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Englightment Versus Tradition: The Case of R. Yehoshua Heschel Levine

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


The Gra's legacy

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein



This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Carole S. Daman of Scarsdale
in memory of Tzvi Hersh ben David Arye z”l – Harlan Daman



Shiur 18: Enlightenment versus Tradition:

The case of R. Yehoshua Heschel Levine



I. More on Messianism in the Gra's Legacy


            Our discussion of the pursuit of a general education in the teachings of the Vilna Gaon touched upon his mystical-messianic thought. We therefore tried to understand the implied connection between the different emphases rising from the writings of the Gra's disciples with respect to the study of general knowledge and the various attitudes that they express regarding the messianic issue. The topic of messianism rose here incidentally, and it is not my intention to expand much upon it at this time. I would  like to dwell on it just a bit more, however, because for some readers the idea that messianism was important to the Gra, even on the practical level, might seem novel. The fact noted earlier, that some of his disciples were intensively preoccupied with this issue, whereas others – and precisely the senior ones – are silent on the matter, is also liable to sow doubt whether it is really so simple that the Gra occupied himself with it in a significant way. I, therefore, wish to consider a certain literary work which we should find instructive regarding this matter, and incidentally become acquainted with another important and influential book – published at a relatively early stage – which summarized portions of the Gra's teachings in a format that was intended for the general public.


            A certain Lithuanian scholar named R. Shmuel Moltzan published several works of the Vilna Gaon with the approbation of the rabbis of the generation. In 5633 (1873) he published "Even Sheleima," a collection of aphorisms on ethical conduct. In the words of the author: "It contains almost all of the foundations of morality and character improvement, a shield and weapon with which to fight against the evil Yetzer… I decided to divide the book into short aphorisms, each aphorism containing an important principle of morality and character development…." Torah study is not addressed directly, but guidance with respect to study is included within the general framework of morality and Divine service.[1]


            Indeed, the chapter headings of "Even Sheleima" attest to the book's ethical concern. For example, chapter 1 deals with "all the ways to break evil traits"; chapter 3 deals with "faith, contentment and desire for money"; chapter 5 deals with "fear, love, and the observance of the mitzvot"; chapter 7 deals with "vain things and their opposite, i.e., diligence in Torah study"; chapter 8 deals with "ways of study, for its sake and not for its sake, and the inner secrets of the Torah." A certain deviation from matters of ethics is found in the tenth - the next to last - chapter. It does not offer practical guidance, but rather it describes "the soul's departure from the body, and reward and punishment in this world and in the world-to-come." The truth, however, is that these matters fit in well in an ethical tract, for recognition of reward and punishment is one of the main ways to bring a person to do good, as our Sages already said: "Know before whom you will eventually give a reckoning." In this spirit, other ethical works as well dedicated considerable space to a description of reward and punishment, especially that in the world after death, as a means of improving a person's character.[2]


            However, the subject of the last chapter (11) of "Even Sheleima" is a bit surprising. The author informs us that this chapter will "explain the matter of the 'eirev rav,' the birth pangs of the messiah, and matters relating to the future redemption." What is this theoretical discussion of the ways of the future redemption doing in a book on ethics? An examination of the chapter confirms that it contains no moral instruction. Paragraph 2, for example, tells us "that the ten tribes will be redeemed first, and afterwards the tribe of Yehuda, and afterwards the generation of the wilderness will come back to life." In paragraph 5 it says that the redemption is called by the name "morning", and so too it is described by the term "birth." These terms are of great significance: Just as before it begins to light up, the day is very dark, and just as a woman's pain right before she gives birth is much greater than her pain all through her pregnancy, so too "prior to the redemption, the exile will weigh down more so than all the rest of the exile."


            The only explanation that I can offer for this issue's inclusion in "Even Sheleima" is that the author recognizes that the ethical issues discussed in the book constitute the essence of the Gra's overall outlook, and for this reason it would have been impossible to omit from it the Gra's views on the redemption, an issue with which the Gra was preoccupied. "Even Sheleima" should not, however, be seen as a product of the activist camp among the Gra's disciples – those who wished to hasten the redemption by moving to Eretz Israel, and preparing it materially and spiritually for the ingathering of its exiles. The practical side of the redemption, which constitutes the backbone of "Kol ha-Tor," is entirely absent from "Even Sheleima." Nevertheless, the very inclusion of the issue of redemption in a book written by someone who saw no reason to try to influence the course of history through direct intervention, testifies that it was nevertheless impossible to ignore the place of messianism in the teachings of the Gra. But we will hold the larger discussion of messianic activism in abeyance for the time being.


            Now, let us go back and examine another aspect of the attitude of the Gra's followers to the pursuit of general knowledge.


II. THe Gaon as inspiration for confronting the Haskala Movement


            The book, "Aliyot Eliyahu," on the life and ways of the Gra, was written and published in the middle of the nineteenth century. The work was edited by R. Yehoshua Heschel Levine, but in great measure it is the fruit of the joint effort of various scholars of that generation who contributed information and assessments of the Gaon. In those days, the Haskala movement had already gathered great momentum, and this fact attached meaning to the Gra's preoccupation with general knowledge that it had never had before.


            We have already mentioned one of the sages who contributed to the work, R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, the rabbi of Koenigsberg in East Germany.[3] The city was a center of the Haskala movement, similar to Berlin. In his letter of approbation for the book, he writes:


How these fools of our generation have sinned, who after merely smelling a whiff of science, think like Heman and Darda[4], and see a plague in the house. Let the Gaon be for them a guide, a holy man of God, to whom even the mysteries of all the other sciences were revealed and known, and to them he cleaved, but with the love of God and with His Torah, with great strength, sanctity and purity. This is all of the man, and from him those who have erred in spirit shall come to understanding.


            Rav Mecklenberg seems to be criticizing those who relate to the sciences as an impure "plague," and he presents the Gra as an example of the possibility of studying the sciences without it interfering with clinging to the Torah in sanctity and purity. These words apparently express their author's positive attitude toward the Enlightenment, which was spreading among the members of his community.


            At the end of the book as well, the author, R. Yehoshua Heschel Levine, writes in a similar spirit. The author sees fit to praise the czar, Alexander II, for the reforms that he had instituted with respect to the Jews. Alongside the opening of new economic and social possibilities before them, the czar required of the Jews that they learn general professions. R. Levine saw nothing wrong with fulfilling this expectation:


Surely we know what has thus far been asked of us by this glorious government, merely to tie the delicacies of our faith and our Torah to the sciences, and in a way that our religion and fear of God will precede our wisdom in importance and in time. As our Sages have said (Avot 3:11): Anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom is enduring.


            The interpretation that R. Levine adopts – according to which "his wisdom" refers to worldly knowledge, and not to the Torah, is very novel. In any case, his insistence on giving priority to the fear of God over secular subjects teaches that R. Levine is expressing here his true position, and that his words were not written merely as a gesture to the czar. He continues with a declaration that we are obligated –


to observe every order written in the laws of this glorious government, whose sole desire is light and truth, faith and knowledge, and choice language.


            Following this compliment regarding the purity of Alexander's intentions, the author establishes that his directives also accord with what is already found in the words of the Sages of Israel:


When we consider the past, surely for the most prominent figures of bygone generations, who serve as our guides, Torah and wisdom were always in harmony with each other together with the fear of God, none of them miscarrying. This man too, the holy of God, about whom much has been written in the book, "Aliyot Eliyahu," the Gaon, the pious one, who lived at a time when the sciences were still alien, did not keep his hand back from any body of knowledge or any science. He went with them from the outside to the holy inside, and they did not disturb him for a moment from serving God in sanctity and purity. In our generation, however, and owing to our many sins, there are found among our people those for whom wisdom and the fear of God are enemies, whose hearts are too small to contain both of them. Faith has become lost, cut off from their mouths, wisdom has become weakened, and justice has become contorted.


            The author points to the gap between his own generation and that of the Vilna Gaon. In the days of the Gra, the sciences were still "alien," that is to say, they were not widely known, but nevertheless the Gra had mastered them. The second difference is that in the days of the Gra nobody saw a conflict between general knowledge, on the one hand, and Torah knowledge and the fear of God, on the other. But in the author's time – half a century after the Gra's death – many already perceived them as enemies. The result was that faith was cut off from the mouths of those who studied general studies. This in turn impacted upon those who feared God, and distanced them from the Enlightenment. R. Levine laments this situation, and presents the Gra as a venerable role model.


            It is clear that even if we concede that the Gra related positively to general education, there could be room for doubt as to the advisability of setting him up as a role model for later generations. We have already noted this point, and there is no need to elaborate on it further here. However, having already become acquainted with the author of "Aliyot Eliyahu," it would be a good idea to follow his career, which can be seen to mirror the fortunes of the ideal he sought to personify: a Torah scholar who is fluent in general knowledge and involved in the world at large.


III. An ideological struggle over Volozhin


            Who then was R. Levine? By marriage, he was a member of the family of R. Chayyim of Volozhin. R. Chayyim's son, R. Yitzchak, succeeded his father as head of the great Yeshiva. R. Yitzchak of Volozhin had a son and two daughters. The daughters married important Torah scholars: R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv) and R. Eliezer Yitzchak Fried. These two figures taught in the Yeshiva, and as it would seem, managed it already in the lifetime of R. Yitzchak, who was very involved in communal affairs. R. Yitzchak's son, on the other hand – R. Eliyahu Zalman – turned to business and achieved considerable financial success. R. Eliyahu Zalman was impressed by R. Levine, an enlightened and charismatic Torah scholar, and gave him his daughter in marriage. R. Yitzchak as well was fond of the talented scholar who joined the expanded family, and hoped that he would make an important contribution to the Yeshiva.


            R. Levine, however, did not get along well with the Netziv and R. Eliezer Yitzchak. His ways reflected modernity and high culture. He dressed impeccably and wore a top hat. His house highlighted his father-in-law's wealth in its furniture and design, and his large library included Enlightenment texts and modern Hebrew literature. In contrast, the lifestyle of the Netziv and R. Eliezer Yitzchak was  in tune with the old, simple and impoverished Jewish mainstream.


            In addition to these superficial differences, R. Levine did not conceal his criticism of the Yeshiva's administration and educational philosophy. It is related that following a shiur given by R. Eliezer Yitzchak, R. Levine sharply criticized his dry and pedantic approach. R. Eliezer Yitzchak's response was that if R. Levine didn't like it, he should deliver a class in his place. R. Levine stood up to the challenge, and delivered a clear and well-arranged lecture that seems to have captured the hearts of the students. This incident sharpened the existing tensions, and R. Levine left the Yeshiva.


            Before we continue with the next part of the story, let us go back for a moment to "Aliyot Eliyahu." Anyone who reads the book will immediately see that R. Levine was indeed a genius, a man of systematic scholarship and erudition, gifted with an unusual clarity of exposition. Having mentioned R. Levine's tense relations with the heads of the Volozhin Yeshiva, note should be made of his close friendship with sages like R. Y. Tz. Mecklenberg and R. David Luria, who were his partners in the editing of "Aliyot Eliyahu," and in whose teachings he found an echo of the breadth of knowledge that he so admired. We have already met R. Mecklenberg in the past, and now we shall tell a little about his colleague. Besides being a halakhic authority and kabbalist, R. David Luria produced a large literary yield that testifies to his investigative inclinations, which undoubtedly were influenced in no small part by the example set by the Gra. He authored commentaries and critical notes to many Rabbinic works, e.g., the Aggadic midrashim and the Tosefta.


            "Aliyot Eliyahu" was published in the 1850's. In the 1860's R. Levine devoted himself to realizing one central aspiration: becoming the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva. From his perspective, this was not a matter of personal competition, but an idealistic mission aimed at "fixing the world." According to his understanding, the generation needed a new type of rabbi, one who is involved in society, one who is a capable speaker, and one who is involved in the world of culture. It was his opinion that Volozhin should be the growing fields of leaders of this type, but given the existing situation, he did not give it much chance of success. It was his plan that as head of the Yeshiva he would institute wide-ranging changes in the curriculum. As stated earlier, he was critical of pilpul and he sought orderly and systematic study.[5] He aspired to expand the scope of study, e.g., a more profound study of midrash and Jewish thought, and preparatory courses in journalistic writing.


            I wish to give here a general account of this stormy episode.[6] R. Levine began to offer classes in his own home in the town of Volozhin, and many were drawn to his personality, charmed by the expansive atmosphere that ruled in his house, and fascinated by what he had to say. The spirit of rebellion began to take hold among a certain circle of students. Matters began to reach manifest and serious proportions – strife, interruption of the orderly running of the Yeshiva, and a growing concern for the peace and continuity of the institution. The residents of the town became very distressed, because the Yeshiva was an important source of income for them. In the end the Netziv won out. Several factors can be credited with this outcome: the personal qualities of the Netziv – resourcefulness, cleverness, and decisive leadership; the impatient ambitiousness of his rival; and the conservatism of the yeshiva's lay supporters, especially the wealthy contributors and the gabba'im. R. Levine gave up on his plan, and spent the rest of his life serving as rabbi in various communities. He continued in his attempts to effect changes on the community level, by way of various educational and institutional initiatives.


            Despite the Netziv's victory, the tendency represented by R. Levine, and which in the final analysis relied on the precedent offered by the Gra, was not at all defeated. It struck deep roots in Lithuanian Jewry, and this episode seems to have accelerated the openness to modernity that penetrated even the Volozhin Yeshiva. In the 1880's and 90's, we hear from students that occupation with general education, at one level or another, had become an accepted phenomenon among those studying at the institution, even though the vast majority dedicated most of their time and effort to Torah study. Of course, any student who did not identify with the primary objective of Torah study, would simply have left, as did Bialik for example, since he would have had no reason to say. But referring again to Bialik, one of the signs of admiration for Enlightenment which characterized the students of Volozhin was the respect shown to the young student from Zhitomir during the year that he spent at the Yeshiva. When he left Volozhin for Odessa, about a hundred of his fellow students escorted him to the train station. Clearly, the student body respected general education, thought it certainly was not their main preoccupation while at Volozhin.


In addition, it became clear to many Jews that general studies suited them very well. Yeshiva students who wished to register at universities discovered that they were capable of filling in the gaps in their knowledge in a relatively short amount of time, and later, to excel. By virtue of their talents, they in many cases overcame anti-Semitism and attained success and professional status. Striking roots in the intellectual world of the Yeshiva provided them with tools to advance also in general academia. Thus, the connection between Torah study and the pursuit of general knowledge also found expression from this practical standpoint.


Another ramification of this openness to the Enlightenment expressed itself in one of the greatest cultural upheavals in Judaism in the modern period: the Brisker method of study. R. Chayyim Soloveitchik was brought by the Netziv to teach at his Yeshiva, and his novel method of study took the student body with a storm. From there the method spread until it achieved dominance in European Yeshivot in general. What was the secret charm of the Brisker method, and what led to its broad existence? Historians and scholars are almost unanimous on the matter. The method was perceived as "modern" and as appropriate for the spirit of the time. The Yeshiva students sought scientific exactitude, precise definitions, and also – under the influence of art and literature – a place for personal expression. The lamdanim of the older generation had their reservations about R. Chayyim's method for these very reasons. Talmudic methodology that was like "science" (or "chemistry" as they called it) was perceived by them as tainted by non-traditional influences.


It would be an exaggeration to attribute all of these developments exclusively to the Gaon of Vilna, but we can see him as an important link in these processes. Without a doubt the central value of "love of Torah" was translated by him as including "love of the truth" and "love of knowledge." The later generations that adopted these principles could see themselves as continuing in his path – despite the fact that there may very well have been a gap between him and them as to how these values were applied.


(Translated by David Strauss) 

[1] This perspective is not surprising, and this is the simple way to understand the book "Nefesh ha-Chayyim." The introduction to "Nefesh ha-Chayyim" describes it as a book that is meant to firmly plant the fear of heaven, and the book's strong emphasis on the rational study of Torah must be understood in this spirit. This stands in contrast to the later atmosphere in Volozhin (which we noted earlier) which divorced study from piety and the fear of heaven.

[2] For example, in Sefer Chasidim of R. Yehuda he-Chasid, and so too in Kav ha-Yashar of R. Zvi Hirsch Kaidonover.

[3] From the end of WWII, the city was annexed to Russia.

[4] Two wise men of old, mentioned in Melakhim I, chap. 5, 11. The precise intention here eludes me.

[5] This point requires further examination, but we shall content ourselves with several brief comments. The Gra, and R. Chayyim of Volozhin, did not like pilpul. Their direct approach to the plain sense of the text is striking in the halakhic works of the greatest disciples of R. Chayyim, for example, "Mishkenot Yaakov" and "Nachalat David." The Netziv also sought the plain sense of the text, but his lectures at Volozhin were not particularly popular. Was there a regression regarding this matter over the years? Perhaps, but it should be remembered that the definition of "pilpul" as opposed to "peshat" is not clear-cut. In any event, this subject is too broad to get into here.

[6] This episode was committed to writing several years after it had transpired, by Shmuel Leib Citron. See: "Yeshivot Lita: Pirkei Zikhronot," edited by E. Etkes and Sh. Tikocinski, pp. 81-93.