Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rav Yitzchak Elchanan's Yeshiva (RIETS-YU) Turns To Hassidism

In the last few days, Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, the Yeshiva affiliated with YU, the flagship Modern Orthodox institution in the USA, has welcomed a new mashgiach, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, who is a well known speaker, as well as the spiritual leader of a Hassidic congregation in Woodmere, New York.

While RIETS-YU has a number of mashgichim, this new appointee has gotten red carpet treatment (note especially photo with YU President Richard Joel at link), with special arrangements being made for him, to enable his serving in the position alongside his prior duties to his congregation, as well as other commitments. Although it hasn't been clearly stated, it is clear that he has gotten star billing, and special treatment. This indicates that he has a special status on the RIETS staff. Even if he is not officially chief mashgiach at this time, it is clear that he has a special status, de facto. The hoopla surrounding his arrival gives the impression that in the eyes of some there he is seen as a saviour of sorts for RIETS-YU. Like some kind of superstar, or spiritual version of a rock star (lehavdil).

The new appointment has surprised onlookers, who wonder how it fits in to RIETS-YU's long and proud heritage as a Lithuanian style ('Litvish') Yeshiva.  RIETS has never had a Hassidic mashgiach like this. It would have been unthinkable in the past, just like it is unthinkable at present that a Lithuanian type Yeshiva such as Lakewood or Mir would bring in a Chassidic Rebbe as a mashgiach, with a program of teaching Chassidus. See also the end of a post from way back in the beginning of last December by former YU Professor Dr. Alan Brill, along with incisive comments there, for misgivings in the Modern Orthodox community about this major shift.

What has brought about the new great change?

First, we should be aware that it has not occurred in a vacuum. Ground was laid for it in recent years by regular shiurim of RIETS Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Hershel Reichman (a descendant of Belzer Chassidim like Rav Weinberger - oops, mistake there - Rabbi Weinberger's family Chasidic roots are Spinka, with some Nadvorna connection as well, heard from his own mouth) in Hassidism in YU, as well as the promotion of Chassidus by his son, Rabbi Zev Reichman, also a faculty member there, as well as a Rav in NJ. A few years ago they brought a prominent Hassidic leader, Rabbi Moshe Wolfson of Boro Park and Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, to RIETS/YU to speak,  something that would have been unthinkable in past years. Also, nowadays, in Western society, the zeitgeist is such that old barriers and differences are routinely reexamined and discarded.

Nevertheless, despite there having been occasional Hassidic gatherings in YU in the past, as well as a Lubavitch oriented Tanya club, they were, on the whole, marginal and extracurricular phenomena, which were not part of the main program of study. Similarly, while past President and Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Dr. Lamm wrote extensively on Hassidism, that was extracurricular, and not his main role there. The new appointment of Rebbe Weinberger, however, remarkably, considering the history of RIETS, prominently institutionalizes a Hassidic program and influence there.

Which begs the question, has the well of Lithuanian Torah, Mussar, and Hashkafah, that sustained RIETS until now dried up? Has Torah UMadda run out of gas, that it has to turn to Brooklyn style Chassidism, albeit with a more sophisticated and modern presentation, as exemplified by Rabbi Weinberger, to try to sustain itself going forward?

In the past, students went to RIETS-YU to escape that kind of thing. Various prominent RIETS-YU talmidim that came from Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and similar backgrounds come to mind. They went to RIETS from Brooklyn seeking a broader type of Yiddishkeit. Some went to learn with Rav Soloveitchik. RIETS-YU was a Litvish bastion. Can anyone imagine bringing in a Chassidic Rebbe like this in those days? It seems unthinkable.

Of course, there have been many individuals from Chassidic backgrounds at RIETS/YU over the years, but they did not come in wearing their Chassidism on their sleeve, or as a Chassidic Rebbe, as Rabbi Weinberger is, with a mandate (actual or perceived) to openly spread Chassidism there. On the other hand, Rabbi Weinberger is openly, clearly, and quickly showing, front and center, no bones about it, that his agenda is to do just that. That is clear from various indications, such as his starting a new introduction to toras haba'al shem tov shiur in his first few days on the job (in which he announces that he will be learning from shiurim of R. Mottel Zilber, a son in law of the aforementioned Rav Moshe Wolfson, in the coming weeks) as well as his speaking in typical Chassidic style. What do I mean by the latter? Let me explain with a few examples. 

1) His usage of the term 'tzaddikim' as a synonym-euphemism-codeword for Chassidic leaders, as opposed to non Hassidic gedolim (you might find some rare exceptions, but they prove the rule. If you have doubts, listen to his talks online)..

2) His usage of the term 'seforim hakedoshim'  as a synonym-euphemism-codeword for Chassidic seforim. However, 'regular' seforim of Torah are not called that. Do they not qualify as being holy?

3) When he refers to Hassidic leaders, he typically will say 'zechuso yogein aleinu' (their merit should protect us). However, non Chassidic leaders do not get that appended to their name.

The above are typical among Chassidic speakers of his type, but it is surprising to hear such exclusionary and discriminatory language used at the bastion of Modern Orthodoxy which is YU-RIETS, without protest.

 Some may say, perhaps he is acting as a traditional Yeshiva mashgiach, just drawing somewhat on his Hassidic background for insights at times, so what is the big deal? However, as per the above, we see that that is not so. His Chassidism is not incidental and in the background, but rather his main identity, and front and center in his activities. Although he is also teaching from other works not commonly considered Chassidic (though that classification may be less than totally correct), such as seforim of Rav Kook and Rav Charlap, nevertheless it is through a Chassidic lens and as a Chassidic Rebbe, using Chassidic lingo that he does so. It is clear that he is acting as a Hassidic Rebbe, and engaged in hafotzas hamaayanos (spreading Hassidism) at YU. He is a believer in Chassidism and believes that spreading it will bring Moshiach closer. So he is trying to do that, aka hafatzas hamaayanos, in his new post.

It will be interesting to see how this new experiment will work out, for sure. Will he succeed in spreading Hassidism in RIETS-YU in a large way, or will the novelty of a Chassidic Rebbe on campus wear off over time, with Litvish remaining the dominant form of Yiddishkeit there? Will the new Chassidic way endure, or will it just be passing fad?

Time will tell. Stay tuned.


  1. It's healthy to expose students to more than just the party line.

  2. So will you advocate having Litvishe mashgichim in Hassidic yeshivas as well, by that logic? Or is it only a one way street?

    Will Aish Kodesh and other Hassidic places now have invite Litvishe speakers, maybe even someone giving a mussar shmuz, instead of just their regular Hassidic guests?

  3. P.S. The students were already exposed to more than what you call the party line, when Rabbi Weinberger, Rav Wolfson, Rabbi Reichman et al spoke there previously, as noted above. The issue here is institutionalizing a major Hassidic presence at RIETS, by installing Rabbi Weinberger as chief mashgiach with a special status, above and beyond the other mashgichim.