Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

9 Tammuz 5760 - July 12, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Sponsored by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Produced and housed by

Opinion & Comment
The Unchanging Transmission of Torah

by Rabbi Nosson Zeev Grossman

Part I

Unfortunately most of Klal Yisroel are not Torah- observant. They are tinokos shenishbu, people who were never privileged to even taste what the Torah really is. We should definitely entreat Hashem to bring them to teshuvah and be zoche to study Torah.

Surprisingly another group, who even wear yarmulkes, have not raised a generation devoted to Torah. They are the National Religious, which includes some who compromise more and others who compromise less on religious values. They have severed themselves from the tree of life of the yeshivos hakedoshos and have turned elsewhere.

The attempt to create a "new method" of combining Torah and secular studies was a failure. Some Mizrachi parents and teachers wonder how they can save children from the dead end that their hybrid Torah institutions have reached, and during the last couple of months National Religious periodicals have openly discussed this topic. Their writers attempt to find a solution to the grave spiritual crisis plaguing their young boys who lack any desire to study gemora, ignore religious studies in general, and in many cases abandon strict mitzvah observance.

To understand how this unfortunate backslide began we must look back into history. This entire spiritual crisis would never have happened had mentors of this group kept in mind that the basis for the existence of Torah among the Jews is "Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua; Yehoshua to the Elders . . .." (Ovos 1:1).

Chareidim today look at National Religious Jews as being totally different from them. We should, however, not forget that the founders of this ideology were not young boys with long hair and tiny knitted yarmulkes. They certainly were not wearing short pants as members of the Kibbutz Hadati. These founders were respectable rabbonim whose talmidim stemmed from good chareidi families who sent their other children to renowned Lithuanian yeshivos. The talmidim and rabbonim of the first yeshiva tichonit (yeshiva high school), established in Lithuania more than a hundred years ago, were similar in appearance to talmidim and rabbonim of yeshivos kedoshos. Indeed they were sure that the "new breed" of yeshiva student of whose formation they were taking part, would possess neither less Torah distinction nor spiritual substance than his regular yeshiva counterpart. On the contrary, they thought their new idea would generate a blessed improvement for chareidim.

How did that wrong ideology, for which even to this day we have no cure, strike roots?

About a hundred years ago HaRav Yitzchok Yaakov Reiness, who later became a head of the Mizrachi Movement, proposed programs for changes in the Torah World. First, he decried the traditional method of Torah study in the yeshivos kedoshos. HaRav Reiness criticized all roshei yeshivos and talmidei chachomim who adhered to the standard yeshiva way of studying Torah and demanded a new method.

In the Sefer Hamizrachi that charts his history, we read that initially no one thought HaRav Y. Y. Reiness would later proclaim revolutionary approaches for the Torah World. "For many years he studied in the tent of Torah. He would sleep only a few hours and study not only a whole day, but his study at night was similar to that of the day. He separated himself entirely from mundane affairs and communal matters. His chidushim at that time and the way he would `talk in learning' were exactly in the same spirit and character of other bnei Torah of that time. He lived so for thirty or more years.

"Suddenly a revolution occurred in his soul changing his entire manner of thought and feeling. Suddenly he rebelled against the whole method of Torah study and the pilpul that reigned absolute. He turned his back on them and proposed a new method of study."

After some time HaRav Reiness announced his intention: to found a yeshiva that would function differently from the other yeshivos in Lithuania. He wanted to remodel kodesh studies and also include general studies into the curriculum. He explained that we must see in this "an unparalleled temporary need and a guard against the permissiveness that burst into Jewish society and has caused havoc." In a kuntrus, he wrote about the "heart- rending sight" of many boys refusing to enter yeshivos and going astray.

He wrote that we must realize "those who live today are different" and it is necessary to pioneer new ways. Among other things, he claimed, for instance, that today we cannot expect young boys to study only limudei kodesh and hope eventually to find a means of livelihood by their own initiative and talents since in "all business, industry, and handiwork have undergone a complete change and require much knowledge, various sorts of preparation and adequate experience." He accused gedolei Torah of not sensing the new situation and this of responsibility for the grave situation that has developed. "It is no wonder that the botei midrash have emptied out, that our young boys have left, and we have done nothing to prevent the worst from happening. Have we concerned ourselves to fill the new needs and demands confronting our young boys like a solid wall? Have we been mindful of them? No! We have done nothing, so why should we complain about what has happened?"

His conclusion: "This special situation demands from us special acts since our sin would be enormous, before Elokim and our people, if at such a time of distress we remain idle. What we should do to reduce the suffering as much as possible is to examine our present needs and take into consideration their demands. Based on this it has been decided: To found a new yeshiva in Yisroel based on novel principles, a yeshiva capable of rescuing us from the terrible condition we are in, by giving the possibility and ability to its students to receive the necessary preparation to settle their future while remaining in the beis midrash of Torah. It would be a yeshiva that would remove the stones scattered upon the path of Yiddishkeit and would attract young boys like a magnet."

He emotionally concludes: "Brothers! We must always realize the time in which we now live and its dangers to our Judaism and its sacredness. In this hour we must remember our responsibility to Elokim and to our nation. We must be aware that the fate of future generations and the spirituality of our nation is dependent on this moment. If we remain quiet today and do nothing, cholila, we sin to the souls of our children and their descendants. We would then, cholila, be destroying the holy treasure that was protected by the blood of our fathers and fathers' fathers. Perhaps, we would, cholila, cause the holy candle that has illuminated beis Yisroel in the times of its happiness and in the darkness of its golus to be extinguished. We would then, cholila, sever the thread on which hangs the whole Jewish neshomo and upon which is connected its splendid past and hopeful future."

In his attempt to enlist support for the idea of a "revised yeshiva" he plucked on the chords of our feelings: "No! In a time of such a national emergency it is impossible for the offspring of tens of thousands of kedoshim who were killed on the altar of Torah and its sacred values to sit idly by and remain aloof to the troubles brewing. No! Their Hebrew heart and Jewish blood does not allow them to do this. It awakens in them the spirit of their holy fathers and spurs them to resolute and mighty actions for their Torah, their neshomos, and their Judaism."

His biographers point out that initially it was decided to propose the new idea to a rabbinical meeting scheduled to convene at that time in St. Petersburg according to the government's demand. Among the gedolei hador who participated in this meeting were: HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon of Kovna, HaRav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of Brisk, HaRav Eliyahu Chaim Maizel, the Netziv of Volozhin, and many others, who all resolutely opposed this idea. The Sefer Hamizrachi writes: "[HaRav Reiness] tried in vain to prove to his colleagues the merits of his proposal. They rejected it categorically and unanimously. They could not agree to such a change in the manner and form accepted by this nation for many generations. This is especially so since their agreement to such a proposal would entirely ruin the standpoint the administration of Volozhin Yeshiva took when it opposed the demands of the Russian government to begin studying the Russian language in their yeshiva. He left and worked alone and on his own responsibility. Naturally this added fuel to the old flame and the war against [this idea] increased."

That bibliographer in Sefer Hamizrachi tells that the opposition to HaRav Reiness's plan began when he suggested a change in the way Torah is studied and the addition of general studies to the yeshiva study agenda. "These were difficult times for traditional Jewry in Russia. Many attacked it from within and without. Heresy and permissiveness raised their ugly heads. Abandonment of Jewish society and the beis hamedrash increased. The government too helped offenders and encouraged those breaking away and fleeing Judaism. The chareidim were in the midst of a most trying battle and it is no wonder that any new idea alarmed them. They were especially frightened when a suggestion touched on the apple of their eye, the studying of gemora, the support and protection of the Jews for hundreds of years. And when this new idea comes from one of the eminent rabbonim, that only makes the danger much greater since the initiator of that proposal can attract others and mislead many kosher Jews . . . All who clung to tradition saw in this method a vast breach and a great danger, and waged a fierce war against it. On the other hand, all those wanting a new taste and light in Yisroel applauded it."

The plan to found this "revised yeshiva" was too much. The gedolei Torah of that generation saw a grave danger in such a trend of making "changes" and "reforms." It seemed to be merely an odd suggestion, but it later proved to be an entire upheaval. The Netziv zt'l, after a few short relevant points, wrote in 5647 (1847) that when HaRav Y. Y. Reiness published his first sefer with divrei Torah according to the "new method:" "After I saw this and other examples, I am sure he cannot pave a new path in the waters of the Talmud. His seforim were not created for people like us who have toiled in the way our mentors have taught us. His seforim are only created for the rich who have not yet tasted what it is to toil over Torah. We know that in every step and ruling a difference of opinion exists and without examining these we cannot clarify the truth. We see your exaggerations on the sefer's cover stating that you are displaying a new way according to pure logic so you can realize who is correct, and in the future the light of truth will not be a rarity and we will have no doubts in Torah ruling and monetary affairs. Everything will be as clear as making a calculation . . . and for such people his sefer is more precious than any treasure. However, for us, those laboring over the Torah, it is all damaging."

The Netziv adds that he can offer many proofs against the mistakes in the explanations of that sefer: "But I do not want to elucidate these to you since I am fully aware that you do not want to see correctly and will feel your toil is in vain. I therefore say to you in good faith: You do what you want and we will continue in our way. Hashem will illuminate the eyes of those walking in darkness to see the light facing them and from this darkness they will eventually see, admit, and tell others that this is the right way." (The letter is printed in Teshuvos Meishiv Dovor, 4:44).

The last stage of this revolutionary program of "saving Jewry" according to HaRav Reiness was his decision to cooperate with the Zionist Movement that had already caused spiritual devastation among Jews. That eminent rav's joining the Zionist initiations helped those meisisim immensely, but it also finally caused the gedolei Yisroel to publicly renounce his stance. It is well known that Maran the Chofetz Chaim zy'a protested strongly against the innovations of the "revised yeshiva." He warned any yeshiva student who was even remotely suspected of having any connection to this institution or to the ideas of that rav (see testimonies about this in Meir Einei Yisroel).

Naturally, the Chofetz Chaim's protest did not stop that rav from fulfilling his plan. On the contrary, he argued that he felt it proper to cooperate with the Zionists since only through them would the Jewish Nation reach "normalcy." If the chareidim will not awaken by themselves, the Zionists will have this "zechus." He even wrote (Netzach Yisroel, pg. 47), "I have waited longingly for the spiritual salvation that can sprout from the settlement [in Eretz Yisroel]." He accused contemporary gedolei Torah who opposed Zionism: "But what can we do, due to the perversity of some the holy idea has not unfolded."

If this was not enough, he even wrote bitterly against those who refused to support his ideas: "Those who destroy us emerge from within, and wherever children of Elokim were created the Satan is present too. Wicked people are among us who want to satisfy themselves at the nation's expense, to become famous, honored, and gain stature through the nation's calamity."

He added: "When remembering this I strike my heart unremittingly. I am terribly disturbed, my soul is full of sadness, my eyes weep endlessly whenever I encounter this matter. My heart and I are aware how important it is for us, how much benefit in general the nation would have, and what we stand to gain from it. I who see ahead know that because of perverted hearts, wicked people, and those seeking to destroy the nation, no hope remains in attaining this matter and its objective."

He mentions that in the past he had suggested his plans for revised studies and that they are a "matter pertaining to the nation's soul and of primary importance for Jewry." However, even then "after only a few days those famous for attempting to undermine all initiatives emerged from their hiding places and in various ways tried to obliterate it." HaRav Reiness protested sharply about this and wrote: "In vain I think I am using what is left of my strength to fight against these people. Their power is only in destroying and not in building, in uprooting what is sown and not in sowing. The fate of the sublime matter of settling Eretz Yisroel is like the fate of our noble people and that too has not escaped the hands of those wanting to destroy it. They have waged war against it too and have used improper ways to destroy it . . . Many good and beneficial matters have been lost because of these wicked and sinful people who pretend to be wise by filling their guns with bullets of kedusha and blinding the masses, and through these holy bullets they have succeeded in causing eternal calamity" (ibid., pg. 26- 32).

We have depicted at length this historical episode since that "revised yeshiva" was an example to all "yeshivot tichoniyot" (Israeli yeshiva high schools). The revolutionary idea of joining the Zionist Movement placed the foundation for the reform adopted by the Mizrachi whose fruit we see a hundred years later. We are not coming to judge that rav and not to expose his mistake since he was a talmid chochom and most probably his intention was lesheim Shomayim. We must, however, remember that a tremendous mishap was caused by his initiatives and deviation from the tradition and by his opposition to the yeshiva world and all the geonim at his time.

Today it is easy to summarize the episode and say that the end results prove their error, but at the time many debated as to whether HaRav Reiness was right or not, whether to change their methods and "look at present needs and consider his demands." The gedolei Torah energetically opposed his plans and completely refused to accept them. That rav complains in his writings that the gedolei Torah did not even agree to examine the details of the plan for the "revised yeshiva" and rejected summarily his suggestions.

Indeed they acted so since they understood that the decision itself, to introduce changes, is a sharp deviation from one of the foundations of our faith and existence: the transition of Torah from one generation to the other must be without any changes, without any additions or omissions. Our spiritual mentors have taught us that the very idea of introducing new ways and changing the way handed down to us by the gedolei Torah before us is completely posul. It is well known that the Chasam Sofer said "Chodosh is prohibited by the Torah."

End of Part I

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.