What the heck is a yeshiva anyway? Truth be told, some people actually translate the word yeshiva as ‘academy’. The main study hall in any yeshiva is called a Beit Midrash (Beis Hamidrash in an Ashkenazi pronunciation), which indeed means study hall. The institution itself is almost invariably called a yeshiva, and the name of the institution usually has the word ‘yeshiva’ in it somewhere. Now that we know the meaning of the word we can explore its place in Jewish history.
As far as we know, Torah study has always been an integral part of Judaism. Jewish tradition has the patriarchs studying Torah in tents. It has the Children of Israel learning all the laws straight from Moses, who learned them straight from God, throughout the 40 years of wandering in the desert. It has the prophets teaching their protegees, the judges instructing, and even kings waking up at midnight to study the law. When Ezra brought the first large group of exiles back from Babel (Bavel), among their first activities was studying the law. When Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and the Jews sent into exile, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai requested of the Roman general that he grant the city of Yavne as a haven to the scholars to study and decide the law.
The Mishna and the Talmud made Torah study the central feature of rabbinic Judaism once there was no longer a central temple. In Bavel and in Israel academies flourished for over 1,000 years. It was probably during the Gaonic period (650-1000) that the word ‘yeshiva’ was first used to describe the principal academies. The two main centers in Bavel were known as the ‘two yeshivot’. Throughout the period of the Rishonim, academies would be founded, would exist for a century or two, would dissolve, and then to spring up in some other location as if by magic. In Tzefat, in Poland, in Germany, in Morocco, in Egypt, in Yemen, and in dozens of other areas in the Jewish world, the Torah was studied in organized groups on a regular basis. Any such arrangement would not be out of line in calling itself a yeshiva.
Usually, however, the term Beit Midrash would be more appropriate for most of these places of Torah study. It was a building, generally having a primary use as a synagogue, in which Torah scholars studied either in groups, or in pairs, or as individuals. To an outsider it was just a room with tables and chairs and lots of books lining the walls, and maybe a place for the rabbi to give his lectures to his select group of students. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the life of the Jewish scholar revolved around the Beit Midrash. He first studied at the feet of an accomplished master, and then he became a rabbi on his own. If his reputation as a scholar was great enough, he would then earn the greatest achievement possible – to have students of his own to teach the intricacies of the Talmud, the codes of Halacha, and the hidden wisdom of Kabbala.
This system reached is apex during the lifetime of a scholar living in the Lithuanian city of Vilna throughout the bulk of the 18th century. His name was Eliyahu (the frequently given last name of Kremer is incorrect), but he is generally known as the Vilna Gaon (genius of Vilna). He will be the subject of one of the essays in this section. He was the scholars’ scholar, the ultimate Talmid Chacham (Torah sage). He had no formal school or institution but numerous students. These students were frequently towering sages in their own right who understood that the Vilna Gaon’s knowledge and wisdom dwarfed their own. They would ask him intricate questions on the Talmud, Halacha, or Kabbala. In a sense, the Vilna Gaon was both the last rabbi of the old system and the first of the new system.
What was the new system? It was developed by one of the main students of the Vilna Gaon who envisioned an institution that was not simply the local Rav teaching some local students, but an entire staff teaching qualified students from all over. In other words, it was the Talmudic equivalent of a college. In reality, it was not a new system at all, but a rebirth of the old academies that were in Bavel. The first modern yeshiva was located in the Lithuanian (now Belarusian) town of Volozhin. The first dean, or Rosh Yeshiva (head of the yeshiva), was a Rav Chaim, whose name invariably includes the appendage Volozhin to indicate that he was from the town of Volozhin. The Volozhin Yeshiva became the prototype that almost all subsequent yeshivot were based upon.
Inaugurated in 1803, the Volozhin Yeshiva has assumed an almost legendary status in the ‘yeshiva world’. It was a smashing success in achieving the primary goal of its founder – to create a centralized institution in which advanced students could pursue their Talmudic studies under the direction of an accomplished master. But it did much more than that. Either directly or indirectly, it inspired the creation of dozens of similar institutions, first in Lithuania and then elsewhere. These yeshivot attracted students from all over Europe. The best and the brightest flocked to learn Talmud at the source. Many became skilled enough to open their own yeshiva. It was a self-perpetuating enterprise.
What exactly did they do at these places? First off, it was not living in the lap of luxury. Most of the students were poor and used to privations, and the yeshiva didn’t change their situation for the better, at least on a material level. Food was a once-a-day affair in the home of some local family whose contribution to the yeshiva was keeping a student alive. They didn’t come to gain weight. They came to study, and study they did. From early morning till nightfall they would be at it, not wasting a minute of precious daylight hours. Night meant studying by candlelight or rehashing what was stored in the memory. Lectures may have taken place every day and they were incredibly deep and complicated. To succeed in such a place required raw intelligence, dedication, and considerable willpower.
Mastery of the Talmud was the primary goal - to know it in the dual dimensions of depth and breadth. The standard printings of the Talmud have over 2700 folios, each loaded with difficult legal and homiletic discussions, supplemented by vast amounts of commentary. It wasn’t unusual for a student to have the entire Talmud committed to memory during teen years. It was fairly rare to know the entire commentary of Rashi. But the real sign of success was when he could penetrate through the maze to the point where he could develop his own novel approaches to whatever section he was learning. This last step was an absolute requirement for teaching.
The secular revolution known as the Enlightenment invaded Eastern European Jewry during the 19th century. There were different approaches to dealing with it. The Hasidim studied Torah and revered the teachings of their Rebbe. By and large, they were unaffected by the Enlightenment. The German and Hungarian Jews either joined in the intellectual and social revolutions and rejected traditional Judaism, or stuck with their traditional lifestyles despite it, or somehow integrated Orthodoxy with modernism. They largely abandoned the old ways. The Lithuanians, and others of similar bent, fought it with intense Torah study. Somewhat surprisingly, the results were rather mixed.
Many found intense Torah study to be sufficient to fend off the temptations of Enlightenment. But many others were drawn to the study of science or the workers’ movements that sprung up periodically in Europe. Communism, socialism, and then Zionism, all competed for minds and hearts of these young Jews. It was a battle that was fought in the study halls and in the social halls. The choice was frequently between being a revolutionary or being a Talmid Chacham. There was little in between.
In the 1880’s a new option opened up for yeshiva students, the option of leaving Eastern Europe altogether and making a new life elsewhere. Though it took decades, the yeshiva system ultimately proved remarkably adept at packing up in one region and reopening in a completely different country and culture. Until sometime after World War I, such a radical move was extremely rare. By 1920, however, certain individuals with daring vision were able to see the writing on the wall and understood that there was no future for Jews in Eastern Europe. Some moved to Israel, some to Western Europe, but most to North America. New York, in particular became both the Jewish capital of the world and the regrouping spot for yeshivot.
Some moved in between the wars, while others were created or recreated after World War II. Among the most famous are the Lakewood Yeshiva in New Jersey, the Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn and Jerusalem, and Ponevezh in B’nei Brak, Israel. Yeshivot now come in every shape and size, some geared for teens, some for young adults, and some for older adults. There are many yeshivot designed to teach Jews who joined Orthodoxy later in life (Baalei T’shuva yeshivot). Both the Reform and Conservative have yeshivot, gearing their programs to emphasize their own unique approaches to Judaism. There are dozens of pre-army yeshivot in Israel, including the ‘Rav Kook’ institutions that integrate yeshiva learning with Zionism. Women have gotten in on the act in recent decades, and dozens of young women’s seminaries (the Orthodox term of choice for the girls’ version of a yeshiva) can be found all over Jerusalem and other cities in Israel.
One particularly interesting variation is Yeshiva University in Manhattan. It was founded 1886 and is a combination of the two words in its title. The university component is similar to any comparable private college, with undergraduate and graduate sections, research departments, and student activities. The yeshiva component resembles the standard format, complete with a full rabbinic staff, intense study hours, a considerable library, and a rabbinic ordination program. For decades, the yeshiva component was guided by a descendent of the Volozhin leadership named Joseph Dov Soloveitchik. He was highly influential in the Modern Orthodox movement, a successor trend to 19th century efforts of the German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. In recent decades Modern Orthodox has emerged as the only real rival to the so-called ‘Haredi’ (ultra-Orthodox) movement as far as being the heir to the yeshiva tradition of Eastern Europe.
Where is all this going? Yeshivot tend not to focus on ultimate question such as the meaning of life and the purpose of existence, considering these matters to be speculation that are beyond the scope of their study. They generally feel that learning the Torah – the Talmud and the Halacha, with smatterings of Mussar and philosophy – is sufficient. Even Bible is relegated to the sidelines in most yeshivot. Some find this focus to be too narrow and insular. Others find it a necessary break from the temptations of the practicality of secular pursuits. In spite of this narrow focus, a surprising amount of creativity can be found in yeshiva teachings. The three essays from this section all deal with topics that have little or no direct relationship with Torah study. Those guys may think that they are just learning Talmud all day long, but in some hidden way, they may be discovering their purpose.
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