What is the Meaning and Purpose of Life? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 4

			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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