Yitzchok Hutner was born in Warsaw, Poland, to a family with both Ger Hasidic and non-Hasidic Lithuanian Jewish roots. As a child he received private instruction in Torah and Talmud. As a teenager he was enrolled in the Slabodka yeshiva in Lithuania, headed by Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, where he was known as the "Warsaw Illui" ("prodigy").
Having obtained a solid grounding in Talmud, Hutner joined a group of the Slabodka yeshiva that established a new yeshiva in Hebron. He studied there until 1929, narrowly escaping the 1929 Hebron massacre because he was away for the weekend, on his way to see Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook . It was during his stay in the British Mandate of Palestine that he became a disciple of Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine. The philosophical and mystical mind-set of both men made them kindred spirits. Like Kook, the young 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, golus (galut), with the imminent coming of the messianic era.
When Kook's name became associated with the Mizrachi, part of the Religious Zionist Movement, Hutner, an eventual member of the non-Zionist Haredi Agudath Israel of America's Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah ("Council of Torah Sages"), sought to downplay his association with Kook, although he maintained cordial relations with Kook's son and heir Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and other prominent students such as Rabbi Moshe-Zvi Neria. Hutner's students recount that on Sukkot he would hang a portrait of Kook in his sukkah. When controversy arose regarding the conscription of religious girls (giyus banot) into the Israel Defense Forces after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the photo of Kook was removed and replaced with one of Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz who ruled that Jewish females are forbidden to perform National Service (Sherut Leumi) in lieu of army service. When Hutner published his work Pachad Yitzchok there is no overt reference to Kook (although his ideas permeate Hutner's work). A few of Hutner's early students recall Hutner's lengthy comments regarding Kook, but none repeated them in public apart from Rabbi Neria.
After the pogrom in Hebron, Hutner returned to Warsaw, from there going to study philosophy at the University of Berlin. In 1932, he wrote Torat HaNazir, a text dealing with the laws of the Nazarite, which he published containing an approbation from his mentor Rav Kook. He befriended two other future rabbinical leaders then studying in Berlin: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, later rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University in New York City, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson who would become rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch in Brooklyn. The three maintained close personal relations throughout their lives, though each differed radically in Torah weltanschauung (hashkafa). Nevertheless, each developed a unique bridge and synthesis between the Eastern European world-view connecting it with a Westernized way of thinking. This was a key factor enabling them to serve successfully as spiritual leaders in the United States of America.
After marrying his American-born wife, Masha Lipshitz, in Warsaw, Poland, in 1932, the couple spent about a year in Palestine where Hutner completed his research and writing of his Kovetz Ha'aros on Hillel ben Eliakim's commentary on midrash sifra. He visited Europe in 1934 to collate manuscripts of Hillel ben Eliakim's commentary.
Rabbinic and teaching career
In 1935 the couple moved to Brooklyn, New York where Hutner joined the faculty of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School (RJJ) and sometime between 1935–1936 was appointed office manager of the newly established high school division of the Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin known as Mesivta Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin. In 1940, after receiving permission from the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Shurkin, he began to give a class to the 4th year of the post high school program. Founded in 1904, it was the oldest elementary yeshiva in Brooklyn. Over the years he built up the yeshiva's post-high school beth midrash division and became Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin's senior rosh yeshivah. In this effort he also received the help of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz who headed Brooklyn's Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. Hutner was able to construct an environment that produced young Talmudic scholars in the model of their compatriots in Eastern Europe. By 1940 he had established a post-high-school beth midrash with hundreds of students.
Hutner viewed secular studies as essential for attending college, learning a profession and becoming self-supporting. Together with the dean of the Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, a charter to set up a combined yeshiva and college was obtained from the New York State Board of Regents. However, this plan was dropped at the insistence of Rabbi Aharon Kotler, then head of the Lakewood yeshiva.
Nevertheless, at Chaim Berlin, students were allowed to combine their yeshiva study with afternoon and evening classes at college, mainly Brooklyn College and later Touro College. Hutner took 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 economist, Rabbi Israel Kirzner, who edited Hutner's written works, Pachad Yitzchok. Many of Hutner's disciples earned doctorates, often with his blessing and guidance, including his daughter and only child, Rebbetzin Dr. Bruria David, who obtained her PhD at Columbia University in the department of philosophy as a student of Salo Baron. She subsequently founded and became the dean of a major seminary for Jewish women in Jerusalem known as Beth Jacob of Jerusalem (BJJ) which caters to young women from Haredi families in the United States. Her dissertation discussed the dual role of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes as both a traditionalist and maskil ("follower of the enlightenment").
The list also includes Rabbis Shlomo Teichman (mathematics) founder and dean of Bais Yaakov Academy, Shlomo Braunstein (statistics) rosh yeshiva and principal, Shlomo Ribner (psychology) psychologist and rosh yeshiva, Moshe Homnick (psychology), Ahron Soloveichik (law) rosh yeshiva, Zecharia Dor-Shav (Dershowitz) (psychology) educator, Aharon Lichtenstein (literature) rosh yeshiva, Dr Abraham J. Tannenbaum (education), Joseph Thurm (information technology), Naftoli Meir Langsam (education), Yedidyah Langsam (chemistry & computer science), Chaim Feuerman (education), Zvhil-Mezbuz Rebbe Grand Rabbi Yitzhak Aharon Korff (law, international law and diplomacy). Many alumni of Rabbi Hutner's yeshiva have attained success as attorneys, accountants, doctors, and in information technology.
Hutner was well-versed in many intellectual areas, even studying and refuting secular and non-traditional Jewish scholarship. It is alleged that Hutner once slapped a student who made a remark about a religious issue, saying to the student "You read that in Heschel!"
Hutner appointed Slabodka yeshiva educated Rabbi Avigdor Miller as the Mashgiach ruchani ("spiritual mentor and supervisor") of the yeshiva. After the yeshiva relocated to Far Rockaway, New York in the 1960s, Miller resigned from his position due to the difficulties a daily commute from Brooklyn entailed.
Hutner developed a style of celebrating Shabbat and the Jewish holidays by delivering a type of discourse known as a ma'amar. 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 an obedience and something of a "heightened consciousness" that passed into their lives transforming them into literal Hasidim of their rosh yeshiva, who in turn encouraged this by eventually personally donning Hasidic garb, (begadim) and behaving like something of a synthesis between a rosh yeshiva and a rebbe. He also instructed some of his students to do likewise.
His methodology and style was complex, controversial, and difficult to pigeonhole. While placing great emphasis on intellectually penetrating Talmudic study and analysis, emotionally he veered towards the Hasidic-style, and more-so than his Lithuanian-style colleagues reared as "misnagdim" could tolerate.
Citing an anonymous source, Hillel Goldberg alleges that Rav Hutner became a fierce critic of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic group and the "personality cult built up around" its Rebbe Schneerson. Nevertheless, he corresponded regularly with Rabbi Schneerson over the years, seeking his views on a variety of halakhic, chassidic and kabbalistic subjects, and occasionally seeking his blessing. Hutner also had several lengthy private audiences with Rabbi Schneerson, during which they conversed for long periods of time.
He reportedly forbade his students from attending lectures by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik while at the same time appointing Rabbi Soloveitchik's younger brother, whom he had tutored in Warsaw, Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik (later to head his own yeshiva in Skokie near Chicago, Illinois) as head of his own Yeshivas Rabbi Chaim Berlin. Ahron Soloveichik completed a Doctorate in law at New York University at the same time that he lectured in Hutner's Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin.
In the 1950s, he established a school for post-graduate married scholars to continue their in-depth Talmudical studies. This was a kollel, (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 involved in major communal policy decision-making as he worked through his network of students in positions of leadership.
In 1938 Rav Hutner published a short booklet of halachic decisions sourced in the Sifra but not cited in the Babylonian Talmud. Many years later, he published what is considered to be his magnum opus, and which he named Pachad Yitzchok, ("Fear [of] Isaac", meaning the God whom Isaac [had] 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 Rav Kook's style, even though almost all of Hutner's original lectures were delivered in Yiddish.
The core of his synthesis of different schools of Jewish thought was rooted in his studies of the teachings of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1525–1609) a scholar and mystic known as the Maharal of Prague. Various pillars of Hutner's thought system were likely the works of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah, (1720–1797) and of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707–1746). 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, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, the Baal HaTanya Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbitz and many other great Hasidic masters as well as to the great works of Kabbalah such as the Zohar.
He was a mentor to figures in modern Jewish outreach, such as Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, who became a prominent scholar at Conservative Judaism's Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA). Another was a cousin to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who was appointed as the mashgiach ruchani ("spiritual supervisor") at the Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, but who split with Hutner on policy matters in the 1970s. They were both Holocaust survivors who Hutner took upon himself to raise as his own "sons" together with others in similar circumstances. Hutner is known to have given smicha to Carlebach, during the days that the latter was still with Lubavitch.
In the early forties Hutner asked a friend from Slabodka, Rabbi Saul Lieberman to become a dean-Talmudical lecturer in Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin. Lieberman instead accepted an offer from the JTSA, the seminary of Conservative Judaism.
Hutner had a number of disagreements with some of the religious scholars who taught in his Yeshiva. These disputes were usually not over ideology, but about positions in the school. Hutner attempted (and did in many cases) ease out the older rabbis who were his contemporaries in favor of his disciples. Rabbis Prusskin (a first cousin to his wife), Goldstone, Shurkin, Snow, Avrohom Asher Zimmerman and others are among them. Though Hutner was, by all accounts, quite steadfast in his opinions, he was not above begging forgiveness from those he had slighted, even when they had initiated attacks on him, and adopting a conciliatory tone.
He did initiate a number of changes in Yeshiva Rabbi 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 fifteen minutes. He changed the traditional mussar lecture to a maamar utilizing Maharal instead of the classical mussar approach to Torah study.
His students included Rabbis: Yonasan David (his son-in-law) and Aharon Schechter, his successors as Rosh Yeshivas of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin; Hirsch Diskind, son-in-law of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky and long-time Dean of Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Baltimore, Aharon Lichtenstein, son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel; Pinchas Stolper of the Orthodox Union and founder of NCSY who followed Hutner's guidelines in setting up this youth outreach movement; Avrohom Davis, founder of the Metzudah religious books series; Shlomo Freifeld who set up one of the first full-time yeshivas for baal teshuva students in the world; Joshua Fishman, leader and executive Vice President of Torah Umesorah the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools; 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; Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe of Boro Park; Meir Bilitzky, senior rabbi of Young Israel of New Hyde Park; Noah Weinberg founder and head of Aish Hatorah and his brother Yaakov Weinberg of Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore; Yosef Katzenstein of Copenhagen, author of Kol Chayil and Lema'an Achai; Feivel Cohen of Brooklyn, author of "Badei HaShulchan" and world-renowned posek, Dovid Cohen, rabbi of Congregation Gvul Yaabetz and an author of a number of books on Jewish theology, and Ahron Kaufman Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Gedola of Waterbury, son in law to Feivel Cohen; Rabbi Avner German zt'l founder of Beer Hagolah Institutes and Rav of Starret City
In the late 1960s he began to visit Israel again, planning to build a new yeshiva there. On 6 September 1970, he and his wife, daughter, and son-in-law Yonasan David were returning to New York on TWA Flight 74 when their flight was hijacked by the PFLP Palestinian terrorist organization. The terrorists freed the non-Jewish passengers and held the Jewish passengers hostage on the plane for one week, after which the women and children were released and sent to Cyprus. The hijacked airplanes were subsequently detonated. The remaining 40-plus Jewish men – including Rabbi Hutner, Rabbi David, and two students accompanying Rabbi Hutner, Rabbi Meir Fund and Rabbi Yaakov Drillman – and male flight crew continued to be held hostage in and around Amman, Jordan; Rabbi Hutner was held alone in an isolated location while Jews around the world prayed for his safe release. The terrorists tried to cut off his beard, but were stopped by their commanders. Rabbi Hutner was reunited with the rest of the hostages on 18 September, and was finally released on 26 September and flown together with his family members to Nicosia, Cyprus. Israeli Knesset Member Rabbi Menachem Porush chartered a private plane to meet the Hutners in Nicosia, and gave the Rav his own shirt and tallit katan, since Rabbi Hutner's tallit, tefillin, shirt, jacket and hat had been confiscated during his three-week ordeal. Rabbi Porush reported that Rabbi Hutner had also lost 20 kilograms (44 lb), and his students appeared similarly emaciated. On 28 September Rabbi Hutner and his group were flown back to New York via Europe, and were home in time for the first night of Rosh Hashana.
- shiurei yackov moshe in the toldos
- Goldberg, Hillel. Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish transition figures from Eastern Europe, Ktav Publishing House, 1989, ISBN 978-0-88125-142-5, p. 79: "Rabbi Hutner relentlessly sustained a biting critique of the Lubavitcher movement on a number of grounds…", p. 187 footnote 41: "Rabbi Hutner was opposed to the personality cult built up around the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and to the public projection of both the Rebbe and the Lubavitch movement, by the movement, through public media-print and broadcast journalism, books, film, and the like."
- Some of the correspondence has been published in Igros Kodesh, Kehot 1986–2008 Volumes 7- pp. 2, 49, 192, 215, 12- pp. 28, 193, 14- pp. 167, 266, 18- pp. 251, 25- pp. 18–20, and 26- p. 485
- Mibeis Hagenozim, S.B. Levine, Kehot 2009, pp. 88–98 where copies of Rav Hutners' actual letters are provided alongside the relevant section
- Mibeis Hagenozim, S.B. Levine, Kehot 2009, p. 88
- Hutner, Yitzchok. Pachad Yitzchok, Gur Aryeh, 2007, Vol.9 p. 273
- Hutner, Yitzchok. Pachad Yitzchok, Gur Aryeh, 2007, Vol.9 pp. 283, 291
- Bin-Nun, Dov and Ginsberg, Rachel. "He Swallowed My Papers To Save Me". Mishpacha, 14 September 2011, pp. 34–43.
- Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner... by Matis Greenblatt. (PDF), ou.org
- Terror in Black September: An Eyewitness Account about 1970 hijacking mentioning Rabbi Hutner's captivity
- A master teaches his disciple about the value of small gestures
- ...Rabbi Hutner's Implicit Theology of the Holocaust by Lawrence J. Kaplan. (PDF), hakirah.org
- ...An Appreciation of Rav Yitzchok Hutner by Yaakov Feitman, mishpacha.com