Rav Yitzchak Blau
previous installments in this series can be accessed at:
#37: R. Hutner’s Life and Works and his Theory of
Yitzchak Hutner was born in Warsaw in 1906. He studied at the famed Yeshiva of
Slobodka and become a favorite of R. Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobodka,
who was partial to extremely talented students. The yeshiva set up a branch in Chevron
in 1924 and R. Hutner joined them the following year. In Israel, he developed a relationship
with R. Kook, who wrote a haskama for R. Hutner’s first published
sefer, Torat Ha-Nazir.
Some claim that R. Kook had a profound influence on Rav Hutner’s
thought, perhaps introducing him to the ideas of Maharal, one of the most
prominent voices in R. Hutner’s writings on Jewish thought. In 1929, R. Hutner spent a few months in
Berlin and rumors circulate that he sat in on university courses, although the
precise nature of his activity there remains unclear.
Kook’s haskama appears along with those from R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski and
R. Avrham Duber Kahane Shapiro in the first edition of the work, but it is
missing in subsequent editions.
This change may reflect R. Hutner’s growing dislike for the Zionist
enterprise, a theme we will return to in a later shiur. His forcefully negative position on
Zionism created a great sense of distance from the rabbinic voice who most
powerfully articulated an evaluation of secular Zionism in religiously positive
1934, soon after his marriage, R. Hunter moved to New York, where he was briefly
the menahel of the RJJ high school before he moved to Yeshivas Chaim
Berlin, an institution he headed with a strong hand for several decades. He became a leading authority in
American Orthodoxy and was one of the signatories banning participation in
rabbinic organizations including rabbis from different denominations. His lectures, delivered around
the time of the chagim, became popular public events and the talks were
eventually published. During the
last decade of his life, he lived part of the time in Israel and established a
yeshiva in Yerushalayim called Pachad Yitzchak. In 1970, he was on a hijacked
plane and spent three weeks in captivity in the Jordan Valley. R. Hunter passed away in
Bruria David, R. Hutner’s only child, has headed the Beis Yaakov of Yerushalayim
for many years. She received a doctorate from Columbia University with a
dissertation on R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes. The juxtaposition between a doctorate from
Columbia and heading a Beis Yaakov reflects the complex aspects of her father’s
life. A staunch advocate of Charedi
ideological positions, R. Hutner also had broad intellectual interests that find
expression in his writings.
scholarly literature on R. Hutner remains quite limited. Biographical sketches include one
written by his daughter in a memorial volume for R. Hutner
and articles by Hillel Goldberg
and Matis Greenblatt.
The latter elicited a short letter
by R. Aharon Lichtenstein adding a few missing strokes to round out the
Analysis of R. Hutner’s thought includes articles by Steven Schwarzchild,
and Shmuel Wygoda. Lawrence Kaplan wrote a critique of R.
Hutner’s thesis regarding the historical relationship between Zionism and the
Holocaust. Given the depth and profundity of his
thought, R. Hutner’s work deserves far more extensive attention from competent
mentioned, R. Hutner’s first work was on the laws of nezirut. He also wrote a perush on R.
Hillel’s commentary on the Sifra, which included a listing of all the
halakhot in the Sifra that do not appear in the Babylonian Talmud. While his most important contributions
were in the world of Jewish thought, he certainly was a master of gemara
and Halakha. Indeed, only a
talmid chakham of major proportions could compose such a list of novel
halakhot. The memorial
volume includes other halakhic writings as well. R. Hutner’s enduring
contribution to Jewish theology and ethics appears in his Pachad
Yitzchak. Most of the volumes are organized around a given chag, with
the material gleaned from the talks he delivered at the time of the
chagim, but there is also an important volume of letters and
Hutner on Education
letters to students help us develop aspects of R. Hutner’s theory of
education. Beyond the specifics of
his educational theory, the examples also point to features of his methodology,
including the excellent use of parables and sensitivity to language. He was a master of the parable and a
much more poetic writer than many rabbinic peers.
letter addresses a student who had experienced difficulties and failures and
apparently concluded that he was not worthy of aspiring to very much. R. Hutner contends that the content of
the letter belies the student’s self-assessment, since struggle reflects a mark
of distinction. R. Hutner criticizes our prevalent communal discourse about
great rabbis. We talk about them only as finished products, as if they were born
fully pious and erudite, leaving out a process of growth involving frustration,
setbacks, and steady persistence.
rabbinic biographies penned in the thirty years since R. Hutner’s passing fail
to meet R. Hutner’s ideal. In these works, all rabbis are the same: young
prodigies who already mastered Torah and excelled in character at a young age.
Failures and struggles are absent from the description. I would argue that this
approach fails in terms of historical truth and actually lessens the credit
given to great individuals, as it makes their achievement more a matter of
birthright than effort. R. Hutner
points out the severe educational fallout from this approach. Any student having
a hard time immediately concludes that he is not cut out for achievement, since
those that truly achieve do so naturally at an early age. Despair and defeatism
a remarkable passage, R. Hutner complains that we only speak of the final purity
of speech achieved by the Chafetz Chaim instead of also discussing the many
failures and stumbles that the Chafetz Chaim experienced along the way in his
efforts to stop speaking lashon ha-ra. I do not think R. Hutner had historical
sources informing him about the Chafetz Chaim’s difficulties. Rather, he bases his assumptions on the
nature of humanity and on a realistic path to greatness. We are flawed and
limited creatures who can yet aspire to incredible accomplishments - but
only through ongoing effort and a willingness to try again after a failure.
Hutner tries to reverse his student’s perspective. A verse in Mishlei (24:16) says:
“The righteous person falls seven times and gets up.” Most people think this means that even
though a righteous person falls seven times, he stands at the end. R. Hunter argues that falling seven
times actually enables standing at the end, since effort and overcoming failure
promote authentic growth.
Therefore, the student’s account of his difficulties truly indicates a
potential for real achievement.
pillar of educational theory emerges from a speech R. Hutner delivered at the
Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway. He begins by apologizing to the
students for his inability to speak to each student individually due to time
constraints. As the talk
progresses, it becomes clear that this apology reflects not mere politeness but
a profound idea.
Hutner states that R. Chaim of Volozhin insisted that his students be referred
to as “bnei ha-yeshiva” rather than as “talmidei ha-yeshiva.” What accounts for this terminological
distinction? To answer this
question, R. Hutner reports a clever response that he received from a young
yeshiva student. He asked the
student if he relates to his secular studies teachers in the way he relates to
rabbeim, and if not, to describe the difference. The student replied that
a teacher of secular studies resembles a cook dispensing food, whereas the rebbe
resembles a nursing mother. A
mother gives of her essence to the child, while the cook provides food fully
external to the provider. R. Hutner
praises this answer, declaring that this child has a glorious learning
can view teaching as the giving over of resources of information, without that
information impacting on the life of the instructor. Conversely, the ideas can be part of the
teacher’s personal quest for a more moral and spiritual existence. R. Hutner indicates his preference for
the latter model, which resembles a mother more than a cook. Although his presentation draws a
dividing line between Torah teachers and secular studies teachers, the same
divide can exist within each category. Some knowledgeable Torah teachers fail to
realize Torah ideals in their own behavior, and some teachers of non-Jewish
wisdom do integrate that wisdom into guidance for life. William Barrett writes
that the ancient Greeks philosophized as part of a quest for the true and the
good, while contemporary academic philosophers are often simply doing a job
without any sense that it affects who they are. R. Hutner’s idea reminds us that the
most important kind of education does more than transmit
parable explains R. Chaim Volozhin’s insistence on the term “bnei
ha-yeshiva.” He wanted students
to receive food from nursing mothers giving of their essence. It also explains
R. Hutner’s opening remark that he would prefer individual meetings. A cook
gives out food to many recipients simultaneously, but the nursing mother
nourishes only one child at a time.
The opening comment already points towards the ideal form of education.
above analysis includes two characteristic aspects of R. Hutner’s thought:
clever employment of parable and sensitivity to language. Dramatic reversal is another frequent
occurrence in his writings.
Standard thinking assumes a given position while the reality is just the
opposite. The following example of
reversal coheres with this educational approach.
Hutner delivered a Yiddish address to a conference of educators; fortunately, we
have an English translation by R. Shalom Carmy. The gemara (Bava Batra
21a) credits R. Yehoshua ben Gamla with saving Torah in Israel by establishing
teachers for children. Before this innovation, fathers taught sons, but this
ultimately left some children without a teacher. R. Yehoshua’s enactment enabled
utilize the example of R. Yehoshua to show the progressive nature of the Jewish
community. Long before other cultures, we pushed for universal education. R.
Hutner, however, contends that R. Yehoshua ben Gamla’s decree reflects a
necessary evil and a deviation from the original norm in which parents
instructed children. Receiving
Torah resembles receiving life and nourishment; ideally, one receives these
things from a parent. R. Hutner compares R. Yehsohua ben Gamla’s enactment to a
law that all fetuses should receive their nourishment from an incubator. Surely
we would see something wrong in such a law!
this perspective, the professionalization of education brings about certain
dangers. Perhaps some educators
will simply fulfill their function and earn a living rather than bring life to
their students. Recalling this idea
helps educators do their job. Those
who remember their historical role as a substitute for parental teachers will
not fall into the trap of adopting a purely professional role.
address parallels the talk R. Hutner gave in the Yeshiva of Eastern
Parkway. There, too, he called on
educators to resemble nursing mothers more than professional cooks. While that
talk emphasized a teacher giving of his essence, the talk to educators stresses
conceiving of teaching as giving life and not as just another
who composed the text for R. Hutner’s matzeva understood the significance
of these ideas in his thought. The
text includes the following: “He raised generations of students. He was like a
father to them and they were as sons to him.”
In light of what we have seen,
these words reflect more than R. Hutner’s dedication or warmth; they represent
an essential component of his educational worldview.