A Revolution Against Desire

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

The characters in Shmuel Ben-Artzi's new book, "Novardok" (Yedioth Ahronoth publishers), come from another world. There one can find Menahem Sokolovar, who seeks to replace his love for his cousin Hannah with yeshiva studies, and amazes his friends by commiting himself to the yeshiva for life. Yitzhak Lubliner would like to uproot his love of nature and the world for the very same cause, the yeshiva. Naftali Brisker yearns for the spiritual tension of the yeshiva but cannot handle it, and runs away to the Gordonia youth movement, which desecrates the Sabbath and has mixed dancing. And above all is Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, the founder of the Novardok yeshiva, perhaps the most demanding of all, who showed his pupils the way by leaving his family for the strict and uncompromising world of ethics and self-perfection.

Ben-Artzi, 93 (and the father of Sara Netanyahu), is one of the last living students of the original Novardok yeshiva. After the Bolshevik revolution, some branches of the yeshiva moved from Russia to Poland, and in 1929, when he was 15 years old, Ben-Artzi started studying at one of the branches in Poland.

He says all the stories in the book are completely authentic, even if he added some details and dialogues. "What made Novardok unique in the yeshiva world was the emphasis on 'working on values' - not merely studying Torah but correcting imperfections of the soul. Pride was considered to be the worst imperfection, and our goal was a state of 'indifference' - remaining completely unmoved in the face of both praise and criticism."

In order to attain this virtue, the yeshiva students accustomed themselves to self-denigration. "We would go to a pharmacy and request nails, or ask for butter at a haberdashery, in order to get used to not being ashamed. Or we would do things to 'break our will' - we would get meat and potatoes for lunch, and we were supposed to eat the potato and leave the meat."

That is the common denominator of all the characters in the book - they forego their natural desires for the sake of giving up lust and evil inclinations, which, of course, implies a contradiction. Sokolovar, for example, is concerned that commiting his life to the yeshiva might stem from the desired respect he will gain for doing so.

Novardok was the most extreme branch of an intriguing movement that became prevalent among Lithuanian Jews in the 19th century, the Mussar (moral) movement. The Lithuanian yeshivas believed it was not enough to concentrate on Torah study, but that one also had to put a special emphasis on correcting one's personality. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter founded the movement in the 1840s through "houses of mussar" meant to give ordinary Jews a place to handle moral and ethical issues.

Why did the movement spring up at that time? Prof. Immanuel Etkes of the Hebrew University, who studied the movement's history, sees several factors.

"Sometimes individuals awake to a certain subject, with no relation to the period; Rabbi Yisrael Salanter had a great deal of personal sensitivity to matters of morals. In addition, at that time there were elements that enabled the message to be absorbed, in particular the struggle against the Jewish Enlightenment and secularism, which led to a desire for spiritual renewal in the traditional world as well."

In a similar vein, says Shlomo Tikochinsky, a graduate of the Ponevezh yeshiva who is currently writing his doctorate on the Mussar movement, "the movement was born out of a feeling that the religious-secular crisis came from very fine faults in the religious world, which they focused on through virtues."

Rabbi Salanter's activities among elderly bourgeois Jews did not immediately turn into a movement. It was only when some of his pupils started setting up Mussar yeshivas that the message began to seep in, attracting hundreds of students. That was toward the end of the 19th century.

"The yeshivas were meant for young men who by nature were more idealistic and radical, and this was a revolutionary period in Eastern Europe - Communism, Zionism ... The Mussar movement offered Orthodox youngsters a revolution of their own," says Etkes.

The most extreme

The movement set up three central yeshivas representing three different streams. Tikochinsky describes them thus: "The Kelm yeshiva was not a yeshiva but a teachers' college that was part of the Mussar movement. There was strict self-discipline there, and they all worked at a communal farm. The Slobodka yeshiva was set up as the antithesis to Kelm. The yeshiva's founder, Rabbi Natan Zvi Finkel, left Kelm in a huff because of the strict discipline. He did not want to lead a punctilious elite but rather to bring the principle of morals back into all the yeshivas, even if it was his more lenient version. His yeshiva was actually a regular yeshiva with a little more emphasis on studying morals."

The most extreme yeshiva was Novardok. This, no doubt, was due to the personality of its founder, Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Horowitz. In his youth, he was considered a rascal who was often truant, but a chance meeting with Rabbi Salanter (at a relatively late age, when he was already married) led him to leave his family and business and devote himself to studying Torah and morals - despite the vociferous objections of his father and the rabbi. After his wife died, he became even more ascetic. He sent his children to live with other families and became a hermit in the home of a tinsmith, who supplied all his needs. For a year and half, he did not leave his room, not even to go to the synagogue - he observed all the religious precepts there, even blowing the shofar on the Jewish New Year by himself. Eventually he married the tinsmith's daughter, and only later was he persuaded to spread his doctrine through a yeshiva.

From the outside, Novardok's focus on self-perfection seemed insufferable (sometimes the students felt so too, and the tension caused them nervous breakdowns). Every week, pupils would plan their work and then check their progress. Every student had a notebook to monitor his commitments to virtues and conduct. Every few weeks, the students were given a trait to work on, such as austerity or lack of pride.

Every day, the pupils studied from books of morals and held intense conversations about their own flaws. Tikochinsky quotes former Supreme Court justice Moshe Silberg, a graduate of the yeshiva, as saying, "In terms of disregard for the bourgeoisie, property and status, we were more bohemian at Novardok than all the bohemians I have ever met."

Most of the Novardok students perished in the Holocaust (Ben-Artzi dedicates his book to his classmates who died), but others, sent to establish branches of the yeshiva in the United States and Palestine, were saved. Ben-Artzi was one of them: In 1933 he arrived in Palestine to set up a yeshiva in Bnei Brak. But these branches did not last, "mainly because they could not compete with the idealistic spirit of the Zionism of those days and the vision of building the land," says Ben-Artzi. He, like some of his friends, left the yeshiva after a year to work in agriculture, and later joined the Irgun and the Haganah.

Lasting influence

The Mussar movement had two lasting influences for the yeshiva world: "the order of morals," the part of the day devoted to studying books on morality, and the "supervisors" (mashgihim), people responsible for helping students perfect their morals. At one point, some mashgihim - figures like Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler of Ponevezh, Rabbi Eliahu Lopian of Kfar Hasidim, Rabbi Meir Hadash of the Hebron yeshiva, and others - were considered no less significant, perhaps even more so, than the heads of their yeshivas.

Bezalel Cohen, a graduate of the Ponevezh yeshiva, believes that when that period passed, the heyday of the Mussar movement was also over. "The boys don't pay as much attention to the 'order of morals' nowadays. Usually the study takes place shortly before the evening prayer, and according to custom, the boys leave the hall to put on a hat and suit to 'get dressed' for study. But in many cases, they remain there to chat and then simply go back for the prayers. The 'inspectors' have also become much less important figures than the yeshiva heads, and in general yeshivas concentrate more on studying and less on morals."

On the other hand, Tikochinsky believes the movement was successful by virtue of the fact that its messages seeped down deep into the yeshiva world, becoming its spiritual basis. "The concept of the Mussar movement is now the spiritual code of the entire ultra-Orthodox world, certainly in the yeshivas - the need to work on self-perfection, the bookkeeping of retribution and punishment, and particularly the vast presence of the concept of evil inclinations and the need to fight them."



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