Before Its Time: The Third (Failed) Attempt to Establish a Rabbinic Seminar in Israel

Anyone who follows the scholarship on Orthodoxy knows that there were two attempts to establish a Rabbinic institution in Israel which combined religious and secular studies to one extent or another. The first was the long but fruitless negotiations between Dr. Bernard Revel and Rabbi Kook pere to establish a “universal yeshiva” along the model of Yeshiva College. This attempt fell through because of severe financial difficulties and Rav Kook’s death; his son, who succeeded him, was far more estranged from secular studies and did nothing to encourage their study.

The second try (subscription required) was made in the 1930’s, when Rav Yehiel Yaacov Weinberg tried to move the Hildesheimer Seminary from Nazi Germany to Israel. This move was actively torpedoed by Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. Rav Grozdinski was diplomatic – conceding the need of the seminary in Germany to help protect against Reform. However, he was equally adamant that there was no need for such an institution in Israel; the present yeshivot would do just fine.

Much less known is the attempt by the Mizrahi/Poel Mizrahi (later the Mafdal, which is the term I will use from now on) to establish a Rabbinic seminar in the newly established State of Israel. The chronicle of this stillborn attempt is now available to us in the form of Dr. Yedidia Assaf’s article on the subject in Cathedra 134 (in Hebrew). The subtitle – “A Chronicle of Inevitable Failure” is telling. I will try to provide a summary of the article here, but those who are curious are invited to check out the full version. It is well worth the effort.

The pressure to establish a Rabbinic seminar came from two different loci. The first was from the top Mafdal leadership and the Mizrachi Intelligentsia, many of whom were students of the Hildisheimer seminary or at least familiar with it. Others had both yeshiva and secular education. They felt the need to establish such a seminar to provide proper Rabbinic leadership in a time filled with so many changes – especially the need for Halachic guidance regarding the new State as well as serving as a bastion against secularization of the religious community.

The second source of pressure for the institution came from Jewish communities abroad – especially in Europe. It was felt there that the old yeshiva institutions, with their disdain of secular studies and proper knowledge of the vernacular, were seriously inadequate. Rabbis educated there could not hope to “speak” to the lay public and inspire them to stay within the fold; possibly just the opposite.

The initiative, which started picking up steam in 1953, ran into problems from the outset. First there was the problem of finding someone to head the institution. Rav Weinberg was courted, but he felt that he did not have the energy in his old age to deal with the inevitable vicious attacks on the part of the “Old Guard” of Charedi Rabbis (more on that below). Rav Shaul Yisra’eli, one of the true Gedolim of non-Charedi Jewry, was also approached, but he too turned the offer down, since he felt he would not be given sufficient autonomy. Eventually Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook entered into negotiations for such an institute at Merkaz HaRav, but that too would eventually fall through for numerous reasons.

Then there was the Charedi outcry. Heads of traditional yeshivot, fearful of losing their students to this new competition, raised the alarm bells. The virulently anti-Zionist Brisker Rav, whose influence grew after the Chazon Ish’s death, convened various Charedi Rabbis together to formulate a response. The result was what can only be called a vicious smear campaign – not only against those who wished to establish the seminar in Israel, but against the institution altogether. This was not a cautious response like that of Rav Grodzinski, who acknowledged the seminar’s importance and good work even when he objected to bringing it to Israel. Anyone and everyone who had ever learned in the seminar was derided and their reputation smeared.

To placate the Charedi Rabbis, the establishers of the seminar tried to promise that the seminar would exclusively cater to Rabbinical students from abroad. Israeli Jews who wished to study in the seminary were politely turned away. Yet even that fell aground as European communities decided to focus on rebuilding their own fledgling institutions. The negotiations between Rav TzY Kook and the government never really finalized and the institute closed its doors with little to show.

Ultimately, as Assaf points out, the failure of this institution to take hold was due to a lack of real grass-roots demand. In Germany, the pressing need for a counterpoint to Reform created a real incentive to add innovations to Torah study. In Israel, there were no such incentives. Not only did Orthodoxy have a monopoly on religious services, secular Jews had no interest or need to “compete” with traditional Torah study since they disdained it anyway. Neither was there sufficient religious need for this among the Mizrahi public. The number of non-Charedi Jews with a yeshiva background was minimal – the “Hesder revolution” was a generation away. If there had been a great demand and a need for it – I don’t think any amount of Charedi rhetoric would have mattered.

Ironically, it is now, after a substantial portion of Orthodox Jewry both in Israel and abroad have received such education that the need for a seminar-type institution may now be there. Many of these Jews are deeply dissatisfied with the insistence on clinging to the Litvish method as the “sole legitimate method” for higher Torah study. Perhaps it is now time to explore the possibilities of new kinds of institutions…

Shabbat Shalom



Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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