In about the year 1881, Natan Tsevi Finkel founded a novel type of yeshiva in Slobodka, a suburb of Kovno. This yeshiva quickly became well known, and after the closing of the Volozhin yeshiva in 1892, it acquired an even more prominent role among Lithuanian yeshivas. Finkel was a student of Yisra’el Salanter and an adherent of the Musar movement. This movement held that the study of Talmud had to be accompanied by the systematic study of ethics, and that the goal of yeshiva study was not only to produce trained Talmudists but also to turn out highly ethical young men. The approach appealed to many young people who were sensitive to the criticism of maskilim and other modernists who claimed that study in yeshivas meant investing one’s time in hair-splitting dialectics.
The position of mashgiaḥ, or supervisor of student behavior, had been a standard fixture in most yeshivas, but this was a minor position in comparison to the role of rosh yeshivah, or dean. Finkel instituted a major innovation by upgrading the post of mashgiaḥ to a level equivalent to that of rosh yeshivah and adding to the mashgiaḥ’s responsibilities the duty of giving classes in ethical thought—and by expecting yeshiva students to study ethics just as they studied Talmud.
Implementing this plan was difficult, as Talmud teachers were not immediately convinced that the study of ethics was an effective means to influence behavior, or that this topic was as important as Talmud. Some claimed that the Talmud itself was the best textbook on ethics. Students who enrolled in yeshivas came expecting to study Talmud, and not all were enthusiastic about being expected to engage in introspection and self-criticism and to struggle for self-improvement. Consequently, there was a high turnover both in the teaching staff and in the student body in the early years of the yeshiva. Some accused the administration of giving preferential treatment to students who displayed an active interest in Musar study, and some felt that adherents of such study were suggesting that those who did not study ethics were basically unethical. On a number of occasions, the tensions among students led to open revolt and to physical confrontations between the supporters and opponents of Musar study.
In 1897, the yeshiva split over the question of the place of Musar study in its curriculum. Because the majority of the students were opposed to such study, Finkel and his supporters left the central bet midrash, which had until then housed the yeshiva, and organized a new yeshiva, which they named Keneset Yisra’el. As an ideologist and the member of a movement, it was not difficult for Finkel to take another innovative step and set up branch yeshivas. Students were sent from the yeshiva in Kovno to the new yeshivas to serve as a core group, and start-up funds were given to the leaders of the new yeshivas.
A number of leading Kovno rabbis took over the religious leadership for the majority of the Slobodka students, who had not followed Finkel, and the yeshiva they constituted was named Keneset Bet Yitsḥak in memory of the recently deceased rabbi of Kovno, Yitsḥak Elḥanan Spektor. This yeshiva achieved fame in later years when it was led by Barukh Ber Leibowitz (1866–1939).
As time passed, the ideas of the Musar movement became better known, and a Talmud teaching staff was found for Keneset Yisra’el that was sympathetic to the goals of the movement. These teachers—perhaps the most famous of whom was Mosheh Mordekhai Epstein (1866–1934)—backed up the expectations of the mashgiaḥ and did not seek to offer a differing approach.
In the interwar period, the threat of students being drafted into the Lithuanian army led Finkel to transfer part of the yeshiva to Hebron. After the massacre there in 1929, the yeshiva moved to Jerusalem, where it still exists. The other section remained in Kovno, and most of its students were killed during the Holocaust. Among the well-known graduates of the Slobodka yeshiva were Yitsḥak Hutner, Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan, Ya‘akov Kamenetski, Aharon Kotler, Sha’ul (Saul) Lieberman, and Yeḥi’el Weinberg.
Dov Katz, The Musar Movement: Its History, Leading Personalities and Doctrines, trans. Leonard Oschry (Tel-Aviv, 1975– ); Samuel K. Mirsky, ed., Mosdot Torah be-Eropah be-vinyanam uve-ḥurbanam (New York, 1955/56); Shaul Stampfer, Lithuanian Yeshivas of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, forthcoming).
RG 769, Jacob Levitz, Papers, 1924-1950s.