Monday, January 23, 2012

Rise of the Mega-Yeshivos-


I have never been really comfortable with the academic historical narrative about the origins of the Khasidic movement. Received wisdom always talks about the voids being addressed by the movement. The Rabbis grew remote and out-of-touch from the people. Common folk felt disenfranchised and hopeless etc. etc. Yet the fact that the movement captured the hearts and minds of such intellectual and spiritual giants as the Alteh Rebbe, the Hafloah, the Kotzker, the Rim, the Divrei Chaim, the Sfas Emes, the Bnei Yissoskhor, the Lubliner Kohen, the Khelkas Yoav, the Kozhiklover, Rav Meir Shapiro and Rav Menachem Ziemba to name but a few, belies the conventional wisdom that Besh"tian Khasidus was a grass roots movement meant to serve the unlettered and unwashed masses.

Nevertheless Khasidus did, in fact, address the spiritual needs and helped actualize the spiritual potential, or at least the religious yearnings, of masses of adherents and it continues to do so. Yeshivas traditionally gained cache and traction by virtue of the quality of the lamdonim who were their alumni. Few Yeshivaleit today know if Slabodka Mir and Telshe on the eve of World War II had 200, 400 or 4000 students. Nor can they say with any accuracy exactly how many branches comprised the Novardhoker Yeshiva Network. The reason? No one really cares, the number of students enrolled is beside the point of these legendary Yeshivos historical significance. OTOH Khasidus, at least over the last century, gained historical significance mostly by dint of large numbers. With a few notable exceptions the Khasidic groups who were major players over that time were the ones that boasted thousands of Khasidim. Satmar, Lubavitch, Ger, Belz, Vishnitz all have thousands of adherents, many Moisdos and concomitant political clout and influence.

By definition elitist institutions raise the requirement bar for membership in good standing higher than mass movements do. The skill-set mix needed to have "made-it" in historical Slabodka, Mir, Brisk, Chachmei Lublin or even the Lakewood of RAK included exemplary critical and abstract thinking, diligence (hasmoda), attention to detail, attention/concentration surplus disorder, creativity and, very often, asceticism, a high pain threshold and the ability to endure poverty and privation stoically . To lead such institutions required all of the above plus a mind of genius, great administrative and rhetorical talents, pedagogical virtuosity and , quite often, the kind of "publish-or-perish" pressures one associates with secular academia (though in the case of Brisk it was more like "perish-and-then-publish").

In contradistinction to this membership in good standing in the diverse khasidic movements required a whole different skill set and, arguably, one that is easier, less demanding and more commonly found among great numbers of people. These include self-abnegation to the Leader, an obscurantist sensibility, a suspension of disbelief in the miraculous and in the Masters capacity to work same, a tendency towards group-think, the wearing of a uniform, a willingness to travel and spend quality time away from wife and family and a religious sensibility predicated more on heart than on head. To lead such tribes was very often, nothing more than an accident of birth. Preferably, in order to maintain or build up the following, Khasidic leadership required a great and empathic heart, a passionate approach to the staples of daily Jewish life like davening, Shabbos and Yom Tov, formulating a cause or a leitmotif that proffered the khasidim a distinct sense of identity (some might call this the narcissism of small differences) and a sharp piqkhus . Even this last quality is intellectual without being academic. Most would associate piqkhus more with street smarts than with book smarts.

Today there exist two Mega-Yeshivas. Mir in Jerusalem boasts an enrollment of 6000+ while BMG in Lakewood, New Jersey may be up over 7000. The rise of these gigantic Yeshivas and the concomitant marginalization of almost all other Yeshivas for talmidim who are 23+ represents a sea change in the very institution and , in a way far more telling than uniform l'vush, their Chasidification.

Historically Torah Observant Jews in eastern Europe managed to lead lives of observance and commitment with a mere Kheder schooling. An amkha yid might not have been capable of self-study of Gemara but was a member of Khevra Mishnayos, Shas or Ein Yaakov. Kashrus and other basic halakhos were absorbed through observing parental and communal behaviors. The great Yeshivos Gedolos were reserved for a tiny intellectual elite. Jews receiving the equivalent of an eighth grade education and/or, in the case of the women, no formal schooling at all managed to stay ehrlich and live halakhically until the day they died.

But all this began changing in the inter-war period of revolutionary and nationalistic ferment and was accelerated by the War and the post-war American melting pot and the Israeli gallop towards Westernization. Now, without the inoculation against the winds of change provided by in-depth Torah study for many years ones Jewish identity and fealty to Halakha becomes suspect. And so Yeshivas adapted and evolved/devolved to the point that they have become open-admission and long term institutions.

But converting from elitist academies to mass cities of refuge against the rising tide of heresy and materialism comes at a price. Academic standards fall. Fidelity to a particular ideology replaced intellectual acuity as the currency of admission and acceptance. A student body too unwieldy to manage as individuals must be integrated through the glue of group-think. Those who think alike begin to dress alike and books of peoples inner-lives are judged by their covers. Self-delusions of scholarly grandeur persist only so long and values other than great academic achievement in determining ones self-worth begin to creep in.

I have long held these beliefs to be fairly self-evident but I was particularly struck by the encomiums I heard about the late great Mirrer Rosh HaYeshiva Rav Noson Tzvi Finkel OBM at his shloshim. His love and support for each and every student were praised. Speakers were in awe of his self-sacrifice in particularly on behalf of the spiritual growth of others. He was lauded as a great fund-raiser and institution builder. He was extolled as one who did, and in the afterlife would continue, storming the gates of heaven to advocate on behalf of his students and on behalf of all Jews. Anecdotes of scrupulous observance without compromise in the face of great pain and extraordinary challenges were heard.

I closed my eyes for a moment and wondered; "Are these hespedim for the Mirrer Rosh HaYeshiva... or for Reb Shloimeleh, the Bobover Rebbe ZYA???" Almost every praise about RNTF that I heard were those one normally associates with a Khasidic Master rather than with a Lithaninan Rosh HaYeshiva. Conspicuously absent were any mentions of Geonus, Iluyis, profundity, bekius, power of Horoah, originality in approach or novelty in khidushim. How incredibly different these hespedim were from those of the prior Mirrer Roshei Yeshiva Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz OBM and Rav Nokhum Trackaier OBM a generation earlier or even from those of Rav Berel Shvartzman OBM, who headed up a mid-size, decidedly non mega-Yeshiva a mere week before.

As gauged by that which is deemed praiseworthy an entire cultures value system had changed in my lifetime. ( See Rabenu Yonah where he explains Mishlei 27:21). IMO the mega-Yeshiva is the Coup de Grâce of Chasidification of the rest of us. All the other external trappings of the Chasidification are merely external symptoms of this inner shift in core values.

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