Saturday, May 18, 2013

Interview with the Brisker Rav: Rav Yisroel Salanter tried being a chassid

This was published by Rabbi Leo Jung in Men of the Spirit page 210-211

*This interview, [by Pinehas Biberfeld] published first in Ha-Neeman, the organ of Israeli Ye­shivah circles, is based on the present writer's recording, from memory, his conversations with Reb Velvele. The answers, deeply engraved upon his heart, are offered here.
[only the last questions are published here]

QUESTION: I know that the Master considers it more important to conduct a Talmud Torah for boys than to issue the "Hanee­man."

The rabbi, as was his wont, ran to the book-case, fetched a copy of the Rambam, where at the end of the Laws about Leprosy the following passage occurs: "But the conversation of the proper Israelite deals only with wisdom and Torah, therefore the Lord helps them and grants them both, as it is said:  "Then they that feared the Lord spoke one with another and the Lord hearkened."

QUESTION: But the Rambam mentions Torah and wisdom, thus obviously there is room for both?

ANSWER: He remained silent.

QUESTION: R. Israel Salanter, too, issued a monthly called Tevunah (Comprehension)?

ANSWER: This is an argument against your point. He stopped the publication very soon. His stopping it indicates that this was not, eventually, his way. He tried many things, among them also the way of Hassidism.

update: There is a much more detailed discussion of Rav Yisroel Salanter's relationship to Chassidus in Rav Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan's sefer בעקבות היראה


  1. I'm surprised that he tried Chassidism and left it. Isn't there room to be a chassid and ball mussar? I don't see the contradiction. All big Rebbes were known to have learned mussar type sefarim like shaarei Teshuvah mesilas yeshorim and chovos halevavos to perfect their middos. I think it was l Rav Pinchos Mikoreitz who learned the chovos halevavos 1000 times and said about himself that he owed a lot of his greatness to this limud.

  2. Does that last sentence refer to R AE Kaplan's Shetei Derekhaim? If so, I do not think it really spells out a relationship as much as a contrast. If not, let me know, I probably have an e-copy I could share of that as well.

    (BTW, the picture next to my name is of RAEK.)

    1. Yes. True it is a contrast - but an important discussion. Would you be interested in writing a guest post regarding Rav Kapalan's article including an explanation why Lita was not receptive to Chassidus but was somewhat accepting of Mussar?

      It is also interesting to note that while the Gra was strongly against Chassidim - apparently was not so regarding haskala. In fact the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe accused the Gra of facilitating the spread of Mendelson's commentary. In addition he was viewed as the spiritual father of the Mussar movement which seemed to be as revolutionary in its own way as Chassidus.

    2. I don't think it's a mystery. Mussar is founded on the writings of the Vilna Gaon. E.g. the title of Even Sheleimah ch. 1 tells us that the essence of Torah is the breaking of [bad] middos. In the next generation, Nefesh haChaim is an ambiguous work depending on how you understand the relationship between the first three she'arim, and the fourth. One way produces the yeshiva movement. Read the other way, and you see how R' Chaim Volozhiner had R' Zundel Salant as a student.

      R' Zundel is the one who noticed a young Yisrael Lipkin trying to stay out of sight as he watched his behavior and meditations in the woods. He set R' Yisrael on the path that would become mussar when he shouted to the youth, "ישראל, לערן מוסר, אז דו זאלסט וערען א ירא שמים — Learn mussar so that you will be one who lives in awe of [the One in] Heaven!” (I don't know Yiddish well enough to know if I remembered the conjugations correctly.) In Nesivos Or, R' Itzele Petersburger writes that Rav Yisrael Salanter called the moment a “thunderbolt” that changed his life.

      So, hashkafically, what divided Mussar from the Yeshiva velt isn't goal, but means. The yeshiva velt believes that learning is metaheir, like a miqvah. (Mashal taken from NhC sha'ar 4) Personal refinement doesn't require a conscious work on middos, because "barasi yeitzer hara, ubarasi Torah tavlin -- I [Hashem says,] created Torah, and I created the Torah to spice it." Mussar believes that it does require a conscious commitment to work on one's middos; to view avodas Hashem as a conscious process of growth.

    3. The gap is thus FAR smaller than that between Litta and chassidus. At worst, Mussar was seen as a waste of time better spent on learning. Not a misdirection in purpose.

      But it did hit opposition. The last volume of R' Dov Katz's history of Mussar (Tenu'as haMussar) is titled Pulmus haMussar. Modern editions, following the general trend to revise history, omit it. The only copy I have I had Lulu print from (Available here.) The primary issue was taking time from learning. This issue led to Kamenetz breaking away from Slbodka as a yeshiva for those who wanted a more normal curriculum. And the matter also led to fights within Telzh.

      But there were those who objected because they saw any change as being Haskalishe. And their arguments were simply about chiddush -- how could mussar be of value if generations of ancestors didn't need it? (An issue the Alter of Novhardok raises in the title lecture of Madreigas haAdam is to explain what he believes changed in RYS's day to require the innovation.)

      I don't think everything quieted down until the Alter of Slabodka sent talmidim out to keep other yeshivos afloat.


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