Evolving Traditions

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Translating an intellectual tradition into another time and place is tricky business. All great scholars live in a specific context, responding to specific challenges and building on certain assumptions. Those who follow in their footsteps in different environments must adapt their tradition in order to adequately follow it. Failing to change is itself a deviation.

In a fascinating essay, R. Elyakim Krumbein discusses the ways in which the Vilna Gaon’s legacy evolved over time in the hands of his followers (link). He compares the attitudes of the Vilna Gaon’s immediate students to those of Volozhin students over half a century later. The results are surprising and telling (link):

A considerable number of the personal memoirs of students of the yeshiva in the last decades of its operation (the yeshiva was closed down in 1892), when the Netziv stood at its head, have come down to our hands. It is difficult to find in them any trace of the moral aspirations that characterize Nefesh Ha-chayyim, aspirations that prominently appear in the writings of R. Chayyim’s disciples who lived a generation or two earlier, e.g., the author of Menucha u-Kedusha, whom we have previously mentioned. It is clear that over the course of time, Torah study turned from a central value – as taught by R. Chayyim – into an exclusive value. We do not find the students at Volozhin during this period dedicating even minimal time or effort to the cultivation of fear of heaven, as was taught in the book of the yeshiva’s founder…

The new climate is strongly felt in the words of a student of the yeshiva, Zalman Epstein, who explicitly relates that among the students of Volozhin during this period, there was no connection whatsoever between Torah study and the fear of heaven. Can a person with such a spiritual position find a common language with R. Chayyim of Volozhin?

What is interesting is that despite this all, the students of Volozhin saw themselves as continuing the tradition established by the Gra. Only that in order to do this they had to “update” their image of the Gra. If we accept the picture painted by this Zalman Epstein, the Gaon of Vilna was venerated in Volozhin not as “the Gaon and Chasid,” as he had been commonly designated, but simply as “the Gaon.” The intellectual approach enjoyed total reign. During this period many young Russian Jews studied in universities, and the students of Volozhin compared their status to that of those who entered the halls of academia…

Do the later figures bear the Gra’s name in vain? It is difficult to provide unequivocal answers to questions of this sort. All that we can do is collect data to the extent possible, consider it, and try to draw a reliable picture of the reality. How are we then to evaluate the reality? Each person must give his own answer.

Read the full essay here: link.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. Very interesting and provocative.

    I wonder, however, how much one can extrapolate re the Yeshiva in general from the memoirs of a number of ex Volozhin students that R. Krumbein referred to, when a significant percentage of them were writers who had departed (in greater or lesser measure) from the path of the Yeshiva. Shouldn’t that raise questions about their credibility and accuracy?

    Even if such writers did not deliberately distort things, nevertheless, if a writer was an activist/Zionist/maskil type, is it not quite possible that he was detached from the talmidim that were more sincere and spiritual? Even in the latter part of Volozhin’s pre 1892 existence you had a talmid there such as Rav A.Y. Kook, who wore tefillin all day and learned. Granted, he was atypical and exceptional, but do you think he was the only person in the entire institution who was into spirituality as well as just learning? Rav Kook was close to the Netziv, who often addresses spirituality in his העמק דבר Torah commentary, which came from daily chumash shiurim he gave in Volozhin. How many attended them I don’t know, but presumably a significant audience did. As is known, in Volozhin there were those who were followed the way of R. Chaim Brisker, which perhaps can be seen as the less spiritual group, the group focused more on ‘academics’ (I hesitate to use such terminology, as in Torah, academics and spirituality are connected, but to make some points I am taking the liberty of doing so), and others who were closer to the Netziv and his way. Perhaps the writers and R. Krumbein were describing more the non Netziv element there.

    Another thing to consider is the effect of the mussar movement. When it came along, it may have brought about an extreme reaction in some that didn’t join it to excessively distance themselves from the ‘spiritual’ side of Yiddishkeit. So that might have contributed to what is described above as well.

  2. I don’t see how the prefacing paragraph has anything to do with the following story. The talmidim in Volozhn didn’t adapt the teachings of the Gra to their generation nor did they keep it like it was handed down to them.

    Once I am on the topic I’ll mention that it is very hard to say the R’ Chaim Volohzner epitomized the Gra. Among the Gra’s talmidim we find three very distinct personalities each said to have absorbed the essence on the Gra. Besides R’ Chaim there was also R’ Mendel Shkelover and R’ Menashe of Ilya.

  3. The same thing has happened with the students of Rav Kook. Even those in Mirkaz HaRav don’t really act like Rav Kook taught.

  4. Hit post too quickly.

    I was excited when making aliyah to try to find a community of people who faithfully follow in Rav Kook’s footsteps, and was saddened when I discovered that no easily recognizable community exists.

  5. or perhaps, as imho may be true of r’ybs, there are once in a (you pick the time period) individuals who hkb”h grants “powers beyond those of mortal men” and their “inheritors” simply can not follow directly in their footsteps due to lack of similar human resources.

  6. “What is interesting is that despite this all, the students of Volozhin saw themselves as continuing the tradition established by the Gra. Only that in order to do this they had to ‘update’ their image of the Gra.”

    Among the changes is that “HaGaon haChassid” and sometimes, in a knock of the opposition “HaGaon haChassid haa’amiti” (the true Chassid, in contrast to the Besh”t’s followers) became “HaGaon R’ Eliyahu” of just “the Gra”.

    So there is an irony even in just how the sentence is worded!

  7. As for the general phenomenon noted by R’ Avi and RJR… I think this is unavoidable.

    The truly great thinkers are people who stand so far above the masses that they aren’t likely to find a follower who can capture the full picture of their teachings. And so, as prior commentors noted, there are numerous versions of the Gra or RAYK or RYBS. It’s also why Chassidus and Mussar immediately split into numerous very different schools.

    It’s not a matter of misrepresentation. It’s an issue of people who lack the full depth of the master only being able to represent a subset of the full picture.

  8. “Among the changes is that “HaGaon haChassid” and sometimes, in a knock of the opposition “HaGaon haChassid haa’amiti” (the true Chassid, in contrast to the Besh”t’s followers) became “HaGaon R’ Eliyahu” of just “the Gra”.”

    I think that this demonstrates little other than the latter is more conducive to normal conversation.

  9. Although if Volozhin would have preserved the part of the Gra’s and R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s legacy that got captured by R’ Zundel Salanter (and passed to R’ Yisrael who turned it into a movement), perhaps he would have been known as the Chra. In reality, the Gra himself held that being a chassid is a greater accomplishment than being a gaon. (See the first pereq of Even Sheleimah.)

  10. It bears mentioning the purported story, IIRC, when R’ Chaim Brisker was asked why mussar was not stressed in Volozhin, and his answer comparing mussar to medicine for a sick person – i.e. to the person who needs that medicine it is of benefit, but to a healthy person it is of detriment, “and my talmidim are all healthy” – or something along those lines.

  11. Among yeshivish circles in general, is it currently the case that Torah (specifically Gemara) study is exalted among everything else, so that anything “spiritual” besides required daily davening (such as personal prayer, meditation or studying mussar) is seen as bitul Torah? I hope not. But if so, this would explain what happened at Volozhin.

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