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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Volozhyn is a Russian town famed for its Rabbi, Hayyim of Volozhyn (1749-1821) and for the Yeshivah he established there in 1803. Hayyim of Volozhyn was the foremost disciple of Elijah, Gaon of Vilna. Like his master, Hayyim preferred the analytical approach to Talmudic studies in which excessive casuistry (pilpul) is avoided and an attempt is made to discover what the Talmudic texts are actually saying rather than what ingenious but far-fetched exegesis makes them say. Moreover, the Codes should not be relied on in themselves but only the Codes as based on the Talmud. A saying of Hayyim recorded by his disciples is: "People say that the study of the Codes without the Talmud resembles eating fish without pepper (the word for pepper is pilpul) but in my opinion it is like eating pepper without fish." Again like his master but with considerable less vehemence, Hayyim was opposed to Hasidism, both because the movement’s theology and because of its implied and often overt denigration of Talmudic scholars.
Study for Its Own Sake
Hayyim of Volozhyn’s Nefesh Ha-Hayyim (The Soul of Life, a pun on his name Hayyim) was published posthumously. In this work he takes issue with the Hasidic doctrine of panentheism, that all is in God. Hayyim does not reject the doctrine entirely. There are rare occasions, he remarks, when the soul can be set on fire through reflection that all is in God. But to dwell on this idea is dangerous in that it can easily result in a blurring of the distinctions between the sacred and the profane. If everything is ultimately in God the impure is also in God and to have this in mind will lead, in Hayyim’s colorful phraseology (based on the Talmud), "to thinking on words of Torah in unclean places," because, on the panentheistic view, there are no unclean places since there is only God.
Hayyim also rejects the Hasidic notion that the Rabbinic ideal of "the study of the Torah for its own sake" means that study should be engaged in as a devotional exercise with God in the mind during the studies, in obedience to the Hasidic ideal of devekut, "attachment," to God at all times. According to Hayyim it is impossible to master the difficult Talmudic texts if God,instead of the subject matter, is in the mind. The Rabbinic doctrine, according to Hayyim, means what it says: study for the sake of the Torah, that is, the study of the Torah is in itself the supreme good, an end not a means to devotion. Hayyim here summarizes the intellectual approach typical of the Mitnagdim and the Yeshivah he founded was intended to further this approach.
Despite attempts by the Russian authorities to interfere with the curriculum of the Yeshivah and despite its complete closure in 1892 (to be reopened surreptitiously), it functioned, albeit in severe decline, until the Holocaust. The Yeshivah reached its zenith in the nineteenth century under Naftali Zvi Judah Berlin, known, after the initial letters of his name, as the Netziv. Hundreds of keen students flocked to the Yeshivah, some even from America. Contributions to the upkeep of the Yeshivah, which had a building of its own, were solicited from Jews in all European communities. Emissaries, Meshulahim, went out to elicit support which was usually given willingly. A joke in the Yeshivah was that there cannot be men on Mars, for if there were, our Meshulahim would have laid them under tribute to support the Yeshivah.
It was arranged that some students would study in the Yeshivah during the whole of the day and others for the whole of the night. It was the Yeshivah’s boast that the voice of the Torah was heard unceasingly there by day and by night. Before Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik succeeded his father as Rabbi of Brisk, he taught at the Yeshivah of Volozhyn, where he introduced his special methodology of logical analysis which, through his students at Volozhyn, set the pattern for the Lithuanian-type approach in all major Yeshivot that arose after the decline of Volozhyn.
Yet while on the surface traditional faith was unchallenged at Volozhyn, the Haskalah and secular philosophies found their way into the Yeshivah. A number of the students read Haskalah and scientific works hidden between the pages of the Talmud they were supposed to be studying. The official teachers at the Yeshivah were either unaware of these trends or turned a blind eye to them. But even those students who later deserted traditional Judaism still retained their admiration for this "factory in which the soul of the people is manufactured," as the Hebrew poet Bialik, a former student at the Yeshivah, described it.
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