New article on the Hazon Ish by Yakir Englander

Yakir Englander says that he “grew up in the closed world of an ultra-orthodox Hassidic court, removed his head covering, but still defines himself as a secular Vishnitzer Chassid.” He is finishing a PHD at Hebrew Unviersity.

Englander just published an article on the Hazon Ish which differs with the extensive PHD thesis of Binyamin Brown on the Hazon Ish. I assume that everyone has read benny Brown by now. The new article views the Hazon Ish as driven by his anthropology in which people are sinful and depraved. Body, will, and imagination are all corrupted; even the intellect is not free of the effects of the evil inclination.

Humans do not have any naturally good state or inner goodness. Mussar wanted the person to cultivate their inner emotions and volition. In Englander’s presentation of the Hazon Ish, that would be like talking to an anorexic about her body. The goal of the anorexic is to beat up on the body, then paradoxically an anorexic spends all of her day on her body. The cure is a therapy that changes thinking or social dynamic. So too if the goal of baal mussar is to destroy their evil inclination, then spending all one’s day talking and thinking about it wont work. One has to entirely break one’s body and volition by submitting to Torah.

The Hazon Ish was against anything personal or existential because there is not any inwardness of value.

One arranges one’s life so as to avoid impurity to one’s soul. Englamder explains this concern with impurity using the categories of Mary Douglas in which impurity is based on fear of things outside one’s boundaries Most of society follows the evil inclination and lives a shallow life. One overcomes it by submission to halakhah.

Englander disagrees with Benny Brown over the role of mussr to the Hazon Ish. Brown considered hazn ish’s difference with mussar as an in-house debate. Englander thinks that the Hazon Ish held that the baalei musssar were naively running headlong into a bear hug with the yetzer hara

Engelard shows how mussar reasoning is rejected by the Hazon Ish and that the latter also lacks any ethic outside of halakhah. Musar definitions of theft like “stealing sleep of another” do not exist for him. And his view of learning does not give the credence to the intellect that Lithuanian learning does.

Mussar and Lumdut are both about cultivation of the self. The anthropology of the hazon Ish is to bypass the self entirely.
All the voluntary acts of piety in the Talmud and rishonim are not needed because they reflect the volunteerism and offering of the heart of piety The value is in the effort and the subjective. He also rejects them because of devolution of the generations- we don’t have pure volition any more.

I am not sure that every line is exact but his documentation is extensive. Some of the later mussar masters already had similar positions. But the article is definitely worth reading for its ideas and also for the extensive bibliography of the unpublished dissertations and articles on Mitnagdut of the last decade.

The question that I have now is how does the Centrist Orthodox idea of submission differ? On one hand it is the same submission and rejection of autonomy, values outside the halakhah, and distrust of the intellect. Yet, in Centrism one gets to live a life of the body, personal choice, emotions, and imagination so long as one does not apply it to Torah. Whereas the Hazon Ish expects one to reject the evil inclination every day of one’s life, Centrism identifies the evil inclination with the secular world, liberal Judaism, and individuality. As long as one buys into the Centrist version of halakhah, accepts the system a whole, and enters a Centrist enclave then one is free to spend one’s life on one’s body and imagination, one’s desires and inner life are good as long as they don’t effect Torah. Any thoughts?

HTML of article
Pdf of article

16 responses to “New article on the Hazon Ish by Yakir Englander

  1. avraham rosenblum

    My problem with musar is that I would have had to have seen some decent people following Musar. On paper it all looks great (like communism) but up close and personal all the great theories and ideologies fall flat on their faces. I have not noticed any great quality of character in people that learn Musar.
    Musar is like painting by those painting sets that you paint by the dots and numbers. No wonder the mashgichim of today all go to pseudo psychology and Freud to understand the human soul—and don’t teach or believe in musar at all.

    • One can make the same case for people who study Gemara all day. There are plenty of Talmidim Chachamim who can parse words with the best of them but who act without kindness or consideration towards others. I would view Musar historically as one of the first efforts towards psychoanalysis. Like Freud a lot of it was stumbling in the dark trying to deal with psychology without much of an empirical basis. That said, even a rudimentary approach to psychology can work for some people. I suggest you read up on AA and other 12 step programs, which seem to work with a certain subset of the population although nobody quite knows precisely why. My sense is that Salanter, and Ziv and Hurwitz were experimentalists who learned through trial and error how to work on themselves and then attempted to apply that knowledge to others. I would guess that they would be effective with personalities that were similar to their own. If Mussar had been able to mature on its own it may well have split into many different approaches mirroring psychological approaches. Perhaps Zvi Finkel’s approach would have evolved into a Martin Seligman type of Positive Pscyhology for example.

  2. jonathan Hirsch

    I think your point is well taken Centrism is more often about group identification(not being old style MO) then internal religious values
    How would the Chazon Ish approach contrast with the Navardok approach?

    • In Navardok, one fights with ones bad middot as a full time activity. And one actually tests one’s emunah in the field. If you never read Chaim Grade’s The Yeshiva, then you should. It has Navardok and the early years of the Hazon Ish.

  3. Some thoughts:

    1. You seem to say at the end that according to Centrist Orthodoxy, the Torah is indifferent to secular life. I think it is more accurate to say that CO sees positive value in secular life.

    2. Isn’t “submission and rejection of autonomy” common to pretty much any conception of Orthodox Judaism? I think mussar advocates would be surprise to hear that such a description does not apply to them.

    3. You equate the “self” with the “evil inclination” and thus argue that according to the Chazon Ish there is no difference between the ideals of the mussar movement and what they claim to oppose. This conception seems to me rather out of touch with how religion is in fact experience by pretty much anyone including the CI, but I’m not sure if that’s an argument against you or against the CI. Anyway, if we accept this logic, then CO indeed abandons large sectors of life to the yetzer hara. But CO individuals are often interested in mussar, and institutionally, CO tolerates a certain level of halachic as well as psychological deviation. It is not clear that CO is any closer to the CI than to the mussar paradigm, as they are presented here.

    4. Personally, I am not sure the CI’s writings have the philosophical awareness and consistency that are needed for the kind of analysis in this post. What I recall from reading him is that very “non-CI” ideas are also present and used as necessary, which would make this post an “achronish” attempt to isolate concepts that the original author never intended to or conceived of isolating.

  4. Shlomo,
    Please read the article and then reframe your questions.

  5. On one hand it is the same submission and rejection of autonomy, values outside the halakhah, and distrust of the intellect. Yet, in Centrism one gets to live a life of the body, personal choice, emotions, and imagination so long as one does not apply it to Torah.

    Centrist Orthodoxy definitely includes voices (and they may even be in the majority) that assume an ethic independent of halakhah. Opinions may differ as to whether that ethic is at all different from Halakhah, but clearly, many Centrist authors assume that a person’s innate sense of justice is a source of valid and even desirable information and emotions. Also, the Rov’s existentialism clearly considers innate emotions important, otherwise, why care about dialectic, catharsis, Adam I and II coming to live harmoniously in the full person (who is both religious and technological at once)?

  6. Alan: I haven’t checked your blog for a while, which is why I am only commenting now. My thoughts, since you asked for them, is that I SAID ALL OF THIS ALREADY in my article on “The Hazon Ish: Haredi Critic of Traditional Orthodoxy.” I quote:

    “The HI was suspicious of the focus on the self, even if the focus was for religious purposes. ”

    Again: “In sum we are arguing that the HI’s criticism of both the analytic school of talmudic scholarship and mussar ideology stem from the same source. The proponents of both tacitly conceded too much to modernity by allowing too great a role for human autonomy.”

    There is much more in the same vein.

    Moreover, I contrasted the HI’s emphasis on submission with Rav Soloveitchik’s emphasis on human autonomy. I discus Navarodeck as well, and begin with Chaim Grade. So, in addition to anticipating pretty much everything Englander says, my article addressed your question and comment as well.

    I cannot download Englander’s article right now? Does he cite me? Benny Brown refers to my article and discusses it in his thesis, so I cannot imagine Englander is unaware of it.

    In any event, if your precis of the article is correct, it seems to me that Englander has basically reinvented the wheel, MY WHEEL.

    As you may guess, I am very upset. Didn’t anyone read my article? Didn’t you?

    Please respond.

    • He cites you and thinks he is differing with you. A quick look at the html version make it seem like he is dealing only with Brown in later footnotes. It was not my task to line the three of you up for comparisons.

  7. Alan: Thank you for your prompt response. My home computer is not set up for Hebrew type, but I now see that he refers to my article, which appears in English type in note 6. Basically, from your summary it seems to me that he says pretty much what I said with few minor elaborations, differences of emphasis, and terminological curlicues. But perhaps I am mistaken and I commented too precipitously.

  8. I want to make a few points regarding the substance of the CI views. 1) The CI can be perfectly right about Musar and Brisk, but for the wrong reason. His conclusions on these topics do not entail any of his views about human nature. There might be any one of a number of reasons why somebody would be opposed to Musar and Lumdus. 2) He seems to reify the two “Yetzers” as if they were a thing, something like a fortress or walled city which is to be conquered by force and destroyed. He doesn’t question these metaphors. The alternative is to view them as dispositions or attractions, tendencies and such. 3) The CI doesn’t worry at all that his own views are being driven by the yetzer hara. He allows that a person might deceive himself, thinking he is acting out of good motives, when in fact he is not. But he doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of an unconscious and certainly not a dynamic unconscious. 4) He doesn’t differentiate between self and drives, impulses, etc. So destroying a certain impulse for him is destroying a self. 5) The CI knows of no way other than a sadistic negation of an impulse forever. In reality when applied let’s say to dieting, this method fails more often than not. It now seems if you told somebody you can eat and enjoy as much as you want, but no white(bread, pasta, potatoes) you get much better results. I imagine such a method would be unacceptable, because it is not sufficiently ascetic.

    There’s a lot more to be said, but I think this is a start.

  9. Alan: With all respect, you gave the clear impression that Englander’s approach is something new, and that the only other game in town is that of Benny Brown. This is not so.

    • Larry, with all due respect, I found it something new. Your issues of autonomy-modernity are not body, self, and negation. His discussion of human nature was insightful. Even though I am in the middle of working and will hopefully get to respond to EJ by yom tov, your discussion does not open up to ej’s points in the same way.

  10. Alan: I refer you to my first quote: “The HI was suspicious of focus on the SELF”

    In my article I spoke of the importance of the HI of overcoming the evil inclination, ,i.e. one’s natural inclinations, through submission to the halakhah. True, I did not speak about the body. I am not sure where the HI does.

    In sum, perhaps I should have not said that Englander’s article contains nothing new. But it still seems to be variant of mine, pushing my argument a bit further.

  11. Alan: I have now read Englander’s [E.] article. As the saying goes, now I am first angry.

    E. cites my article exactly once. He writes at the beginning of his article that scholarship on the HI treats his differences with the mussar movement and the method of Talmud study in the Yeshivot as matters of emphasis in the service of God and not much beyond that. In the note he refers to Brown’s thesis and my article.

    This is simply not true. In my article I pointed to the deep differences differences between the HI and both movements, stemming from their different anthropologies. .

    Morover, E. presents as one of his main hiddushim the idea that Hi’s critique of both movements stemmed from the same root, namely both movement’s focus on the self. This is the EXACT point I made –it is indeed my article’s MAIN point–and E. doesn’t acknowledge it.

    There are also many other points of similarity between my article and E.’s unacknowledge by him, but this should suffice for the nonce.

    To be sure there are slight differnces of emphasis between my article and E.’s which are worthy of discussion. But his neglect and misrepresentation of my article and his unjustified claims of novelty are inexcusable. They are also in violation of all academic ethics.

    BTW, Alan, E. does refer to autonomy, when he speaks of the analytic school viewing the student of the text of the talmud as a “subyect atzmai.”

    Alan, when you have the time, read my article and E.’s back to back and get back to us.

  12. Send me a pdf of your article along with a coherent paragraph stating your point of contention and I will be delighted to post your comments as its own blog post.

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