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'Harvard' of the Haredim

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

Why has acceptance into the overcrowded, anti-Zionist Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem become the dream of every young ultra-Orthodox American man? Because of the charisma of its directors, scions of the powerful Soloveitchik family - and for its historical tradition of talmudic learning.

On Mea She'arim Street in Jerusalem you can buy a baseball cap with an inscription that is meant as a subversive comment on the current yeshiva reality. "I got accepted to Brisk" the cap announces, "but I learn in the Mir."

The "Brisk" that the cap is referring to - headed by Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik - is the most exclusive yeshiva in the world; American Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) are desperate "to get into Brisk." But unlike the ivy-covered buildings of Harvard or Yale, Brisk has few outward signs of prestige.

Walking into the yeshiva, I am suddenly immersed in a crowd of young men trying to hear Reb Avraham Yehoshua's daily Talmud class. The room is too small to accommodate them: 40 of them have spilled into the hallway, which is framed by coat racks with rows of identical black hats and coats. Finally, Reb Avraham Yehoshua, outspoken, charismatic and known for his sharp tongue, finishes his lesson and departs with a last joke. The crowd laughs raucously.

The Brisk Yeshiva looks like a hundred other Jerusalem institutions. And yet, increasingly over the last decade, reputations, careers - and, most significantly, marriages - hang on whether a young man is accepted there. "The day they announced who got in and who didn't," an American student told me, "a thousand young men were crying."

"For an American, a lot depends on getting in," someone interjects. "If you want to get a top job, or marry the daughter of a wealthy man who will support you while you learn Torah, you have to get into Brisk."

This year, Brisk has become even more crowded; during the last academic year Reb Yehoshua refused to accept new applicants. There was simply no room. Yeshiva heads in America became desperate. Over the last decade, the path of an American ultra-Orthodox male has included studies in an American yeshiva until age 20, and then three years in Israel, preferably at Brisk. Afterward, the young men return to America for marriage and another few years of study, often at the huge Lakewood Yeshiva in New Jersey. The reputation of the "feeder" yeshivas depends on their ability to gain their talented students' admission into Brisk. "If you don't let our boys into Brisk, we might as well close down our yeshivas," the American yeshiva heads cried out. Eventually, Reb Yehoshua caved in, and last fall let in 200 new American students.

Why Brisk? A closer examination of its study hall will yield a clue to the secret. Alongside the Talmud and other standard texts are books you won't find anywhere else. These are samizdat works, bound Xeroxed notebooks full of handwritten commentary. On the covers, a warning: "It is forbidden to copy these pages or to take them outside the study hall."

These notebooks, and their warnings, represent the essence of the prestige of Brisk. They are the unpublished notes from the classes given by the late Rabbi Yitzchak Zev "Velvel" Soloveitchik, known as the "Brisker Rav," the post he held before the Holocaust forced him out of Eastern Europe and to Israel. From his arrival in 1940 until his death in 1959, the Brisker Rav taught a small group of cognoscenti in his home in Jerusalem, keeping his classes exclusive and familial. Although recognized as a master expositor of the revolutionary method of Talmud study introduced by his father, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik, he had no yeshiva and only occasionally intervened in ultra-Orthodox politics, where he was known as a fanatic anti-Zionist and an uncompromising religious purist. He refused to meet David Ben-Gurion, or to take any money from the Israeli government - a policy that is still a major cornerstone of the Brisk mystique today. Among disciples, the rigorous Brisk Talmudic method has become melded with the Rav's rejection of Zionism and opposition to Haredi participation in Israeli politics. Both, exponents of Brisk tell me, are expressions of the quality of clinging ferociously to the truth that Brisk represents.

The Brisker Rav's son, Rabbi Yosef Dov "Beryl" Soloveitchik, continued his father's tradition, teaching at home and in rented facilities. Then, in the late 1970s, as the number of full-time students quadrupled, Brisk began to take on a new role: bestowing a mark of distinction on a select group. Whereas formerly, being a yeshiva student meant being part of a small, scholarly elite, the last quarter-century has seen yeshivas grow into the center of a fully formed society, with tens of thousands of members. Within this world, studying Torah full-time into one's twenties has become a norm.

But if everyone is a scholar, a thorny problem arises. How is society to honor the particularly talented or well-connected? The need arose to demarcate an elite within the elite, a new and privileged caste. Brisk today fulfills this function. "If a prospective bridegroom is a top guy, he should have gone to Brisk," I was told by Rabbi Shimon Meller, author of eight volumes of Brisk history, authorized by the family. "And if he didn't, then the question is why not?"

Radical approach

Why have the purveyors of a 120-year-old Talmudic method been given the power to define the new American Haredi elite? Answering this means reviewing Talmud learning over the past 230 years. In the latter part of the 18th century, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, "the Gaon," began to reshape traditional Jewish learning. Armed with prodigious knowledge and brilliance, he returned its focus to deriving the true meaning of the primary texts: the Talmud and its earliest, medieval commentaries.

The Gaon's most illustrious disciple, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, promoted his interpretation of his master's ideas brilliantly, translating his radical approach to Torah learning into the theology of "Torah l'shma" - Torah for its own sake. Previous generations understood that the Torah was created for the Jewish people, to guide them through the travails of this world toward a godly life. Rabbi Chaim rejected this notion. Responding, some historians contend, to the Hasidic movement and its challenge to scholarly authority, he reversed the hierarchy - declaring, essentially, that the Jewish people had been created for the sake of the Torah. Devotion and intensity in Torah learning became, in Rabbi Chaim's formulation, the central values of religious life. The Talmud, with its concern with areas such as economics and sex, would seem to be oriented toward life in this world. In reality, he said, the learning of Torah affects powerful spiritual changes. Original thinking in this realm has the potency to call new worlds into existence in the heavenly realms.

Whatever was happening in heaven, on earth Rabbi Chaim's ideas did create a new world: that of the first modern yeshiva. The Volozhiner Yeshiva, says Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, a historian of halakha (Jewish religious law) and himself a scion of the Soloveitchik family, would have been inconceivable before Rabbi Chaim's theological revolution. Previously, the great sages had been dispersed in large cities, and yeshivas consisted of small groups of disciples who gathered around them. In contrast, the Volozhin Yeshiva, founded in 1802, was located in a small town and was not subject to communal demands. It aimed to gather together the best minds not for the purpose of guiding the Jewish people, but deepening and expanding the learning of Torah itself.

To the ideology of Torah l'shma and the new kind of yeshiva it had inspired, one more factor was necessary to complete the world of the Lithuanian yeshiva: the new method of analyzing Talmudic discourse developed by Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik - known later in life, after inheriting his father's position, as Reb Chaim Brisk. In retrospect, it almost seems as if the Brisker method was inevitable, called into existence by the new spiritual and institutional territory that Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin had carved out.

Brisk revolution

Defining the exact nature of the Brisk revolution is not easy. Certainly, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik was an extraordinarily gifted teacher, who combined profundity and close analysis with clarity of explication. Yet much of the vocabulary he used is found in earlier sources. The emphasis on seeking an underlying conceptual stratum to explain halakha can also be traced to Soloveitchik's predecessors.

And yet there is no question that Reb Chaim's method of Talmudic analysis is revolutionary, not least because he created a language that could be applied to many different areas of halakha. Like Freud and Marx's terminology, his language mapped out new territories for consciousness to explore. His teachings inspired a generation of wildly creative Torah scholars. Whereas earlier Talmudic geniuses, as Lichtenstein writes, relied on brilliant intuitions that could not be replicated, Reb Chaim's methodology could be learned and disseminated. The sudden explosion of yeshivas at the beginning of the 20th century coincided with the spread of the Brisker method.

Some of Reb Chaim's early opponents, such as Rabbi Yaakov David Vilovsky (the "Ridvaz"), quoted in Shaul Stampfer's "The Lithuanian Yeshiva," accused him of inappropriately introducing scientific attitudes into Talmud study. The Ridvaz compared Reb Chaim's methodology to chemistry because of the way he breaks halakhic dilemmas into their components: "One rabbi invented the study of chemistry ... and this has been very, very bad for us, for it has introduced a foreign spirit from the outside into the oral tradition, which has been handed down to us from our teacher Moses from the mouth of God."

Yet soon it became clear that far from being a harbinger of "foreign" influence, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik's "scientific" method was wedded to a metaphysical stance that rendered everything outside of the Torah irrelevant. Science attempts to comprehend nature without asking why the world is as it is. For him, it was axiomatic that the halakha was the expression of God's transcendent and therefore unfathomable will. At the same time, his razor-sharp inquiries opened up a mesmerizing depth dimension of Talmudic tradition.

Some of Reb Chaim's students, most notably Reb Shimon Shkop, developed philosophical approaches that carried on a dialogue with contemporary ideas. But Reb Chaim himself seems to have absorbed the techniques of scientific analysis to explore a world whose borders were utterly sealed - a parallel universe whose laws related only to themselves, not to the increasingly chaotic reality of Eastern European Jewish life.

By the time Reb Chaim Soloveitchik died in 1918, his methods had spread throughout the world of Lithuanian yeshivas. His elder son, Moshe, immigrated in the 1930s to the United States, where he became dean of Yeshiva University, a position eventually inherited by his son, the renowned Talmudist and philosopher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. This wing of the family, drawn toward Zionism and religious moderation, continues to have a powerful influence on religious Zionist society in Israel and the Diaspora.

Reb Chaim Soloveitchik's second son, Rabbi Isaac Zev "Velvel" Soloveitchik, inherited his father's position in Brisk and also his mantle in the ultra-Orthodox world. Reb Chaim had been famously compassionate and outgoing; Reb Velvel was introverted and reclusive, an aristocratic perfectionist. Reb Chaim had been religiously conservative, but an intellectually revolutionary with a burning curiosity. His son was a purist who concentrated on one, long-neglected area of the Talmud and applied his father's method scrupulously to the text. Whereas Reb Chaim's other students merged his methodology with other modes of study, Reb Velvel and his descendants, Lichtenstein says, emphasized the unbreachable gap between Brisk Torah and all its predecessors.

Tensions explode

Disdainful of the maneuverings that eventually gained Israel's yeshivas the funds and army exemptions that allowed them to flourish, the Briskers were often at odds with the ultra-Orthodox leadership in Israel. In the early 1980s those tensions exploded when Rabbi Malkiel Kotler - grandson of Rabbi Aharon Kotler, a Holocaust refugee and Talmudic genius who had founded the yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, the largest in the world - was called back from Jerusalem after his father's untimely death to take over as dean of his grandfather's yeshiva.

Kotler was married to a granddaughter of Reb Velvel, who had believed that America was a treife medina, unfit for habitation by devout Jews. Kotler's wife refused to go with him to the United States. He sued for divorce, which she would not accept. To annul the 10th-century decree that declared divorce legal only by mutual consent, Kotler had to collect the signatures of 100 rabbis. Rabbi Eliezer Schach, leader of Israel's "moderate" ultra-Orthodox, helped in this effort. His intervention was seen as a rebuke to the Brisker clan's willingness to break up a marriage over extreme religious claims.

Yet despite the tensions, Brisk's significance continued to expand throughout the '80s and '90s. This growth is even more mysterious because the Brisker Rav's successors, including the current one, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik, are not considered groundbreaking scholars. Their main claim to fame is their exacting exposition of their ancestors' teachings.

"The joke about Brisk," one prominent ultra-Orthodox scholar told me, "is that when Rav Avraham Yehoshua coughs during his lesson, he explains that he is coughing because `Grandfather used to cough here, too.'"

A landmark essay written by another Soloveitchik-Yeshiva University historian, Prof. Chaim Soloveitchik, points to one possible explanation for the contemporary cult of Brisk. Called "Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy" and published in Tradition Magazine in 1994, Soloveitchik's essay compares Orthodoxy today with the religious life of Eastern European Jews. He argues that while Jews used to learn how to be Jews naturally, imbibing laws and attitudes from their families, Judaism after the Holocaust has had to reconstruct itself self-consciously, with texts, rather than according to long-standing practices that were the "authenticators" of religious life. Faced with the infiltration of contemporary ideas about the cosmos and the human condition, Orthodoxy - even in Mea She'arim and Bnei Brak - is in a constant, desperate search for authenticity. "Only the texts remained untainted," says Soloveitchik, "and to them alone was submission owed." Texts, however, are difficult to live by. It is thus their interpreters, the master Talmudists, who become, in Soloveitchik's words, "the touchstone of religious authenticity."

In applying his analysis to the Brisk phenomena, it becomes clear that though the Brisk method spread because it sparked decades of unprecedented creativity, the family's current power, however, emanates from contemporary Orthodoxy's thirst for authenticity. Those notebooks, which cannot be studied elsewhere, and the classes in which the Reb coughs - they are the special qualities that Brisk offers. If yeshivas and those scholars who head them have replaced the family as the authenticator of religious attitudes today, the charisma of a family whose zealously guarded secret is a legacy of text interpretation from the greatest Talmudist of the last 150 years becomes significant. Brisk's aura of authenticity is augmented by its extreme political stance: Saturday nights, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua teaches a class in the weekly Torah portion, which serves as a platform for fierce attacks on Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox leadership.

"Briskers don't accept anyone else's authority," says Rabbi Shimon Meller. "American boys come to Brisk to hear these uncompromising ideas, to get their head straight about politics," an American-born Haredi educator says. In the increasingly Zionist world of American Orthodoxy, Brisk is a growing counterforce.

Success means that resentment is brewing, as hinted above. Several ultra-Orthodox scholars complained that the Soloveitchik family's influence has dulled intellectual life. "We're becoming monochromatic," one scholar told me. "A good yeshiva lecture used to include ideas of Reb Shkop, Reb Elchanan Wasserman. Lately it's all Brisk, all the time."

The elitist admission practices also breed resentment. At the Mir Yeshiva, whose 5,000-member student body reflects its flexible admissions policy, young men are eager to talk about who Brisk lets in and why.

"A lot of it is contacts," one says. "If you are in any way related to the Soloveitchik family, then you're in. Also if you're an orphan." "An orphan?" I ask. "Out of compassion?" The boys are not even willing to grant the Briskers that point: "No, because they're worried about violating the biblical injunction, `Thou shalt not oppress an orphan.' It's a law."

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