Shiur #11: Piety At Volozhin: A Diminished Presence

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein





We have been trying to understand the spiritual atmosphere in Volozhin at the height of the yeshiva's development at the end of the nineteenth century. We saw that, contrary to what might have been expected, the memoirs of the yeshiva's students from that period give no indication that the teachings of Rav Chayim of Volozhin, founder of the yeshiva, played a formative role in their development. And as we shall yet see, different approaches and inclinations filled the vacuum.


For example, Zalman Epstein, a student from that period, writes as follows:


In the abundance of youthful life that filled the yeshiva, even the Talmud and its commentaries received a special freshness of life, of emotion and movement, of the joy of existence, if we might say so, and the dried out and age-wrinkled face of that study was as if no more. They studied Torah, Gemara and the medieval commentaries, not out of fear of heaven, and not because it is a mitzva, but rather because it was something real, science, wisdom, the greatest value, enjoying primacy in Jewish life, and the intellect finds so much satisfaction in it. They studied with desire and regularity, and they delighted in the war of Torah, in the broad sea of the Talmud, that streams and flows and inundates in every direction, without beginning and without end…

The students' attitude to religion, that is to say, to the practical mitzvot, was formal and appropriate for their repute and standing. Besides the fact that there were almost no free thinkers in the yeshiva at that time, the entire atmosphere of the yeshiva left no room for rebellion or open scorn for the fixed and accepted laws. Nor did hypocrisy, meticulousness in the fear of heaven, or [special] piety make inroads in the yeshiva. If occasionally one of the students was found practicing piety and drawing out his prayers, he was seen as a weakling and put to ridicule… Rabbenu Eliyahu of Vilna (the GRA), who was regarded in Volozhin as an exemplary figure and the pillar of Judaism… was exalted in Volozhin, not as "the pious one" (chasid), as he was called in Vilna, but as "the genius" (gaon)… The student [in Volozhin] was no longer zealous, primitive, inclined toward piety. This was already a manifest force, open and alive, ready for development and progress. This was no longer the rigid and fossilized force of the old Jewish street, which neither thunder nor lightning could move or illuminate: covered with a thick layer of mud, as if no longer alive…. (Yeshivot Lita: Pirkei Zikhronot, pp. 73, 77)


            It should be remembered that Volozhin was a large yeshiva, filled with highly opinionated and individualistic youths, who didn't all know one another. It is, therefore, possible that this particular student is projecting his personal impressions onto the entire student body. Nevertheless, the very fact that it was at all possible to describe the study there as having taken place "not out of fear of heaven, and not because it is a mitzva," is exceedingly instructive. It would appear that the students of Volozhin excelled in and were proud of the intellectual emphasis in their outlook, which they saw as standing in opposition to the "pietistic" inclinations of the "old and dark" Jewish street. How far have we strayed from Rav Chayyim's assertion that the fear of God is wisdom's storehouse!


            According to all indications, the account that we just read does not reflect the atmosphere in Volozhin in its early days. Writings of (anonymous) students have survived from that period as well, and they include Rav Chayim's instructions regarding the service of God. Writings of this nature can be found appended to a current edition of the Nefesh ha-Chayim, that of Yissachar Dov Rubin (Bnei Brak 5749). As is evident there, Rav Chayim would guide his students not only in the ways of Torah study, but also in all the disciplines of mussar and fear of heaven: prayer, repentance, character improvement, and the pitfalls of the evil inclination. The students were quite preoccupied with these issues, apparently under the influence of their master, whose teachings in these areas were extensively recorded. But all of this is totally missing in the memoirs of the students who studied in the yeshiva during the period of the Netziv. On the contrary, Zalman Epstein writes that anyone who focused attention on matters of mussar was regarded as a "weakling." In the realm of practical observance of the mitzvot, the students of Volozhin did not see themselves as standing out in any way. The educational ideal was personal development based on intellectual effort.[1]


            In Volozhin, prayer does not appear to have played a central role in yeshiva life. The High Holiday services, which serve today as a major source of inspiration and excitement in most Torah institutions, are not mentioned in the memoirs as an especially impressive event. Torah study steals the stage with unprecedented exclusivity.


            The element in yeshiva life which perhaps more than anything else fascinated the students was the shiur given by Rav Chayim of Brisk, whose novel approach to Talmud study generated great interest and excitement. Students in Volozhin were never forced to participate in shiurim, and in fact attendance at the Netziv's shiurim was as a rule relatively sparse, but hundreds of students could be present at Rav Chayim's classes. A major part of the attraction to his thought lay in its "scientific" character. The analyses, the definitions, and the systematic nature of the approach all contributed to the possibility of seeing Torah study as a realm of knowledge in no way inferior in its scholarly sophistication and prestige to any scientific discipline.[2]


            It is important to note that the change in the atmosphere in Volozhin is integrally connected to changes in the spiritual environment in which the Jews of Eastern Europe lived and breathed. Rav Chayim of Volozhin spoke to the elite of his generation in the language of purity, deveikut and kabbalistic concepts, which they all knew and valued. The Chassidic movement's victory in those days did not necessarily express itself in masses of people who joined their ranks, but in its establishment of the cultural agenda and standards that dominated the Jewish world. But as the nineteenth century progressed, Enlightenment displaced Chassidism as the most prominent cultural fact on the ground of Jewish Eastern Europe. Volozhin continued to cleave to Torah study as its central value, but in a different context. For the new values that were capturing the hearts of the youths of that generation – personal growth, creativity, achievement, progress, and solution of the social problems of the Jewish people and of the world at large – focused more on humanity and less on service of the Creator. The students at Volozhin came to the "mother of yeshivot" not in order to immerse themselves in the traditional triad of "Torah, service and acts of lovingkindness," as Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin had defined the institution's goals, but rather to freely develop in a non-coercive environment. As one of the students writes:


Our spiritual life in general was democratic; we heard not the voice of an oppressor or commander. We studied Torah, we studied wisdom, nobody disturbed us and our development was great. (Yeshivot Lita: Pirkei Zikhronot, p. 125)


            The human soul was no longer seen as an arena of conflict between good and evil forces, and therefore in need of external moral guidance, but rather as the habitat of good and natural forces, which must simply be left alone and allowed to develop. And at the heart of all these positive forces was the intellect.


            The leaders of Volozhin did not challenge this conceptual foundation, but rather they exploited it to further enhance Torah study. While it is true that in his thought and personality the Netziv embodied not only devotion to Torah study, but also the full spectrum of Divine service, his practical educational activity seems to have been focused on cultivating scholarly excellence. His deputy, Rav Chayim Soloveitchik, for his part, was known for his opposition to the introduction of mussar study into the yeshiva, based on the argument, "Here we are healthy and have no need for castor oil."[3] Without a doubt, this statement also expresses the view of the student body.


            Torah scholarship flourished on the sheer strength of its intellectual appeal and drive, something that Rav Chayim of Volozhin didn't believe in. As for the founder's book, in which the existential and spiritual aspiration is the basis and "storehouse" for study – it underwent a process of reduction. In the essential sense, nothing remained of it, except for those two chapters in the fourth section, which establish the exalted status of Torah study. This message is fairly simple, and it is not really necessary to open the book itself in order to absorb it. Moreover, any serious study of Nefesh ha-Chayim would expose the reader to theories and instruction that were alien to the spirit of the time and liable to confuse the modern Torah student. As we saw earlier, the Netziv preferred to teach the basic idea of these chapters orally, and not to refer students to the book itself. On the face of it, it seems that the Nefesh ha-Chayim's role as an ideological fountainhead had passed from the world.




All this notwithstanding, it is possible to identify a lone, but strong and clear voice, among the students at Volozhin, a Torah genius who rejected the possibility of growing in Torah without concentrated spiritual work. It is related of this student that he would light Shabbat candles in his room and that one of his friends (who viewed the practice as excessively “pious”) once came and extinguished them. In later years, this student with the "pietistic" tendencies recalled that his fellow students at Volozhin viewed him with reservation:


They couldn't entirely make peace with me, because they thought I conducted myself with excessive piety and abstinence.[4]


            That student was later to achieve great fame: Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, zt"l. In his thought, Rav Kook assigns a place of distinction to the Torah, its objective centrality, and the imprint that it leaves on the souls of those who study it. In my opinion, the collection of his teachings on this topic that was published by his son under the title, Orot ha-Torah, is a fitting heir to the Nefesh ha-Chayim. The two books have a great deal in common: the centrality of the Torah, attempts to explain its significance, kabbalistic thinking, conceptual and practical confrontation with the tension between Torah and the values of morality and fear of heaven. However, Rav Kook dealt with these issues in a different generation. It was his challenge to present "Torah lishmah" in a manner no less profound than that of Rav Chayim of Volozhin, but in a way that would be favorably received in a more modern period.


            As we try to examine Rav Kook's teachings on the issue of Torah lishmah, we encounter unique difficulties as opposed to our study of the Nefesh ha-Chayim. One of these difficulties is that while Rav Chayim's thought is concentrated in one, not particularly long book, Rav Kook's teachings are spread out across his many writings, and not just in Orot ha-Torah. I shall try to draw out important principles from his writings, but from the very outset I wish to clarify that I make no pretensions of exhausting the issue.




In the continuation of our study, we shall examine Rav Kook's approach in light of the teachings of Rav Chayim of Volozhin, and try to understand the similarities and differences between them. To conclude this shiur, I wish to deal with a single point that will allude to what will come in the future.


We saw earlier how Rav Chayim proves in his Nefesh ha-Chayim that it is impossible to define Torah lishmah in terms of deveikut (communion). One of his proofs is as follows:


…For there are many laws in the Talmud that when a person studies them, he must intensively focus his thought and mind on their physical matters, such as kinin [the laws of birds consecrated as sacrifices] and pitchei nida [the calculations concerning the onset of menstruation], which constitute "essential precepts of Halakha" (Avot 3:18), or the give-and-take in the Talmud, and the principles governing the laws of migu [trusting a litigant on the basis of alternative claims he could have made] that involve deceitful claims the liar could have made.  And it is all but impossible that he will also experience complete, proper deveikut at that time. (Nefesh ha-Chayim, section 4, chapter 2)


            Rav Chayim's words are clear: there are halakhic details the study of which leaves no room in the consciousness for religious pathos, for that study demands that full attention be given to the cognitive understanding of the material. This reality necessitates an intellectual definition of Torah lishmah.


            In contrast, however, Rav Kook writes in Orot ha-Torah as follows:


Learning that becomes considerably ramified as the result of logical dialectical development, can become distant from the thought of Torah lishmah, relative to the level of each individual’s recognition of the spirituality of the Torah. Therefore, one who wishes to cleave to Torah lishmah and at the same time to indulge in dialectical argumentation regarding practical details, must deepen his sacred sense of the meaning of Torah and its embracing sanctity, to the point that his basic experience achieves such great potency that it empowers those very distant offshoots which are the products of diligent intellection, so that they too should flow from the sacred thought of Torah lishmah.


            Rav Kook is dealing here with the same phenomenon: the intellectual toil that is necessary in order to properly understand the Torah involves distancing oneself from the spiritual drive that feeds on the recognition of the spirituality of the Torah. But, whereas according to Rav Chayim this reality forces us to define lishmah in a way that takes this distancing into account, Rav Kook's response is different: one must deepen one's awareness of the sanctity of the Torah to the point that even the diligence of thought will flow from it.


            To the best of my knowledge, we do not find an intellectual definition of Torah lishmah in Rav Kook's writings. He does not demonstrate any need to sacrifice religious tension on the altar of Torah enlightenment, nor does he see the two values – study and deveikut – as contradictory on the fundamental level, as we saw in the words of Rav Chayim of Volozhin. Tension is there, even sharply, but this is on the practical, rather than the essential level.


            Rav Kook is not troubled by the danger - which had disturbed Rav Chayim – that emphasizing the religious goal is liable to impair understanding. His experience in Volozhin might have convinced him that regarding most students, such concern is out of place. Also, it may be that Rav Kook’s inclination towards conceptual unity explains his indifference towards the possible rivalry between devotion and cognition. In any event, the need to reach a profound understanding of the Torah is self-evident to him, for this is the substance of the mitzva of Torah study. The challenge is just the opposite: to study even the practical details and to engage even in their diligent analysis out of awareness of their spiritual source, the soul of the Torah; this awareness is "deveikut to Torah lishmah."


            As may be recalled, Rav Chayim recognized that religious deveikut contributes ("storehouse") to study, but he also noted the need to limit it. Rav Kook adopts this pole from the Nefesh ha-Chayim – the positive connection between intellectual study and religious devotion – but without putting limits on it. On the contrary, he develops and expands it. For this reason, his advice here is to "deepen his sacred sense of the meaning of Torah"(an objective that even Rav Chayim did not ignore).




            Rav Kook adopts the existential-emotional emphasis in the Nefesh ha-Chayim's definition of lishmah, but not its cognitive dimension, which according to him is self-evident, and belongs to the definition of study itself and not to the concept of lishmah.


            We must, however, understand the ways in which Rav Kook describes this experiential dimension. His teachings on this bear the stamp of his originality, and represent his response to the intellectual and cultural changes that he observed in his time, and to which he was especially sensitive.


            We shall continue this discussion in the upcoming shiurim.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] See Shaul Stampfer, Ha-Yeshiva ha-Lita'it be-Hithavutah (Jerusalem, 2005), p. 109.

[2] Ibid., pp. 121-125.

[3] This story appears in many places. See, for example, Rav Y.Y. Weinberg, Seridei Esh, Mossad HaRav Kook ed., vol. IV, p. 309.

[4] See Stampfer, p. 109.