The Yeshiva Movement
Torah is preserved through our knowledge of the Torah. With its knowledge we preserve Judaism, the unity of the Jewish people, and we secure our destiny.
Initially, there are no formal institutions for senior levels of Torah study in Europe. In each village, promising graduates of the local cheder (grade school) study with the Rabbi or they move to larger towns and study with more senior Rabbis. There is no structure and no curriculum. At night, transient students sleep on the benches of the study hall. For food they are guests in local homes.
To meet a changing and challenging world, Rabbi Chaim Voloszen establishes in the early 19th century the first modern Yeshiva, or Torah academy of higher learning. The Yeshiva program is initially intended for the elite. It has a structured schedule and a curriculum.
Rabbi Chaim Voloszen is the chief disciple of the Vilna Gaon. He confides that he sought his teacher's blessing prior to establishing the Yeshiva. The Vilna Gaon refused. He tried a different time and received the blessing, with enthusiastic encouragement. He asked his teacher why this was not forthcoming the first time and was answered that since the proposed institution appeared to be so vital to the preservation of Torah, it needed to be founded with the purest of motives, with selflessness. The Gaon detected a tone of over-enthusiasm from the way that Rabbi Voloszen presented the idea the first time. He was concerned that this suggested a small degree of self-interest so he initially refused to give the blessing.
Hundreds of students study for eighteen hours a day, with great devotion and enthusiasm. They study in one large room called the Bais Hamedrash and they study in pairs. The city and its Jewish life are permeated by the Yeshiva.
Funding from the impoverished Jews of Eastern Europe is limited. In the Voloszen Yeshiva there is not enough room to accommodate everyone in the Bais Hamedrash at one time so they study in shifts, throughout the day and night. There is only one complete set of the Babylonian Talmud in the entire Yeshiva. The volumes are assigned to individual students for them to be subject matter experts for the rest of the students.
In Western Europe, the central Yeshiva is founded in Pressburg by Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known also as the Chasam Sofer. The curriculum includes instruction in Rabbinic skills such as public speaking. The Yeshiva and traditional Judaism are more respected by the government and unlike Eastern Europe, they are able to benefit by being part of the general school system.
Towards the end of the 19th century the Voloszen Yeshiva is given an ultimatum by the hostile Czarist government. Either they introduce secular studies into the curriculum or they must close. Given the ongoing struggle against the Haskala and that the prestigious Yeshiva has come to symbolize the bastion of Jewish tradition, leadership chooses the shut down. This serves as a demonstration of the supremacy of Torah practice and study. The heads of the Yeshiva, the Roshei Hayeshiva, overlook the fact that their own positions are being terminated.
Many of the junior faculty and the students leave the city and establish new Yeshivas elsewhere, spreading the knowledge and spirit of Voloszen throughout Eastern Europe. The dark cloud has a silver lining.
Prior to the Yeshiva movement, the great Torah scholars of Eastern Europe were typically communal Rabbis. With the centralization of Torah knowledge in the Yeshiva, scholars gravitate towards becoming Roshei Hayeshiva and communal Rabbis are Yeshiva graduates. Traditional communal Rabbis come to rely upon the Roshei Yeshiva for complex determinations for Jewish practice. Many seek their advice and respectfully consult senior Roshei Hayeshiva in matters that impact the Jewish people.
There a number of Yeshivas today throughout the world and they continue to faithfully serve all segments of the Jewish people.
One of the more well known Yeshivas in America is Beth Medrash Govoha, founded in Lakewood New Jersey by Rabbi Aharon Kotler, of blessed memory. He had quite a hard time getting the parents of the young men he reached to agree for their son to postpone entering the workforce for several years. Finances for his institution were also precarious. Yet, he persisted and today the Yeshiva is a major center of Torah knowledge.
The story is told of the Yeshiva fund raiser who showed Rabbi Kotler some new stationary that he designed and had printed for the Yeshiva. Rabbi Kotler took a close look at the picture of the Yeshiva building on the letterhead. He insisted that the stationary be reprinted because the drawing had non-existent landscaping in front of the building. He did not want potential donors to be misled from a picture that depicted a building which was more stately than it actually was.
Another major Yeshiva is Ner Israel of Baltimore, founded by Rabbi Jacob I. Ruderman, of blessed memory.
A student remembers having the privilege of helping Rabbi Ruderman pack and move his books. Many months later the student privately asked the Rosh Hayeshiva for permission to do something. Rabbi Ruderman pleaded with the student to withdraw the request. Rabbi Ruderman explained that it was his opinion that granting this particular request was not beneficial for the students long-term goals. However, the Rosh Hayeshiva felt that if pressed, he was obligated to honor the students request out of gratitude to the student for helping him with his books.
The student did not persist. He never knew whether the gratitude would have really forced the Rosh Hayeshiva to grant the request or whether the trait of gratitude motivated Rabbi Ruderman to say no in this very special and loving way.
These American Yeshivas and others like them, such as Torah Vodaas, Telshe, Chaim Berlin, Chofetz Chaim, and Mir were founded by great scholars from Eastern Europe.
Unfortunately, from the post-Holocaust period and on America will have to grow their own Roshei Hayeshivas. Thank G-d they have succeeded in doing so.
The Yeshiva movement is the first of a series of contemporary educational innovations.
Spearheaded by organizations such as Torah Umesorah, American Jewry will establish a network of elementary and high schools that will provide many children with a solid Jewish and general studies background. They preserve Jewish pride and identity. You will find today many professionals, such as physicians, lawyers, scientists, you name it, who hail from a Jewish day school and high school.
Sarah Shnerer will be the first to establish formal schooling for religious women, later to become the Bais Yaakov movement. The innovation initially stirs great controversy but the need and her sincerity draws support from leading Roshei Hayeshiva. They protected her from zealots with the following defense.
During the period of Samuel, the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines. The defeated Jewish army stood helpless and saw from afar that Goliath was removing the tablets of the Ten Commandments from the Ark. This item was so sacred that probably no one in Jewish history had dared to handle them since Moshe (Moses) put them there. A lone soldier by the name of Shaul (later King Shaul) lunged into the enemy camp, grabbed the tables out of Goliaths hands, and ran back.
Now, picture a zealot throwing stones at Shaul during his escape from Goliath. He is overflowing from indignation because Shaul held the holy tablets in his bare hands.
The Rosh Hayeshiva declared that anyone who obstructs the efforts of Sarah Shnerer is of the same caliber as a zealot who would have stoned Shaul.
Today, thank G-d, there are many schools in America and elsewhere where young women can acquire Jewish inspiration, values, and knowledge.
Funding for Jewish education is still a challenge and our educational institutions deserve no-strings priority funding from all segments of the political and organizational spectrum.
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