Article by Josh Leitner
The Yeshiva of Volozhin
In 1890 a 17-year old orphan, by the name of Chaim Zhitomirer applied to join the Volohzin Yeshiva, after reading a gushing and effusive account of the institution from Hebrew writer Micha Josef Berdyczewski (1865-1921). The article was written by Berdyczewski near the end of his studies at the Volozhin Yeshiva, and his admiration for the Yeshiva and its rabbis is evident in it. Soon after he reached Volozhin he was introduced to the ageing revered dean, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (known with the acronym the Netziv), who instructed him to prepare a full tractate of Talmud for his entrance examination.
As it transpired, Zhitomirer was quite disappointed by what he found in the Yeshiva. He thought Volozhin was a place where he could study the ‘seven disciplines (the seven wonders of the world) and the seventy languages’, but ultimately all he found was hundreds of boys studying Talmud in the study hall day and night. Still, he decided to knuckle down and studied assiduously and diligently for three months until he had mastered an entire tractate and was now ready for his admission test.
Chaim was no fool, and he passed his test with ‘flying colours’. In fact the Netziv commented that he had rarely come across someone who was able to attain so much knowledge in so short a period of time. Chaim began to devote himself to intense study, and as he later said, “I had every intention of becoming a life-long student”.
But something wasn’t right in Volozhin. Over the coming months Chaim discovered that the Yeshiva was in a state of turmoil, with two secret groups of Maskilim (Jewish enlightenment – the Haskalah ) operating within the Yeshiva. Chaim now understood what Berdyczewski had meant. It was not the Yeshiva that was teaching the seven disciplines. The boys were learning that themselves. Meanwhile, the Yeshiva was in disarray and the Netziv was collapsing from internal strife and external pressures.
Just a short while later Chaim Zhitomirer, or better known as Chaim Nachman Bialik left Volozhin Yeshiva and went to Odessa, the seat of secular Jewish education where he abandoned his religious observance and became a champion of the Haskalah movement as well as a renowned Zionist icon.
Bialik wrote several famous poems about his time in Volozhin, the most famous of all, HaMasmid, a wistful description of the devoted Talmud student, dedicating himself to the endless sea of Talmud in the hope that he would become the next greatest scholar. In the poem he bitterly condemns the Yeshiva movement which he sees as stifling promising youngsters preventing them from achieving their true potential. He declares proudly, that ‘I have deliberately pitched my tent far from that existence, an existence that I despise with a passion’.
The poem became so famous that it later had a street named after it in Israel.
But what was Volozhin Yeshiva and what had driven Bialik to wish to join in the first place?
Let’s briefly go back in time…Belarus. White Russia. Birthplace of the Lithuanian Torah world. Where Hassidic Rabbi’s and deans of Yeshivot (Jewish Torah Schools) held court. The halls of the great Yeshivot once brimming with life are now of course silent, but the concrete walls that absorbed so much are still standing.
Jewish schools have existed for millennia; famous Yeshivot flourished in Israel, Babylonia, across the Middle East and in Europe. In Belarus, the towns of Brest (also known in Yiddish as Brisk), Grodno, Minsk and others contained many well-regarded Yeshivot.
But, amongst all the Yeshivot of Eastern Europe, it was the Volozhin Yeshiva that was revolutionary in providing an antidote to both, the crisis of assimilation and the growth of Hassidism which were undermining the tradition of Torah and Talmud study. On the one hand, the Russian government and the Haskalah movement joined forces in pressuring Yeshivot into teaching secular subjects – science, humanities, and languages; on the other Hassidism’s focus on devaikut or clinging to G-d with joyous prayers and chanting was gaining more followers, straying them away from a stricter Torah and Talmud education.
Yeshiva Volozhin, , located in the town of the same name in Lithuania, Russia —today Belarus— was founded by Rabbi Haim ben Yitzhak – known as Haim of Volozhin – a scholar of repute who created a short-lived movement, the Mitnagdim, to oppose Hassidism and ban its followers from entering traditional Jewish communities to entice yeshiva students away from Torah and Talmud. In turn, Rabbi Haim sought to fight Hassidism by establishing the Yeshiva Volozhin with a sole focus on Torah and Talmud education rather than Kabbalah, mystical visions, and cheerful chanting as was the Hassidim custom; or secular studies, the Russian government’s and the maskilim’s goal.
Yeshiva Volozhin is often romanticised as the womb that bore and nurtured the greatest dynasties of gifted scholars, intellectuals as Rabbis Abraham Kook, , (1865-1935) the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik (1820-1892), and the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933), who among others, started religious movements that changed the Jewish world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Eastern Europe.
Known as the “mother of all Yeshivot,” Volozhin opened in 1806 and closed in 1892 amidst an epic struggle between traditional and modernisation forces. The closing of Yeshiva Volozhin had tremendous repercussions in the yeshiva world of that time as it stopped producing dynasties of religious intellectuals and it is still a source of debate in American yeshivas today
Rabbi Haim was one of the main disciples of Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, in nearby Lithuania, who was known simply as the “Vilna Gaon” (the Vilna Genius). Together they revolutionised the way Talmud is studied and emphasised moral character and development. In 1802 Rabbi Haim issued a public letter calling on all Jews in the region to support his new Yeshiva.
One of Volozhin’s innovations was its source of funding which came from emissaries who traveled throughout Eastern and Western Europe rather than relying on local support.
Within the Volozhin Yeshiva, students studied in shifts – there were always students in the Study Hall, 24 hours a day. The Jewish learning never ceased.
Its curriculum, based only on Torah and Talmud, was meant to avoid bittul Torah or wasting time on superfluous subjects. The study of Torah and Talmud took place all day from dawn to late evening, all year, with no terms or vacation time. Advanced knowledge of Talmud was required for admissions and students could work independently or with study-partners. Basically, study for its own sake was the yeshiva’s goal. Rabbi Haim of Volozhin grew the number of students from 10 to 200 within ten years as the yeshiva’s reputation spread beyond Lithuania’s borders.
After Rabbi Haim’s death in 1821, the leadership of the institution was taken over by his son, Rabbi Yitzhak Berlin
(1780-1849). For the next decade, the yeshiva remained a family business. Rabbi Yitzhak’s death caused his son-in-law, R. Eliezer Yitzhak (1809-1853) to become dean of the yeshiva and when he died, the mantle of leadership passed to his younger son in-law, Naftali Zevi Yehuda Berlin, who governed it for four decades.
It was during his tenure that the institution experienced its greatest success. The Yeshiva became celebrated not only as the most prestigious institution of Torah and Talmud learning in the world in the nineteenth century, but also, as the paragon of opposition to the pull of Hassidism and the assimilationist movements of the Russian government and the Haskalah.
In their wake, the future of the Yeshiva was never stable as the Russian establishment tried to curb the intensity of Jewish learning by insisting on the inclusion of secular studies into the curriculum with the help of the enlightened Jews who aggressively supported a new educational system that combined Judaism with secular studies and professional training. By 1848, maskilim, encouraged by grants from the government to push for mixed education, created an infrastructure of enlightenment institutions, media outlets in Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish, and even founded a Society for the Promotion of Culture Among the Jews of Russia (1863) in St. Petersburg to support young students seeking Russian acculturation. They planned to attract Yeshiva students after they had achieved their goal of abolishing Volozhin.
The Yeshiva remained stubborn and resilient against those that wished to dilute the Yeshiva curriculum but during the latter half of the 19th century cracks began to appear from within. Many students were quietly reading academic papers in between Torah sessions, and indeed some were leaving to join the city’s universities.
The turning point came on December 22, 1891, when the government ordered the yeshiva to adopt new rules for the yeshiva’s curriculum, student body, teaching staff, and administration. Four rules stand out: (1) Secular studies were to take place daily between 9am and 3pm; (2) no more than ten hours a day could be spent studying; (3) no Jewish studies at all at night; and (4) teachers and administrators had to speak Russian and hold a diploma of secular studies. The government’s total intrusion into the yeshiva’s autonomy weighed down the rabbinic leadership. The moment to make a decision had finally arrived. Should they bow to the pressure of the Russians and adopt a modern type of education or close shop altogether?
History is not clear as to the full depth of the Netziv’s attitude to the addition of secular classes running alongside Torah studies. Some argue that he was severely opposed to any reduction of Torah learning to the degree that he would rather see the institution closed than to yield even an inch. Others say that the Netziv had made the decision to include some secular studies, albeit against his will.
The Yeshiva existed for almost a full century. However on Wednesday, the February 3rd 1892, a high government official accompanied by soldiers entered the great hall carrying an order from the Minister of Education to close the yeshiva.
The Netziv’s fight was a long and arduous one. It was the Netziv’s against the world; traditional Judaism versus secularising forces; and the Russian government against G-d. The Netziv resisted as much as he could, torn as he was between following the Higher Authority or submitting to the Russian one.
Bialik may have left Volozhin and will want to be remembered as one of its ‘star students’. Yet in his poem he does call the Yeshiva the academy “the place where the soul of the Jewish nation was molded.” The Volozhin Yeshiva will endure in the annals of history as one of the important Torah institutions of recent times.
Today the building that was the Volozhin Yeshiva stands empty and abandoned. As part of The Together Plan’s work to build a Jewish Cultural Heritage Trail – this site of enormously important Jewish provenance will be included on the route and highlighted so that more people around the world will learn about it and about the story it tells.