Rav Yisrael Salanter wrote to Volozhin, the flagship yeshiva of the yeshiva movement. He offered the Netziv his services as a mashgiach ruchani. The Netziv said that he was welcome to come, but if Rav Yisrael came, the Netziv would have to leave. Rav Yisrael Salanter was a brilliant talmudist and overqualified for the job, but the Netziv felt he couldn’t operate in the same institution as Mussar.
Rav Yisrael’s student, Rav Itzele Petersburger, similarly offered in 1881. R’ Nasan Kamentzky weaves together three versions of the story to create a single plausible narrative about how his offer was received (starts at about 87 min in on this recording).
Rav Nechamiah Goldberg tells that while Rav Izele was turned down, he did get permission to give a mussar shmuess. The thrust of that talk was based on the thought from our sages that Hashem created the yeitzer hara and He created an antidote — Torah. Rav Itzele explained that the Torah cures us of evil desires the way a segulah cures a sick person. The person must perform the act or recite the text exactly, and if the segulah is to say it 7 times, there will be absolutely no effect if he only says it six. Similarly, in order for Torah to fight the yeitzer hara, it most be studied perfectly lishmah, with pure motive and no distractions. Mussar, however, is like medicine. Even if you do not follow instructions perfectly, it will still work. Not as well, but there is still improvement. Thus, unless you are already capable of perfect Torah study, Mussar is the appropriate solution to the problem of yeitzer hara. R’ Chaim Brisker, who also taught at Volozhin at the time, was sitting near the exit. As Rav Izele left the room after his talk, Rav Chaim told him, “So mussar is for someone who is sick, but we in Volozhin aren’t ill!”
R JB Solovetchik, in Ish haHalakhah, quotes Rav Itzele Petersburger using a different idea from our sages. There is no reason to believe he didn’t actually used both, or that they are quoting the same talk. The gemara advises: If the yeitzer hara comes upon you, sent the yeitzer hatov after it. If that succeeds, good; if not, learn Torah. If that works, good; if not say, say qeri’as shema. If that works, good; if not, remember the day of death. So you see that the final, most effective way to win out over the yeitzer hara is qeri’as shema and remembering the day of death — Mussar, not Torah study! Rav Chaim Brisker (R’ Soloveitchik’s grandfather) replied that the study of Mussar is listed is a last choice because Mussar is like castor oil — for sick people it cures, but if you don’t need it — it’s sickening! A healthy person would not need to get bayond learning Torah to vanquish his inclination.
The third version: When the Netziv found out the purpose of Rav Itzele’s visit, he expelled him from Volozhin. One detail found in Dov Katz’s Pulmus haMussar (The Mussar Dispute) that R’ Kamentzky did not retell is that students from the yeshiva bodily carried R’ Itzele Petersburger out of the building. Either this too could have been a different visit, or perhaps continues the story after the above conversation.
Where did this split come from? After all, R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, was married to Rav Chaim Volzhiner’s granddaughter, Rav Yitzchaq Volzhiner’s daughter. He inherited the yeshiva from them. Clearly he represented a tradition from Rav Chaim Volozhiner. On the other hand, Rav Yisrael Salanter was publicizing the version of Judaism he learned from Rav Zundel Salanter, who in turn was a student of the very same Rav Chaim Volozhiner! How did their two traditions diverge, and what exactly was the original point of conflict?
Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein explored the relationship of the four sections of Rav Chaim’s philosophical work Nefesh haChaim. These sections originated as distinct lectures, and his son and successor, Rav Yitzchaq Volozhiner added his own notes and combined them into a single volume. Rabbi Norman Lamm identified the basic problem with the resulting structure.
The first section of Nefesh haChaim speaks of the nature of the soul and man’s role in creation. The second addresses prayer, and it gives people the ability to connect this world back to its Source. Section three is about unity and duality, and how the One G-d is present in creation. All three build on each other — man’s power to connect creation to its sacred Source inheres in how Rav Chaim Volozhiner describes the structure of the soul, and this connection is making explicit the Presence which is latently within creation.
Then there are some short essays between sections three and four. I wish to return to this in a moment.
Section four is the one most contemporary yeshivos focus upon. It’s about the importance and centrality of Torah learning, of how true perfection of middos and contact with the Divine are only possible through immersion in His Thought, the Torah.
One can say that what happened was that Rav Chaim’s successors in Volozhin took to heart the message of the lecture(s) that became the fourth section, and therefore they pulled Volozhin to ever more exclusively focus on total immersion intellectually in Torah. (Along the way, his rebbe‘s title changed from haGaon haChassid Rav Eliyahu miVilna to just the Vilna Gaon — mentioning his brilliance in Torah, but omitting his chassidus.)
Meanwhile, R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s pupil, R’ Zundel Salanter, placed more emphasis on the lessons captured in the first three sections. And so, when he spotted young Yisrael Lipkin — the fugure Rav Yisrael Salanter, father of the Mussar Movement — spying on his private spiritual exercises in the woods, Rav Zundel yelled out to him, “Yisrael, lern mussar zal tzuzain a yarei Shamayim!” (Yisrael, learn mussar so that you can be one who feels the awe of heaven!”) A call to work directly on one’s middos in order to live a life of yir’ah; not a reliance on metaphysical effects of immersion in talmudic dialectic.
(Please do not take either of the previous two paragraphs as caricatures, all-or-nothing contrasts.)
Much rests in the material R’ Yitzchaq Volozhiner placed between sections 3 and 4. The additions begin:
Pleasant reader! Here I have guided you with God’s help in the paths of truth, in order to show you the way to go assuredly, so that you may train yourself bit by bit by order of the aforementioned levels… You will see for yourself that the more you habituate yourself to each of these levels, your heart will increase in purity. … I also would like to discuss, in writing, the greatness of the obligation of Torah study…
Rabbi Norman Lamm (Torah for Torah’s Sake, pp 61-62) explains these lines as introducing section 4. This would place the entire explanation of Mussar (sections 1-3) as a preliminary to Torah study. The Yeshiva Movement apparently took this approach, which makes the pursuit of yir’as Hashem as something that is primarily obtain on its own from the total immersion in Torah that section 4 advocates.
However, R’ Elyakim Krumbein (Nefesh ha-Hayyim and the Root of the Musar Controversy, an essay in Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence and Fear of God, ed. Marc D Stern) finds it more plausible that they are meant as a closing to the prior sections. To this, he cites two elements of the insertion that suggests this:
First, it only refers to section 4 once. It would be odd for an introduction to a section to overwhelmingly point to the rest of the book and only mention that section once.
Second, note those opening words “I also would like to discuss…” such discussion is an add-on. This is the Mussar Movement’s take on Rav Chaim’s teachings. Yir’as Shamayim is a goal in and of itself which must be pursued consciously in and of itself.
According to the vast arrangement of the silo of yir’ah that the person prepared for himself, it is through that arrangement that the grain of Torah will be able to enter and be protected within him, according to how much he strengthened his silo.
It is [like] a father who divides grain for his sons. He divides and gives each one a measure of grain to match what the son’s silo can hold, which he [the son] prepared beforehand. For even if the father wishes and his hand is open to give him more, the son cannot receive more since his silo is not big enough to hold more. So too the father cannot now give him more. And if the son did not prepare even a small silo, then also the father can not give him anything at all – for he has no guarded place where it will remain with him.
So too Hashem, may His name be blessed: His “Hand” is open, as it were, to constantly bestow every person according to his reward with much wisdom and extra understanding – when it will be preserved by them and will be tied onto the slate of their hearts. Everything [is given] according to the volume of one’s “silo.” And if a person does not prepare even a small silo, which is that he does not, heaven forbid, have within him any yir’ah whatsoever for Him, may He be blessed, so too He, may He be blessed, will not bestow any wisdom at all, since it will not be preserved by him. For his Torah would become disgusting, heaven forbid, as our Rabbis, whose memories are a blessing, said. It is about this that the verse says, “the beginning of wisdom is yir’as Hashem,” (Tehillim 111). (Nefesh haChaim book IV, ch. 5)
The Vilna Gaon taught that without eliminating one’s poor middos first [pulling the weeds, in the quote which gave the essay its title -mb], Torah [watering the garden] will reinforce those flaws rather than help refine the soul. Of our two descriptions of our communal problem, he is speaking in terms of the second one; the Torah is a tool for us to become the holy people Hashem created us to be, but the tool has to be used appropriately or else woefully limited.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner says, without first developing yir’ah, the positive middah of keeping the importance of G-d and the role He made us for in mind, we will not retain the Torah either, even on a basic level. His metaphor is akin to our first formulation – that without yir’as Shamayim, we cannot even embody the Torah we are trying to study, and thus only full implementation with developed yir’ah can even be termed true observance of Torah.
Refinement requires conscious effort in and of itself. Without first “weeding” and “building the silo,” we are left with nothing.
The Yeshiva Movement reads Nefesh haChaim as having 3 sections discussing the value and power of the soul, and how to develop yir’ah so that one can understand the sanctifying aspect of immersion in Torah.
According to Mussar’s understanding, the book is about internalizing the Torah’s values. To achieve this, one must develop the soul and yir’ah and only then one’s Torah can be retained within one’s being.