Volozhiner, Ḥayyim ben Isaac

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VOLOZHINER, ḤAYYIM BEN ISAAC (1749–1821), rabbi and educator, leading disciple of R. Elijah b. Solomon Zalman the Gaon of Vilna and of R. Aryeh *Gunzberg (author of Sha'agat Aryeh). R. Ḥayyim was the acknowledged spiritual leader of non-ḥasidic Russian Jewry of his day. Ḥayyim distinguished himself both in the theoretical and practical spheres. In 1802 he founded the renowned yeshivah of *Volozhin (later to be named Eẓ Ḥayyim in his honor), which became the prototype and inspiration for the great talmudic academies of Eastern Europe of the 19th and 20th centuries, and similar schools in Israel, the United States, and elsewhere. His yeshivah, which the poet Ḥ.N. *Bialik was later to call "the place where the soul of the nation was molded" transformed the whole religio-intellectual character of Lithuanian Jewry. Imbued with his educational philosophy, it raised religious scholarship in Lithuania to the unique status it was to enjoy there until the Holocaust. It attracted students from afar enhancing the dignity of their calling. Ḥayyim set high standards for admission, insisting on extreme diligence and constancy of study, and instituted in the yeshivah the system of collegial study (ḥavruta), preferring it to self-study. The talmudic methodology, which was introduced by Ḥayyim into the yeshivah, was that of internal criticism of texts which he had learned from the Vilna Gaon. Though humble and of pleasant disposition, Ḥayyim was fearlessly independent in his scholarly endeavors. His insistence upon "straight thinking" (iyyun yashar), as opposed to the complicated dialectics common to much of the talmudic discourse of his time, led him occasionally to disagree even with decisions of the Shulḥan Arukh, albeit with appropriate reverence. The theological framework for Ḥayyim's educational philosophy is contained in his posthumously published Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim (Vilna, 1824), which is addressed primarily to "the men of the yeshivah." Quoting widely from Kabbalistic as well as rabbinic sources. R. Ḥayyim elevated the study of the Torah to the highest value it had ever been accorded in Judaism. He held the hypostatized Torah to be identified with the mystical *Ein Sof, and he therefore considered study of Torah as the most direct form of unmediated communion with God. In reaction to the ḥasidic thinkers, he defined Torah li-Shemah as study for the sake of understanding, rather than as ecstasy or mystical theurgy, regarding this as the ideal form of motivation for study. This cognitive teleology of Torah study was allied with an emphasis on the objective performance of the commandments and a corresponding devaluation of the subjective, experiential component of religious observance. In the great polemics of his day between the Ḥasidim and the Mitnaggedim, R. Ḥayyim was the acknowledged leader of the latter. He was the leading ideological spokesman for classical rabbinism, his critique of Ḥasidism being thorough and deliberate. Yet in the communal aspects of the controversy, he was a decided moderate. Thus, despite his enormous reverence for the Vilna Gaon (rivaling the loyalty of Ḥasidim to their ẓaddikim), he did not sign the ban against the Ḥasidim. Both these attitudes, that of theological firmness and personal mellowness, were revealed in the Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim, which thus became a mitnaggedic response to the dialogue begun by the ḥasidic teacher, R. *Shneur Zalman of Lyady, and the beginning of the reconciliation of the two groups. The ḥasidic reaction to R. Ḥayyim's critique was reflected in the pseudonymous Meẓaref Avodah, published in Koenigsberg, 1858. R. Ḥayyim was also the author of a number of important responsa, published in Ḥut ha-Meshullash andKedushat Yom Tov; Ru'aḥ Ḥayyim, a commentary on Mishnah Avot (and, like the Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim, posthumously published by his son and successor, R. Isaac); and of a number of introductions to works of the Vilna Gaon.

[Norman Lamm]