The Pillar of Volozhin: Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin and the World of Nineteenth Century Lithuanian Torah Scholarship

The Pillar of Volozhin: Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin and the World of Nineteenth Century Lithuanian Torah Scholarship

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Gil Perl

Series: Studies in Orthodox Judaism
ISBN: 9781936235704 (hardcover) / 9781618113016 (paperback)
Pages: 294 pp.
Publication Date: March 2012

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The work of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the Neziv, ranks amongst the most often read rabbinic literature of the nineteenth century. His breadth of learning, unabashed creativity, and penchant for walking against the stream of the rabbinic commentarial establishment has made his commentaries a favorite amongst rabbinic scholars and scholars of rabbinics alike. Yet, to date, there has been no comprehensive and systematic attempt to place his intellectual oeuvre into its historical context—until now. In the Pillar of Volozhin, Gil Perl traces the influences which helped mold and shape the Neziv’s thinking while also opening new doors into the world of early nineteenth-century Lithuanian Torah scholarship, an area heretofore almost completely untouched by academic research.

Gil Perl (PhD Harvard University) is the Dean of the Margolin Hebrew Academy/Feinstone Yeshiva of the South, a Prek-12 private school serving the Jewish community of Memphis.  He has earned rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University and sits on the editorial board of Ha-Yedion, RAVSAK’s journal of Jewish education, as well as the advisory council of the Institute for University-School Partnership at Yeshiva University. 

No serious biography of Netziv exists; but Gil S. Perl’s The Pillar of Volozhin, a revision of the author’s Harvard doctoral dissertation, not only sheds light on the rabbi’s intellectual development but also identifies a key historical watershed for the Litvish intellectual elite.…Much of the contemporary yeshiva leadership believes it is following Jewish tradition by focusing narrowly on talmudic learning to the exclusion of other fields of knowledge and diverse points of view. In this perceptive book, Gil Perl reveals just how recently this assumption emerged.
— Lawrence Grossman, director of publications at the American Jewish Committee, Jewish Ideas Daily
Through careful precise nuanced textual analysis, coupled with familiarity with the broad canvas of early modern rabbinic creativity and Lithuanian Haskalah, Perl elucidates, in particular, the originality and significance of nineteenth century Lithuanian midrash commentary and provides very important correctives to the work of scholars who have previously written on this subject. It is a major contribution to the field.
— Jacob J. Schacter, University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought, Yeshiva University

Table of Contents


The Life and Times of Neẓiv
‘Emek ha-Neẓiv: A Window into his World
Method and Approach
Note on Transliteration

Chapter I: The Text of ‘Emek ha-Neẓiv
Dating the Printed Text
The Manuscript
The End of ‘Emek ha-Neẓiv

Chapter II: Neẓiv as an Early Nineteenth-Century Midrash Commentator
Midrash Commentary Prior to the Vilna Ga’on
The “Vilna Circle”
The “Volozhin Circle”
The Influence of Radal on the Young Neẓiv

Chapter III:‘Emek ha-Neẓiv: An Early Nineteenth-Century Midrash Commentary
Straightforward Interpretation
Textual Emendation
Intellectual Breadth
The Selection of Sifre
Dual Commentary
Poetic Adornments

Chapter IV: The Young Neẓiv and the Ancient Rabbis
Rabbinic Methodology
Identification of ’Asmakhta’
De’ Rossian Hermeneutics
Explicit Use of Me’or ‘Einayim in ‘Emek ha-Neẓiv
The Unattributed Influence of de’ Rossi
Chapter V: Emek ha-Neẓiv in its Cultural Context
The Influence of the Vilna Ga’on
The Vilna Ga’on in Emek ha-Neẓiv
The “Halakhic” Progression of Torah Commentary
The Lithuanian Maggid
Hebrew Print and the Study of Midrash
Neẓiv’s Use of Newly Available Books

Chapter VI: From ‘Emek ha-Neẓiv to Ha’amek Davar
From ‘Emek ha-Neẓiv to Ha’amek She’elah
Dating Ha’amek Davar
‘Emek ha-Neẓiv as the Foundation for Ha’amek Davar
Exegetical Positions Rooted in Sifre
Ha’amek Davar as Nineteenth-Century Midrash
Chapter VII: The Polemics of Ha’amek Davar
Literal Aggadah in Ha’amek Davar
Hermeneutics of a Rosh Yeshivah
The Antiquity of Pilpulah Shel Torah
The Salvific Power of Torah Study
Citation in Ha’amek Davar
The Hermeneutics of Traditionalism
The 1840s: Tension without Fissure
The 1860s: A Splintered Society
Lithuaniam Torah Scholarship Responds
Maskilim in Ha’amek Davar

Afterword: Avenues for Further Research
Appendix A: The Unattributed Influence of Radal on Ha’amek Davar
Appendix B: Emendations to Sifre‘Ekev According to the Ga’on and Neẓiv
Appendix C: Selections from Ḥayyim Berln’s “Letter on Education, 1902”
Appendix D: Birkat ha-Neẓiv and the Question of Genre