Learning from the Litvaks

The traditions of the Lithuanian yeshivah world remain a potent force today


By Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski, March 4, 2013
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The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis, Berel Wein and Warren Goldstein, Maggid, $29.95

A fascinating collaboration between Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein of South Africa and Rabbi Berel Wein, the historian and Torah teacher, this work considers the scholarly and ethical achievements of the Lithuanian yeshivah world and its key rabbinical leaders.

Consisting of a series of chapters each written by one of the authors, it offers insights into a world of concentrated Torah study and rigorous character development in pre-War Lithuania. Wein and Goldstein were trained in renowned educational institutions of Lithuanian descent and draw heavily on their personal experiences of their own teachers.

The book focuses particularly on the musar movement, which placed a strong emphasis on personal refinement and sensitivity to others, aspirations that could never be sacrificed to ritual stringency. I was struck by Wein’s distinction between superficial courtesy and genuine pleasantness. And in an engaging discussion of the almost untranslatable Yiddish term eirlichkeit, Goldstein sets out the extreme importance attached in classical sources to honesty, genuine modesty, and transparency, topics that are rarely tackled properly.

Of course, the longest chapter is reserved for the core tenet of Lithuanian Orthodoxy — the absolute centrality of Torah study, including an interesting section about learning as the source of Jewish identity.
The book is well-edited and readable, if not a trifle hagiographic. It succeeds in conveying the power and intensity of Lithuanian-style Judaism, one that despite its physical obliteration by the Nazis, flourishes in its spiritual inheritors in Israel, the US and Europe today.

Last updated: 5:46pm, March 6 2013