The Mir Yeshivah that I went to in the 1960s was an intimate place, as indeed was Jerusalem itself–still divided, and small enough so that everyone seemed to know everyone else. After the Six Day War it all changed. Suddenly Jerusalem opened up and the Old City was like a magnet that drew everyone into its secret passages and ancient sites.
Mir expanded in stages throughout the main building, and finally beyond. Amongst the early arrivals from the USA was Nosson Tzvi Finkel, from another branch of the Finkel family, who married Rav Beinush’s daughter. He was tall, quiet, studious, and shy. I completely underestimated him. No one, I think, would have predicted then that he would become the Rosh Yeshivah. But the Almighty works in strange ways. Reb Chaim died in 1979. Reb Moishe, with whom I kept in close contact during the ‘70s, died prematurely. The brilliant Reb Nochum who had succeeded Reb Chaim, went in 1986. Reb Beinush followed briefly as Rosh Yeshivah, but he too died, in 1990.
One often wondered how to explain these tragedies. Was it just that “those whom the gods love die young?” or the curse of Shanghai? Reb Nosson Tzvi was in poor health, himself, when he became the Rosh Yeshivah in 1990. And he established his own style, much more accessible and involved with his students. He had inherited the tradition to accept anyone who wanted to come to Mir. This worked in reviving it after the war. How would it work now? He also inherited the noble tradition that Mir did not charge fees; it only asked those who could to contribute.
Was the expansion of Mir into the largest, most influential center of Jewish study in the world, from the 200 in my day to 6,000. Was this Reb Nosson Tzvi’s secret master plan? Or was he rather a child of circumstances and simply accepted the inevitable? We may never know, but he gets and deserves the credit. But was it necessarily a good thing?
The Charedi world was expanding rapidly everywhere, particularly in Israel, where its political clout could move governments and funds. Charedi “families blessed with children” were pouring thousands of youngsters into the yeshivot. Many went for the highest of motives, to study for study’s sake, some in the hope a career in religious education but others went to avoid the draft into the Israeli military. The more students the bigger the subsidy (which often led to the illegal massaging of figures). The rise in affluent orthodoxy meant that many more young men from all round the world were going to Jerusalem, some to study seriously but others to enjoy themselves and Mir took all even those deemed unsuitable.
I watched with pride from afar, but I wondered. There is no way you can control so many or influence with a particular approach to life. The old Lithuanian Jewry had all but disappeared. The Charedi world today is very different to that which existed in the more hybrid state of Jewry before World War II. The boom in Chasidic numbers and power has come to dominate the Charedi world in Israel and to a lesser extent the USA. No longer dare the Mitnagdim (Opposition to Chasidism, initiated by the Vilna Gaon) stand up to the more mystical, popularist, anti-intellectual approach which now determines the mood and attitudes of Orthodoxy–Sephardi as well as Ashkenazi. The ideal of unquestioned submission to authority, the unbridled adoption of the most recondite of mystical customs, has been adopted by all Charedim, which has in turn created a new world of control and conformity that is essential for political power and access to the money such power guarantees. But conformity too often is a social phenomenon rather than a religious one. Those who resist the wave do so as individuals. And they do exist even within the portals of the Charedi establishment; it is not quite as monolithic as it appears.
But the old unique Lithuanian world of Mir no longer exists. Mir, in spreading itself out under different heads over many campuses, has neither preserved its own ideology nor encouraged variety of thinking. It has simply mirrored the Charedi brand. It contains great minds, passionately devoted scholars, yet also time-servers and passers-through.
I love Mir. I used to go back during summer vacations to study and soak in its atmosphere. I want to see it thrive, and it pains me that Reb Nosson Tzvi suffered trying to raise money and that many of its teachers went without proper pay.
What will happen? All yeshivot were traditionally run as family concerns, where nepotism often trumped learning. The founder and Rosh Yeshivah of the great Ponevez was once asked by Rav Yechezkel Sarna, the head of Chevron Yeshivah, why Chevron was not as successful even though it was an older establishment. Rav Kahaneman replied, “In my yeshivah I choose the heads, in yours it is your daughters, and I think I am a better judge.”
I hope Mir has a new giant to lead it forward, to make crucial and perhaps painful decisions. Nothing however praiseworthy, is every guaranteed continuity. Like any major academic institution around the world, it needs a professional class of fundraisers and administrators. It should no longer rely exclusively on its founding families. Neither should numbers be allowed to swamp its unique contribution. Mir now is a bellwether. It can either be subsumed under the Charedi label or it can stand as the last redoubt of Lithuanian Jewry. The hagiographers will go to work right away. But sometimes “more is less”.