chapter eight published in the updated (2005) edition on pages 251-266, including a half-dozen never-before-published correspondences from newly available sources from Russian government archives (and he reprints a [Russian] document on page 253), in Hebrew translation, pointing that the closure was related to "in-fighting" (my wording) amongst the administration of Yeshivat Etz Hayyim, rather than simply a disagreement over the government inclusion of secular studies into the institutional curriculum.



Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael טובה הארץ מאד מאד

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

1. no one was allowed to do anything in volozhin besides learn torah. this includes the [clandestine] zionist organization. what guys did against the rules is another matter entirely.
2. your pro-yu approach is yet another reason i will not move to israel in the foreseeable future. that approach/lifestyle is simply unavailable to my family.

Anonymous said...

I've never read the book, but I've heard it said that the book was banned because it mentioned something about the Netziv reading the newspaper on Shabbat.

Lurker said...

Anonymous @ 10:49: your pro-yu approach is yet another reason i will not move to israel in the foreseeable future. that approach/lifestyle is simply unavailable to my family.

What does Jameel's "pro-YU" approach have to do with you making aliyah?

Congratulations, I think you've come up the absolutely dumbest, lamest excuse of all time for not making aliyah...

Special Ed said...

I found a copy of the book. I can't wait to read it!!

Anon #1- I try to be respectful when I comment but you're a conceited sefl aggrandizing moron

Anon #2- I'll let you know when I finish it

Eli G said...

Its interesting you bring up that book, Jameel, I found it in my parents house with that letter from Lakewood stapled to it. One guess what I was busy reading that night. Keep up the good work.

Batya said...

Interesting.
It reminds me of the debates in the "weaker" of the yeshiva high schools here about playing with the classical daily program. In Kinor David they divide the Beit Medrash learning between early morning and late afternoon, instead of all morning. That way secular studies are late morning and early afternoon. The kids also get more out of the Beit Medrash, since it's not too long at one time.

rockofgalilee said...

Anon #1,

Just keep banging your head into the wall and repeating, "everything rebbe said is true"

nikki said...

jameel -- you should be very careful of the tremendous power and influence you wield over the jews of america. look, now anon #1won't make aliya because of you.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

anonymous 10:49 wrote: no one was allowed to do anything in volozhin besides learn torah. this includes the [clandestine] zionist organization. what guys did against the rules is another matter entirely.

Tell me, do you know how to read? It says clearly in the book that the Netziv AUTHORIZED the teaching of Math and Russian within the YESHIVA curriculum.

I didn't realize you're so enlightened that you consider Math and Russian to be "Torah".

It seems your approach is even more "pro-YU" than mine.

Nikki:

LOL. NBN's coming after me now ;-)

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Eli G: Glad you liked the post (and the book! :)

anonymous 10:58

I've never read the book, but I've heard it said that the book was banned because it mentioned something about the Netziv reading the newspaper on Shabbat

I'm told he would never read the sports section till motzei shabbat...

;-)

rockofgalilee said...

I couldn't help myself.
My Comment

The Hedyot said...

>...it mentioned something about the Netziv reading the newspaper on Shabbat...

I had heard this idea too, and always figured that the reason for it's popularity was due to the difficult problem faced by the people who banned it.

When people ban a book because it has things in it which they find unacceptable, they run the risk of everyone wanting to know what it was that prompted the ban, thereby undermining the whole point of the ban in the first place (to prevent people knowing about certain ideas). Therefore, they need to come up with some less problematic excuse of what is wrong with it, so that when people ask, they can be told something sufficiently "inappropriate", but not the significantly problematic idea itself (or, as in this case, ideas). The newspaper issue is in the book (IIRC, it says that he loved reading the newspaper so much, he deliberately saved it for shabbos), but it is probably the least problematic issue of them all, so they used it as a red herring to distract people from the more significant "problems" of the book.

See my other thoughts on this issue in the comment thread at DovBear.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

The newspaper issue is not a red herring at all. It is about the least un-rosh yeshivah like behavior one can imagine; read the book. It doesn't only say he read a newspaper on shabbos. There's a flowery passage about how Neziv looked forward to the newspaper, and would read it shabbos morning (but not at night, which he felt had to be reserved only for Torah study). Not only did he look forward to it, but he even remarked that a shabbos without that particular newspaper is just not the same.

But the real clincher is which newspaper. He didn't mean the Yated or Hamodiah. He was talking about the Maggid, one of the very first Hebrew newspapers to be published (1856-1903). You can read the Maggid's entire archive on the JNUL web site:

http://jnul.huji.ac.il/dl/newspapers/hamagid/html/hamagid.htm

This particular newspaper was the organ of the haskalah (albeit it was Orthodox in orientation, as opposed to other publications, like the Tzefirah). Furthermore, there was another newspaper, the Levanon, which was equivalent to what we would call Chareidi today (also archived at the JNUL). And the Neziv, according to the book, didn't read the Levanon every shabbos and didn't look forward to it every shabbos and didn't say that shabbos wasn't the same without the Levanon. He said that about the Maggid.

To give a tiny illustration of what the Maggid was about: there is a famous incident where a newspaper published a little piece about the young son of R. Yisrael Salanter - his name was Lipmann Lipkin - who was studying mathematics in university. The newspaper highlighted him, and praised his father for being balanced and open enough to have his son study at university. The following issue a letter appeared from R. Yisrael Salanter disputing that he had given his approval to his son's unviersity studies, saying that the facts were to the contrary: he was very sad because of it.

Which newspaper was it? Why, it was the Maggid.

Now, this does NOT mean that the Neziv was a maskil or that he was in favor of young Jewish men going to university. But the point is that this is not a minor point in the objection to his portrayal in the book. It was a big deal. It was very, very un-yeshivish of him. It may be okay to be a little unyeshivish in your private life, if you're a rosh yeshiva, but the yeshivishe masses aren't supposed to know about it.

The Hedyot said...

Believe me, I know the newspaper issue is not actually a red herring, and is in fact a very big deal. When I read it, it was one more issue that struck me as flying smack in the face of the traditional yeshivish stereotype.

But compared to the issue of women learning torah, the closing of volozhin and some of the other unpalatable revelations in that book, it's much simpler to dismiss a curious onlooker by saying, "Oh, it's bad because it says he read a newspaper on shabbos," than it would be by saying, "oh, it mentions how he was supportive of women becoming scholars."

I refer to is as a red herring only in that it's an easy way to distract the crowd from the more meatier issues. But yes, I agree, the issue itself is not a red herring at all. It is one more proof that what is considered "Torah True" (TM) behavior has very little basis in our tradition.

Anonymous said...

"But compared to the issue of women learning torah, the closing of volozhin and some of the other unpalatable revelations in that book, it's much simpler to dismiss a curious onlooker by saying, "Oh, it's bad because it says he read a newspaper on shabbos," than it would be by saying, "oh, it mentions how he was supportive of women becoming scholars."

The material about rayna batya is edited in My Uncle the netziv, so it seems unlikely to me that the issue of women learning torah was the focus of the ban.

pushiter-yid said...

I have the original letter from the Netziv to his son Rabbi Chaim Berlin, immediately following the St. Petersburg convention, in which he clearly states that the only hope to maintain torah in the Yeshivah is be keeping any secular learnings or even science etc. - He does agree to have the children learn Russian in the Chadarim per the requirement of the Russian Government.

pushiter-yid said...

I missed a few words. == by keeping "OUT"

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

pushiter-yid: Would you be willing to email me a scanned copy of the letter? I'm curious to see it.

Thanks!

Joel said...

We should ban the Torah Temima while we're at it.

Search the Muqata

Loading...

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails