Friday, May 10, 2013

Rav Triebetz: Does Rav Yisroel Salanter have a legacy?

Last night we had a active and at times heated discussion regarding Rav Yisroel Salanter according to the understanding of the Seridei Aish.  The focus was 1) what was Rav Yisroel Salanter trying to accomplish 2) Did he produce any significant change in today's Orthodox World 3) Are there any talmidei chachomim today whose outlook on life can be said to be that of Rav Salanter. 4) The Yeshiva world fought him until they could institutionalize his program and thus render it totally ineffective to what he was trying to accomplish. 5) To what degree did he actually believe in a "frum hashkala" i.e., open minded and empathetic to others - and how much of it was a pragmatic program to save people from the secular haskala. 6) Utilized Prof Steven Pinker description of the ebb and flow of the secular haskala in history to clarify the dynamics of the Mussar movement.

Summary: The focus was understanding what the Seridi Aish wrote here(in translated by Rabbi Leo Jung in Men of the Spirit page 242-247). In essence Rav Yisroel proposed Mussar as a frum haskalah - adopting the lofty ideals, interpersonal sensitivity, tikkun olam of the Englishtment. This was how he was understood by the Maskillim who thought he was a kindred spririt. In fact this was just a tactic which he was ready to discard when it wasn't needed anymore i.e., when the students were safely in yeshiva. Consequently the Mussar Movment of Rav Yisroel doesn't exist in the yeshivos anymore - because it serves no purpose. It now focuses on much more internal states rather than being a movement open to the world of man in all its glory and be concerned with fixing societies problems
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The Kovno years were the years of intellectual founding of the  Mussar method, and of the growing realization that the study of  Mussar must assume its place at the top of Hebrew education.
The Mussar movement, rooted in the desire for spiritual per­fection and the improvement of character, acquired a new factor in Kovno: concern for very survival of Judaism, which was  threatened by the Haskalah movement, whose early romantic  charm had long since passed and which could now be seen in its  furious conspiracy against traditional Judaism. R. Israel's slogan  was: "Fight the Maskilim with their own weapons! Form an all­ Hebrew genuine Haskalah movement and educate rabbis and teachers to spread this pure Hebrew Haskalah among the people!”  It was aimed not at the outside enemy threatening to destroy  the Jewish youths, but rather inwards, to fill that youth with pride  and strength and to render it insusceptible to cultural elements  - alien to the spirit of the Torah. He would say: "If we have strong  minded scholars of our own who will bear the standard of the  Torah with pride and dignity, we need not fear presumptuous  deniers of the faith! Against firm infidels we must pitch a firm and proud Jewry. Rejection of the secular Haskalah alone is not enough! " argued R. Israel. "It is the nature of a new cultural trend to  seep in through small crevices. Fighting it with prohibitions and  excommunications alone will not stem the tide, for the spirit of man is not to be stemmed by mere force  The suppression of the spirit in itself is of no value. It cut short spiritual development and results in but a spiritual sterility  The sole defense against a cultural movement breaking in from  the outside is the establishment of an opposing cultural force, and the opening of doors to a fresh trend of thought, stemming from the very depth of our Jewish soul
“Thus not a war against foreign 'enlightenment', but a war for Hebrew original Haskalah, which means moral perfection, nobility of soul, and lofty ideals. Such a deep-rooted Haskalah need  not fear foreign enlightenment, which is but external polish and technical proficiency, has no roots in Judaism, and cannot satisfy  the yearnings of a Jewish heart.”
R. Israel said also: "The best instrument for communal influence is the the normal behavior of the teacher or instructor. The language most readily understood by the people is that of exemplary  conduct. A great man's influence is in his personality. Sermons  . and speeches can entertain, but they cannot captivate the heart  Only deep and sincere faith, flowing from heart to heart, and  clad in mighty deeds, can work wonders. The Greek philosophers  , considered it sufficient to teach the people what is good or bad  beautiful or evil, to develop in man the understanding of at is  good and right in order to realize the good in life. But history  teaches us that these philosophers had little influence upon their  - people. They remained steeped in their heathen beliefs and immoralities. Why? Because the philosophers were men of thought  but not of faith, too many of them did not practice what they  - preached. The wise teacher can impart a certain amount of knowledge to his listeners, but he cannot educate them. This 'knowledge does not become an organic part of the students. The road from  mind to heart is a very long one. Development of the mind does  not develop man's heart, nor does it enrich his soul or form his  character. The acquisition of knowledge turns a man into a  knowledgeable person, but his spiritual make-up remains as it  was formed when he was born.
"Acquired knowledge remains in the mind without growing  and causes no action. Only an improved personality can conquer.  The inspiration, which comes from soul to soul is the sole factor  in education."
R. Israel did not oppose the study of scientific knowledge  and of foreign tongues. During his long stay in Germany he became friendly with R. Ezriel Hildesheimer, and he praised him to  his students as a lofty and perfect man. He dreamed of introducing a method of "Torah 1m Derekh Eretz (Torah and Fine Mannners)" or "Torah and Modern Education" after the fashion of  German Orthodoxy and worked towards a German translation  of the Talmud, hoping that it might be introduced into the universities as a scientific study within the liberal arts departments.
His appreciation of secular learning notwithstanding, he refused to admit these subjects to the yeshivot. "The yeshivah," he  would say, "is not only a school for Torah studies. It is a forma­  tive home and a fertile field for the growth of the Jewish spirit.  The atmosphere of a yeshivah must be pure of all secular matter.  Not he who completed his studies at a yeshivah can be authorized  to serve as rabbi and teacher, but only he who matured in spirit  so that he may take the yeshivah with him wherever he may go."
"Mental, spiritual and moral training is plentifully provided  by the Torah. Secular learning may be utilized as a source of  income, or in the fulfil1ment of practical needs in social and public  service. Far be it from us to turn this secular learning into a  crown of glory; it does not fit those who wear upon their heads  the crown of the Torah. These new rabbis, who graduated from  the state rabbinical schools, take pride in a false crown which  is not theirs. But the Torah crown, in whose name they preach  and through whose strength they rose to their position, is turned  by them into no more than a ceremonial tool, useful only to the  extent of its serviceability in religious ceremonies."
Apparently it was this attitude of R. Israel's towards secular  learning, regarding it not as "heavenly enlightenment" but solely  as source of practical and technical ability, that caused the Maskilim, who, at first, had respected him, to turn against him and  become his violent opponents. They did not dare belittle or attack  him during his lifetime. But after his death, when the leadership  of the Mussar movement was handed to his disciples, who continued in his ways, the Maskilim launched a bitter attack against  this method. There is good reason to assume that many Maskilim  falsely believed R. Israel to be one of them, or at the very least  akin to them in spirit. They saw in 11im a fighter against all that  was stagnant in Jewish religious life, as they saw the people limit  themselves to physical, mechanical observance of the religion only,  ignoring or neglecting, because of their spiritual poverty, the most  important principle of Judaism, the wisdom of Bahya's "Duties  of the Heart." They saw R. Israel calling for a spiritual renascence, the preparation of the heart, moral purification, improvement of manners, and beautification of the soul. They heard his  new ideas set forth in his sermons and they believed they saw a  religious revolutionary, a seeker of new paths, a religious fighter  who wants to change and rearrange all values of Hebrew life. Such  a man they believed would not object to the introduction of European culture "to the tents of Shem."
The Maskilim were gravely mistaken. They had completely  misunderstood R. Israel. He did not fight against the physical  observance of the religion, but only against the spiritual poverty  caused by it....

1 comment :

  1. Thank you for expanding a bit on the notes. Wish we could hear it all, but at least you're giving us something this time.

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