Rabbi Yitzchok (Isaac) Hutner (1906 - 1980) was born in Warsaw, Poland, to a family with both Ger hasidim and mitnagdim in their origins. He received private instruction in Torah and Talmud. As a young teenager, he was enrolled in the famous mussar Slabodka Yeshiva in Lithuania, headed by the famous Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel.
Having obtained a deep grounding in Talmud, Hutner was sent to join an extension of the Slabodka yeshiva in Hebron. He studied there until 1929, narrowly escaping the Hebron Massacre of 1929 because he was away for the weekend. It was during his stay in Palestine that he became a disciple of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine. The philosophical and mystical mind-set of both men, made them kindred spirits. Like Rabbi Kook, the young Rabbi Hutner eventually developed a warm welcoming posture towards non-religious Jews who were seeking to become more religious. They viewed things in the context of the end of the Jewish exile, galut, as they expected an immanent coming of the messianic era. As a young man, Hutner published his early work Torat HaNazir, on the laws of the Nazarite.
In later years, when Rabbi Kook's name became entrenched with Mizrachi, Religious Zionism, Rabbi Hutner, as a sitting member of Agudath Israel of America's Council of Torah Sages (Moetzet Gedolei HaTorah), sought to decrease his former public association with Kook, even though he maintained cordial relations with Rabbi Kook's son and heir Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook.
Travels and marriage
Rabbi Hutner spent some years as a wandering scholar. He spent time in university in Berlin, studying philosophy, but not for the purpose of obtaining a degree. He spent time familiarizing himself with the intellectual milieu of Germany. He befriended two other future rabbinical leaders studying secular philosophy in Berlin: Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, who was to head Yeshiva University in New York, and Menachem Mendel Schneerson who would head Chabad Lubavitch in Brooklyn. The three of them were to retain close and cordial personal relations throughout their lives, even though each differed from the other radically in Torah weltanschauung (hashkafa). Nevertheless, each had developed a unique bridge and synthesis between the Eastern European world- view, and connected it with a Westernized way of thinking and life. This was a key factor enabling them to serve successfully as spiritual leaders in the United States of America.
A short while after marrying his American wife, Masha, in Warsaw, Poland, Rabbi Hutner set sail for America. In 1936, he assumed the leadership of the Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, the oldest institution of its kind in Brooklyn, having been set up as an elementary school in 1906. He set about building a high school, recruiting boys from all sorts of religious backgrounds. His forceful and very charismatic style of leadership soon gained him a large following amongst both lay leaders and students.
In the United States
He was able to construct an intense curriculum and an environment that produced young scholars who were viewed as being in the same league as their compatriots in Eastern Europe. In 1940, he established a post-high school yeshiva, Bet Midrash, with hundreds of students. He viewed secular studies as essential in learning a profession for people to support themselves by eventually going to college and becoming professionals. Together with the Dean of the Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz a Charter to set up a combined Yeshiva and College was obtained from the New York Regents. However, this scheme was abandoned upon the insistence of Rabbi Aaron Kotler the presciently anti-secular leader of the soon to be gargantuan Lakewood Yeshiva who wielded great rabbinical power. Another incident between him and Rabbi Kotler is most instructive. A publication house had printed a version of the Rambam's son Abraham's work on how it is possible for Rabbis in the Talmud to err in matters of science. Rabbi Kotler upon hearing the news immediately called Rabbi Hutner. When the person who answered the phone responded that Rabbi Hutner was not there, Rabbi Kotler demanded that Rabbi Hutner get on the phone immediately. Rabbi Hutner acquiesced, as he deemed Rabbi Kotler to be a greater Talmudic authority.
Hutner however maintained his relatively liberal policy during his tenure at the helm of his own Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, allowing and even encouraging students to combine their day's learning in yeshiva together with attending college, such as at Brooklyn College and later at Touro College in late afternoons and evenings. He would take great pride in the secular accomplishments of his students insofar as they fit into his vision of a material world governed by the principles of a spiritual Torah way of life. One of his closest disciples is the renowned economist, Israel Kirzner who edits Hutner's written works.
However, Rabbi Hutner had his limits, which are often conveyed in personal anecdotes. There was an interesting episode where a student made a remark about some religious issue. Rabbi Hutner quickly slapped him and said, "You read that in (Rabbi) Heschel!" The interesting point is that Rabbi Hutner too, had to have read it in Heschel as well to have recognized the source.
Interestingly, his only daughter, Bruria Hutner David, obtained her Ph.D. at Columbia University in the Department of Philosophy, and subsequently founded and became the Dean of a major Seminary for women in Jerusalem. Her dissertation discussed the dual role of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes as both a traditionalist and Maskil. Many have noted the remarkable parallels between her own father and Rabbi Chajes, the subject of her dissertation.
Rabbi Hutner developed a style of celebrating Shabbat and the Holy Days, Yom Tov, by giving a kind of talk called a maamer. It was a combination of Talmudic discourse, hasidic celebration (tish), philosophic lecture, group singing, and when possible, like on Purim, a ten piece band was brought in as accompaniment. Many times there was singing and dancing all night. All of this, together with the respect to his authority that he demanded, induced in his students obedience and something of a "heightened consciousness" that passed into their lives making them into literal hasidim ("devotees") of their Rosh Yeshiva, who encouraged this by personally donning hasidic garb, (begadim) and acting outwardly like a cross between a Rosh Yeshiva and a Rebbe and instructed some of his students to do like-wise.
His methodology and style was controversial, although intellectually he placed great emphasis on penetrating Talmudic study and analysis, emotionally he veered towards the hasidic-style, more than his Lithuanian-style colleagues reared as mitnagdim could tolerate. Ironically, Rabbi Hutner became a fierce critic of Lubavitch and the idolization of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Yet both men referred to their discourses as maamarim. He also forbade his students from attending any lectures given by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik at the same time that he appointed Rabbi Soloveitchik's younger brother, whom he had tutored in Warsaw, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik (later to head his own yeshiva in Skokie near Chicago) as head of his own Yeshiva Chaim Berlin. Rabbi Aaron Sloveitchik completed a Doctorate in Law at New York University at the same time he lectured in Rabbi Hutner's Yeshiva Chaim Berlin.
In the 1950s, he established a school for post-graduate married scholars to continue their in-depth Talmudical studies. This was a kolel, (a post graduate division), the Kollel Gur Aryeh, one of the first of its kind in America. Many of his students became prominent educational, outreach, and pulpit rabbis. He stayed in touch with them and was intimately involved in major communal policy decision-making as he worked through his network of students in positions of leadership, and won over to his cause people who came to meet with him.
He published what is considered his magnum opus which he named Pachad Yitzchok, ("Fear of Isaac", meaning the God whom Isaac feared). He called his outlook Hilchot Deot Vechovot Halevavot, ("Laws of 'Ideas' and 'Duties of the Heart'") and wrote in a poetic modern-style Hebrew reminiscent of his original mentor's style, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, even though the original lectures were delivered in Yiddish.
The core of his synthesis of different schools of Jewish thought was rooted in his deep studies of the teachings of the Maharal of Prague Rabbi Judah Leow (1525-1609) a scholar and mystic. It is commonly accepted that Rabbi Hutner "opened up" and "popularized" the writings and ideas of the Maharal. Another pillar of Rabbi Hutner's thought system were the works of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah, (1720-1797) and of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato. He would only allude in the most general ways to other great mystics, in Hebrew mekubalim, such as the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism), the great mystic known as the ARI who lived in the late Middle Ages, and even the founder of Lubavitch Hasidism, the Baal HaTanya Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and many other great Hasidic masters.
Mentor to others
He was the mentor of some controversial figures in modern Jewish outreach to non-Orthodox Jews. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who became the "Singing Rabbi" was one such student. Another was Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, who became a prominent scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the main seminary of Conservative Judaism. Another was a cousin to the earlier Shlomo Carlebach, who also was called Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who was appointed as the Mashgiach (spiritual supervisor) at the Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, but who split with Rabbi Hutner on policy matters. All three were Holocaust survivors who Rabbi Hutner took upon himself to raise as his own "sons" together with others in similar circumstances.
In the early forties Rav Hutner asked a friend from Slabodka, Rabbi Saul Lieberman to be a RaM (Dean - Talmudical lecturer) in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin. Lieberman instead accepted an offer from the Jewish Theological Seminary of Conservative Judaism, of which he later became rector. History may have been quite different had Lieberman accepted the offer.
Rav Hutner had a number of disagreements with some of the religious scholars who taught in his Yeshiva. Rabbi Prusskin, Rabbi Goldstone, and others are among them.
He did initiate a number of changes in Chaim Berlin that differed greatly from the Mussar Yeshiva practice in Slabodka. He abolished the half hour learning session in mussar (ethics) and replaced it with one of ten or fifteeen minutes. He changed the traditional mussar lecture to a maamar utilizing Maharal instead of the classical mussar approach to Torah.
His students included Rabbis: Pinchas Stolper of the Orthodox Union and founder of NCSY who followed Rabbi Hutner's guidelines in setting up this youth outreach movement; Avrohom Davis, founder of the Metzudah religious books series; Shlomo Freifeld who set up the one of the first full-time yeshivas for Baal teshuva students in the world, and who personally maintained an open relationship with Lubavitch; Joshua Fishman, leader and executive Vice President of Torah Umesorah the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools; Rabbi Avrohom Kleinkaufman, a lecturer in Yeshiva of Far Rockaway and translator of the Genesis and Exodus volumes of the Metzuda Bible Commentary of Rabbi Solomon and the Kol Sasson Sephardic Siddurim and Machzorim; Noah Weinberg founder and head of the Baal teshuva outreach conglomerate called Aish Hatorah; Rabbi Yakov Weinberg of Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore and others.
In the late 1960s he began to visit Israel again planning to build a new yeshiva there. In 1970 he, together with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, were captured by the Black September Palestinian military movement who were in turn attacked by King Hussein's army in Amman, Jordan where the hostages found themselves after being let off the planes that were hijacked. The entire Torah world prayed fervently for his safe release. Indeed Rabbi Moshe Feinstein pulled every political string he possessed to ensure his safety. In spite of this experience, Rabbi Hutner continued his efforts to build his yeshiva in Israel. Eventually it was set up and named Yeshiva Pachad Yitzchok in his honor, in Har Nof, Jerusalem. He died in 1980 and is buried in Jerusalem .