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Published by Rudolph C. Klein

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Published by: Rudolph C. Klein on Sep 24, 2013
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A revolution against desire
Yair Sheleg
 The characters in Shmuel Ben-Artzi's new book, "Novardok" (Yedioth Ahronothpublishers), come from another world. There one can find Menahem Sokolovar, whoseeks to replace his love for his cousin Hannah with yeshiva studies, and amazes hisfriends by commiting himself to the yeshiva for life. Yitzhak Lubliner would like touproot his love of nature and the world for the very same cause, the yeshiva. NaftaliBrisker yearns for the spiritual tension of the yeshiva but cannot handle it, and runsaway to the Gordonia youth movement, which desecrates the Sabbath and hasmixed dancing. And above all is Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, the founder of theNovardok yeshiva, perhaps the most demanding of all, who showed his pupils theway by leaving his family for the strict and uncompromising world of ethics and self-perfection.Ben-Artzi, 93 (and the father of Sara Netanyahu), is one of the last living students of the original Novardok yeshiva. After the Bolshevik revolution, some branches of theyeshiva moved from Russia to Poland, and in 1929, when he was 15 years old, Ben-Artzi started studying at one of the branches in Poland.He says all the stories in the book are completely authentic, even if he added somedetails and dialogues. "What made Novardok unique in the yeshiva world was theemphasis on 'working on values' - not merely studying Torah but correctingimperfections of the soul. Pride was considered to be the worst imperfection, and ourgoal was a state of 'indifference' - remaining completely unmoved in the face of bothpraise and criticism."In order to attain this virtue, the yeshiva students accustomed themselves to self-denigration. "We would go to a pharmacy and request nails, or ask for butter at ahaberdashery, in order to get used to not being ashamed. Or we would do things to'break our will' - we would get meat and potatoes for lunch, and we were supposedto eat the potato and leave the meat."That is the common denominator of all the characters in the book - they forego theirnatural desires for the sake of giving up lust and evil inclinations, which, of course,implies a contradiction. Sokolovar, for example, is concerned that commiting his lifeto the yeshiva might stem from the desired respect he will gain for doing so.Novardok was the most extreme branch of an intriguing movement that becameprevalent among Lithuanian Jews in the 19th century, the Mussar (moral)movement. The Lithuanian yeshivas believed it was not enough to concentrate onTorah study, but that one also had to put a special emphasis on correcting one'spersonality. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter founded the movement in the 1840s through"houses of mussar" meant to give ordinary Jews a place to handle moral and ethicalissues.
Why did the movement spring up at that time? Prof. Immanuel Etkes of the HebrewUniversity, who studied the movement's history, sees several factors."Sometimes individuals awake to a certain subject, with no relation to the period;Rabbi Yisrael Salanter had a great deal of personal sensitivity to matters of morals.In addition, at that time there were elements that enabled the message to beabsorbed, in particular the struggle against the Jewish Enlightenment andsecularism, which led to a desire for spiritual renewal in the traditional world aswell."In a similar vein, says Shlomo Tikochinsky, a graduate of the Ponevezh yeshiva whois currently writing his doctorate on the Mussar movement, "the movement was bornout of a feeling that the religious-secular crisis came from very fine faults in thereligious world, which they focused on through virtues."Rabbi Salanter's activities among elderly bourgeois Jews did not immediately turninto a movement. It was only when some of his pupils started setting up Mussaryeshivas that the message began to seep in, attracting hundreds of students. Thatwas toward the end of the 19th century."The yeshivas were meant for young men who by nature were more idealistic andradical, and this was a revolutionary period in Eastern Europe - Communism,Zionism ... The Mussar movement offered Orthodox youngsters a revolution of theirown," says Etkes.
The most extreme
 The movement set up three central yeshivas representing three different streams.Tikochinsky describes them thus: "The Kelm yeshiva was not a yeshiva but ateachers' college that was part of the Mussar movement. There was strict self-discipline there, and they all worked at a communal farm. The Slobodka yeshiva wasset up as the antithesis to Kelm. The yeshiva's founder, Rabbi Natan Zvi Finkel, leftKelm in a huff because of the strict discipline. He did not want to lead a punctiliouselite but rather to bring the principle of morals back into all the yeshivas, even if itwas his more lenient version. His yeshiva was actually a regular yeshiva with a littlemore emphasis on studying morals."The most extreme yeshiva was Novardok. This, no doubt, was due to the personalityof its founder, Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Horowitz. In his youth, he was considered a rascalwho was often truant, but a chance meeting with Rabbi Salanter (at a relatively lateage, when he was already married) led him to leave his family and business anddevote himself to studying Torah and morals - despite the vociferous objections of his father and the rabbi. After his wife died, he became even more ascetic. He senthis children to live with other families and became a hermit in the home of atinsmith, who supplied all his needs. For a year and half, he did not leave his room,not even to go to the synagogue - he observed all the religious precepts there, evenblowing the shofar on the Jewish New Year by himself. Eventually he married the
tinsmith's daughter, and only later was he persuaded to spread his doctrine througha yeshiva.From the outside, Novardok's focus on self-perfection seemed insufferable(sometimes the students felt so too, and the tension caused them nervousbreakdowns). Every week, pupils would plan their work and then check theirprogress. Every student had a notebook to monitor his commitments to virtues andconduct. Every few weeks, the students were given a trait to work on, such asausterity or lack of pride.Every day, the pupils studied from books of morals and held intense conversationsabout their own flaws. Tikochinsky quotes former Supreme Court justice MosheSilberg, a graduate of the yeshiva, as saying, "In terms of disregard for thebourgeoisie, property and status, we were more bohemian at Novardok than all thebohemians I have ever met."Most of the Novardok students perished in the Holocaust (Ben-Artzi dedicates hisbook to his classmates who died), but others, sent to establish branches of theyeshiva in the United States and Palestine, were saved. Ben-Artzi was one of them:In 1933 he arrived in Palestine to set up a yeshiva in Bnei Brak. But these branchesdid not last, "mainly because they could not compete with the idealistic spirit of theZionism of those days and the vision of building the land," says Ben-Artzi. He, likesome of his friends, left the yeshiva after a year to work in agriculture, and later joined the Irgun and the Haganah.
Lasting influence
 The Mussar movement had two lasting influences for the yeshiva world: "the order of morals," the part of the day devoted to studying books on morality, and the"supervisors" (mashgihim), people responsible for helping students perfect theirmorals. At one point, some mashgihim - figures like Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler of Ponevezh, Rabbi Eliahu Lopian of Kfar Hasidim, Rabbi Meir Hadash of the Hebronyeshiva, and others - were considered no less significant, perhaps even more so,than the heads of their yeshivas.Bezalel Cohen, a graduate of the Ponevezh yeshiva, believes that when that periodpassed, the heyday of the Mussar movement was also over. "The boys don't pay asmuch attention to the 'order of morals' nowadays. Usually the study takes placeshortly before the evening prayer, and according to custom, the boys leave the hallto put on a hat and suit to 'get dressed' for study. But in many cases, they remainthere to chat and then simply go back for the prayers. The 'inspectors' have alsobecome much less important figures than the yeshiva heads, and in general yeshivasconcentrate more on studying and less on morals."On the other hand, Tikochinsky believes the movement was successful by virtue of the fact that its messages seeped down deep into the yeshiva world, becoming itsspiritual basis. "The concept of the Mussar movement is now the spiritual code of theentire ultra-Orthodox world, certainly in the yeshivas - the need to work on self-

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