Sunday, March 8, 2015

Old Litvish Comes Back Into View (Chofetz Chaim video analysis)

The recently discovered Chofetz Chaim video has garnered much publicity and commentary, and rightfully so.

A few days ago, a more sophisticated analysis appeared online, giving important context to the video.

However, I don't recall seeing some of the points that occurred to me, so I will share some of my thoughts here.

Old Litvish vs. new Litvish

Many people, perhaps the overwhelming majority of people out there in the sugya, have a certain image of what a Litvak, an orthodox, Torah observant Litvishe Yid, is. It likely is, for most such people, someone wearing a fedora, with a necktie (often with eyeglasses as well). Or, if they are a Rav, perhaps with a Homburg type hat. They might picture him as beardless, in a light colored modern suit as well. However, the Chofetz Chaim, one of the most famous and venerated Litvish Torah personalities of modern times, and perhaps of all time, in a few moments of moving pictures, demolished all those stereotypes. Not one of those things are seen on him in the video!

What is the explanation for this?

The answer is, that the Chofetz Chaim, when the video was filmed in 1923, was a Litvak from an earlier era. A throwback to pre-modern Lita. That partly was due to his age. Recall that he was born way back in the 1830's. But also due to his chosen way of life. He deliberately did not wear a Rabbinic hat, preferring the hat of a simple baal habayis (layman). The modern garb of light suits, ties, and fedoras adopted by many young Litvish Yeshiva students in the early 1900's, reportedly under the direction of the Alter of Slabodka (although some aspects of it started earlier), to give the Yeshiva students status, to counter the picture of them promoted by their 'enlightened' opponents that painted them as 'shleppers', giving them instead an aura of sophisticated urbanity, was a new thing, and one that the Chofetz Chaim, as a conservative small town Yid from a previous generation, did not adopt.

While we have many photos showing the new Litvish style, Yeshiva students, Rabbonim, and gedolim, in the newer garb, we have many less images that give a glimpse of the older, simpler, Torah observant Lita. Seeing such images, therefore, are a great revelation, taking us back into an earlier time. Being transported to the old Lita with such video footage, even for just a few seconds, is therefore an unexpected revelation and delight.

A posek, a Litvishe Halachist, and Baal Mussar - and not a Brisker!

Another way in which the Chofetz Chaim was an old fashioned, pre-modern Litvishe Yid was in his type of Yiddishkeit. He was from the pre Brisker era. Nowadays, many (rightly or wrongly) identify Litvaks with people learning with 'lomdus' and 'Brisker Torah', in wake of the revolution wrought by R. Chaim Brisker. Often, those who followed that trend shied away from hammering out halachic conclusions, and they were also not part of the musar movement as well. The Chofetz Chaim, on the other hand, was diametrically apart from this new Lita of Brisk. He was, on the contrary, heavily involved in and promoting halacha study and mussar.

Lessons to be gleaned

The overhelming reception to this video, as well as the great, enduring popularity of the Chofetz Chaim zt"l, tell us that there is a thirst and a need for the old Lita, the old Litvishe way. The new, modern Litvish way, of some, of placing great emphasis on Brisker chakiras and fedoras, needs to be reexamined (a process already underway for a while, but more still is needed). Perhaps it was important and necessary for some a century ago. But that doesn't mean we must follow it slavishly now as well, without modification.

The fact the Chofetz Chaim video resonated so well with the frum masses, tells us something very important.

People crave authenticity, Emes. Especially nowadays, when the sheker in the alma deshkira (world of falsehood) has gotten so strong and pervasive. The Chofetz Chaim exuded old fashioned, authentic Yiddishkeit, and Emes.

Such lessons are ignored at our own peril


  1. Just a few comments:
    In truth, as can be seen by the video and pictures of the era, Chasidic garb was not as homogenous as it is today.

    Rav Weismandel of Nitra went to Radin to learn and the CC told him not to stay. He argued that someone in the Lita changed the derech halimud, and that it was better that he should not be influenced by it.

    The influence of the Brisker derech is probably the most detrimental chinuch issue facing us today. It has simply swallowed up all other derachim that used to be. Today, when we require that all boys learn in Yeshivah, we basically have one derech in learning as opposed to the previous generations, where the fewer boys who did learn in Yeshivah had a selection of styles to choose from. This is not sustainable and is having negative consequences.

  2. Another aspect in which current practice is more on the Brisker than the Chofetz-Chaim side is the issue of spirituality. The Chofetz Chaim was known to pray for long periods to Hashem in his own words, and strongly advocated this practice for the masses in his seforim. (Google "a person needs to pour out prayers and supplications in solitude" and you will come to a relevant quote translated into English.) Also, many pre-Brisker Litvaks were very into spiritually-oriented seforim like those of Rabbi Alexander Ziskind, who was similar to many chassidim in some of the practices he advocated (like always thanking Hashem for everything that happened to him throughout the day).

  3. I agree that trying to make all talmidim fit into one Sedom bed (as per Rav Hutner) in the Brisker mold is a terrible thing that needs to be changed.

    It has been claimed that the Brisker derech was necessary to keep talmidim in the fold a century ago, as they needed high level intellectual stimulation in Torah, to counter the pull of the enticing world outside the Beis Medrash. There may be truth to that, but not every talmid is the same. Neither is every era. To expect all young talmidim, such as teenagers, to become young Briskers via premature exposure to highly subtle distinctions and very sophisticated lomdus, before they have gotten a firm and wide foundation in Torah fundamentals (such as learning the whole mishnah or large portions of Torah) that can safely sustain and support such high level Torah acrobatics, is dangerous and can be setting many up for spiritual failure, G-d forbid. The medicines of a century ago, physical or spiritual, can be contraindicated today.

    However, on the other hand, it must be stated that even now, the Litvishe Torah world is not one giant Brisker hegemony. There are, thank G-d, remnants of the old Lita, Litvishe groups that concentrate on dvar Hashem, zu halacha, such as those influenced by Litvishe gedolim like as Rav Elyashiv zt"l (also someone who was in the non-Brisker Litvish posek category), and Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l. What has to be done is that the non-Brisker Litvish options must be nurtured and expanded. The Brisker option is still open for those who desire it. However, I wonder if Rav Chaim Brisker himself would be pleased with what has been done in his name at times. I recall reading that he (or perhaps his son R. Velvel or some other close member of the family) expressed the belief that Brisker Torah needed to be preceded by broad knowledge of Shas.

    We know nowadays that a monoculture is dangerous and vulnerable. Similarly, a one size fits all spiritual monoculture, whether Brisker or other, needs to be redone as well.

  4. Interestingly, when it comes to attire, there is some commonality between the way of the Chofetz Chaim and Brisk today. The Brisker youth in Eretz Yisroel wear caps and not fedoras. And, if I recall correctly, Rav Chaim Brisker zt"l also eschewed Rabbinic garb somewhat.