Sunday, February 01, 2009

Yeshivas Brisk - Elitist or Extremist?

While I have some very big issues with the current Charedi Yeshiva system, there is one issue that would upset me even if I were Charedi. It is the phenomenon in the Yeshiva world about where to go to Yeshiva in Israel after high school.

There is now a push by the best and brightest Charedi students to go to Yeshivas Brisk in Israel. There are two such Yeshivos there headed by the progeny of the Brisker Rav, R' Yitzchak Zev HaLevi Soloveitchik. The one headed by his grandson, Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Soloveitchik, is the one to which admission is most coveted. It is nearly impossible to get into. The apparent reason it is so popular is because the Shiurim of the Brisker Rav are taught there like no where else.

In fact there is a joke making the rounds about it. One of the Mir Roshei Yeshiva told a prominent American Rosh HaYeshiva that his students do not do as well in Mir as those from HTC. The American Rosh HeYeshiva responded that the reason for that was that Mir does not get his better Bachurim. The better Bachurim go to Brisk.

But is it really about the learning? Partly, yes. But I don’t think that it the sole reason. In fact I don’t even think it is the primary reason in many cases. I believe that it is very likely based more on status seeking than on the desire to learn Torah in the most optimal way. It is now a matter of high prestige just to get accepted into R’ Avrohom Yehoshua 's Brisk. Demand is so high that mere intelligence, diligence, and accumulated Torah knowledge are not enough. One needs a ‘connection’ to get in. There is simply no room.

I realize that there is much Torah learning there. Limud HaTorah is of very high caliber.

Frankly, I would not be happy if my son were going there even if I were Charedi. As a Centrist I wouldn’t dream of sending my son to a Yeshiva whose Hashkafa refuses to give the IDF any credit for their efforts during a s war. This is anathema to me and even more so to my Rebbe, Rab Ahron Soloveichik, who was the Brisker Rav’s nephew.

That Briskers in Israel are so rabidly anti State was demonstrated over 40 years ago when R’ Chaim Shmulevitz praised the IDF at a Seudas Hoda’ah after the six day war. The Briskers who attended that banquet were so upset at hearing this - they walked out! This has always been the mentality there and R’ Avrohom Yehoshua has certainly not wavered from it. If anything he has exacerbated it!

But even if one generally agrees with their policy about the State of Israel it is still not worthy of the prestige it has. While learning Torah has a very high priority in Judaism – it is not everything. Without proper character development - I would venture to say that it is not worth all that much.

Students from that Yeshiva have in the past displayed less than exemplary character in their public behavior. I’m sure that it is more of an exception than the rule but that it happens at all would be a big turn off to me. One might respond that every Yeshiva has its exceptions – students that do not do the Yeshiva proud.

That’s true. What is different here is that some of the blame for such behavior can be laid right at the footsteps of the Rosh HaYeshiva himself. He has said very uncomplimentary things in Shiurim to his students in reference to R' Elayshiv - a man whom many consider the Gadol HaDor; a man who is old enough to be his father (or maybe even his grandfather!). Why a parent would be pleased to send his son to a Yeshiva with influences like that - no matter how high the caliber of learning – or how much prestige it gives his son or him - is a puzzle to me!

Brisk is not the only Charedi game in town. There is a little Yeshiva called Mir. And another little Yeshiva called Lakewood. In fact there are many fine Charedi Yeshivas where young aspiring Talmud scholars can become Charedi Gedolei Torah without ever setting foot into Brisk. It's all about intelligence, diligence, and dedication. And you don't need to go to Brisk to have that.