Photo Credit: Indiana University Press

Title: The Yeshiva and the Rise of Modern Hebrew Literature
By Marina Zilbergerts
Indiana University Press, 184 pages



Conventional wisdom says that although most of the heroes of early Modern Hebrew literature and poetry were born and raised in traditional families, their very foray into the world of the Haskalah and Eastern European intelligentsia demonstrates their total break from that religious milieu. Instead, these writers were said to have completely shed their “backward” upbringing in order to become participants in an “enlightened” republic of letters. They were said to be so thoroughly engrained in secular culture that their discarded background is of no use to scholars trying to understand what these writers meant and what drove them to write in the ways that they did.

In this scholarly study, Zilbergerts upends the conventional take on those early Modern Hebrew writers. She painstakingly details how various aspects of traditionalism and religious thought continued to influence and inform even the most secular of Modern Hebrew writers. In doing so, this book focuses on the lives and times of various early Modern Hebrew writers, most notably Avraham Uri Kovner (1842-1905), Moshe Leib Lilienblum (1843-1910), Micha Yosef Berdichevsky (1865-1921), and Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934). All of these figures rejected the yeshiva way of life, and the yeshivas rejected them, yet there always remained some vestigial residue from their former lives. The author thus examines the life trajectories and writings of these famous writers, highlighting along the way the various ways in which they were unable to escape the expectations and, to some extent, ideologies of their religious upbringing.

One overarching theme that emerges from Zilbergerts’s study is the concept of Torah lishmah. This Talmudic ideal was understood by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) to refer to the notion that one ought to study Torah “for its [the Torah’s] own sake.” That formulation of this Talmudic concept became the motto of the yeshiva world that developed in Eastern Europe, and especially in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. As Zilbergerts explains it, when reduced to its core, this ideal represents the notion of an autotelic (having a purpose in itself) textuality that encouraged yeshiva students to study religious texts simply because they were religious texts, with no alternative motives.

She sees evidence of this staunch devotion to textuality in the writings and lives of the writers mentioned above. Many of those writers had previously attended and studied in the halls of the yeshivas that advocated Torah lishmah, and throughout their lives they continued to devote themselves to reading and writing texts, swapping the holy texts of the Talmud and halacha for the non-holy texts of the Haskalah, Zionism and other intellectual movements.

For Zilbergerts, one of the most persuasive pieces of evidence for this trend was the early Modern Hebrew writers’ general resistance to Russian nihilism. That movement tended to reject textualism in favor of more materialistic or pragmatic endeavors. Yet the Russian Haskalah (which followed some of the other trends of Russian intellectualism) bucked this trend or simply paid lip service to it, as those maskillic exponents continued to devote themselves to reading and writing more and more texts, with an almost religious fervor.

Another aspect of traditional life that Zilbergerts looks at is its conception of marriage. In the yeshiva world, the ideal student would marry a girl from a rich family and would continue to study the Talmud uninterrupted while being supported by his parents-in-law (called “eating kest”) and/or having his wife tend to his financial affairs. In this way, the elite yeshiva student’s devotion to his studies and texts superseded his responsibilities to his wife and family. Zilbergerts shows how this traditional outlook influenced some early writers of Modern Hebrew, many of whom had entered failed or unhappy marriages in their younger years, which bequeathed to them an unhealthy – and even cynical – way of viewing the entire endeavor of matrimony.

Many of these debates continue to rage on in contemporary times. For example, the virtue of textuality is at the center of one of the most hotly contested discussions in the Knesset. The outspoken secularist Avigdor Lieberman echoes many of the nihilist talking points in his attacks against the modern yeshiva movement in Israel, while Ultra-Orthodox apologists tend to affirm and reaffirm their commitment to studying the Talmud and, thus, to textuality.

In summation, this fascinating book is a well-sourced study of how different aspects of early Modern Hebrew writers’ religious upbringing continued to influence their lives and writings well after they shed their religiosity and became more thoroughly secularized. It shows how even when these writers were following whatever intellectual trends were in vogue at the time, they were still also heavily informed by their experiences in the yeshiva and the ideologies imparted to them by their upbringing. With this book in hand, the reader can contextualize many of the debates that continue within the global Jewish community about the nature of textuality and the importance of yeshiva students.

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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.