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Kislev 5759 - November, 1998 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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The "Modern" Volozhin Yeshiva

by Rabbi Nosson Zeev Grossman

More than 70 years ago when it was founded, prominent figures from the Zionist Labor Movement saw in the future Hebrew University a springboard to breed unproductive elements and a pure waste of the country's inadequate resources. They claimed that allocating funds for academic studies would overlook the vital needs of the new settlement in Eretz Yisroel.

It is only proper to indicate that not all Zionists shared that opinion. There were also those who opposed the approach that saw our entire objective as manual labor and farming. They wanted colleges to fill the vacuum created through these young Jewish men abandoning the beis midrash.

The Hebrew University was not intended merely to copy foreign cultures and European-type academic studies. Its supporters saw in it a vital need to supply an alternative to every Jew's innate love of wisdom and knowledge: the obligation to meditate in Torah whenever possible.

These early Zionists knew that shovels and spades would never succeed in filling this vacuum. Beads of perspiration from manual labor would only divert a person's attention for a limited time. Eventually his fiery aspiration of "You shall meditate in it" would not let him rest. They therefore hoped that occupying themselves in intricate scholastic studies would calm down the spirit and fervent soul of the new generation.

In a speech delivered by Beryl Katznelson before the Histadrut institutes in the year 5703 (1943), this foremost Zionist leader defined the longed-for ideal of the university as a demonstration of a new model of "studying for its own sake" through secular studies. He phrased this in a repulsive way: "It will be the modern-type Volozhin Yeshiva."

At another opportunity he demanded to innovate "study groups" that would not only conduct their studies through passively listening to a lecturer but would engage themselves in "active study with group assistance." Beryl Katznelson not only wanted to copy the method of saying chidushei Torah before a chabura but also the standard yeshiva system of studying together with a chavrusa. He admonished the college heads for their inability to copy "the way Jews have studied for the last three generations."

Once during a speech Katznelson admitted to the difficulty of trying to imitate the chabura and chavrusa method. "There is an additional difficulty that those preceding us did not encounter. A study group that learns independently requires a book that will permanently guide them, not something that will temporarily help them and not be more than a fleeting attempt to supply their needs. Our predecessors had enduring sacred books such as the Mishnayos, the Ein Yaakov, and the Mesilas Yeshorim. And what do we have? When we approach people and tell them: `Study!' We do not know even which book to tell them to study."

Katznelson afterwards remarked that Enlightenment literature has actually become historical material and not a living literature, "and it surely has not given us a book that this generation will embrace as its book . . . We have ceased to be a `nation of the book.' Perhaps we are a nation who loves literature, and not only one type of literature but many types, but we are not anymore a people of the book" (an excerpt from "Beryl Katznelson's Views About the Hebrew University," Yerushalayim, 5708/1948).

A. D. Gordon too wanted to point out the vacuum formed in am Yisroel from the time when those who studied Torah had been targeted for ridicule and criticism. "There was a time, and it was not so long ago, when all of our nation from the smallest to the greatest knew that the Torah should be studied for its own sake, and that it is forbidden to use the Torah as "an ax to dig with" or "a crown to glorify oneself with." One could then find even the simplest manual worker or wagon driver proficient in Torah. Nowadays everyone of our nation, especially those who have already studied European wisdom or aspired to study it, knows that such a view is antiquated. It is the outlook of idle people or even worse than that" (The Works of A.D. Gordon, "The Nation and Work," pg. 178).

Turning their backs on yeshivos and worshiping European academic studies created an internal contradiction that nationalist circles had difficulties in resolving.

That same Yosef Aharonowitz who had, at the time, sharply opposed the plan to found the university, wondered openly how nationalist circles could picture academic studies as a solution for the Jewish Nation. He quotes Achad HaAm who used the example of "Give me Yavneh and its scholars" as proof of his school of thought necessitating educational frameworks for the Jewish Nation. He attempted to warp its religious significance in order to prove that higher secular studies is what sustains the nation. "Achad HaAm always has an undefeatable historical proof to show his correctness. During the second churban, when brave Jews fought like lions to protect the political freedom of those Jews who were left, R' Yochonon ben Zakai went on to found a yeshiva in Yavneh. Who among us does not know today that it was not the brave warriors who saved our nation from disappearing but the yeshiva in Yavneh?"

To this, Aharonowitz replied that "this classical example from R' Yochonon ben Zakai does not say anything to us today. On the contrary it tells us just the opposite." He challenged Achad HaAm and those who support his way: "If this yeshiva, whose beginning was rooted in Yavneh and its end is imbedded in Volozhin, a culture with R' Yochonon ben Zakai on one side and the Vilna Gaon on the other, and between them pass almost two thousand years of thousands of geonim who sacrificed their lives for it — a culture formed within the nation and by it and not from outside it" — if all this according to academic and Zionist leaders who wish to sever themselves from a feeling of golus, are not fitting anymore for the Jewish Nation, "How can an academy for language and literature that was created from outside the nation and outside its needs be any stronger?"

@Big Let Body=Nonetheless, all of these inherent contradictions did not distract the philosophers of secular "academic culture" from continuing to weave their muddled ideas about setting up a new model of the "modern type Volozhin" for studying "secular wisdom for its own sake."

They were well aware that to succeed in inciting the youth and removing them from Torah study they would need to find an "alternative" to quiet down the fiery souls of the youth. The Israeli chalutzim and followers of the Labor Movement thought that the shovel and spade would be the correct means to twist spiritual aspirations and neutralize them through "sacrificing themselves" in working the land. Those who championed the idea of starting colleges and campuses thought that physical work alone would not calm down the thirsty soul of the confused and those looking for a way in life. They therefore decided to found a tasteless imitation of "studying for the sake of study" in the hope that it would supply a pitiful alternative for the deep-rooted love of Torah in the hearts of every Jew.

This is the war that has been waged for many years between the Torah-observant and the modern Hellenists, those who have embraced foreign cultures and want to imbue them within our nation.

@Big Let Body=It is only proper to mention what the kadmonim write, that the main battle of Greece in making "them forget Your Torah" was done through setting up secular studies as an alternative to Torah study.

Greek scholars knew that the neshomoh of Am Yisroel is based on deep spiritual foundations. Jews will never be satisfied by physical matters alone nor by only engaging in earthly endeavors. They saw the love of Torah beating in the Jewish heart and therefore wanted to capture it from within.

"This kingdom [Greece] alludes to the third part of man. The third part is his intelligence, and this kingdom had wisdom and intelligence. We see in its writings that this kingdom's entire aim was wisdom, as we will explain later. They were therefore disturbed by the Torah and wanted to abolish it. In particular they did not want the existence of a wisdom like the Torah that is more elevated than their mortal wisdom. For this reason the kingdom of the Greeks opposed the Jews only because of their Torah" (Ner Mitzvah of the Maharal).

This was the basis for the war of Greece against am Yisroel. The Greeks wanted to be metameih the Jewish Nation through imbuing secular studies among them. They thought this would cause the Jews to forget the Torah. This apparent alternative was liable to utilize the mental powers created for studying Torah and satisfy the Jew's spiritual hunger through spoiled and artificial food.

"Placing the Torah's wisdom in line with other types of wisdom in the world which was, according to the Chachomim, the objective of translating the Torah to Greek, was primarily aimed at frustrating the degree of pleasure [received from Torah study]. The internal pleasure of studying Torah with the segulah of clinging to it would be given and shifted to secular studies" (Pachad Yitzchok, Chanukah, discourse 6).

Those who continue in the way of the Greeks and the Hellenists have also tried in our generation to create a new model of "studying for its own sake," the "modern-type Volozhin." Our many brethren, tinokos shenishbu, who fell into the nets of the meisisim umeidichim waste their lives studying purposeless topics instead of fulfilling "and you shall meditate in them day and night" through studying our Holy Torah. They have been incited to attack the Torah places of learning and do not realize that the thirst for knowledge that beats in their souls will never find any rest until it returns to the Torah, the well of living water.


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