Volozhin: The rise and demise of the ‘mother of all yeshivas’

ESSAY REVIEW: Shacter, Jacob J., Haskalah, Secular Studies and the Close of the Yeshiva in Volozhin in 1892, The Torah U-Madda Journal, Vol. 2 (1990), pp. 76-133, published by Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an affiliate of Yeshiva University. URL: www.jstor.org/stable/40914771


Yeshiva Volozhin is often romanticized as the womb that bore and nurtured the greatest dynasties of Talmidei Chachamim such as Rabbanim Abraham Kook, Yosef Dov Halevi Soltoveitchik, and the Hafez Hayyim, who among others, started religious movements that changed the Jewish world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Eastern Europe. Known as the “mother of all yeshivoth,” Volozhin opened in 1806 and closed in 1892 amidst an epic struggle between traditional and modernization forces which are discussed by Jacob J. Shacter in his essay Haskalah, Secular Studies and the Close of the Yeshiva in Volozhin in 1892, also the subject of this review. The closing of Yeshiva Volozhin had tremendous repercussions in the yeshiva world of that time as it stopped producing dynasties of religious intellectuals and it is still a source of debate in American yeshivas today. Rabbi Jacob, J. Shacter’s two main sources for his essay written in 1990 are: My Uncle the Netziv, (p. 76) —authored by the Netziv’s nephew, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein in 1988, and a letter written on July 7 of that same year (1988), by Rabbi Baruch Manes, executive director of the Orthodox Lakewood Cheder School in Lakewood, New Jersey, (p. 77). These two pieces reflect the tension among past and present rabbanim who continue their struggle to make sense of the closing of Volozhin.

The publication of My Uncle the Netziv —an acronym for Rabbi Naftali Zevi Yehuda Berlin, Volozhin’s last rosh yeshiva— in 1988 started a controversy at the New Jersey-based Lakewood yeshiva after its executive director, Rabbi Baruch Manes mailed a copy to a number of potential donors as part of a fundraising effort as he deemed it safe coming from the ArtScroll publishing house which represents Orthodox Jewish literature. Soon after, Rabbi Manes recalled these copies from his donors by stating that the book did not meet the standards of portraying the Netziv’s, “hashkofos, kedusah, and yiras shamayim as related to us by his revered talmidim, the ones who knew him best,” (p. 77). Based on this particular statement, Rabbi Shacter makes a lengthy argument about who owns the narrative on both, the Netziv’s life and the closing of Volozhin. Is it Rabbi Epstein, his nephew who claimed that the Netziv allowed secular studies at Volozhin or is it Rabbi Manes who supports the “revered talmidim, the ones who knew him best,” (p. 77) and denied the Netziv’s secularization of the curriculum? These two narratives are out there, so which one can readers believe and why does it matter today? To answer these questions, Rabbi Shacter, a New York-based Orthodox historian and intellectual, provides a wealth of Torah, Talmudic, and primary sources such as Haskalah journals and Volohzin leaders’ correspondence in his analysis of this debate which has become an authoritative benchmark for present and future analysis the Netziv’s life and the closing of the Volozhin Yeshiva.

Among all the yeshivas of Eastern Europe like Slobodka, Kovno, Telz, Mir, Ponevezh, and Kletsk, the Volozhin Yeshiva was revolutionary in providing an antidote to both, the crisis of assimilation and the growth of Hassidism which were undermining the tradition of Torah and Talmud study. On the one hand, the Russian government and the Haskalah movement joined forces in pressuring yeshivoth in teaching secular subjects such as science, humanities, and languages; on the other Hassidism’s focus on dvkut or clinging to G-d with joyous prayers and chanting was gaining more followers, straying them away from a stricter Torah and Talmud education.

Yeshiva Volozhin, located in the town of the same name in Lithuania, Russia —today Belarus— was founded in 1806 by Rabbi Hayyim ben Yitzhock —known as Hayyim of Volozhin—, a disciple of the Vilna Gaon, a Talmid Chacham who created a short-lived movement, the Mitnagdim, to oppose Hassidism and ban its followers from entering traditional Jewish communities to stray away yeshiva students from Torah and Talmud. In turn, Rabbi Hayyim sought to fight Hassidism by establishing the Yeshiva Volozhin with a sole focus in Torah and Talmud education rather than Kabbalah, mystical visions, and cheerful chanting as was the Hassidim custom; or secular studies, the Russian government’s and the maskilim’s goal. One of Volozhin’s innovations was its source of funding which came from emissaries who traveled throughout Eastern and Western Europe rather than relying on local support. Then, its curriculum, based only on Torah and Talmud, was meant to avoid bittul Torah or wasting time in superfluous subjects. The study of Torah and Talmud took place all day from dawn to late evening, all year, with no terms or vacation time. Advanced knowledge of Talmud was required for admissions and students could work independently or with chevrusas. Basically, study for its own sake was the yeshiva’s goal. Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin grew the number of students from 10 to 200 within ten years as the yeshiva’s reputation spread beyond Lithuania’s borders.

After Rabbi Hayyim’s death in 1821, the leadership of the institution was taken over by his son, Rabbi Yitzhak Berlin (1780-1849). For the next decades, the yeshiva remained a family business. Rabbi Yitzhak’s death caused his son-in-law, R. Eliezer Yitzhak (1809-1853) to become rosh yeshiva and when he died, the mantle of leadership passed to his younger son in-law, Naftali Zevi Yehuda Berlin, the Netziv who governed it for four decades. During his tenure Volozhin not only became the most prestigious institution of Torah and Talmud learning in the world in the nineteenth century, but also, it was the paragon of opposition to the pull of Hassidism and the assimilationist movements of the Russian government and the Haskalah. In their wake, the future of the yeshiva was never stable as the Russian establishment tried to curb the intensity of Jewish learning by insisting on the inclusion of secular studies into the curriculum with the help of the maskilim who aggressively supported a new educational system that combined Judaism with secular studies and professional training. By 1848, maskilim, encouraged by grants from the government to push for mixed education, created an infrastructure of enlightenment institutions, media outlets in Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish, and even founded a Society for the Promotion of Culture Among the Jews of Russia (1863) in St. Petersburg to support young students seeking Russian acculturation, (p. 83). They planned to attract yeshivoth students after they had achieved their goal of abolishing Volozhin.

In this atmosphere of three-decades of government secularization, internal strife within the yeshiva’s leadership, traditional Jews’ resistance to Haskalah, Hasidism’s relaxation of Torah and Talmud study, and government integration movements, chaos and paranoia ensued among all these institutions. Soon, Volozhin rabbis conducted raids in students’ homes to see if they were studying secular studies fearful of maskilim’s influence, (p. 86). Likewise, maskilim’s attacks to the yeshiva escalated with the highest intellectuals of the time such as Peretz Smoleskin criticizing Volozhin as “an andromolusyan —infectious disease— institution,” in Ha-Shakar, his Haskalah/Zionist journal,(p. 86). The turning point came on December 22, 1891, when the government ordered the yeshiva to adopt new rules for the yeshiva’s curriculum, student body, teaching staff, and administration. Four rules stand out: Secular studies were to take place daily between 9am and 3pm; no more than ten hours a day could be spent studying; no studying at all at night; and teachers and administrators had to speak Russian and hold a diploma of secular studies, (p. 108). The government’s total intrusion into the yeshiva’s autonomy weighed down the rabbinic leadership. The moment to make a decision had finally arrived. What did the Netziv decide? Did he give in to the government’s requests to include secular studies or did he close the yeshiva before the authorities did? Why is the answer important? What is at stake? This is the point where two different narratives depart and Rabbi Jacob Shachter attempts to settle this two hundred year old debate in his essay.

It is clear Rabbi Shacter subscribes to the authenticity of sources and narrative of Rabbi Barukh Halevi Epstein’s My Uncle the Netziv. One reason he provides is because of Rabbi Epstein’s close family ties with the Netziv. He was not only a nephew of the Netziv who was his mother’s brother, but the Netziv became also Rabbi Epstein’s brother-in-law after his wife died in 1871 and the Netziv married his own niece —and Rabbi Epstein’s sister— Batya Miriam, (p. 79). Rabbi Shacter even cites a tradition reporting that Rabbi Epstein was responsible for this shidduch between the Netziv and Batya Miriam after he urged his father, “the famed Rabbi Yehiel Mikhel Epstein, the author of the Arukh ha-Shulchan, to consider it in spite of the fact that there was a thirty-year age difference between the two parties,” (p. 79). Rabbi Shacter uses this genealogy to demonstrate family closeness and trust between the Netziv and his nephew.

Therefore, Rabbi Shacter disagrees with Rabbi Baruch Manes, the Lakewood yeshiva director who recalled the books he sent to donors because he assumed that Rabbi Epstein was not to be considered as trustworthy as the “Netziv’s revered talmidim who knew him best,” (p. 77). For Rabbi Manes, Rabbi Epstein made statements in My Uncle the Netziv which contradict the Netziv’s character and theology. He described the Netziv’s habit of reading the weekly newspapers even on Shabbat and discussing current events at the Shabbat table. He noted that the Netziv had secular books in his library. Furthermore, Rabbi Epstein spoke to talmidim in his uncle’s name about Maimonides’ various errors in the Mishna Torah “which he could’ve avoided if he had studied Torah with scholars instead of by himself,” (p. 78). In Rabbi Manes’ view, the final blow to this doubtful portrayal is Rabbi Epstein’s assertion that the Netziv “did permit secular studies in Volozhin and allowed the yeshiva to be closed only in 1892 when submitting to the escalating demands of the Russian authorities would have resulted in changing its entire character,” (p. 78). Rabbi Manes agrees with the account of the Netziv’s son, HaGaon Harav Chaim Berlin who had confirmed to talmidim his father’s decision to close Volozhin rather than introducing secular studies into its program. In his letter to donors, Rabbi Manes even provides a quote from the Netziv himself: “Do not be anguished that this matter brings about my departure from this world, for it is well worth the sacrifice of my life,” (p. 78). Rabbi Manes affirms that this statement “from the heart illustrates the depth of the Netziv’s saintliness, and his uncompromising principles regarding the primacy of Torah, whatever sacrifices it might entail,” (p. 78).

For his part, Rabbi Shacter accepts My Uncle, the Netziv’s portrayal of the Netziv’s Shabbat practices and the inclusion of secular studies before the closing of Volozhin even when it goes against the Netziv’s own son’s and disciples’ description of the Netziv’s decision to close the yeshiva rather than secularize it. By presenting the Netziv’s son’s and disciples’ opposing statements about the closing of the yeshiva, Rabbi Shacter covered his basis for objectivity when endorsing the narrative of My Uncle, the Netziv. In this book, Rabbi Epstein claims that Netziv initially allowed secular studies at Volozhin to avoid closure by the government. It was until the authorities increased more secularization measures that the Netziv refused to comply and he agreed to the yeshiva’s closing. In his well researched argument, Rabbi Shacter confirms that “there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the Netziv allowed secular studies in Volozhin,” (p. 112). Therefore he concludes that My Uncle, the Netziv is a perfectly accurate description of the events that led to the closing of Volozhin.

Rabbi Shachter’s analysis warrants the questions of why did he go through the trouble of researching 150 primary and secondary sources to endorse My Uncle, the Netziv’s claims that the Netziv allowed a modicum of secular studies but refused to comply with all the government’s modification to curriculum, schedule, and staff which ultimately ended with the government’s closing of Volozhin? Why is it important for him to settle the struggle between two narratives about the closing of Volozhin? In answering these questions, I will provide a larger historical context of the forces impacting Volozhin’s closing before arriving at a final conclusion.

Imperial Russia’s assimilation efforts of Jews started as early as 1825 when Czar Nicholas I ordered the conscription of Jewish youth into the Russian military by kidnapping them to take them to the military. By the 1840s, the government set up schools for Jews with Christian teachers as a way to secularize them. The next Czar, Alexander II implemented new assimilation policies in 1855 allowing Jews to move out of the ghetto-like Pale of Settlement area and enroll in Russian public schools.

A few questions arise about Czarist assimilationist policies. What was the Czar’s purpose for Jewish integration? Were the Jews the only target? Why were yeshivoth singled out for secularization? A deeper look at Russian history during these decades may yield some answers. Historians agree that Jews were not the only object of assimilationist policies in imperial Russia, but also the majority of the Russian Christian Orthodox population. The need for national unity around a common culture, education, and language arose at the wake of the arrival of the European forces of Emancipation and the Enlightenment which were sweeping Russia since the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries. Children of government officials, tradesmen and priests were acquiring a Western education. Together with the Europeanized nobility, they began to form a new cultural elite. In addition, young educated Russians who had served in the army against Napoleon in 1805 and defeated him in 1812, had been to Europe and became acculturated. They read and spoke French and German and knew contemporary European literature. At their return to Russia, they established masonic lodges and secret societies in the 1820s and saw the Czarist empire as an enemy of liberty and conspired to overthrow the government to model it after Europe or the U.S. Westernization had arrived in Czarist Russia and it would only grow in the next decades leading to the Bolshevik Revolution which overthrew the last Czar of the Russian Empire, Nicholas II in 1917.

At the time of the closing of Yeshiva Volozhin in 1892, the Czar’s homogenization of society as a source of unity was underway and the Jewish resistance to secularization was deep and stubborn. Therefore, the government sought to influence Jews with maskilim Jews. The Haskalah movement had already expanded from Germany to Russia and it was attracting religious Jews to their assimilationist programs. The Russian government recruited the help of maskilim through generous grants to attack and infiltrate their integrationist ideology into shtetls and yeshivoth. However, this alliance was about to end with the rise and proliferation of pogroms which did not discriminate between religious or Haskalah Jews.

In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by Russian militants and his death was blamed on Jews. Pogroms broke out against Jews, traditional and maskilim alike, with the support of Russian mobs and intellectuals, amidst government passivity. Czar Alexander III became Emperor of Russia in 1881 after the assassination of his father which he used as an excuse to suppress civil liberties, unleash a brutal police force, and violently suppress any form of dissent. He also imposed a series of anti-Jewish measures called the “May Laws,” severely restricting Jewish housing, property, and business rights, and later establishing quotas on Jewish students and doctors, curtailing Jewish political participation, and expelling some 20,000 Jews from Moscow. These “May Laws” created the exodus of more than 2.5 million Jews who eventually fled Russia, kindling a greater interest in Zionism and Palestine.

As the Czarist Empire fought internal forces of disintegration, Jewish movements such as Zionism arose government suspicions of disloyalty to the fatherland. Russian authorities discovered the existence of a Zionist group Nes Ziyyonah, within Yeshiva Volozhin in 1885 that not even the Netziv knew about, closing it afterwards, (p. 104) Soon after, students founded another Zionist society, Nezah Yisrael, that did not survive the closing of the yeshiva in 1892, (p. 104). The rise of Zionism in yeshivoth exacerbated the government’s secularizing efforts from teaching two hours of secular studies a day to broader measures. According to Rabbi Shacter, “On December 22, 1891, the Russian authorities ordered the yeshiva to conform with a very comprehensive set of rules which governed all aspects of the yeshiva’s existence, including curriculum, student body, teaching staff, and administration,” (p. 108). After this directive, the yeshiva could only teach two hours of Talmud and Torah a day and the rest would be devoted to secular studies. Therefore, the Netziv found it impossible to agree with these demands and on February 3, 1892, “The authorities entered the yeshiva and ordered all the students to leave,” (p. 109).

After nearly 90 years of serving the larger Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, Yeshiva Volozhin was closed by the Russian government. Rabbi Shacter states that although it was reopened some years later, it never regained its former position but its past glory remained a model for past and future yeshivoth. In the end, Rabbi Shacter does not leave any doubt that My Uncle, the Netziv’s portrayal of the Netziv “is totally accurate,” (p. 112) and that the Netziv’s inclusion of secular studies in Volozhin, does not diminish his heroic devotion to the beloved yeshiva.

Rabbi Shacter’s endorsement of My Uncle, the Netziv as a factual account of the Netziv’s character and his decision to include secular studies against his will before Volozhin’s closing by the government, reflects the larger issues of distorting history to favor a romantic depiction of the Netziv at the cost of historical accuracy. Rabbi Shacter demonstrates the historical facts of the closing of Volozhin with over 150 primary and secondary sources, providing arguments in favor and in opposition of the two narratives he compares —Rabbi Epstein’s and Rabbi Manes’—. He also justifies the Netziv’s decision to include secular studies “entirely against his will,” (p. 112) by surrounding his essay with the historical context of an era of greater movements that impacted Volozhin, such as Emancipation, the Enlightenment, Haskalah, Mitnagdim, Hassidism, Zionism and the Russian government’s policies reacting to Westernization movements which threaten to disintegrate Russian’s nationalism.

The Netziv’s fight was a long and arduous one. It was the Netziv’s against the world; traditional Judaism versus secularizing forces; and the Russian government against G-d. The Netziv resisted as much as he could as he was torn between following the Higher Authority or submitting to the Russian one. The tale of two narratives is settled by Rabbi Shacter in favor of My Uncle, the Netziv which means that the world’s greater forces and movements finally closed the yeshiva even when the Netziv resisted as long as he could.

Ultimately, the closing of Volozhin, teaches us a bigger lesson independently of each narrative: American Jews can learn from the Netziv’s and his disciples’ passion for protecting the integrity of G-d, Torah and Talmud from the world’s ungodly, irreligious, and powerful secularizing forces, which Jewish communities and their yeshivoth continue to fight right here in a secular and liberal New York.

About the Author
Hadassah Levinson is a Judaic Studies teacher at Jewish Day Schools and instructor for young adults at Jewish centers in Manhattan. She is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University's M.A. in Modern Jewish History and she is currently enrolled in graduate studies in American Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Touro College. She is an iFellows at the iCenter for Israel Education. She has prior graduate degrees in Communications (NYU '95); and Journalism and International Affairs (Columbia University 2000).
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