Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Closing of Volozhin; Jewish Urban Legend?

A Guest Post by Jameel. Cross-posted to The Muqata

It's impossible to traverse chareidi circles without hearing that the famous Volozhin Yeshiva was closed by its Rosh Yeshiva, the "Netziv" (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (נפתלי צבי יהודה ברלין) -- because he would rather close the Yeshiva than for his students go to University and study secular subjects. This mantra is often repeated as a primary reason to avoid Yeshiva University, any combination of Yeshiva and College studies, or secular studies in general.

In May 1988, looking for a donation, the Lakewood Cheder School sent me a copy of the book, "My Uncle the Netziv" -- written by R' Baruch HaLevi Epstein (author of the Torah Temima) and nephew of the Netziv. The book was adapted into English by R' Moshe Dombey and under the general editorship of Artscroll Mesorah Rabbis and Publishers Nosson Sherman and Meir Zlotowitz. The book's jacket states, "This is the sort of book that cannot -- and should not -- be put down."

I enjoyed the book at the time, and found the life and times of the Netziv to be an interesting read. A few months later the Lakewood Cheder School sent me a bizarre letter (pictured at left) in which they sincerely apologized for sending me such an offensive book. They insisted the book not be read -- and they even offered to refund any donation I may have sent them.

Why was the book recalled and banned? What was so terrible in the book that caused such a radical reaction from Lakewood? The recall letter was rather vague about what was wrong with the book, but as a teenager I realized if they were recalling the book, it was worth keeping.

There are a few possibilities for the ban, but in my opinion there are 2 primary reasons.

1. Background into the closing of Volozhin
2. Women and Learning. (I wont address this point in this post).

Concerning "worldliness" of the students of Volozhin, and the value of secular education at Volozhin, R' Epstein writes:
Anyone with eyes in his head could see that the students of Volozhin were quite knowledgeable in secular studies: they took an interest in science, history and geography and knew many languages. In fact, those students who desired to pursue these disciplines succeeded in learning twice as much as any student at a state institution. In Volohzin, Torah and derech eretz walked hand in hand, neither one held captive by the other. It was the special achievement of the Volozhin student that when he left the yeshiva, he was able to converse with any man in any social setting on the highest intellectual plane. The Volohzin student was able to conquer both worlds -- the world of Torah and the world at large. A well-known adage among parents who were trying to best educate their children was, "Do you want your child to develop into a complete Jew, dedicated to Torah and derech eretz? Do you want him to be able to mingle with people and get along in the world? Send him to Volozhin! (page 204)
R' Epstein debunks the story that college and Volozhin could not mix, by stating -- in direct contradiction to the chareidi myth -- that the Netziv explicitly agreed to the introduction of secular studies to Volozhin at the 1887 Petersburg Congress, by incorporating the study of mathematics and the Russian language within the framework of the yeshiva program. The amount of time and part of day when these 2 subjects were to be taught was left entirely to the discretion of the Rosh Yeshiva. This continued for 5 full years prior to the yeshiva's closing in 1892. (pages 207, 208)

So what did college have to do with the closing of the Yeshiva? Assuming we accept the premise that the yeshiva was indeed closed over something connected to "secular studies", R' Epstein explains what was actually proposed, which caused his uncle to close the yeshiva.
On the twenty second of October 1891, the Minister of Education certified a system of changes to be established in the Volozhin Yeshiva, four of which struck at its main life-giving arteries and imperiled its existence. They consisted of the following:

1. The general studies program shall take place between nine o'clock in the morning and three in the afternoon.

2. There shall be no [yeshiva] studies at night at which time the yeshiva building shall be closed.

3. The entire study program shall be no longer than ten hours per twenty four hour period.

4. The Rosh yeshiva and all the instructors shall possess an educational degree.

The result of all this was that during the winter months no time at all would remain for studying the Talmud. Even in the summer, considering that the general studies program would finish at three in the afternoon followed by lunch, only minimal time would remain for Torah study. The students would also be exhausted from 5 or 6 hours of general studies, and thus the best hours of the day would have been wasted.

It is clear that these conditions, capped by the impossible demand that every single teacher from the Rosh yeshiva down to the instructor of the lowest shiur, have a degree, left my uncle with very little choice. "Under these conditions what do I need the yeshiva for and for what does the yeshiva need me? This will no longer be a yeshiva but a school. Aren't there enough schools in this country already? (pages 206-207)
The point of the maskilim, who pressed the issue in the first place to the Russian government, was to close the yeshiva -- and in the week of Parashat Bo, 1892, the yeshiva was closed.

R' Epstein's version of the story leaves little room for misinterpretation. The Netziv was not anti-secular studies, the students of Volozhin studied (at least) mathematics and Russian within the scope of the Volozhin curriculum, and the closing of the yeshiva was due to the outrageous order reducing yeshiva studies to a bare minimum (or none), with secular studies taking up the vast majority of the students' time.

While the majority of this posting is based on the actual book "My Uncle the Netziv", I came across some additional sources and good additional reading material as well:

My Uncle the Netziv, Chapter 13, "An Act of Satan", pages 206-209.

Additional Reading:
Founding (1803) and Closure (1892) of Yeshivat Etz Hayyim of Volozhin. Michtavim Blog, Menachem Butler
"Haskalah, Secular Studies, and the close of Yeshiva of Volozhin in 1892", YU Torah, by Dr. Jacob J, Schachter

In closing, I must quote from Menachem Butler's post about a newly researched twist on the entire story...

Professor Shaul Stampfer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem discusses "The Closing of the Yeshiva of Volozhin" [Hebrew], in his Hebrew-University-dissertation-turned-volume, Ha-Yeshivah ha-Lita'it be-Hithavutah (Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 1st ed., 1995; 2nd ed., 2005), 208-250, with an appendix to chapter eight published in the updated (2005) edition on pages 251-266, including a half-dozen never-before-published correspondences from newly available sources from Russian government archives (and he reprints a [Russian] document on page 253), in Hebrew translation, pointing that the closure was related to "in-fighting" (my wording) amongst the administration of Yeshivat Etz Hayyim, rather than simply a disagreement over the government inclusion of secular studies into the institutional curriculum.

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