R. Hutnerӳ Life and Works and his Theory of Education

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


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Lecture #37: R. Hutner’s Life and Works and his Theory of Education





R. Yitzchak Hutner was born in Warsaw in 1906.  He studied at the famed Yeshiva of Slobodka and become a favorite of R. Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobodka, who was partial to extremely talented students.  The yeshiva set up a branch in Chevron in 1924 and R. Hutner joined them the following year.  In Israel, he developed a relationship with R. Kook, who wrote a haskama for R. Hutner’s first published sefer, Torat Ha-Nazir.  Some claim that R. Kook had a profound influence on Rav Hutner’s thought, perhaps introducing him to the ideas of Maharal, one of the most prominent voices in R. Hutner’s writings on Jewish thought.  In 1929, R. Hutner spent a few months in Berlin and rumors circulate that he sat in on university courses, although the precise nature of his activity there remains unclear.   


R. Kook’s haskama appears along with those from R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski and R. Avrham Duber Kahane Shapiro in the first edition of the work, but it is missing in subsequent editions.  This change may reflect R. Hutner’s growing dislike for the Zionist enterprise, a theme we will return to in a later shiur.  His forcefully negative position on Zionism created a great sense of distance from the rabbinic voice who most powerfully articulated an evaluation of secular Zionism in religiously positive terms.   


In 1934, soon after his marriage, R. Hunter moved to New York, where he was briefly the menahel of the RJJ high school before he moved to Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, an institution he headed with a strong hand for several decades.  He became a leading authority in American Orthodoxy and was one of the signatories banning participation in rabbinic organizations including rabbis from different denominations.  His lectures, delivered around the time of the chagim, became popular public events and the talks were eventually published.  During the last decade of his life, he lived part of the time in Israel and established a yeshiva in Yerushalayim called Pachad Yitzchak. In 1970, he was on a hijacked plane and spent three weeks in captivity in the Jordan Valley.  R. Hunter passed away in 1980.


Rebbetzin Bruria David, R. Hutner’s only child, has headed the Beis Yaakov of Yerushalayim for many years. She received a doctorate from Columbia University with a dissertation on R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes. The juxtaposition between a doctorate from Columbia and heading a Beis Yaakov reflects the complex aspects of her father’s life.  A staunch advocate of Charedi ideological positions, R. Hutner also had broad intellectual interests that find expression in his writings.


The scholarly literature on R. Hutner remains quite limited.  Biographical sketches include one written by his daughter in a memorial volume for R. Hutner[1] and articles by Hillel Goldberg[2] and Matis Greenblatt.[3]  The latter elicited a short letter by R. Aharon Lichtenstein adding a few missing strokes to round out the portrait.[4] Analysis of R. Hutner’s thought includes articles by Steven Schwarzchild,[5] Shalom Carmy,[6] and Shmuel Wygoda.[7]  Lawrence Kaplan wrote a critique of R. Hutner’s thesis regarding the historical relationship between Zionism and the Holocaust.[8]  Given the depth and profundity of his thought, R. Hutner’s work deserves far more extensive attention from competent scholars. 




As mentioned, R. Hutner’s first work was on the laws of nezirut.  He also wrote a perush on R. Hillel’s commentary on the Sifra, which included a listing of all the halakhot in the Sifra that do not appear in the Babylonian Talmud.  While his most important contributions were in the world of Jewish thought, he certainly was a master of gemara and Halakha.  Indeed, only a talmid chakham of major proportions could compose such a list of novel halakhot.  The memorial volume includes other halakhic writings as well. R. Hutner’s enduring contribution to Jewish theology and ethics appears in his Pachad Yitzchak. Most of the volumes are organized around a given chag, with the material gleaned from the talks he delivered at the time of the chagim, but there is also an important volume of letters and articles.


R. Hutner on Education


Several letters to students help us develop aspects of R. Hutner’s theory of education.  Beyond the specifics of his educational theory, the examples also point to features of his methodology, including the excellent use of parables and sensitivity to language.  He was a master of the parable and a much more poetic writer than many rabbinic peers.


One letter addresses a student who had experienced difficulties and failures and apparently concluded that he was not worthy of aspiring to very much.[9]  R. Hutner contends that the content of the letter belies the student’s self-assessment, since struggle reflects a mark of distinction. R. Hutner criticizes our prevalent communal discourse about great rabbis. We talk about them only as finished products, as if they were born fully pious and erudite, leaving out a process of growth involving frustration, setbacks, and steady persistence. 


Most rabbinic biographies penned in the thirty years since R. Hutner’s passing fail to meet R. Hutner’s ideal. In these works, all rabbis are the same: young prodigies who already mastered Torah and excelled in character at a young age. Failures and struggles are absent from the description. I would argue that this approach fails in terms of historical truth and actually lessens the credit given to great individuals, as it makes their achievement more a matter of birthright than effort.  R. Hutner points out the severe educational fallout from this approach. Any student having a hard time immediately concludes that he is not cut out for achievement, since those that truly achieve do so naturally at an early age. Despair and defeatism set in.


In a remarkable passage, R. Hutner complains that we only speak of the final purity of speech achieved by the Chafetz Chaim instead of also discussing the many failures and stumbles that the Chafetz Chaim experienced along the way in his efforts to stop speaking lashon ha-ra.  I do not think R. Hutner had historical sources informing him about the Chafetz Chaim’s difficulties.  Rather, he bases his assumptions on the nature of humanity and on a realistic path to greatness. We are flawed and limited creatures who can yet aspire to incredible accomplishments - but only through ongoing effort and a willingness to try again after a failure.


R. Hutner tries to reverse his student’s perspective.  A verse in Mishlei (24:16) says: “The righteous person falls seven times and gets up.”  Most people think this means that even though a righteous person falls seven times, he stands at the end.  R. Hunter argues that falling seven times actually enables standing at the end, since effort and overcoming failure promote authentic growth.  Therefore, the student’s account of his difficulties truly indicates a potential for real achievement.


Another pillar of educational theory emerges from a speech R. Hutner delivered at the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway.[10]   He begins by apologizing to the students for his inability to speak to each student individually due to time constraints.  As the talk progresses, it becomes clear that this apology reflects not mere politeness but a profound idea.    


R. Hutner states that R. Chaim of Volozhin insisted that his students be referred to as “bnei ha-yeshiva” rather than as “talmidei ha-yeshiva.  What accounts for this terminological distinction?  To answer this question, R. Hutner reports a clever response that he received from a young yeshiva student.  He asked the student if he relates to his secular studies teachers in the way he relates to rabbeim, and if not, to describe the difference. The student replied that a teacher of secular studies resembles a cook dispensing food, whereas the rebbe resembles a nursing mother.  A mother gives of her essence to the child, while the cook provides food fully external to the provider.  R. Hutner praises this answer, declaring that this child has a glorious learning future. 


One can view teaching as the giving over of resources of information, without that information impacting on the life of the instructor.  Conversely, the ideas can be part of the teacher’s personal quest for a more moral and spiritual existence.  R. Hutner indicates his preference for the latter model, which resembles a mother more than a cook.  Although his presentation draws a dividing line between Torah teachers and secular studies teachers, the same divide can exist within each category. Some knowledgeable Torah teachers fail to realize Torah ideals in their own behavior, and some teachers of non-Jewish wisdom do integrate that wisdom into guidance for life. William Barrett writes that the ancient Greeks philosophized as part of a quest for the true and the good, while contemporary academic philosophers are often simply doing a job without any sense that it affects who they are.[11]  R. Hutner’s idea reminds us that the most important kind of education does more than transmit information.


The parable explains R. Chaim Volozhin’s insistence on the term “bnei ha-yeshiva.”  He wanted students to receive food from nursing mothers giving of their essence. It also explains R. Hutner’s opening remark that he would prefer individual meetings. A cook gives out food to many recipients simultaneously, but the nursing mother nourishes only one child at a time.  The opening comment already points towards the ideal form of education.


The above analysis includes two characteristic aspects of R. Hutner’s thought: clever employment of parable and sensitivity to language.  Dramatic reversal is another frequent occurrence in his writings.  Standard thinking assumes a given position while the reality is just the opposite.  The following example of reversal coheres with this educational approach.


R. Hutner delivered a Yiddish address to a conference of educators; fortunately, we have an English translation by R. Shalom Carmy.[12]  The gemara (Bava Batra 21a) credits R. Yehoshua ben Gamla with saving Torah in Israel by establishing teachers for children. Before this innovation, fathers taught sons, but this ultimately left some children without a teacher.  R. Yehoshua’s enactment enabled universal education. 


Many utilize the example of R. Yehoshua to show the progressive nature of the Jewish community. Long before other cultures, we pushed for universal education. R. Hutner, however, contends that R. Yehoshua ben Gamla’s decree reflects a necessary evil and a deviation from the original norm in which parents instructed children.  Receiving Torah resembles receiving life and nourishment; ideally, one receives these things from a parent. R. Hutner compares R. Yehsohua ben Gamla’s enactment to a law that all fetuses should receive their nourishment from an incubator. Surely we would see something wrong in such a law!


From this perspective, the professionalization of education brings about certain dangers.  Perhaps some educators will simply fulfill their function and earn a living rather than bring life to their students.  Recalling this idea helps educators do their job.  Those who remember their historical role as a substitute for parental teachers will not fall into the trap of adopting a purely professional role. 


This address parallels the talk R. Hutner gave in the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway.  There, too, he called on educators to resemble nursing mothers more than professional cooks. While that talk emphasized a teacher giving of his essence, the talk to educators stresses conceiving of teaching as giving life and not as just another profession.


Those who composed the text for R. Hutner’s matzeva understood the significance of these ideas in his thought.  The text includes the following: “He raised generations of students. He was like a father to them and they were as sons to him.”[13]  In light of what we have seen, these words reflect more than R. Hutner’s dedication or warmth; they represent an essential component of his educational worldview.

[1] Sefer Zikkaron Le-Maran Ba’al Pachad Yitzchak zt”l (Noble Book Press, New York, 2008).

[2] Hillel Goldberg, “Rabbi Isaac Hutner: A Synoptic Interpretive Biography,” Tradition 22:4 (1987): pp. 18-46. 

[3] Matis Greenblatt, “Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner: The Vision Before His Eyes,” Jewish Action (Summer, 2001).   

[4] See the letters section in Jewish Action (Summer, 2002).

[5] Steven Schwarzschild, “An Introduction to the Thought of R. Isaac Hutner,” Modern Judaism 5:3 (1985): pp. 235-277.

[6] Shalom Carmy, “Rav Yitzhak Hutner’s Lecture to a Teacher’s Conference,” Tradition 19:3 (1981): pp. 218-226; idem., “Nisyonotehem shel Ha-Aavot: Bi-Ikvot Ma’amarei Pachad Yirtzchak,” Ohr Ha-Mizrach (5764): pp. 152-167.

[7] Shmuel Wygoda, “Be-Havlei Ha-Zeman: Ha-Adam Ve-Ha-Zeman Be-Haguto shel R. Yitzchak Hutner,” Be-Darkei Shalom, pp. 399-427.

[8] Lawrence Kaplan, “Rabbi Isaac Hutner’s ‘Daat Torah Perspective’ on the Holocaust: a Critical Analysis,” Tradition 18:3 (1980): pp. 235-248.   

[9] Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot U-Ketavim (Noble Books Press, New York, 1998), pp. 217-219.

[10] Ibid., pp. 134-135.

[11] William Barrett, Irrational Man (Anchor Books: New York, 1990), pp. 3-7. 

[12] The Yiddish original appears in Pachad Yitzchak, Shavuot (Noble Books Press, New York, 2002), p. 238-246.  For the English translation, see Carmy, “Rav Yitzchak” in footnote 5 above.

[13] The full text of the matzeva appears in Sefer Ha-Zikkaron, p. 66.