Novarodock and Slabodka: Different Paths to the Same Goal
Some 40 years ago, my mentor, a therapist rabbi, told me, “If your father had gone to Slabodka rather than Novarodock, how different his and your life would have been.” This article represents my efforts to understand what that rabbi meant, influenced and shaped in this pursuit by the writings of Shlomo Tchikochinsky, a scholar at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Mussar practitioners believe that “deep down” we all want to behave with justice and fairness, to do the “right thing.” The source of this desire is our spark of divinity, often called “soul.” Parents and teachers struggle to find the balance between the right and left hand, the soft and hard, between positive and negative reinforcement, to produce young adults who are disciplined and able to be fair and just and resist the “easy way out.”
As students of Mussar we often hear the names of the founding schools of the Mussar movement without differentiating between them. My goal is to show how the two largest schools were unique and actually had opposing educational styles to instill fear of Hashem and develop positive character traits in their students.
In 1882 Rabbi Nathan Z. Finkel opened the first Mussar Yeshiva in Slabodka. The yeshiva struggled as students resisted what has been called the dark side of Mussar practice. Rabbi Salanter often wrote of dark hidden forces distracting us from proper behavior. One influential rabbi protested, “When a patient is not sick, taking strong medicine (Mussar) is unhealthy and even dangerous.” Others opined that if we are going to question, analyze and critique our motivations to discover spiritual sickness, we’d best have clear pedagogical medicines and alternatives. We do not open wounds if we do not have medicines to dress the wound and deal with potential infections.
It was not long after that the original Slabodka yeshiva split, and Rabbi Finkel began a second effort with a new softer approach accentuating “the greatness of man.” No longer accentuated were the “dark forces” (soon to be popularized by Sigmund Freud as the unconscious), but the positive spiritual drives, akin to the status of Adam and Eve before their downfall in the Garden of Eden. Rabbi Finkel would rhetorically ask, “How can you do such a behavior when you possess a divine spark and your every action has deep influence on the cosmos (an idea popularized as the “butterfly effect”)?
As a high school teacher of ethics, I challenge my students and ask, “Why not cheat on our spouse?” Most often the first answers given are that getting caught is expensive and destructive, as cheating often leads to divorce. As our discussion continues, the idea of not cheating because we would never want to hurt and disappoint our spouse, who has trusted us and would be deeply hurt, takes shape. It is unjust to hurt a spouse who has given us their devotion and trust.
I see these two answers correlating to the two reasons Mussar teaches why not to sin. Fear of punishment and fear of the awesomeness of Hashem. (Why would you defile such a beautiful world we have been entrusted with?) Slabodka now accentuated the latter, and its students dressed like gentlemen of stature with style and elegance.
Rabbi Y. Horowitz opened the Novarodock Yeshiva in 1897 and accentuated the pitiful lowliness of man. Pessimistic and dark, Novarodock, like Rabbi Salanter, had little faith in man if he does not use radical tools to teach himself better life habits. Students disdained the pleasures of life, dressed shabbily and worked “to break their will” (destroy the ego). Students might burst into tears from the fiery lectures of Rabbi Horowitz. Fear of failure and resulting punishment, rather than a positive sense of pride, were the primary pedagogical tools.
Alas, I grew up as an American enamored with playing sports and music, but my father, a student of Novarodock, would not support music lessons nor tolerate wasting time chasing a ball. How different things might have been, indeed.
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