Commentary Magazine


The World of the Yeshiva, by William B. Helmreich

Anti-Modernists

The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry.
by William B. Helmreich.
Macmillan/The Free Press. 412 pp. $19.95.

Until recent years, Orthodox Judaism has been considered a negligible factor in the American Jewish experience—and for good reason. In the I9th century, the trend toward Reform dominated the religious beliefs and practices of the Central European Jews who settled here in the decades before and after the Civil War, and in the 20th century, particularly in the decades shortly after World War II, Conservative Judaism tended to become the preponderant religious mode of Eastern European immigrants and their children. Within the last quarter of a century, however, both these trends—essentially efforts to modernize an ancient faith—appear to have been weakened. While Orthodoxy is still in the minority position in terms of numbers, it has made striking gains on the American Jewish scene. What is more, the sector of Orthodoxy that has advanced the farthest is its “right wing,” sometimes known as the ultra-Orthodox.

Central to this revitalization has been the yeshiva, an institution commonly, albeit mistakenly, regarded as an instrument for the training of rabbis; it is in reality a schooling process for Orthodox males who aspire to live a life bounded by the Torah and Halakhah, Jewish religious law. In The World of the Yeshiva, the sociologist William B. Helmreich provides a history of the yeshiva movement in the United States and an analysis of the relationship between this institution and the resurgence of Orthodoxy.

Although of ancient origins, the yeshiva, as we know it, is directly the product of Lithuanian Jewry. A century and a half ago, numerous such institutions existed to train young men for a life of study and observance. The central feature of their educational philosophy, as Helmreich notes, was “the idea of Torah lishmo—study for its own sake or, more precisely, for a higher spiritual purpose. . . . The guiding motive was to attain knowledge as an end in itself, not spiritual ecstasy or the acquisition of practical skills.” This model of learning is still alive in the yeshiva functioning in the United States today.

Prior to the 1940’s, only a few yeshivas existed in the United States, most of them with small enrollments and almost all in financial straits. Two of them fostered a “modern” interpretation of Orthodoxy, permitting and even encouraging the study of secular subjects on the college level. The first of these was the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York, which came to maturity under the leadership of Bernard Revel. The second, less influential, was the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago. Then there were the handful of small, anti-modernist yeshivas, which in time were to be of greater influence on the “rightist” course taken by American Orthodoxy. One, under the leadership of the charismatic Rabbi Yehudah Levenberg, was located in New Haven and later in Cleveland; another, Ner Israel, in Baltimore, an offshoot of the Cleveland yeshiva, was under the guidance of the erudite Rabbi Yaakov Ruderman; and there were several in New York City, most importantly the Mesivta Torah Vodaath in Williamsburg under the leadership of Shraga Feivel Mend-lowitz, who, while disdaining a rabbinical title, did more than any single individual to establish the institutional and ideological foundations for the Orthodox revival of the postwar era.

The proliferation of yeshivas in the United States and their increasingly “right-wing” coloration came about partly as a result of the arrival here of several major rabbinic figures of Lithuanian Jewry in the years just prior to World War II. These émigrés shunned what they considered the intellectual liberalism and social permissiveness of the Orthodox “modernists.” They inculcated in their disciples a level of talmudic learning, a style of life, and an ideology that had more in common with 19th-century Volozhin than with 20th-century New York. In the first two decades after World War II, hundreds of day schools and dozens of yeshivas of higher learning were established by these émigrés and their students, attracting, for periods of prolonged and intense study, thousands of young men seeking to identify themselves with the new Orthodoxy. By the 70’s, the Lithuanian yeshivas had assumed a central role within the Orthodox community, fostering patterns of behavior and thought that affected Orthodoxy as a whole.

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Central to the yeshiva curriculum is the study of the Talmud; crucial to its distinctiveness as an institution is the personality and world view of its head, the rosh yeshiva.

The Talmud is studied according to canons of logic developed over the centuries. In chavrusas or partnerships in which pairs of students come together for an initial preparation of assignments, in classes, and in weekly lectures given by the rosh yeshiva, the text is explored, explained, and analyzed within a context, as Helmreich states, of “verbal jousting that seeks to introduce hidden meanings and to provide interpretations, often of a novel nature, to an often complex and intricate text.” As Helmreich notes, albeit insufficiently, there are also implicit limitations to this method of study, bounds beyond which the dialogue cannot be taken and which are firmly and quickly communicated to the student by the magisterial authority of the rosh yeshiva.

Qualifications for this post are several: talmudic erudition of the highest order, piety, a suitable degree of charisma, fund-raising skill, and, if possible, administrative competence. Quite clearly, a particular rosh yeshiva will be stronger in one area than in others. Yeshiva heads will differ, too, in the impact of their personality and ideology on a yeshiva program. The late Rabbi Aharon Kotler, head of the Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey (the “Harvard” of the American yeshivas), exacted obedience through the awesome incisiveness he brought to bear upon any subject under discussion, textual or ideological. Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz made his mark through his ability to combine the visionary and the practicable. Rabbi E.M. Bloch and Rabbi Mordecai Katz of the Telshe Yeshiva won their authority by successfully replicating a Lithuanian regimen in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, now in his eighties, reigns supreme by virtue of a sagacity that borders on saintliness.

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Helmreich’s volume is an informative, comprehensive treatment of a singular and relatively obscure institution in American Jewish life. Many aspects of yeshiva life are dealt with here: history and structure; ideological and programmatic currents; the socioeconomic and subethnic makeup of student bodies; the path to success in a yeshiva; deviance; and the impact of the yeshiva on subsequent occupations and careers. Although the topics are dealt with judiciously, Helmreich’s approach is, at times, more comprehensive than incisive. A model of academic sociology—replete with statistical data, interviews, and participant-observation—The World of the Yeshiva is analytically a bit thin.

One problem is Helmreich’s otherwise laudable reverence for his subject, an attitude which leads him to take words and actions at face value. Another is his reluctance to explore fully the latent meanings of yeshiva rituals and practices—the way the daily and yearly schedule is formed, the “pairing” of students, the discourses on morals and ethics provided on a weekly basis by the spiritual supervisor of the yeshiva. On the other hand, he does grapple with some success with the main paradox raised by the proliferation of yeshivas and their students in today’s highly secular and permissive society, and, indeed, by the growing influence and strength of Orthodoxy’s radical right wing.

One major element behind this phenomenon has already been noted: the arrival of men with established skills and reputations and possessing a firm notion, based on their experience in Europe, of how to deal with the challenges of secularism. In contrast to earlier Orthodox leaders in this country, who tended to be defensive about their ability to maintain the levels of Jewish literacy and observance they had left behind in Europe, the Lithuanian yeshiva heads came with a sense of cultural superiority to modernism in both its Jewish and non-Jewish guises, and with a vision of Orthodoxy as a force independent of either.

In time, this right-wing elite drew into its ranks other segments of the Jewish community: those among the earlier immigrants who had never abandoned the values and traditions of piety and learning that flourished in Eastern Europe; some of their more Americanized counterparts, largely in the Young Israel movement; refugees from the Holocaust and their children; the offspring of Hasidic families; and, finally, children of committed “modernists” who, in a strange amalgam of rebellion and conformity, have found prolonged study in a right-wing yeshiva to be an instrument through which they can at once chastise their parents for “laxity” and, at the same time, fulfill their parents’ religious commitments.

All of this, moreover, has come about in an era of unparalleled prosperity and opportunity, enabling young men to study for extended periods of time before establishing themselves professionally or entering the business world. This, one might say, has been the “American” contribution to the success of Orthodoxy. Also helpful in the advance of right-wing Orthodoxy has been the new pluralism of American life generally and the increased appreciation for ethnic distinctiveness in particular.

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One might think, then, that ultra-Orthodoxy has a rosy future ahead of it. It is certainly true that Orthodox “modernists” are currently on the defensive, while the movement’s right wing displays striking élan. The strength of the Orthodox educational system, the rise in individual affluence, the palpable growth of community pride—all seem to point upward.

This portrait, however, may be a deceptive one. While the “modernists” may be on the defensive, it is equally true that the authoritarian temper which the yeshiva both needs and tends to foster in its disciples is under an ongoing challenge from contemporary trends in American life—its permissiveness, the wide field of professional and economic opportunity it offers, its spirit of secularism, and its cultural and social egalitarianism. Furthermore, the archaism and the insularity of right-wing Orthodoxy, preoccupied as it is with ritual, intolerant of outsiders, subject to bouts of internecine warfare within, and unresolved in its attitude toward the “secular” state of Israel, may turn out to be as costly for the right wing as the struggle with modernity has been for those in Orthodoxy’s liberal camp.

The yeshiva in the last century has come to serve, along with the family, as the last refuge of Orthodox Jews. As the authority of Halakhah in Jewish life has declined, the yeshiva has become an instrument for fighting off the threats of modernity. Whether so fragile an institution can serve so large a purpose, or whether the yeshiva will in the end have done little more than create the illusion of renaissance, is a question time alone will answer.

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