Monday, June 18, 2007

On the alleged average intelligence of the Neziv

Some recent discussion on the Avodah list concerning the intellectual abilities of the Netziv (e.g.) remined me of the treatment by Gil S. Perl in his recent dissertation 'Emek ha-Neziv: A Window into the Intellectual Universe of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, pp. XIX-XXII.

"In 1829, as a boy of but thirteen and a half years old, an aristocratic marriage for Naftali Berlin was arranged as well. A year later he was married to Rayne Batya, the thirteen year-old daughter ofIsaac of Volozhin (1780-1849) and, at the age of fourteen and a half, he left his parents' home in Mir for that of his in-laws in Volozhin.

"Barukh ha-Levi Epstein writes in a line that subsequently found its way into the popular imagination of the contemporary heirs of the Lithuanian Jewish community that his uncle, Neziv, was a boy of"average intelligence" who rose to the greatest of heights through his "extraordinary diligence. The available evidence, however, suggests otherwise. To begin, it is rather unlikely that Isaac of Volozhin, popularly known as Reb 'Izele, would have chosen a boy of "average intelligence" to marry his daughter. As the son of Hayyim of Volozhin who founded the Ez Hayyim Yeshivah in Volozhin, authored the highly influential Nefesh Ha-Hayyim, and was widely viewed as the preeminent student of the Ga'on of Vilna, there were few families in the Jewish world that were more distinguished than that of Reb 'Izele. Although not the innovator that his father was, Reb 'Izele succeeded his father as head of the yeshivah in Volozhin and was widely recognized as one of the preeminent communal and intellectual leaders of Russian Jewry. As such, it is rather unlikely that he would have chosen a husband for his daughter who did not exhibit promise as a budding Torah scholar.

"Furthermore, in recounting a meeting he had with Reb 'Izele in 1841, Max Lilienthal (1815-1882) writes that he was received by his "son-in-law Rabbi Lebele" a man of some 30 years and one of the most celebrated Talmudists in Russia.'" In truth, Neziv was only twenty-five years old at the time. The fact that Lilienthal's statement was first published in the late 1850s prior to the publication of any of Neziv's works and the reasonable assumption that it was composed before Neziv was appointed head of the yeshivah in 1853, suggests that Lilienthal's tangential comment is an authentic reflection of Neziv's reputation in 1841 rather than a retrospective perception of a Rosh Yeshiva's youth. As such, either Epstein's characterization of the young Neziv as a boy of "average intelligence" is incorrect, or the perception of Neziv underwent a remarkable transformation from a boy of "average intelligence" to "one of the most celebrated Talmudists in Russia" over the course of only ten years.[24]"

[24] If Epstein's characterization is incorrect, it probably results from two different factors. The flrst is Neziv's own humility to which his writings clearly attest (for example, see MD(l: 32); MD 1: 36; MD 2: 91; MD4: 24). The second is the longstanding tradition stemming from the 1856 dispute between Neziv and Yosef Baer Soloveitchik over who would lead the yeshivah in Volozhin, in which the learning style of Neziv was characterized by sweeping breadth and that of the Soloveitchik family was characterized by incisive depth. The genius and charisma of Hayyim Soloveitchik, son of Yosef Baer and son-in-law of Neziv's daughter, firmly cemented the incisive method as the intellectually superior mode of study in the imagination of Lithuanian rabbinic circles in the early twentieth century. As a result, it became perfectly plausible that, when viewed from the perspective of the proponents of Soloveitchik's methods, Neziv would be viewed as someone of "average intelligence," whose rise to prominence must have been due to the inordinate amount of time he devoted to acquiring his exceptionally broad knowledge base. While Epstein was indeed a member of Berlin's family, his high esteem for the Soloveitchik family (as evidenced by the fact that he sought rabbinic ordination from YosefBer Soloveitchik in addition to that granted by Neziv, as related in Chapter 38 of the fourth volume of his Mekor Barukh), the fact that his own method of study does not resemble that of Neziv, and the fact that his reconstruction of the Neziv's early years takes place in the 1920s, well after the death of Neziv and the rise of the Brisker school to prominence, makes Epstein's adoption of a Soloveitchik perspective on Neziv's youth all the more plausible.
In a note Perl points out that according to Eliezer Leoni, Sifra shel ha-`Ir ve-Shel Yeshivat "`Ez Hayyim," (Tel Aviv:1970), the Neziv was actually only eleven when the marriage was arranged with R. Izele's daughter Rayna Batya; the actual marriage took place when he was thirteen; but the main text favors 13 and a half for the betrothal and a year later for the marriage, which is the dates given by the Neziv's son R. Meir Bar-Ilan in Rabban Shel Yisrael (New York:1943), pg. 16-18. In other words, the discussion about whether the son of R. Hayyim would take a boy of average intelligence for his daughter or not is about the aptitude shown by an eleven or thirteen year old.

Incidentally, there is an interesting account (or more accurately, fleeting allusion) to some of the challenges a historian may face in gaining access to primary source material in possession of traditionalists who do not appreciate/ agree with the work. In this case limited access with constant supervision was granted to Perl with constant supervision (p3. 39, 52, 55-56). "When I asked to look at this reference in the manuscript, it was reviewed by two members of and was denied permission to look at it. Nonetheless, I did manage to see what seemed like a legible acronym..." "My access to the manuscript was always limited to sitting next to a member of who would turn to the page I wished to check and look at the specific textual anomaly before deciding whether to let me look as well. In this case I was able to peer over his shoulder and attempt to decipher the acronym..."

1 comment:

  1. Do you think you might wish to write a story about the Netziv's dealings with the Wissotzky Tea founders? It sounds like something up your alley. -- Phil



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