Religion & Jewish Life

Yeshiva revolution

Shaul Stampfer, one of Israel’s foremost experts on Eastern European Jewry, is the most unlikely of iconoclasts. A thin, quiet, unassuming man, he gives the impression that he would have been happy as a simple melamed (elementary school teacher) in the shtetls he describes. He seems to revel in challenging common assumptions, tweaking conventional wisdom, and making Eastern European Jewry look very different from what everyone seems to think. He does all these things in “Lithuanian Yeshivas of the 19th Century: Creating a Tradition of Learning,” an expanded translation of his masterful 1995 Hebrew book on the subject. Its publication should change the way English-speaking Jews think about what a yeshiva is and ought to be.

In the collective contemporary imagination, yeshivas were bastions of uninterrupted Torah study, respectful awe of great rabbis, and blissful isolation from outside concerns. Stampfer’s meticulous research paints a much more complicated picture.

In the early modern period, European yeshivas were local, semi-formal operations. Students would gather to study with a local rabbi, eating daily meals with some homeowner and sleeping on benches in the synagogue. In 1803, R’ Hayyim of Volozhin started a new kind of institution, separating the yeshiva from the local rabbi. He gathered elite students from the furthest locations, raised funds from an international network of donors, constructed a separate building, offered stipends to cover the young men’s living costs, and provided more comfort in which to study Torah. His model spread rapidly and, albeit with many changes, still dominates yeshiva study worldwide.

But this model had unintended consequences. By concentrating young, energetic, gifted, spiritually intense young men in one place, yeshivas created intellectual and cultural tensions. Even as students learned Torah 12 and 14 hours a day, they actively participated in the great intellectual and ideological battles then engaging Eastern European Jews, arraying traditionalists, assimilationists, Zionists, socialists, and maskilim against each other. And the students were not universally on the side of piety and tradition.

Memoirs abound of young men who arrived innocently in yeshiva only to encounter nontraditional literature and ideas for the first time. In the famed Volozhin yeshiva and elsewhere, some of the boldest students organized underground Haskalah societies, Zionist groups, even student newspapers. Staff members tried to shut them down but had limited success. Some students ignored these dangerous influences, piously continuing their uninterrupted Torah study. But for some, the exposure helped foster other things, like the diverse and complicated intellectual and mystical legacy of a figure like R’ Avraham Isaac Kook. Time spent in Volozhin also set the stage for creative rebellion against religion by some of Zionism’s most influential secularists, such as Hayyim Nahman Bialik.

Yeshivas also bred power struggles between students and staff members. The stipend paid to students for living expenses was not a fixed sum: The rosh yeshiva could diminish it if a student broke rules and acted in ways deemed inappropriate or raise it for good behavior. This discretion gave the administration enormous power over the students—and created resentment. Students were not shy about expressing their frustrations with yeshiva life, at times in creative and even violent ways. One year, when students thought that the rosh yeshiva, R’ Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the famed Netziv), had insulted a student, they refused to offer the Rabbi the usual Shavuot greetings after prayers. The Netziv was forced to apologize. When students in the Telz yeshiva were unhappy with staff appointments, they staged a strike.

Much of this was not much more than the usual power struggle between self-important teenagers and their educators. But some of it also stemmed, ironically, from the student’s enormous respect for the institution of yeshiva. Students were taught an ideal of what yeshiva and Jewish life should be, and that ideal was too cosmically important to be left to the whims and human foibles of the flesh-and-blood rabbis who led the institutions.

Modern yeshivas imagine, nostalgically, that the great Lithuanian yeshivas were just like today’s, but they were not. Today’s yeshivas work to create an atmosphere of submission, not only to Torah but to human rabbis, conventional dress, formulaic social habits, and predigested ideas. Good yeshiva students don’t rock the boat.

After reading Stampfer, I feel nostalgic for something else, something like the stormy nature of the 19th-century yeshivas. I could skip the arrogance and violence, but I’m impressed with these young Torah scholars’ sense of group mission and pride. They wanted a yeshiva not only for followers but for leaders. They studied not only to preserve what was but to envision what would be.

(Yoel Finkelman lives with his wife and five children in Beit Shemesh, Israel. He is the author of “Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.” This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily ( and is reprinted with permission.)