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רוחניות מול גשמיות בישיבות הליטאיות = Spirituality and Worldliness in Lithuanian yeshivas

Research output: Working paper

The Lithuanian Yeshiva was originally intended to take in a select minority of students. Many years after the establishment of Israel, and with the intention of fortifying its defenses in the face of secularist, Zionist and socialist influences, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis succeeded in turning Torah learning (in yeshivas, and for older students, in the kollels) into a required norm for all young ultra-Orthodox men. Given the new reality, the yeshivas could not continue absorbing only select students, and much effort was invested into preventing recidivism among weak students. As yeshiva learning became an obligatory norm, a need arose to refine the competition that had characterized the yeshiva world. Competition, particularly for material objects, was described as one of the main maladies of the secular "society of evil." Given the natural limitation of material resources, competition becomes increasingly violent and takes over all realms of life. On the other hand, ultra-Orthodox society and the "world of Torah" in particular are focused on the spiritual dimensions of existence, and since spiritual resources are unlimited, the sting of competition is removed and the way is wide open for harmonious relations in this society. Yet the implementation of these abstract and idealistic ideas in the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas is paved with difficulties, and exposes their utopian element. In the context of the assured material compensation for outstanding students, yeshiva students find it difficult to avoid comparing their achievements to that of their friends, and this strong competition bears a negative effect on them. The yeshiva establishment attempts to reduce the pressure of competition by veering students away from unnecessary comparisons, whether directly or through their parents. The rabbis guide students to focus on their personal path of development, based on a belief that persistence will lead them to the desired objective. Although the rabbis are aware of the material compensation for achievements in Torah, they attempt to minimize the importance of this compensation and to make known the recompense enfolded in the spiritual dimension. Those who are not great Torah scholars and for this reason do not enjoy compensation in the material world who particularly seek to adopt this spiritual view. Another claim used by the rabbis to prevent students from making comparisons is that a person cannot truly assess the spiritual rung that he has reached, rendering the comparisons meaningless and superfluous. An additional claim against comparisons and competition is in the distinction between this world and the world to come: in the world to come, the order is reversed: those with knowledge and talents in this world will not be compensated and knowledgeable in the world to come, while those who find it difficult to learn in this world, to the extent that they invested great efforts, will be rewarded and will be very knowledgeable. A more extreme claim rejects the existence of material reality and maintains that the only reality that truly exists is spiritual reality. These claims influence students, particularly the less successful among them, to proceed along a path of individual development, fired by the promise of 'mental compensation' whether in the form of their status in the world to come, or in the form of achievements in the spiritual dimension that cannot be measured. In order to address the contradiction between the fact that all ultra-Orthodox young men are expected to study in yeshiva, and the fact that only a negligible minority will actually become Torah giants, and in order to prevent many of them from becoming discouraged, the rabbis invoke the claim that everyone can become a great Torah scholar. Achievement of this objective depends solely on the individual's toil and efforts. This claim, based on various Jewish sources, assists in concealing the role of other factors (social, economic, cultural, ethnic, and political) in a young man's chances of becoming a great Torah scholar, and enables preservation of the ideal ultra-Orthodox model as a normative, binding model. The complex rabbinic discussion is instructive regarding the degree of hardship experienced by the less-talented students, and at the same time, is indicative of the difficulties in building a spiritual and utopian world with unlimited resources that provides for the needs of all and creates harmonious and peaceful relations. It appears that this hardship has a central role in the growing attrition rate of some of the yeshiva students from various institutions. It is also highly likely that those with a low learning potential, who reap less spiritual pleasure from their study, will attempt to locate alternative sources of satisfaction in the material world. Regulation of Materialism Great effort is invested in ultra-Orthodox society to regulate, discipline and reduce the material dimensions within the yeshiva and in the lives of its students, as a way of helping them achieve their spiritual objectives. The ultra-Orthodox-rabbinic discourse reveals an ideal cultural model in which are described complex relations between body and soul, the material and the spiritual, and Torah study versus other worldly occupations. The differences in the conception of the desired extent of abstinence from the material dimensions and the restraint and regulation of the body, also take expression in the instructional literature provided to yeshiva students and those engaged in Torah. The authors of these documents agree that abstinence *? / ascetic practices are not meant to lead to disconnect one from material life, but rather to sanctify it. The relationship between bodily restraint and asceticism, and Torah, is complex. On the one hand, Torah study is perceived of as requiring bodily restraint and regulation. On the other hand, Torah study is also perceived as the best medicine against bodily urges and appetites. Torah study is also perceived as possessing a long list of additional useful attributes, such as the ability to "make right" crooked qualities, and to change one's fate. Alongside the call to reduce and marginalize the body and the feelings extraneous to Torah study, it is said that within the study itself, in order that it proceed well, it is necessary and even imperative to use bodily urges. The student is called upon to channel urges and feelings whose expression is prohibited in daily life, and to use their emotional energy in the activity of learning. The Struggle against Youth Rebellion The yeshiva is finding it difficult to fulfill its role as a barrier between its young students and the street. According to descriptions of the rabbis, in contrast to the period of enlightenment or the period of the establishment of the State, in which the street was full of ideological tension that in many cases succeeded in capturing the hearts of ultra-Orthodox young men, subsequent to the disintegration of the great ideologies, the power of the street became its beckoning to the senses and its offering of various attractions and temptations. Making yeshiva study normative for all the young ultra-Orthodox obliterated the natural selection in the pool of students, and reduced the importance of virtues such as closeness to Judaism, devotion and adaptability as conditions of admission to the yeshiva. The state-subsidized culture of relative plenty also does not encourage bodily restraint and discipline; rather, it encourages its opposite. According to the rabbis quoted in the study, these are the reasons for the reduced ability of young people today to adjust and to adapt to the yeshiva world, where bodily restraint and regulation are an obligatory component in spiritual practice, and this is the main explanation for the rise in attrition among ultra-Orthodox youth. Clothing, like food and rest, is an aspect of the body that can be strictly regulated in ultra-Orthodox society, particularly in the yeshiva. It carries with it complex baggage in terms of values and culture, and constitutes a central component in the identity of yeshiva students. Through a comparison of yeshiva dress and secular dress, ultra-Orthodox youth define their identity as relatively more refined, but mainly, more dignified. The dress of students in the Lithuanian yeshivas carries a range of meanings and roles also within the yeshiva itself. Through the dress, these young people define their identification with one of the sub-groups, such as the 'chenyuks' (nerdy students), and the 'shababniks' (modern students). The great interest of yeshiva students in the topic of dress arouses many reservations on the part of the rabbis. It is perceived as creating a superficial impression and is identified as foreign. Changing the Relationship to the Body The description of the relationship of the ideal ultra-Orthodox cultural model to activation of the body and its muscles emphasizes the body's role as the home of the soul, and the obligation to maintain the body and to care for it well. However, any nurturing of and involvement with the body beyond essential needs is considered negative. In this context, any activity perceived as belonging to the 'culture of the body' is viewed in a negative light. The limitations imposed on the Jewish body over the long years of exile also shaped the way in which Jews have viewed their bodies: the body of a Torah scholar is frail in comparison to those who do not occupy themselves with Torah. A significant portion of the yeshiva students also described the ultra-Orthodox body as less developed and even as of inferior height relative to the 'secular body,' but they accounted for these differences by the difference in lifestyle and activity in the two sectors. Another aspect of the relationship to the male body is related to the possible use of the body in conflict with other men. This is joined by perceptions of the essence of "heroism." It appears that the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, and even some of the yeshiva students, are still faithful to the Jewish idea of restraint and avoidance of conflict that developed in the Diaspora. Other conceptions, which place the individual who is able to defend himself through physical strength, ignoring the role of God as the final arbiter, are perceived by official spokesmen of ultra-Orthodox society as heretical and not Jewish. Despite these rabbinic positions, the relationship to the culture of the body is gradually changing in the yeshiva and in ultra-Orthodox society in general, and the rabbis are finding it difficult to uproot the phenomenon entirely despite their many efforts. Among yeshiva students one discerns the emergence of a new model of masculinity, of a man who is assertive in his behavior, and does not exercise passive restraint or avoid situations of conflict. He is also not consumed by feelings of inferiority in comparison to the physical abilities of his secular peers. The yeshiva students explain this model as resulting from life in Israel, the need to protect their rights and the desire not to be "suckers." Involvement in challenging sports encourages the development and expression of a new masculinity that demonstrates "heroism" of a type that is foreign to ultra-Orthodox society, and therefore arouses strong opposition. The acceptance criteria to the large yeshivas take into account the extent to which the candidate is suitable to the ideal cultural model, also in matters relating to bodily restraint and regulation. Failure to meet the demands of regulation and restraint, particularly when these are accompanied by low academic achievement, reduces the chances of acceptance into a good yeshiva and increase the chance of being referred to a less highly regarded yeshiva or even to a yeshiva for troubled or drop-out youth. The difficulty in restraining bodily needs, as well as the long day of study, were among the rationales that ultra-Orthodox youth invoked for their move from the yeshiva to the army (Hakak 2003) and to work (Hakak, 2004).
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationJerusalem
PublisherFloersheimer Institute
Number of pages115
Publication statusPublished - 2005

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