Shiur #10: Volozhin in Transition

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein






            We are nearing the end of our analysis of Rav Chayim of Volozhin's work, Nefesh Ha-Chayim, but first we must repay a debt from the previous shiur.


            Rav Chayim's exceedingly challenging approach requires conscious containment of diverse, and even contradictory moods, and we raised the question whether or not this in itself constitutes an insurmountable difficulty for most of us. I suggested that we should not exaggerate this difficulty, and that when the matter is examined more closely we see that the integration of emotional opposites of this sort is a familiar aspect of our lives. A recent book investigates such integrations as a psychological phenomenon. Here is a sample passage, which demonstrates the frequency of the phenomenon:


I watched my 4-year-old son approach some waves one day. We were at a water-park in the desert, so the waves were made, not by the pull of the moon, but mechanically, with levers instead… My son approached these waves with delight, eyes sparking and voice pitched high. Yet he stood back a bit, not quite ready to jump in, a bit apprehensive. He was displaying two basic emotions: joy and fear. He seemed to experience them nearly simultaneously, even though they are very different feeling states. Where did he get such a rich feeling repertoire?...

Most of us believe that to feel good means not to feel bad, that positive feelings are incompatible with negative feelings. …Indeed it appears that much of the time, positive and negative feeling states are not opposites at all. They represent distinct emotional forces in our lives. Consequently, we can and do feel good even though we are feeling bad. We can have bittersweet memories of past innocence or anxious excitement about the prospects of a new romance. (J. Zautra, Emotions, Stress and Health, Oxford University Press 2003, pp. 1, 16)


            This phenomenon was well-known to our Sages as well, and there is a source in the Gemara for the need for experiential complexity:


"Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling" (Tehillim 2:11). What is meant by "rejoice with trembling"? Rav Adda bar Matena said in the name of Rav: In the place where there is rejoicing there should also be trembling.

Abaye was sitting before Rabba, who observed that he seemed very merry. He said: Surely it is written: "And rejoice with trembling"! He replied: I am wearing tefillin.[1] (Berakhot 30b-31a)


            At the beginning of the passage the Gemara cites the verse, "Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling," and it notes that the verse demands that both emotions be found in the heart simultaneously. The verse opens with the words, "Serve the Lord with fear," from which we see that the joining of the experiences of joy and trembling is part of the desirable service of God. Rabba asserts that there is no contradiction between happiness and solemnity, and that the feeling of God's presence – by virtue of the wearing of tefillin - can coexist with merriment.


            If we read the passage more carefully, however, we see that the two feelings nesting in the Amora's heart were not evident in equal measure. This stands in contrast to the description of the boy who stood spellbound by the waves, locked in a psychological state that alternated between joyous attraction and fearful apprehension. In the talmudic passage Abaye notices his teacher's gaity, but not his seriousness, and Rabba had to inform him that, appearances notwithstanding, his heart and mind were not devoid of the fear of Heaven. This situation alludes to the common psychological reality, in which one emotion is central and conscious, while a second emotion lies right below the threshold. We are familiar with such a situation from the discussion conducted in previous shiurim regarding the relationship between cognition and fear of Heaven in Torah lishmah.




            Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik noted the importance of this simultaneous containment of two contradictory moods ("A Theory of Emotions," in: Out of the Whirlwind, eds. David Shatz, Joel Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler [Jersey City, 2003], pp. 179ff.). He illustrated this based on the continuation of the passage in Berakhot (ibid.):


… Mar the son of Ravina made a marriage feast for his son. He saw that the Rabbis were growing very merry, so he brought a precious cup worth four hundred zuz and broke it before them, and they became serious… The Rabbis said to Rav Hamnuna Zuti at the wedding of Mar the son of Ravina: Please sing us something. He said to them: Woe unto us for we are to die; woe unto us for we are to die!


            As opposed to how we might initially have understood this passage, Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that the actions of Mar the son of Ravina and Rav Hamnuna do not express even a hint of reservation regarding the outbursts of gladness that are supposed to be manifested at wedding parties. The halakhic-talmudic tradition fully appreciates the exultation of a wedding celebration, and emphasizes the obligation to gladden the bride and groom. According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, however, every emotion rises to its full potential in two stages. The first stage is the initial feeling, the uncritical arousal that is characterized by the intensity and rule of a single emotion. The second stage is the critical, self-reflective stage. This critique comes not to dilute the emotion, but to set it in perspective, by joining it to a wider experience that includes its polar opposite:


The stream of events is reflected not in one state of mind but in the full spectrum of feelings, and the emotional awareness at a certain instant is a microcosm, mirroring not only the dominant emotional motif – such as joy in the case of a marriage celebration – but the whole range of the emotional cycle… The central emotion is joined by its antithesis at the periphery. (ibid. – my emphasis)


            Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that in the case of marriage, our Sages were aware of an existential paradox. It is true that entering into the covenant of marriage, establishing a family, and giving life and a legacy to the coming generations, join together to form a joyous and heart-warming vision that finds expression in unbridled happiness. At the same time, however, the Sages understood that –


There is no doubt that the drive for procreation is basically the desire for perpetuation of our finite existence. The longing for a child is basically the outcry of a lonely soul groping in the dark for salvation and eternal life, and finding instead the wet and dreary fall into the grave. In the marriage event, the critical emotional awareness sees the tragedy of human destiny… In the midst of carefree and unrestrained merrymaking and jubilation, the vision of the loneliness of man is beheld. The antithesis of joy emerges from the peripheral distance.


            Rabbi Soloveitchik applies this insight to other emotions as well, the principle being that the experience of a particular emotion while relating to its emotional polar opposite as part of that experience, is a moral and human leap upwards.


            For our purposes, the question may be raised how are we to view the consciousness of man's mortality in relation to the joy of a wedding; surely on the surface the two are contradictory! Are we dealing with restraint and retreat, as one might understand from Rabbi Soloveitchik's formulation – "critique of the emotions"? This is possible, but it is not the entire story. Over and beyond the criticism, there is also a strengthening. The eternal shadow that is cast over human life activates the desire to overcome it, by creating new life, and one cannot possibly imagine any stronger motivation. The chain of existence that continues from one generation to the next grows and increases in its timeless significance, the more we know about the "enemy" against which it is fighting. Uncritical and one-dimensional spontaneous joy has the quality of transience, of a passing outburst. But the knowledge that our experience reflects a real struggle against tragic fate provides our joy with depth, persistence and permanence.


            Once again we find ourselves using the image of a wedding as a metaphor for studying Torah out of a deep connection to it. Like in the example of a wedding, Torah lishmah sets us face to face with a certain psychological polarity, with the tension between fascinating enlightenment on the one hand, and a deepening the moral and religious relationship on the other. The intellectual experience itself is likely to arrest and excite the inquisitive student, gifted with natural curiosity and love of knowledge. But there is something temporary about this. The intellect, left to its own devices, cannot sustain itself for the long term, as it ignores multi-dimensional and all-embracing reality, that of the world and that of the person himself. Withdrawing to the opposite pole constitutes, first and foremost, an interruption of one's learning, but it maintains the glow of coals that are a source of strength. The fear of Heaven, as Rav Chayim of Volozhin writes, is the storehouse needed to guard the grain of Torah.




I hope, dear readers, that I have familiarized and brought you closer to the Nefesh Ha-Chayim, and that this will encourage you to continue studying the volume in the future, both the sections that we have dealt with and other sections. For now, however, we must prepare to take leave of our systematic study of Rav Chayim's work. We will move a small distance away from the author, in the manner of disciples leaving their master, with our eyes still directed toward him. We look backwards, but our hearts are turned to the future. We contemplate the life that awaits us in the imminent future, and feel the first tug of the question that ariseswithin: Will the teachings that have occupied us thus far continue to accompany us into the next period, as they grow distant from their original environment and time? Will they be found relevant in changing conditions? In more explicit terms: Do Rav Chayim's moral and theological assumptions, kabbalistic concepts and spiritual outlook have the power to establish personal connection and experiential depth in Torah study, as modernity inexorably approaches?


With these questions buzzing in our minds, let us move forward about fifty or sixty years following the writing of Rav Chayim's book and visit the yeshiva of Volozhin. In the 1880's and 90's, the "mother of yeshivot" that had been founded by the Vilna Gaon's disciple reaches its peak under the leadership of Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, z"l (the Netziv), son-in-law of Rav Itzele, the son of Rav Chayim of Volozhin. The yeshiva attracts hundreds of students from all across Eastern Europe, and serves as a role-model for other yeshivot flourishing during this period. Alongside the Netziv stands his deputy, Rav Chayim Soloveitchik of Brisk. Do we have the means to feel the pulse of the yeshiva? We would be especially interested to learn about the spiritual world of its students. What are the emotional roots of the intense diligence, which engendered the famous non-stop study, going on for twenty-four hours a day? What are the goals of all this learning effort? Do these intense young students feel that they are fulfilling the vision of their yeshiva's founder?


Fortunately for us, the scholars Immanuel Etkes and Shlomo Tykocinski collected memoirs relating to the yeshiva of Volozhin written by various people who had studied there during this period (Yeshivot Lita: Pirkei Zikhronot, Jerusalem 5764, pp. 59-218). These memoirs, which spread out over about 150 pages, are generally nostalgic. The yeshiva was a source of pride and an object of identification for these authors, even for those who later in life did not remain faithful to its path. But among all this detailed writing, which presents the reader with a comprehensive picture of life and learning in the yeshiva and portrays its living spirit, we find no references to the study of Rav Chayim's book. So too, we find no evidence that the students fulfilled Rav Chayim's instructions to concentrate upon the fear of Heaven prior to learning. Did the founder's teachings disappear from the yeshiva?


Our suspicions are strengthened by the following words of Rav Baruch Epstein (author of the "Torah Temima," nephew of the Netziv, and a student at the yeshiva of Volozhin):


[The Netziv] would relate that in the days of the Gaon, Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin, a certain Torah scholar learned in the yeshiva, who would dedicate much of his learning time to recite Tehillim. The Gaon Rav Chayim was distressed by his taking so much time away from his Torah studies, and he commented to him about this. That person replied: "But our Master! Surely it says in the Aggada that King David petitioned that whoever occupies himself with the recitation of the psalms should be regarded as if he had occupied himself in the study of Nega'im and Ohalot!"[2] The Gaon Rav Chayim thought for a moment and answered: "Indeed, he asked for this, but we don't know what he was answered on the matter!" (ibid. p. 62)


            This story might sound familiar to you. We already encountered this argument of Rav Chayim – that it is unclear whether King David's request was accepted, and therefore one should not recite Tehillim at the expense of Torah study – in his Nefesh Ha-Chayim. Already in the first shiur in this series we saw that this matter seizes an exceedingly prominent and strategic place in the volume – it appears in the second chapter of the fourth section, the important section dealing with Torah study. But it seems that Rav Barukh Epstein was not familiar with it from the book, and therefore he reports this argument to his readers as an anecdote that he had heard from his uncle. If Rav Barukh Epstein, who was a "walking encyclopedia," was not familiar with Nefesh Ha-Chayim, it is reasonable to conjecture that the book did not play an important role in Volozhin in general.


            The publishing data regarding Nefesh Ha-Chayim further strengthens the impression that we get from Rav Barukh Epstein. The book seems to have been exceedingly popular in the first fifty years after it first appeared, and it was printed no less than seven times. But over the course of the 1880's, the book seems to have ceased being a profitable business. The 5634 (1874) Vilna edition seems to have been the last printing on European soil. This is surprising, because its intended audience ostensibly grew at the end of the nineteenth century. During this period the Eastern European yeshivot enjoyed unprecedented growth. How is it then that the work which was supposed to express the ideology of the entire movement, sustained almost no interest?


            Nefesh Ha-Chayim's decline in Volozhin accorded with an overall change in the atmosphere prevailing in the Jewish world in those years. We shall try to characterize this change in a future shiur.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Rashi: "And they testify that I submit to my Creator's kingdom and rule."

[2] See Midrash Shochar Tov, psalm 1.