Rav Chayyim of Volozhin

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


The Gra's legacy

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein



This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Mr Emanuel Abrams
in memory of Rabbi Abba and Eleanor Abrams



Shiur 14: Rav Chayyim of Volozhin




            In the previous shiur, we noted a point, generally overlooked, that is unique to the Nefesh Ha-chayyim. Along with the book's overt confrontation with Chassidism, it also conducts a covert polemic with an opposing Mitnaged outlook. I refer to classical Mitnagedism, one of whose representatives was the Rabbinic judge, Rav Pinchas of Polotzek. That Mitnaged approach was filled with a pessimistic spirit of human impotence, and a feeling of distress that shadows man all the days of his physical existence. Man has two goals: the study of Torah and the world after death. In contrast, Rav Chayyim of Volozhin's approach encourages man to experience God's closeness in prayer, and directs a Jew to live in this world, not as one who must struggle to survive, but as one who is responsible for the spiritual state of the entire universe, up to the spiritual heavens.


We noted the moral and educational ramifications of these conflicting approaches, and now we shall expand upon them. Both sides agree about the centrality of Torah study. According to Rav Pinchas's approach, this centrality bestows upon the Torah moral exclusivity, so that it alone serves as the object of man's aspirations and existential yearnings. Rav Pinchas declares that anyone who pretends to achieve devekut not exclusively through Torah, is guilty of fraud, for the Torah –


is the true devekut. One should not part from it; it is like parting from life. For the entire Torah consists of the names of the Holy One, blessed be He, and it is woven and embroidered with the attributes of the blessed One. Even the most trivial words of the Sages of the Gemara reach the supernal conduits and arrive at the Throne of Glory… they embrace all the lights, beyond measure, infinite… If a person tells you that he reached devekut without it, it is a lie in our day, for he parted from the truth and cleaved to falsehood…. (Keter Torah, p. 10)


            Here Rav Pinchas utterly negates a person's insistence that his experience was one of true devekut. A person is absolutely incapable of judging, based upon his own personal experience, whether or not he reached devekut. Instead, Rav Pinchas advocates devekut of a different kind. The faith in and recognition of the Torah as something that is connected to the supernal worlds should satisfy the student's seeking of spiritual elation, even when the student himself does not experience any such elation.


            In the Nefesh Ha-chayyim, on the other hand, we see how a person, from his very creation and from the depths of his existence, is connected to an extensive reality of purity and spirituality, that fill the first three sections of the book. When Rav Chayyim reaches the fourth section, in which he extols the Torah as the pinnacle of the soul's yearnings, his argument is based on the manifold connections that a person (and not just the Torah, as according to Rav Pinchas) maintains with the wondrous spiritual reality, and from which the greatness of the Torah is intensified.


            However, human-spiritual connections are not created naturally by themselves. They do not burst into human consciousness in their full stature without prior preparation. The development of human spirituality requires attention, diligence, and hard work. These are the facts of life, and this is the source of the great tension in Nefesh Ha-chayyim, as we shall now explain. On the one hand, a person is asked to recognize the uniqueness of Torah study, and not just on the scale of values, but with a practical response to the demands of study: with time, concentration and energy. On the other hand, the spiritual consciousness, which according to Rav Chayyim of Volozhin, supports the "for of its own sake" of study, also demands great effort.[1] It was to further this end that Rav Chayyim goes on at length – in the greater part of the fourth section – about the existential, personal and cosmic impact of Torah study. The soul of the Torah is its meaning, and if the Torah has meaning, room must be cleared for it. The paradox finds expression, for example, in Rav Chayyim's famous statement that it suffices for a person to dedicate five minute a days to the study of Mussar and the rest of the day he must devote to Torah study. What about the spiritual program in the earlier sections of Nefesh Ha-chayyim? Is it possible to follow that program in serious fashion in five minutes a day? Can the book of Nefesh Ha-chayyim itself be studied in a meaningful way in just five minutes a day? Did this tiny allotment of time suffice for the author to write it? I cannot answer these questions in a satisfactory manner, but they suffice to indicate the complexity of Rav Chayyim's position.


Despite this tension, the conceptual picture of the Nefesh Ha-chayyim appears to be clear. It is precisely a person's awareness of the supernal worlds, and it is precisely his natural aspiration for devekut and his immersion in the fear of God, that will cause the greatness of the Torah, of "an ox that gored a cow" and "a migo argument to collect money," to penetrate into his soul. A person cannot be told that Torah study is an expression of devekut, and that his study will serve as a guarantee for maintaining his fear of heaven (even the dayyan of Polotzek agrees to these statements), if that person never tasted devekut, and the experience of fear of heaven is beyond him. The development of human spirituality is the foundation upon which the edifice of Torah stands, as Rav Chayyim explains it in the fourth section.  




            It must be conceded that here Rav Chayyim went much further than did his master, the Gra. All this calculated investment in spiritual purification, that is presented here as practical guidance – we find nothing like it in the teachings of the Vilna Gaon. For example, the Gaon's personal prayer had a mystical dimension aimed at devekut, but he seems to have refrained from counseling others to pray in similar fashion. His teachings about cleaving to Torah and fear of God do not lead to an experiential connection to realms beyond physical reality. What brought Rav Chayyim to break new ground?


            It is possible to relate to such a question in two ways. On the one hand, one would expect a luminary like Rav Chayyim of Volozhin to voice his own thoughts, and he is certainly "permitted" to teach in accordance with his own outlook and his own understanding of the needs of his generation, even without the explicit support of his master. Without negating this explanation, it is impossible to ignore the centrality of the Gra and his legacy in the consciousness of the author of the Nefesh Ha-chayyim and in his life mission as he understood it. It follows then that his outlook must be examined in relation to the teachings of the Gra. How do Rav Chayyim's novel ideas serve the goal of teaching his master's doctrines to the wider public?


            Various problems presented themselves to Rav Chayyim and to anyone else who saw the Gra's teachings as having general relevance for the masses of Israel. On the one hand, how does one take a spiritual system that took shape in the heart of an extraordinary soul, that accorded with his genius, and develop it so that it will be relevant to the average Jew? This is not an easy mission, even if the initial target is limited to an elite cadre of Torah scholars.


            Second, the generation that followed the Gra already began to feel the changes that heralded the breach of modernity into the world of Lithuanian Jewry. Chassidism ceased to be merely a social "threat," and turned into a real conceptual challenge that required a response. A greater challenge was presented by the Enlightenment which had just begun to acquire a place of honor in Lithuania. Rav Chayyim's public activity reached its heights in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, following the death of the Gaon. Mitnaged circles began to feel the winds of enlightenment, as early as 1780. These were the years that Rav Barukh Shick of Shklov published non-Jewish works in Hebrew translation, with the proclaimed aim of exposing the members of his generation to secular studies. One of them, the book of Euclid, received the rare approbation of the Gaon of Vilna himself (we will still examine this work in the future).


            During this same period, Rav Pinchas of Polotzk writes his book, "Keter Torah," in which he warns the reader of the ploys of the evil Yetzer, which tries to distance him from constant cleaving to the study of Torah. What is the first lure with which the Yetzer wishes to ensnare its innocent victim? Surely it is the lure of studying the sciences of the non-Jews:


The bitter, accursed, turbid, salty, and murky waters, the alien wisdoms and natural teachings of the Medes, the Hittites, the Zidonites, and the Ammonites that are forbidden to enter the congregation of God, will begin by beautifying for you their words, their poetry, their wisdom, and their science, that is, poetry, logic, geometry, music, natural sciences, and medicine. And they will excite your with their pleasant words, saying: See the work of God and His wonders; recognize His glory and the power of His might; make known His doings among the peoples. These are not the ways of the venerable Torah, whose ways wander, and you know them not… whose mountains hang by a real hair, an extra letter or dot… The human mind has no entry to understand even a small part of them, for the spirit of God speaks through them. And we appear as fools and idiots in the eyes of the nations and in the eyes of those of our nation who have recently arrived and caused heresy to multiply among us….[2]


            Without a doubt, Rav Pinchas's words are directed here at a reality with which he is familiar. He is declaring war on the new currents afloat in the air.


            Rav Chayyim of Volozhin was also aware of the changes    taking place around him. It may be recalled that we heard echoes of the new currents in Rav Chayyim's derasha in which he cited from his contemporaries the assertion that "this world is also a world about which one must worry." Nevertheless, when in his book he contends with the phenomenon, he does so in an entirely different way. As he contemplates the unrest around him, he remembers what he saw with his own eyes: his master studied Torah not only with unlimited discipline and devotion, but immersed in a spiritual experience and living connection with heavenly existence, which for him was no less real and concrete than our physical world. He knows that the Gra's sense that he is learning Torah from "the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He," was of fundamental importance to him. Quite possibly, Rav Chayyim awakened to the newly-acquired relevance of the Gra's example. He concluded that in his generation, true devekut with the Torah could no longer be built on the foundations of despair of spiritual experience and reconciliation to mere corporeal existence in a closed physical world. If the Torah is great, people must be capable of seeing at least part of that greatness with their own senses, and experiencing its excitement deep in their souls, and not merely believe that study constitutes devekut, because that is what they were told. The challenge of the hour required that the Gra's manner of study be adopted in all its dimensions. Rav Chayyim's novel approach was to make it possible for everyone to follow that same path, by rooting man's place in the cosmic system, and by fashioning the appropriate spiritual tools.[3] As is fit for the Lithuanian temperament, he did this in a calculated and graded way, and he also set boundaries: The increase of purity must never turn into the primary goal, and it must not cloud the fact that the cardinal principle is doing the will of God, which from our perspective means studying Torah.


            To what degree did Rav Chayyim's approach succeed in its mission? Was it favorably received, and did it contribute to the dissemination of the Gra's values? And if Rav Chayyim achieved initial success, was is maintained over time? And what about the Mitnaged approach represented by Rav Pinchas? Did it survive? These are complex questions that are difficult to answer in unequivocal manner. We shall, nevertheless, try to collect data which can perhaps leave us with an impression.


            Several facts are indicative of the positive influence of Rav Chayyim's teachings. Rav Chayyim's book was well received and enjoyed popularity. In the fifty years following its initial appearance, the work was printed in seven editions. This fact attests to the book's timeliness, and that its author correctly assessed the needs of his generation. The Volozhin yeshiva became an influential institution, and it may be assumed that it attracted a student body that wished to benefit from the Torah and teachings of its Rosh Yeshiva. These students later left their imprint on the Lithuanian community as a whole. We know of specific students of Rav Chayyim, over the next two generations, for whom Rav Chayyim's spiritual guidance continued to serve as a source of inspiration. For example, we mentioned in the past, R. Israel Isser, author of "Kedusha u-Menucha." Rav Zundel of Salant was devoted to the spiritual heritage of "Nefesh Ha-chayyim." His personality combined Talmudic scholarship, Halakhic expertise, devekut to mussar and the fear of God. He was in possession, for his personal use, of an abridged version of his master's directives pertaining to prayer. It should be noted that it was under the influence of Rav Zundel that his disciple Rav Israel Salanter founded the Mussar movement.




            If, however, we fast forward in time and visit the Volozhin yeshiva in the seventies and eighties of the nineteenth century when it was run by the Netziv, we find that the spiritual climate is very different. The yeshiva is flourishing both numerically and qualitatively, but none of the memoirs written by people who studied there during that period – and we have quite a few such memoirs – make any mention of the "Nefesh Ha-chayyim." The printing statistics of the book lead us to the conclusion that during the period under discussion, few people studied it. The seventh edition mentioned above – Vilna 5634 (1874) – was the last edition of the book on European soil.


            Rav Chayyim's approach tried to contend with the current spiritual changes as they swept through Jewish society, but it could not stop the spread of the enlightenment, whose presence continued to grow. As the changes taking place in the nineteenth century deepened, Jews became more and more involved in the social, political, intellectual and economic life of the world at large, and the heavenly worlds became ever more distant from the Jewish masses, to the point of total rupture.[4] If the kabbalistic language of the "Nefesh Ha-chayyim," which was new in its day, successfully for a certain period of time created a meaningful spiritual sensitivity, with the passage of time the mission became ever more difficult.


            Let us listen to the words of Zalman Epstein, who studied at Volozhin during the days of the Netziv:


In the flow of youthful life that filled the yeshiva, even the study of the Talmud and its commentaries received a special moistness of life, of emotion and movement, of the joy of being, if I may say so, and the dry and age-wrinkled face of that study was no more. They (i.e. the students of Volozhin) studied Torah, Gemara and Rishonim, not out of fear of heaven, and not because it is a mitzva, but only because it is something real, a science, wisdom, something of great value and primacy in the life of a Jew, and the mind finds such pleasure in it. They studied with zeal and regularity and they delighted themselves with the war of Torah, with the expansive sea of the Talmud that flows and spills over in every direction with no beginning and no end…

The students' attitude toward religion, that is to say, to the practical mitzvot, was formal, as befitted their character and situation. Besides the fact that freethinkers were hardly found then in the yeshiva, the atmosphere in the entire yeshiva did not leave room for an open disregard of the fixed and accepted rules. But hypocrisy, minutiae of the fear of heaven, pious behavior – were not found in the yeshiva. And if occasionally one of the students was found acting in a pious manner and drawing out his prayers, he became the subject of mockery… Our master Eliyahu of Vilna, who was regarded in Volozhin as an exceptional person and the pillar of Judaism… was known in Volozhin not as "the pious one," as he was called in Vilna, but simply as "the Gaon"… A student [at Volozhin] was no longer zealous, unenlightened, and pretending to be pious. He was now open, alive and prepared for development and advance. This is no longer that hardened and fossilized power of the old Jewish street, which even a thunderbolt could not moved or illuminate.


The values of the fear of heaven, piety, and mussar arouse for Epstein the image of the wrinkles of old age, of the old and fossilized Jewish street, which is hardly even still alive. They are the lot of the unenlightened, the zealous, the hypocrites and those pretending to be pious. The students at Volozhin are the very opposite. They rejoice in the freshness of their youth, they delight in the sea of the Talmud that has no end, and they see it as a science, as wisdom, as development and advancement – in short, as an exciting intellectual adventure. In this yeshiva, are they continuing in the path of the Gra? Certainly, but if you please, just remove one of his traditional appellations – "the pious one" – and everything will be fine. The Gra is still to fit to serve as the torch that leads the camp of Volozhin, provided that he is only the "Gaon."


According to Epstein, two contradictory outlooks were still current in the Lithuania of his day. One ruled the old Jewish street, which Epstein paints with hues of gray to black. The depressing images result from the narrow outlook of classical Mitnagedism, and we are dealing here with a late version of the approach, which limits a person's existential hope to the world after death. But in Volozhin? There life is vibrant, young, full of promise and hope – the sun is shining. The optimistic spirit, the faith in Torah study as a mirror of the intensity of life and a source of deep satisfaction – directly follow from the upheaval in the legacy of the Gra as it was understood by Rav Chayyim of Volozhin.


But what a price did this momentum exact? The entire system of moral responsibility, which established the centrality of man on his relationship to the supernal worlds, effectively collapsed. The centrality of man remained, but the foundation changed. It turns out that our physical world in itself is not such a bad place after all, even if the angels do not await man's bidding. The ambitious Jewish youth learned that even humanistic values, values that are entirely earthly and intellectual, elevate a man's spirit immensely. They too suffice to satiate the spiritual thirst of a student at the Volozhin yeshiva at the end of the nineteenth century.


Rav Chayyim outlined a Mitnaged outlook that created a new Mitnaged reality. The ideology disappeared, but the reality thrived on.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Our view here stands in contrast to the common understanding that according to Rav Chayyim of Volozhin learning Torah "for its own sake" means learning for the sake of knowledge. This understanding is distorted, and is based on a selective, partial reading of "Nefesh Ha-chayyim." The truth is that according to Rav Chayyim, intellectual understanding can serve as the goal of study, only because the motive for study is anchored in other spiritual experiences, which are based on all the factors spelled out in the fourth section. These clearly draw from the outlook that Rav Chayyim carefully builds in the first sections of the book. On this matter, see my article, "Torah li-Shemah: Iyyun Chozer," in Hagut 9, published by Mikhlelet Lifshitz (2010.

[2] Keter Torah II, page 1.

[3] Rav Chayyim's disciple, Rav Shmuel from Dahlinov, followed a similar path but with greater extremism. See his Minchat Shemuel, p. 36.

[4] A similar upheaval took place in the world of Chassidic thought. The Chassidut of Peshischa-Kotzk abandoned the connection to the hidden spiritual worlds outside this world, and emphasized the values of uprightness, truth and humanity.