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The Vilna Gaon -
Lesson 44

Mitnagdi Character and Chassidic Character

Rav Elyakim Krumbein
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Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin's approach, which we encountered in the last few shiurim, can be described with different terms. One might say that it is complex and dialectical, because it is moves back and forth between the challenge of experiential spiritual achievements on the one hand, and the need to withdraw from them, and to bow humbly and accept the kingdom of Heaven on the other. Alternatively, one might say that it is broad and inclusive as it embraces different extremes of the spiritual life. One would equally be justified in calling it critical, since it demands of the individual that he constantly subject himself and his inclinations to critical examination, in order to keep himself from becoming addicted to a personal spiritual mechanism that would cause him to lose sight of some of his duties as a servant of God. One could also call Rabbi Chayyim's approach ethical, as it demands restraint not only of one's lusts and passions, but also of one's good and holy desires, based on the recognition that they are but tools to serve a higher purpose – the will of the Creator.


Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin's book, in which all of these values find expression, became a best-seller in terms of his day. In the fifty years following its initial publication, it went through six additional printings. We must ask: What did his audience of readers find in the book; what spoke to them? It is unlikely that the many quotations from the Zohar, appearing extensively throughout the book, attracted them in particular. Presumably it was important to them to read an authoritative presentation of the Mitnagdi position, but there were other books that expressed a similar outlook. I suspect that the secret of the book's special attraction is the combination of features that I emphasized in the preceding paragraph. These form the one-time fragrance that rises from Rabbi Chayyim's writing, a fragrance which precisely suited a particular Lithuanian personality that was born out of the struggle with Chassidism. In other words: Rabbi Chayyim's target audience underwent an internal process of change during those traumatic years, and his book corresponds with that change, reflects it, and even strengthens it. This needs further explanation.


The transition from the aggressive defense of the Vilna Gaon and his generation to a more restrained position, which engaged more in clarification than in fighting, could not have taken place without a deep process of maturation and transformation. Indeed, the Chassidim as well moved to new places as they emerged from the difficult period. The hostility abated on both sides of the barrier, both among the Chassidim and among the Lithuanians, and we have already examined several aspects of the growing calm. But the essential change took place specifically on the Lithuanian side. Surely it was the Mitnagdim who ignited the initial fires, who decided to persecute and excommunicate, and who aspired to remove their adversaries from the community. The very term "Mitnaged," meaning "opponent," which naturally stuck to the Lithuanians as a self-evident matter, indicates the extent to which the issue concerned them and defined their identity. It was clear to all that the intensity of the dispute was not symmetrical, and that it was primarily one party that attacked the opposing camp. Therefore, the process that the Mitnagdim underwent, bringing them to lay down their social weapons and continue the confrontation on a strictly ideological level, is of particular significance.


I do not mean to propose here an exaggerated argument, as if the Lithuanian temperament underwent a radical change only as a result of the conflict with the Chassidim. Those traits that characterized Lithuanian Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries probably existed already before that. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the impression that a significant change took place among Lithuanian Jews over the course of a few decades. There is no doubt that the consequences of the process extended far beyond the immediate issue at hand.


The development was threefold: First, the practical quiet that was achieved in a relatively short time; second, ideological solidification of the Lithuanian outlook, dealt with by "Nefesh ha-Chayyim," as we have seen earlier; and finally, and this is the novelty, the Lithuanians forged approaches to life and fundamental values. Typical mental traits were awakened, even if they were not created then out of thin air. The Lithuanian personality emerged from the confrontation, along with the tools that Lithuanian Jewry would regularly rely upon in order to get through the changes that awaited them over the next hundred and fifty years.


The struggle generates change


Let us elaborate upon this change. In the year 5532 (1772), Lithuanian Jews wake up to the sounds of emergency alarms warning against what appeared to be an impending disaster, and to the presence of a threatening opponent whose nature was still unknown. All that they know is that they must defend themselves and all that is dear to them, without knowing exactly who they were fighting against, what are their strengths and weaknesses, and what precisely is so threatening about them. All this they have to take in and learn while the events are taking place.


The initial institutional response is defense and fortification. The Mitnagdim raise walls, burn books, and reject the suspects. The line that they adopt is extreme and uniform. The value of religious experience and the attempts to serve God in new, extra-halakhic ways are rejected outright. The image of the Vilna Gaon, in his popular perception as a reclusive scholar, engaged exclusively in Torah study, is seen fit to lead the counterattack.


Then comes the next stage. A new sun shines from "Nefesh ha-Chayyim," and the Gra's contribution - after his death - is now different. With his methods of study, the Gra raises the glory of the Torah and brings it to new levels that nobody would have imagined. Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin continues this spirit in the fourth section of his book (we did not expand upon this section in these shiurim[1]), where he sings a spectacular song of praise to the Torah. The Torah's status is strong and deeply-rooted, and nobody can threaten it. From now on there is no need for defense, and panic is really unnecessary. One can embrace the values ​​of the Chassidic movement, and it is precisely that embrace that will allow for control, proper dosage, and restraint. You can take your time and learn new things that come from the outside, and also reveal useful and interesting things in them, provided that you know the secret of balance.


Their long-standing familiarity with the positions of the Chassidim impressed the Lithuanians and also calmed them. It impressed them, because there was something positive in them; and it calmed them, because the Mitnagdim learned that despite everything, they are not going to disappear. It became clear that containing their opponents was possible.


Rabbi Kook, a disciple of the Netziv of Volozhin, formulated a general policy for addressing ideological threats to Judaism: Do not fight against them, but rather contain them.[2] According to the principle that he established, the initial response need not be a counterattack, but rather building a higher "palace of Torah," in such a way that it nullifies the pressure and the threat. Then, when you are not acting under pressure, you can examine the issues on their own merits. Rabbi Kook can take credit for drafting the principle, but the literary precedent is found already in "Nefesh ha-Chayyim," where we find this way of dealing with threats applied broadly.[3] One who studies "Nefesh ha-Chayyim"will see that the author also adopted this approach in other contexts that are not noted here by us. Rabbi Chayyim and Rabbi Kook's endeavors are on the conceptual plain, but their approach rests on basic Lithuanian intuition. The hallmarks of this intuition are dialectical thinking, rational criticism, complexity and moderation.


Rabbi Baruch Epstein, writing about those who studied in Volozhin during the period of the Netziv, asserts that the method of Torah study that they absorbed in that institution taught them how to relate in general to life's questions, including "different fields of knowledge, worldly matters, proper conduct, and every matter and event in life." For this reason the graduates of Volozhin were not only great in Torah, but also people with "straightforward logic… welcomed and well-liked by people in general, investigating all matters and discussing everything with an understanding heart and just reason, with calm and with moderation, and they also speak of peace, love, and respect for every individual as an individual." Volozhin, as he knew it, was "a school for improving character and acquiring human perfection."[4]


Expressions of the Lithuanian spirit


Important and fateful phenomena in the Lithuanian world were influenced by this development, and it is highly doubtful that they would have come into existence without it. First of all, let us mention a scholarly phenomenon, one that is related to the experience of Torah study in the Lithuanian Yeshivot: Rabbi Chayyim of Brisk's revolutionary approach to Talmudic analysis. This approach wields critical force in the Torah world to this very day. Its outstanding characteristic is the "distinction" (chakira): Proposing two possible ways of understanding every phenomenon and examining their ramifications. This approach injected the idea that "this and that are the words of the living God" into the talmudic arguments at an unprecedented level. It freed Talmud study from subjection to decisive study that strives to clarify the one truth. Issuing clear halakhic rulings ceased to be the highest aspiration in the process of Torah study. From now on the quality of understanding, and delving to the depths of the issue at hand, is essential. The goal is to justify all the opinions and to explain all the possibilities with maximum clarity. The Brisker method of Torah study hallowed dialectical thinking and saw in it the translation into practice of the ideal of "studying Torah for its own sake." It quickly conquered Volozhin, where it first appeared, and within a short time dragged the other Yeshivot along with it, by virtue of its suitability for the young minds of Lithuanian Jewry.[5]


The Lithuanians also came with their characteristic approach when they related to community issues. One of the burning issues among nineteenth century Jewry was the Enlightenment. The possibility of studying literature and general studies was perceived by many as a lurking danger, a sort of demonic temptation that threatened the religious integrity of the generation and of the individual. In Lithuania as well many saw matters in this manner. But nevertheless, it was precisely among a considerable portion of the greatest and most diligent Torah scholars that we find tolerance and even encouragement to openness to these worlds outside the Torah. Great Torah scholars, such as Rabbis Yehoshua Heschel Levine, Yitzhak Yaakov Reiness, and Shelomo Poliatzek worked towards introducing general studies into the Yeshivot. One of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter's main disciples, Rabbi Shimcha Siessel Ziv, included secular studies in his Yeshiva.


We learn from the memoirs of people who studied at Volozhin starting from the eighteen eighties that it was accepted that a student studying at that venerable institution would dedicate a small portion of his time to general literature. Chayyim Nachman Bialik, during his brief period of study at Volozhin, enjoyed a respectable status there, and when he left the Yeshiva in order to occupy himself with literature and poetry, he was escorted by hundreds of students who sent him off with their blessings. All Volozhin students were primarily students of Talmud and Jewish law with great diligence. This was the purpose of the institution, and someone who was unable to identify with this had no reason to remain within its walls. The students' openness to the world at large stemmed from the ideas upon which they were raised. They were confident in themselves, and did not think that the Enlightenment threatened them or their lifestyles.


"Going to the extreme"


We will be able to feel the full weight of the Lithuanian approach if we compare it to the opposite tendency which characterized the Chassidim. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk has a well-known saying: "Horses walk down the middle of the road, whereas people walk along the edges." The truth is that his words reflect one of the most important themes in Chassidism already from the beginning: for in many senses, going to the extreme was ingrained in the Chassidic soul. Thus, for example, the Chassidim could not understand how a God-fearing Jew could be interested in secular studies, and they saw the Gra's turning to other subjects as a provocation of the dangerous forces of the Enlightenment.


This characteristic underlies some of the more famous Chassidic practices, which are essentially stringencies not mentioned by the earlier authorities, and Chassidism effectively created them. A halakhic rationale can be offered for each and every one of them. But their cumulative practical expression indicates that in addition to the immediate halakhic motivation, there is a profound spiritual striving: going to the extreme in one's service of God.


For example, the Chassidim famously go about wearing silk garments. Chassidim began to wear silk because of their meticulousness about not wearing woolen clothing at all, because of a concern that a linen thread may have been sewn into the wool garment, thereby prohibiting it as sha’atnez. The Chida, living in Eretz Israel, was a witnesses to the beginning of the Aliya of the Chassidim, and he asked them about the practice of wearing silk. He reports the story in his flowery language:


Years ago a band of scribes came from a foreign land to settle in Eretz Israel. Two of them were Rabbis who sanctified and purified themselves in a meticulous manner. All could see that they dressed themselves from head to toe in silk, and I asked these Rabbis to explain the practice… The Rabbis said that in their opinion linen threads are woven into all the woolen garments in the world, and they are sha’atnez. Therefore they treat all woolen garments in all places as sha’atnez. This is what they said. From that point on a fire burned within me, but not one of the Rabbis or pious men of our holy city was concerned about this, for in all corners of the world Jews wear woolen garments from all places as is well-known. (Birkei YosefYoreh De'a 299)


Later in his discussion, the Chida proves that this stringency is based on an error, and therefore it has no place, but nevertheless the Chassidim were exceedingly meticulous about this. Someone wearing wool was not permitted to serve as a chazzan, and a person who could not afford to dress himself in silk, wore garments made of cotton.[6]For our purposes it is important to see how fear of committing a sin led to extreme and demonstrative action – the creation of an entirely new "fashion" in dress, which contributed to their image as people who "sanctify and purify themselves in a meticulous manner."


In similar fashion, the Chassidim adopted the practice of not eating matza shruya, "soaked matza," on Pesach. This practice requires that one be careful throughout the holiday that the matza not come into contact with water. One must remember that the Pesach menu in Eastern Europe was very limited. Food plays an important role in creating a holiday atmosphere, not to mention its importance for the observance of the halakhic obligation of rejoicing on the festival. Not only did the prohibition of matza shruya exclude adding matza crumbs to soup; it seriously restricted the types of dishes that could be prepared.


Rabbi Shneur Zalma of Liadi explained the urgency of this stringency from a halakhic perspective.[7] Contact with water is liable to turn the matza into chametz. Even though by strict law baked matzot can no longer become chametz, there is concern that perhaps unbaked flour, not visible to the eye, became stuck to the matza. After all the explanations, this stringency joins the general upheaval in lifestyle that characterized Chassidism.


Another innovation of Chassidism relates to the procedure of ritual slaughter. The reference is to the introduction of a new type of slaughtering knife that had not been in use in Eastern Europe. We are dealing with a "polished" knife, which according to all accounts was unique in that it was exceedingly sharp. The advantage of a sharp knife is that it lessens the concern that the slaughterer will exert pressure during the slaughter, something that could disqualify the procedure. The Mitnagdim, however, argued that the extreme sharpness increased the likelihood that the knife would become nicked, and this too could disqualify the slaughter. The Mitnagdim objected to the denigration of and slander against the age-old customary practice. One of them asked: "What did [the Chassidim] see in this foolishness, unless they are behaving this way only to boast and brag before the rest of the world that they are meticulous about the commandments."[8] If we remove from his words the charge that the Chassidim were trying to make an impression, we can identify here the opportunity that the Chassidim seized to act in accordance with their inner inclinations, to be meticulous "to the extreme" and bring their knives to maximum and unprecedented sharpness.


The Chassidic custom regarding shaving the corners (pe'ot) of one's head and of one's beard fit in with this general approach. While Halakha demands that one not shave those "corners," the Chassidim took this to the extreme – and refrained from "touching" them in order to shorten them, and some did not even comb them. In this case as well it is possible to justify the practice with a local explanation, for such a practice is mentioned in the Zohar, but it is difficult to ignore the fact that the custom accords with the general Chassidic inclination to "go to the extreme."


The typical "Chassidic" look is completed with the almost total shaving of the most of the head, which highlights the presence of those "mitzva" hairs, which must not be touched adversely. The Chassidim have adopted the practice of "chalaka,"[9] cutting a boy's hair for the first time after he turns three years old, and leaving his ear-locks intact. The ritual is generally performed on Lag Ba'Omer, the fire holiday, outside the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. It is difficult not to see the parallel between this ceremony and the ritual performed in the Temple marking the end of Naziriteship, in which the Nazirite shaved off his hair and burned it in fire.[10] This parallel likely points to the admiration that was felt for the path of the Nazirite, a path of absolute dedication and of walking against the tide, to observe stringencies that go far beyond the basic requirements of the Torah.[11]


Two lights flashed and illuminated the way for the Jewish people, after the two sides stopped wrestling with each other. On the one hand, the Chassidic light in burning red, intensive and penetrating like the ray of a laser. On the other hand, the Mitnagdi light, blue and clear, understated, contemplative, analytical and considering. But for the Lithuanians this was a process that took time. At the beginning of the struggle, the Mitnagdim also reacted strongly and with stubborn adherence to their traditional positions. Only afterwards did an entirely different character make its appearance, a spirit of inclusion and balance of values, of openness and moderation in relation to new ideas.


Perhaps this very change demonstrates once again how the Mitnagdim defined themselves against the backdrop of distancing themselves from the ways of the Chassidim. Perhaps their criticism of their opponents' methods and results led them to internalize other manners, totally opposite to them. Only after the gap and the distance between them became crystalized, could the two sides begin to consider each other in a more relaxed manner.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] See the series of VBM shiurim on "Torah Lishmah."

[2] Iggerot ha-Ra'aya, I, 134.

[3] In other matters as well, it is evident that Rabbi Kook's thought is a continuation of that of Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin. But this is not the forum to expand upon the matter.

[4] Mekor Barukh, IV, p. 1770.

[5] Rabbi Chayyim's success also stemmed from the fact that the younger generation viewed his approach as "scientific" method. At the time science was in great vogue, and admired even in Volozhin, as is evident from the next paragraph.

[6] In those days cotton was an unusual material coming from the Far East. Regarding the practice, see Responsa Chatam Sofer, Orach Chayyim 15, where it is rejected. On the other hand, see Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, the first Admor of Hungary, who adopted it with full force (Responsa Heshiv MosheOrach Chayyim 7). Needless to say, silk garments continue to enjoy importance among the Chassidim, even though the concern about sha'atnez has been long forgotten, and they no longer refrain from wearing woolen clothing.

[7] See the responsa at the end of Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav, no. 6.

[8] Rabbi Avraham Katzenelbogen of Brisk, cited by A. Wertheim, Halakhot ve-Halikhot be-Chassidut, p. 201.

[9] The custom is first mentioned by Rabbi Chayyim Vital in Sefer ha-Kavanot, who reports a tradition that the Ari observed this practice with his young son next to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, but Rabbi Chayyim Vital himself refrains from supporting the custom unequivocally. In any event we are dealing with a practice that spread among Oriental Jewry, while in Eastern Europe it was primarily the Chassidim who adopted it. Today the practice is prevalent even among Ashkenazim who are not Chassidim.

[10] The comparison between the chalaka ritual and the Naziriteship ceremony stands out already in the earliest source (Responsa Radbaz II, 208). It is related there about a person who took an oath to perform his son's chalaka ritual outside the tomb of the prophet Shemuel. The Radbaz notes that contributions (nedarim u-nedavot)are generally brought along with the child, and that silver in the weight of the hair is also contributed "for the sake of the place (where the ritual is held) to burn wax and oil and other needs." We find here elements common to Naziriteship: The Halakha allows a father to take a vow of Naziriteship for his son; the hair is shaved off and "burned," since the money that replaces the hair is used primarily for lighting candles; the Nazirite brings free-will offerings (nedarim u-nedavot – Bemidbar 6:21), parallel to the contributions made at the chalaka ceremony. The Radbaz understood this well, and therefore when he argues that the vow has no halakhic validity, his first efforts are to prove that here there is not a trace of true Naziriteship. This source also implies that the tomb of the prophet Shemuel served as an accepted venue for the ceremony. Presumably this is connected to the fact that Shemuel's mother brought him as a child to the Mishkan in Shilo and dedicated him to God's service, but for our purposes it should also be remembered that according to one opinion Shemuel was a Nazirite from his childhood (Mishna, Nazir 9:5).

[11] Mention should be made of another feature common to several of the examples brought here: Turning a prohibition into a positive service of God. According to the usual understanding, a negative commandment is observed passively; it does not contain positive value, but merely prevents spiritual damage. Thus, for example, it is related that Rabbi Chayyim of Brisk's son, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev, asked about the chalaka ceremony: What room is there to celebrate the observance of a negative commandment? Do we celebrate not eating non-kosher animals? But Chassidism implemented a change precisely with regard to this point. The style of haircuts and clothing, which is based on avoidance of various prohibitions, became a type of Divine service in itself. So too the meticulousness about the slaughtering knife is connected to a change in perception regarding the act of slaughtering: From an action meant to overcome the prohibition against eating a neveila to a positive mode of Divine service similar to the offering of a sacrifice. This last idea is broadly expanded upon in Chassidic literature.

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