Innovation Within Torah
adapted from this article
One of Professor Domb's closest friends, Harry Shimmel, eulogized him perceptively bysaying that a person's character can be assessed by his heroes.
Professor Domb believed that the most influential Torah leaders were those who did not hesitate to chart innovative paths and directions to maintain and promote the Torah's values in their own generations. These people had to withstand criticism of their more conservative colleagues and also to imbue their followers with their idealism in order to make a permanent influence on the society around them.
Is it not true that the Torah being Divine and therefore eternal, must oppose the notion of change?
But revolution within the Torah sphere is quite common. Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, Rabbi YisraelSalanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, intimately associated with the philosophy of Torah Im Derech Eretz and Sarah Schnirer, the founder of Bet Yaakov, are all examples of Torah revolutionaries. Rabbi Dr. Isaac Breuer agrees; in a published essay in the Leo Jung collection, 'Jewish Leaders'. [ Leo Jung, ed. Jewish Leaders (New York: Bloch, 1953), p. 163]
He describes Rabbi S. R. Hirsch as the "Legitimate Revolutionary of the Word of G-d".
"Although the Torah does not change, external circumstances do, and it is the task of the Torah revolutionary to show how to apply the eternal Torah principles to the new situation." These are revolutions within tradition, not against it.
It appears that there are four general stages in the development of the Torah revolutionary:
1) Recognising that a new situation and need has arisen.
2) Understanding that help can be found by appllying Torah principles.
3) Being prepared for vigorous opposition.
There is a healthy conservatism in Torah society which opposes innovations until they have proved that they do not lead away from Judaism.
4) Determination, courage, energy, patience and devotion to stand up to and ultimately overcome the opposition.
The Baal Shem Tov
A new situation arose following the debacle of Shabbetai Zevi, the false Messiah. A wave of depression had engulfed the masses of Eastern Europe. The Torah leadership concentrated on intellectual elitism, and became more and more estranged from the Jew in the street and the countryside.
The Besht sought to restore balance; to counter the elitism by emphasizing the value of performing all and any Mitzvos and understanding their value. The Besht was a genius who found ways to illuminate the mind of ordinary Jews simply by appreciating the majesty invested in every Mitzvah.
Although there was nothing radically new in the teachings of the Besht, he initiated the discovery and refurbishment of an ancient pathway that had become desolate and forgotten.
The movement was vigorously opposed by the Torah world, the Vilna Gaon and his colleagues and adherents. The Chasidim faced official bans which forbade other Jews eating of their Shechitah, doing business with them, intermarrying with them and assisting their burial.
Rabbi Ephraim Gastwirth suggests that this harsh opposition may in fact have been the key to its success. The opposition prompted the cause to curb its more fanatical and wayward tendencies, and forced it to purge the rebellious atmosphere that had invaded the movement. Rabbi Gastwirth refers to the Rabbinic maxim (Avot 5:17) "Any controversy that is in the name of Heaven will have a permanent effect."
R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and R.Shneur Zalman, the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch, both great Torah sages, sought an audience with the Vilna Gaon hoping thereby to reduce the aggressive opposition of the Misnagdim which was so great that the Alter Rebbe was imprisoned by the Russian authorities due to the slander of some fellow Jews.
Today, the Chasidic movement, other than by its uniform, is hardly distinguishable from the non-Chassidic world. They accept the view, promoted by the Vilna Gaon, that Torah scholarship is the primary value and the non-Chassidic community now places less emphasis in public promoting scholarly elitism.
The Chafetz Chaim, the outstanding representative of the Misnaged perspective, and the Gerrer Rebbe, communicated a great message to the world when they shared a Torah platform at the Knessia Gedolah of Agudat Yisrael.
Samson Raphael Hirsch: Historical Torah
The guiding principle of Torah Im Derech Eretz is enumerated in the Mishnah Avot 2:2. "Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi says `It is well to combine Torah study with a worldly occupation for the labor demanded by both causes sin to be forgotten; furthermore, all Torah study which is not accompanied by work must end in futility and become the cause of sin."
Prof. Leo Levi has argued convincingly [Leo Levi, Shaarei Talmud Torah (Jerusalem, Feldheim, 1981), Sect. 6] that this is the universal perspective of Chazal. Rabbi Hirsch recognized that inorder to maintain this balance, a change was required because times had changed.
The Reform movement had succeeded in Germany and Rabbi Hirsch determined that to defeat them it was critical to demonstrate that commitment to Torah was in perfect resonance with all wisdoms. However, many Orthodox leaders, most notably the Wurtzburger Rav, R.Seligman Baer Bamberger, objected. Yet many leaders in the orthodox community supported Hirsch; the late Dayan Grunfeld in his book, Three Generations [London: Jewish Post Publications, 1958] documents many of those remarkable figures. And many doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers and businessmen, testified as to how their lives were greatly enhanced by their being imbued with Hirsch's teaching.
In post-war England and America, the Torah im Derech Eretz movement began to take root and movements like the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists attempted to find a synthesis betweenTorah and general knowledge of the mid-twentieth century. There are however attempts to reinterpret Rabbi Hirsch's philosophy suggesting it was a HoRaAs ShaAh (temporary emergency ruling). Such attempts are not uncommon when dealing with the history of Torah revolutionaries. It is an easy way to dismiss the new and revert to the old. However, we have the evidence of Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer, the distinguished grandson of Rabbi Hirsch, founder of the model community, KeHal Adass Yeshurun, in Washington Heights, New York. Rabbi Breuer spoke his mind and in this regard, in an article in Mitteilungen (Aug/Sept 1965) his community's publication, explicated Hirsch's ideals.
Even those with but a fleeting insight into the life and work of Rabbi Hirsch know clearly that his Torah im Derech Eretz formula was not ever a hora'at sha'ah. "Our schools must be governed by the spirit of Torah im Derech Eretz; at no time and under no circumstance may it give up these principles. This is a foundation and is asserted in the constitution of his kehillah.
Rabbi Hirsch in his famed polemical essay against the Breslau Seminary [Collected Writings, vol. VI, p. 392-3): "Ever since beginning our modest contribution to the Jewish cause, it was and remains our wholehearted endeavor to present and advocate the most intimate union between Judaism - total, unadulterated Judaism - and the spirit of all true science and knowledge ... our whole future, with all ideological and social challenges, belongs to full, unabridged Judaism .... The welfare and future of Judaism is secure only in the framework of the most intimate union with the spirit of true science and knowledge of every age. We are the most outspoken foes of false
science and knowledge, those who attempt to lay the axe to the roots of our Jewish sanctuary. We can be a Jew without science but not without Judaism."
But there are attempts to doctor the actual writings of Hirsch: judicious selections, ommissions of words here and there, and other minor changes, in a vain attempt to alter the tone and emphasis. See Prof. Mordechai Breuer (HaMa'ayan,Tishrei 5727).
Bet Yaakov and Sarah Schnirer
We take Sarah Schnirer as our next example since the success of her Bet Yaakov movement was intimately associated with the Torah im Derech Eretz philosophy. To gain appreciation of the conditions of initial growth of the movement it isagain important to go to first-hand sources. Fortunately, there is an excellentessay on Sarah Schnirer by Dr. Judith Rosenbaum-Grunfeld
in the collection
, edited by Rabbi Leo Jung. I have also benef ited greatly frompersonal discussions with Dr. Grunfeld. Dr. Grunfeld was one of Sarah Schnirer'spersonal assistants for several of the crucial early years of the movement. Thereare other accounts by people who knew Sarah Schnirer personally in thememorial Hebrew volume
edited by Yechezkel Rotenberg andpublished by Netzach in 1960.Traditionally, Jewish girls did not receive a formal Jewish education; inaccordance with the guidance given in Psalms 45:14, "The glory of the princess iswithin [the palace]," the principles and practice of Judaism were assimilated inthe home. However, the advent of emancipation and of widespread generalschooling provided a new challenge.The situation of Jewish girls in Poland at the time of World War I is described indetail by Dr. Grunfeld (the accuracy of her account was attested to me by my
to impart knowledge and love of Torah broke through, and the number ofchildren attending increased rapidly. It became impossible for a single person tocarry the load, and in 1923, on her own initiative and with her own meagerresources, she started to train teachers.Twenty-five young girls, none older than sixteen, lived in her two-room flat andwere under her guidance every hour of the day for several months. They allcopied her Vienna notes and a guidebook for teachers which had been compiled.When their training was completed, she would travel with them one at a time toa Jewish population center, organize a public meeting of all the women, start aclass, and leave her pupil behind to manage it.But as the movement grew, she became aware that something moresophisticated would be needed. At this time a curious incident occurred whichhad very positive consequences. She had planned to travel for a few days toHamburg in North Germany, for which she needed to change at Breslau. But shemade a wrong connection and got on the train to Frankfurt in South Germany.The inspector pointed out her error when he came along the train to check herticket, and suggested that she change at the next station. But she decided that theerror was
and that she should carry on to Frankfurt where shehad a number of contacts. She spent ten days in Frankfurt looking at girls'schools and other edu-cational institutions.Sarah Schnirer then realized that her task was to transfer to Poland the system ofJewish girls' education which had been so well developed by the
Torah im DerechEretz
movement in Germany. She persuaded a number of young German teachersto come to Poland and help in her work. Eventually, Dr. Leo Deutschlaender, aHirschian educationist, helped her to establish a proper teachers' trainingseminary. We shall quote from an essay written by Dr. Deutschlaender inmemory of Sarah Schnirer to testify to the influence of Hirsch's writings uponher:Time and time again Sarah Schnirer stated both by word of mouth and in writingthat in those days in Vienna the thoughts and teachings of Samson Rafael Hirschcame to her as a revelation, and that from then onwards she was simplypossessed by the idea of passing the spiritual heritage of Hirsch to the women ofher native country, where she was sure it would fall on fertile ground. There isno need to speak here again of the single-mindedness and the spirit of sacrificewith which Sarah Schnirer carried out her task; for all this is amply proved bythe hundreds of Bet Yaakov schools that exist today and the tens of thousands ofSarah Schnirer's pupils. But it needs to be stressed that no spiritual andintellectual force had an influence on the self-education and the innerdevelopment of the personality of Sarah Schnirer comparable to the writings ofSamson Rafael Hirsch. Hundreds of essays from the collected writings of Hirsch
were copied again and again and distributed in stencil form among the BetYaakov girls; and no other books in the Bet Yaakov library were so much used,and showed the signs of wear and tear to such a degree, as Hirsch'sCommentaries on the Chumash, the Psalms and the Prayer Book, and thevolumes of his "
". Up to the very last month of her life shelectured to her students on Hirsch's
Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel
, which was herfavorite book, and which she loved to study again and again together with herpupils.Dr. Isaac Breuer has reported a conversation with Sarah Schnirer in which shetold him that it was Hirsch's Horeb, dedicated to the sons and daughters of Israel,which influenced her to start Bet Yaakov.But Bet Yaakov did not just copy German Jewish schools. Sarah Schnirer wassensitive to the differences between Poland and Germany
and adaptedappropriately. She tried wherever possible to make Yiddish the language ofinstruction and discussions so as to maintain linguistic contact with the majorcenters of Torah learning in Poland. She herself spoke excellent Polish andGerman and was much less fluent in Yiddish. But in addressing public meetingsshe felt it better to use faulty Yiddish than perfect Polish.The most remarkable feature of the development of Bet Yaakov was, that with somany great and worthy Rabbanim available in Poland, it was a Cracowdressmaker who took the initiative on this vital issue. Two suggestions can bemade in this connection: (a) there can be important matters on which laymen arebetter informed than Rabbanim, (b) in such matters it is often more practical forlaymen to take an initiative.The Bet Yaakov movement could never have achieved permanent successwithout wide Rabbinical support. I have it on good authority that at the outsetSarah Schnirer obtained a blessing from the Belzer Rebbe for her activities. Butshe met with opposition and ridicule in the early days, in the standard patternwe have suggested for Torah revolutionaries. Recognition came later when itwas clear to all that she was making an enormous positive contribution to thespread of Torah culture.
R. Yisrael Salanter and the Mussar Movement
One of the most surprising aspects about R. Yisrael Salanter is that his earliestactivities took place in Vilna. This citadel of Torah, the Jerusalem of Lithuania,creates an image of great Torah scholars, of fine
filled with well-educated laymen, and of the strictest adherence to tradition. But R. Yisrael wasnot satisfied with the superficial image, and investigating more deeply he cameto the conclusion that, whilst the ritual of mitzvot was strictly observed, theethical content was often ignored; that great attention was paid to mitzvot
between man and the Almighty, but those between man and his fellow men weretreated less seriously. The butcher who would be scrupulously careful about anyquestion relating to kashrut would be less worried about charging exorbitantprices for his meat. The leading communal figures who prided them-selves ontheir
(hospitality) showed little consideration for the welfareof their Jewish servants upon whom fell the burden of the work involved inentertaining their guests. The underprivileged members of the society, the poor,the widows and the orphans, were low on the communal priority list. Hence theTorah of this great city was one-sided, and did not reflect the true Sinaitictradition.R. Yisrael Salanter's ideas on the study of Mussar have now been accepted as partof the philosophy of Lithuanian yeshivot. It is difficult to get an appreciation ofthe great struggle in which he had to engage without going to sources as close aspossible to R. Yisrael himself. Fortunately, we do have such sources. R. YechielWeinberg had close personal acquaintance with the disciples of R. Yisrael, andhas recorded his memories in an essay
translated into English in another LeoJung volume, Men of the Spirit. Rav DovKatz has several inspiring chapters on R.Yisrael Salanter, in vol. 1 of his series
, which contains personalreminiscences of aged Jerusalem scholars.
R. Yisrael Salanter clearly falls into the category of Torah revolutionary, and weshall endeavor to trace the five stages of development referred to in theIntroduction. We have already described the new situation in the Torah worldwhich R. Yisrael recognized. He was an out-standing Talmudic scholar—an
(genius)—and he decided to make use of the prestige which he acquired as aresult of his scholarship to put over his very challenging ideas about Torahethics. He never occupied an official post. Both in Vilna and in Kovno he startedyeshivot which attracted pupils of character and ability, and it was they whospread his ideas. In addition, during the Vilna period he served as a
and attracting large audiences, whom he was able toinfluence in the direction of true Torah ethics. Most of all it was the personalexample which he and his disciples set which led to the spread of his teachings.There are hundreds of personal anecdotes which illustrate R. Yisrael's
return tofirst principles in his thought, and his refusal to abide by conventional practice.When his
asked him to recommend specific points of detail which theymight observe in baking
on erev Pesach, he told them that the pointrequiring most detailed attention was to place no undue burdens on the widowwho was in charge of the baking. When on a visit to a neighboring communitythey noted that he used only the minimum
of water for
(washing hands before the meal). He was asked whether there was not a
Leo Jung, "Men of the Spirit", (New York, Kymson, 1964), p.213
Dov Katz, Tenuat Hamussar (Jerusalem 1972)
design—the entrance hall contained a model of the
, the impact ofthe
was breathtaking—and young men from all over Polandstreamed to apply for admission. R. Meir was able to set high standards of entry,and those who were eventually accepted considered themselves very fortunate.Alas, R. Meir Shapira lived on for only a short period after the establishment ofthe yeshivah. The unusual circumstances of his death at the early age of forty-sixwere poignantly described by one of his select talmidim, Dayan Meir Steinberg ofthe London Beth Din.
Faced with the crushing burden of loan payments, R. Meirhad taken out an insurance policy on his own life for the total sum owed. Whenhe passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, the capital debts were wiped out,and the yeshivah could continue with only the problem of current budgeting tobe faced.The example of R. Meir Shapira was emulated by many Torah personalities whenthey undertook the massive task of rebuilding Torah education after theHolocaust. Few would deny that it is one of the factors which has led to thegreater reverence for yeshivot and their students in our own generation
R. Gershon Henoch Leiner: The Thread of Blue in Tzitzit
When we read the third verse of Shema every day relating to
, weencounter the command, "and they shall put on the fringe of each corner a threadof blue." This is a mitzvah which has not been performed for hundreds of years.The Gemara tells us that the dye to be used for the blue thread must be takenfrom a particular marine creature,
, found on the Mediterranean shores;the tradition regarding the identity of this creature was lost hundreds of yearsago, and has not been recovered since.It was a Chasidic Rebbe, the Radziner, who felt impelled to make a supremeeffort to re-establish the mitzvah in our time. R. Gershon Henoch Leinerestablished a reputation as an outstanding Talmudic scholar quite early in life.He also revealed a gift for innovation in his
, in which heconstructed a "gemara" on the extremely difficult and complex Mishnah tractatesof Kelim and Oholot, on which there is neither Babylonian nor Jerusalem Talmud.This was a remarkable
tour de force
, and clearly required intimate knowledge ofthe whole of Shas.R. Leiner felt that with the increase of travel facilities and the growth of scientificknowledge it should now be possible to identify the
. He first searchedthrough all the traditional literature collecting refer-ences of relevance to the
—these were published as a sefer en-titled
Sefunei Temunei Chol
, thephrase in the blessing of Moshe Rabbenu to the tribe of Zevulun which istraditionally taken to refer to this creature. Although R. Leiner had no secular or
Hovevey Torah (Commemorative Brochure at Siyum of 9
Chalukat Hamishna), 1959
scientific training he set off for Naples in the year 5647 (1887) and visitedvarious places on the Mediter-ranean coast including the Aquarium at Naples.After a patient process of elimination, he suggested that the marine creature
seemed to have all the characteristics of the
, and localartists had been using it for many years for their blue paint. He went into actionand manufactured twelve thousand sets of tzitzit with the "
", theblue thread.Now began the struggle to try to convince the Torah world of the correctness ofhis finding. R. Leiner was prepared for a battle. He had coined the phrase fromthe daily service,
oseh chadashot ba'al milchamot
, with a novel interpretation:"One who innovates must be a master of the art of warfare." He published hisfindings and arguments in another sefer,
, which stirred up aconsiderable controversy in the Torah world. He succeeded in convincing oneleading Torah authority, R. Shalom Mordecai Shwadron, of the correctness of hiscase. But his at-tempts to influence R. Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, and otherauthorities were unsuccessful. He argued forcefully against his critics in a thirdbook
, but without practical effect. Even if his identification of
is incorrect (and it has been strongly challenged), his basic thesis that aneffort must be made to re-establish the mitzvah seems convincing.The Radziner Rebbe passed away soon afterwards in 5651 (1891), havingsucceeded only with his own and Braslaver chasidim, who continue to wear thethread of blue on their tzitzit to the present day. His interest in re-establishingthe original mitzvah had been heightened by Kabbalistic associations with theMessianic era, and with the need to use the
for the Holy Garments in the
. His failure to win over the major
may have been duepartly to the feeling (based perhaps on mystical considerations) that the timewas not yet ripe for the re-introduction of the
. But with God's help,when the time does come for this happy event, a major share of the credit willundoubtedly be due to R. Gershon Henoch Leiner
Early Torah Revolutionaries
All of the examples so far have been drawn from recent history. But I should liketo suggest that the Torah revolutionary is a characteristic of all periods in Jewishhistory. Naturally, it is much more difficult to obtain detailed evidence about thedistant past and any identification must be much more tentative. I should like tosuggest that perhaps the greatest Torah revolutionary in Jewish history wasRabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. Living in one of the most difficult periods in Jewishhistory, the era of the destruction of the Second Temple, he realized that it wasnecessary to move the center of the Torah world away from Jerusalem andshowed in many ways how to reorganize Torah life in the absence of the HolyTemple. The story of his interview with the Roman Emperor, and his successful
plea that Yavneh be spared, are related graphically in the Gemara in
56b.But we can glean some information on his personality
from other references tohim in the Talmud Bavli. In Sukkah 28a, we have an interesting and informativedescription of his background. "Hillel the Elder had eighty disciples... the greatest[
] of them was Yonatan ben Uziel, the least [
] of them was Rab-banYochanan ben Zakkai." (From the subsequent description of the Gemara it isfairly clear that
does not mean youngest but rather smallest in spiritualityand knowledge).The Gemara goes on to list how much knowledge this "least" of the disciples ofHillel had acquired: "It was said of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai that he did notleave [unstudied] Scrip-ture, Mishnah, Gemara, Halachah,
] of Torah, details of
kalim vachamurim, gezerot shavot
[hermeneutics], calendar computations,
, utterances ofthe ministering angels, conversation of spirits, language of palm trees, parablesof launderers, parables of foxes, 'great matters' and 'small matters'. 'Greatmatters' mean
[the description of the Divine chariot], whereas'small matters' mean the discussions of Abaye and Rava." Thus he had achievedmastery of Torah in all its ramifications.The Gemara continues: "If the smallest of them was so great, how much more sowas the greatest? They said of Yonatan ben Uziel that when he used to sit andoccupy himself with the study of Torah, any bird that flew near him wasimmediately burnt."We can now ask ourselves who made a more significant contribution to Jewishhistory, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai or Yonatan ben Uziel (or the otherseventy-eight unnamed disciples)? Elsewhere the Talmud ac-cords high praise tothe Aramaic translation and commentary which Yonatan ben Uziel made on theprophetic books of the Bible. But impor-tant as this was, it cannot compare withthe contribution of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, whose efforts ensured thesurvival of the Jewish people during the long exile following the destruction ofthe Temple.Rabbi Meir Cohen of Philadelphia provided me with encouraging support for theabove interpretation. In
, where the chain of historical tradition istraced, the only disciple listed as having received the tradition of Hillel andShammai is R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, not Yonatan ben Uziel nor any of the otherdisciples
Two important conclusions can be drawn from this Gemara:(a) It is not necessarily the leader with the greatest knowledge or
whomakes the most significant contribution to Jewish history.
(b) Not every Jew in the street can lead a Torah revolution. Substantial Torahand halachic knowledge is required; ideally a mastery of the whole of traditionalTorah learning.Another revealing discussion is reported in the Gemara Berachot 28b. WhenRabban Yochanan ben Zakkai became seriously ill (before his death) his disciplescame to visit him. When he saw them he began to weep. His disciples said to him"Lamp of Israel, right-hand pillar, powerful hammer, why are you weeping?" Hereplied "If I were being taken before a human king who is here today andtomorrow in the grave, whose anger, if he is angry with me, does not last forever,and who if he puts me to death does not put me to everlasting death, and whom Ican persuade with words and bribe with money, even so I would weep. Now thatI am being taken before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He,who lives and endures forever and ever, whose anger, if He is angry with me,lasts forever, who if He imprisons me imprisons me forever, who, if He puts meto death, puts me to death forever, whom I cannot persuade with words norbribe with money, and even more, there are two ways before me, one leading toGan Eden and the other to Gehinnom, and I do not know along which I shall betaken—should I not weep?"Is this not very puzzling? Who could have done more for Torah Judaism thanRabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, and what cause should he have to be worriedabout Gehinnom? From this we may learn that any Torah revolutionary musthave feelings of trepidation, since any innovation in Judaism carries the seeds ofdeviation from a true path. Only future history can determine finally whether it isa genuine Torah revolution.This may help us to understand the sequel in the Gemara: "At the time of hispassing away he said 'Remove the vessels so that they shall not become unclean,and prepare a throne for Chizkiyahu the King of Judah who is coming.' " R.Yaakov Emden comments that at this stage he was no longer weeping. Why KingChizkiyahu in particular, and how had Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai beenreassured? Let us remember that Chizkiyahu
had also been a Torahrevolutionary, and he had made daring innovations. He had the courage(
18:4) to destroy the brass snake which had been made by MosheRabbenu, which had been instrumental in effecting a miraculous cure to thosebitten by snakes in the wilderness (
21:9). It was an object enjoyinggreat prestige and had come to be treated with the veneration associated withidol worship. He had hidden away the traditional
Book of Medical Remedies
because he felt that it was not serving a constructive purpose (
56a—Rashi). One can well imagine the strong opposition which these movesengendered among his contemporaries, but his initiative was justified bysubsequent generations, and he has come to be regarded as one of the great
figures of Jewish history. We can therefore see how appropriate it was that heshould meet and reassure an innovator of a later period