This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Student Unrest*

My own undergraduate education coincided with the exhilarating years of student unrest of the 1960's and 1970's. Now that I myself am a university professor, I find myself with ambivalent feelings towards my current students, who are, on the whole, less rebellious and more pragmatic than we were at their age. There is a part of me that views confrontations between youthful idealism and stodgy professors as an indispensable part of the college experience; however another part eventually reminds me that I myself am now securely ensconced among the ranks of those stodgy fossils.

Considering the place of honour that learning has always occupied in Jewish tradition, and the efforts that were made to channel our Best and Brightest to advanced talmudic scholarship in yeshivahs, it was to be anticipated that frictions should arise periodically between students, teachers and administrators.

In the generation following the destruction of the second Temple, the scholarly leadership of the nation assembled at the academy at Yavneh on the Mediterranean coast, where they tried to re-establish the Jewish religious institutions in the aftermath of the catastrophe. The Patriarch Rabban Gamaliel was an overbearing figure who would not tolerate any challenge to his authority. This put him in conflict with the community of rabbinic scholars who cherished their tradition of open debate. Gamaliel succeeded on several occasions in asserting his authority over his colleagues; eventually, however, an incident arose that incited the scholars to revolt. Ostensibly, it was over a technical ritual question, whether or not the evening prayer service should be treated as obligatory or optional; however, since the formulation of a standardized liturgy was one of the main accomplishments of Gamaliel's regime, he was understandably determined to implement his reforms without opposition.

The Talmud relates that Rabban Gamaliel subjected the gentle Rabbi Joshua, who had held an opposing view, to a humiliation before the entire academy, even after Rabbi Joshua had dutifully submitted to the Patriarch's authority. This behaviour provoked the scholars to rebellion. Gamaliel was overthrown, and was forced to yield some of his powers. In contrast to the tight rein that Patriarch had hitherto maintained over who could be admitted to study in the academy, access was now granted to broader segments of the populace.

Various medieval documents mention associations of students in yeshivahs. The twelfth-century Book of the Pious states that the students have the right to establish and enforce penalties for such offenses as speaking out of turn or arriving late to a class or prayers without a satisfactory explanation. The penalties could take the form of either fines or corporal punishment. In later times, yeshivah student societies tended to concentrate more on providing mutual support and social welfare.

Tensions between rabbis and students are occasionally mentioned in responsa and commentaries. A recurring bone of contention was curriculum reform. Some leading rabbis during the sixteenth century were opposed to the pilpul method of talmudic study, an approach that encouraged displays of contrived casuistry over serious analysis of the texts. The pilpul method enjoyed considerable popularity among the students, and they offered stubborn resistance to teachers who sought to eliminate it from the curriculum. This conflict likely forms the background for a comment by one of the most eminent reformers, Rabbi Solomon Luria (Poland, sixteenth century), who lamented the presence of students who are rebellious and insolent towards me.

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (the Neziv) of Volozhin (Lithuania, 19th century), was an imperious personality who had no qualms about striking his students over minor transgressions of the yeshivah's religious ethos. On at least one occasion, when he slapped a youth for trimming his side-curls, the students organized a strike to protest this violation of the lad's dignity.

Outbreaks of hostility between students and faculty were recurrent events at Volozhin. Sometimes, the students would torment unpopular teachers by whispering sh-sh-sh when the teacher entered the study hall. A more obnoxious variation on this practice had the students lifting and lowering their desktops as they proceeded with their learning. In some cases this escalated into virtual riots of window-breaking, hurling of insults and threats.

Towards the close of the nineteenth century, as the Jewish world became increasingly fragmented, and as European students were involving themselves in intense political activity, the walls of the eastern European yeshivahs were not insulated from those developments. The yeshivah students created clandestine associations to smuggle in illicit literature and promote new ideas.

An initial response of the Telshe yeshivah in 1896 was to appoint a firm disciplinarian, Rabbi Leib Chasman, to keep a tight rein over manifestations of Zionism, Enlightenment and other heresies that were blamed for student unrest. The students at Telshe were relatively young and impressionable, and maintained close contacts with the local townsfolk. Rabbi Chasman was a disciple of the Musar moralistic movement, and exploited his authority to impose his ideology at all levels of the curriculum. A delegation of students complained to the head of the yeshivah, Rabbi Eliezer Gordon, that Chasman was sowing sectarian divisions among the yeshivah students, and forcing down their throats a religious outlook that was alien to the institution's true objectives. In a reversal of the roles that we normally assign to the parties in such confrontations, the students were the ones who were resistant to innovations that were being initiated by the administration.

Though they had some sympathizers among the faculty, the students' demands were at first rejected. The students reacted by convening secret meetings and initiating an active propaganda campaign. The majority were eventually persuaded to participate in a walk-out from their classes in January 1897. Rabbi Gordon was physically and emotionally shaken by the experience. While he accepted the students' demand to suspend Rabbi Chasman for his excessive zeal in imposing his outlook on the yeshivah, he also expelled twelve of the student ringleaders. In response to subsequent student pleas for clemency, six of the expelled students were afterwards reinstated, and the remaining six were provided with generous severance packages. However, the tensions continued to simmer for several years.

A student strike in 1905 (a year when Russia was rife with student unrest) forced a closure of the Telshe yeshivah for half a year, leading again to the resignation of a controversial spiritual advisor and the contingent of Musar-inspired students whom he had imported from the Slobodka yeshivah. The strikers themselves had been diligently maintaining their own underground study network for the duration of the strike, and the compassionate head of the yeshivah had compromised his own bargaining leverage by surreptitiously handing out money to strikers who were in dire straits because of the suspension of their official stipends.

In the yeshivah environment, as in the universities, it was clear to discerning educators that the same critical acumen that made students excel in their studies could ultimately bring them to loggerheads with their institutions.

Thus, when somebody pointed out to Rabbi Gordon of Telshe that the Slobodka yeshiva was more receptive to soliciting student participation in policy decisions, the sage retorted dismissively that the rival yeshivah had no students worthy of the name. They are mere blocks of wood. If their rabbi told them to jump in the lake, they would all jump in. In our yeshivah, however, each of our boys has a mind of his own.


This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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