As we began to discuss in the previous letter, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, Hakohen – the Ponevizher Rav – devoted his life to Jewish renewal in a very loving way. The major focus of his loving renewal work in both the Diaspora and Zion was the renewal of Torah study. Under his leadership, Torah educational institutes flourished, and he served as the head of the “yeshiva” – the academy for advanced Torah study – in the town of Ponevizh. In order to gain a deeper understanding of his renewal role, we first need to gain a deeper understanding of the renewal role of a yeshiva. Our discussion will begin by defining the following ancient terms: “yeshiva” and “beis midrash.”
The term “yeshiva” can be translated as, “a place of sitting,” for a yeshiva was a place where people sat and studied the Torah – the Divine Teaching. The term “beis midrash” refers to the tent or the study hall of a yeshiva, and the term can be translated as, “a house of seeking and inquiry.”
There were universal aspects of Torah which were known and preserved by certain righteous and wise individuals before the People of Israel received the Torah at Mount Sinai. For example, we have a tradition that Noah’s son Shem and Shem’s grandson, Ever, established yeshivas where spiritual seekers could study these universal teachings. The Midrash finds an allusion to this tradition in the following biblical statement regarding the spiritual and contemplative nature of our father, Jacob:
“Jacob was a whole man, sitting in tents” (Genesis 25:27).
“Sitting in tents” – The Midrash explains that this phrase refers to the following two tents: “the beis midrash of Shem and the beis midrash of Ever” (Genesis Rabbah 63:10). The classical commentator, Rashi, cites this explanation in his commentary on the above biblical statement.
Regarding the yeshiva, the Talmud cites the following teaching in the name of Rabbi Chamah, the son of Rabbi Chaninah:
“From the days of our ancestors, a yeshiva never stopped existing among our people.” (Yuma 28b).
Rabbi Moses M. Yoshor, the author of the biography, The Chafetz Chaim,” discusses the above teaching of the Talmud, and he mentions that the outer appearance and form of the ancient yeshiva was different in certain ways from the outer appearance and form of the yeshiva which developed in the early 19th century. He adds:
“Nevertheless, its goal and ideal was the same: to implant the Torah and its characteristics in the entire people.” (Page 63)
During the 19th and 20th centuries, many Jews abandoned the Torah; thus, there were families and even communities that were no longer capable of transmitting the Torah to future generations. The role of the yeshiva during this period of growing assimilation was to preserve the teachings and ideals of the Torah so that this spiritual heritage will eventually be renewed by all our people. For example, the previous letter began to discuss why yeshivas and other institutions of Torah study were especially needed for the renewal of our people after the devastation of World War One, and the letter stated:
“During the war, Jews often had to flee their homes due to the invading armies; moreover, in some cities in Russia and Lithuania, anti-Semitic government officials forced the Jews to leave their homes. The war and the wandering devastated many Jewish communities. In addition, most young Jews were unable to get a proper Torah education during this period; thus, many became influenced by various secular ideologies, including socialism, communism, and nationalism.”
As a result of this upheaval, many young Jews were attracted to Jewish groups that were devoted to these secular ideologies and that no longer accepted the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people. The yeshivas therefore became “oases” where the pure teachings and ideals of the Torah could be preserved and eventually renewed by our people. The pure spirit of the yeshivas also influenced other Torah educational institutes that were established under the guidance of our leading sages, including those for girls and young women.
The need for yeshivas and other institutions of Torah education was especially strong in the Land of Zion after the World Zionist Organization assumed power in the Land, for as we discussed, this organization sought to have a commitment to Jewish nationalism replace a commitment to the Torah as the raison d’etre of our people. In order to achieve this goal, the W.Z.O. engaged in major efforts to secularize the Jewish people – a topic for further discussion.
When Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman came to the Land of Zion in 1940, the majority of the Jews in the Land were no longer committed to the Torah; moreover, during that period, there were only a few hundred students in the Land studying in yeshivos gedolos – advanced yeshivas for older students. The need for the renewal power of yeshivas during that period was especially strong when we consider the following reality which is described in the biography of the Chazon Ish, a leading sage in Zion:
“The ravages of World War II reduced the great Torah communities of Eastern Europe to smoldering embers. Gone were the great citadels of Torah learning in Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, and Slovakia. Of the thousands of yeshiva students studying in Eastern Europe at the war’s outbreak, only a fraction survived. Many predicted that advanced Torah learning on the grand scale that had existed before 1939 would be no more. There were few yeshivos gedolos in Eretz Yisrael, fewer still in America and not many more scattered across Western Europe. History has proven these predictions wrong.” (Page 94)
Yes, these predictions were proven wrong, and one of the major reasons was the loving and dedicated efforts of Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman to develop Torah oases which led to spiritual renewal in the Land of Zion. With the help of Hashem, we shall discuss these efforts in upcoming letters.
With love of Torah and blessings of shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Insights and Comments:
1. When Avraham and Sarah – descendants of Shem – emerged as spiritual teachers, they taught aspects of Torah to the people of their generation. The Talmud teaches that Avraham taught the men, and Sarah taught the women (Sanhedrin 99b). The Talmud states in the name of Reish Lakish:
“Whoever teaches his friend’s child Torah, it’s as if he made him, as it is written (concerning the disciples of Avraham and Sarah): ‘the souls they made in Haran’ (Genesis 12:5).”
In Haran, Avraham and Sarah served as teachers and guides to the spiritually-searching men and women of their generation. The commentator, Rashi, in his explanation of the words, “the souls they made,” states that they brought people “under the wings of the Shechinah (Divine Presence).”
Their teachings gave new life to these searching souls, and from the perspective of the Torah, these are “the souls they made in Haran.” Teaching Torah therefore causes the renewal of the human soul.
2. The following observation appears in an article by Rabbi Gershon Weiss about the life of the “mashgiach” – spiritual guide – of the students at Yeshiva Ner Yisrael in Baltimore: Rav Dovid Kronglass:
“There was a time when Torah was transmitted from the senior generation, by way of the collective heart of the entire community, to their children. Today, especially on these shores, communities are too impoverished. The burden of this transmission falls upon the yeshiva, with special stress on its heart.”
The article about Reb Dovid Kronglass appears on the following site:
3. In the 1920’s and 30’s, there was a great Jewish educator by the name of Sarah Schenirer. She was a Chassidic woman who began a movement of Jewish renewal among the young Jewish women of Poland – a movement which spread to other countries. The idolization of western culture among European Jews that began in Germany was spreading to Poland, and thousands of young Jewish women were abandoning their roots. A lack of proper Torah education was the main cause. Before World War I, when Polish Jewish society was more insular, the strong spiritual environment of the home and the community, as well as the “home-schooling” that many girls received, helped give them a strong sense of Jewish identity and pride. But after the traumatic social and political upheavals of World War I, the environment of many Jewish homes and communities was affected by the new secular ideas and movements of that era. The girls were even more affected than the boys, since the boys had the opportunity to study in Torah elementary schools and yeshivas, while the girls in Poland had no formal educational structure. Sarah Schenirer discovered that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch had developed an educational structure for Jewish girls in Germany, and she was inspired to do something similar in Poland. Her goal was to start a network of Torah schools for Jewish girls, and although she initially faced some opposition, she won the support of most of the leading Torah sages of her era, including the Chafetz Chaim. The international chareidi organization, “Agudath Israel,” began to fund her work, and it provided her with a skilled administrator, Dr. Leo (Shmuel) Deutschlander, who was from the community developed by Rabbi Hirsch.
Her first school, which eventually became a movement of schools, was called Bais Yaacov – the House of Jacob – an ancient biblical term for the women of Israel. In a previous series, “My Firstborn Child,” we discussed her accomplishments, and a copy of this letter is available upon request.
4. The biographies, “The Chafetz Chaim” and “The Chazon Ish,” are published by Mesorah Publications: www.artscroll.com