Saturday, July 14, 2012

Only the Ball was White by Robert Peterson

This volume is a piece of Americana, a history of black professional baseball before the color barrier was broken by Jackie Robinson in the Major leagues.  It is a history of that great blight on American society when great players like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson entertained thousands of Americans at big league ball parks when the Major League team was on the road.  It is a story of exploitation and greed, a story of prejudice but also a great story of hope and expectation that sooner or later America would see the real talent in Black Baseball.

One reads about the organizational skills of Rube Walker and how he took care of the his players.  One learns  of the promotional skills and business acumen of people like Abe Saperstein and Eddie Gottleib. The most interesting aspect of this history, however, is learning about the colorful personalities in Black Baseball.  For example, one learns how Satchel Paige refused to be exploited and was not afraid of changing teams when he felt slighted.

Satchel Paige did not develop a curve ball until he was in his 40s!  His fastball had that nasty habit of fooling batters because it hopped as it crossed the plate. He was a master showman and entertained every time he pitched.

One learns some great legends about the history of baseball.  For example, one learns that before there was a color barrier Black players had to worry about getting spiked by opposing players.  Wooden shin-guards were developed for the second baseman because he had to expect instead of a head first slide, a spikes high slide.  One learns that the prejudiced player would sharpen his spikes and split the shin-guards!

Josh Gibson, the Babe Ruth of the Negro leagues was so legendary that they tell the story that he hit a home run  ball that did not come down in Pittsburgh but was called an out the next day in Philadelphia when the ball landed in the outfielders glove!  The pitching great Walter Johnson testified to the talent of Gibson by calling him a $200,000 ball player because that is what any team would pay for his contract were it not for the fact that he was "colored".

Cool Papa Bell could be on third base before the catcher figured he was stealing second!

Not every black player was a major leaguer, however, so many players made there way to Major League Baseball: Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby.  Even Willie Mays got his start in the Negro Leagues.  Professional black baseball was so unnecessary and only highlighted this country's bigotry.  The book points out for example, that the baseball leagues in Mexico lacked any prejudice because there was accepted diversity.

This book is a worthwhile read in the history of American sports.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Barcelona and Beyond: The Disputation of 1263 and Its Aftermath by Robert Chazan

This critical study of Nachmanides' public disputation with the apostate Paul Christian is unique in that the author does not credit the Ramban with winning the debate.  Professor Chazan takes on the scholarship of Yitzchak Baer and dismisses the Ramban's account as embellishment and exaggeration and accepts the Church's Latin account (which basically eviscerates the Ramban) as reasonable.  As to who won the debate, Professor Chazan believes the truth lies somewhere in between, a toss up so to speak.  Since Christian was not dismissed in humiliation and kept on missionizing and since the Latin account had the seal of approval of the King James I of Aragon, the Ramban could not have been the victor.  The author acknowledges that the Ramban's written account displays the rabbis exceptional talents and calls the effort a 'Tour de force' noting that this Jewish account goes on to be one of the most popular polemics from Medieval history.

Professor Chazan relies heavily on the argument that the Latin account can not be dismissed since the King put his seal of approval on it. Dismissing it would imply impugning the integrity of the King. The professor believes that had the Latin account been a miscarriage of the truth the King would never have put his seal to it.  I find this argument weak.  Professor Chazan acknowledges in the book that the King sided with the Church, identified with the mission of the Church.  I find it hard to conceive under what conditions the King would refrain from affixing his seal since he must identify himself with Church authority.  Defiance of the monarch in opposition to the Church may manifest itself when the economic demands of the royalty or the monarch's cupidity conflict with the demands of the Church but rarely when a monarch shows his spiritual credentials identical to the Church.

The author does not like the sweeping dismissal of the Latin account by Baer.  Baer shows that in comparing the two accounts the Latin account is incredibly out of order and lacking.  Dr. Chazan is satisfied with an internal analysis without comparing the document with the Ramban's account.  He assumes the Latin account was not for a general audience and was specific to the program of missionizing of the Jews.  As such the document is considered acceptable and reasonable in Prof. Chazan's view.

The author never really investigates the question of motivating the Ramban to write his account.  When the Ramban explains that a local Bishop asked him to write one, Prof. Chazan questions the veracity of such a request.  Given the brevity and impugning of the rabbi's ability to respond in the Latin account, I find it easy to understand a local cleric desire to hear the truth from a well known Jewish leader.  Although the professor acknowledges the greatness of the Ramban as a writer, he does not give credence to his oratory public abilities.

The author dismisses the Ramban's account as a true report of the event because in the authors view Ramban inconceivably makes terribly offensive statements about Christianity and believes that with the rabbi always getting in the final word and making the apostate look foolish strains credibility. Such arguments belie ever experiencing a 'Gadol'-Giant in Torah. More simply put: A professor of chemistry can make a freshman chemistry student look very foolish.

The Ramban was not merely the local rabbi of Gerona, he was a virtuoso master of Biblical and Talmudic literature who's impact is still being felt today. His integrity for truth is felt throughout his Biblical and Talmudic exegesis.  Ramban must have realized his account would have been read by the Church, certainly by the likes of people like Paul Christian and yet he was unafraid to publish it.

One could argue that the Ramban did achieve some success by the fact that the Church strategy, its rules of engagement in  public disputation in Spain were changed and refined by the time the Tortossa dispute convened.  Those winning elements highlighted in Ramban's account are not present later.  Instead of free speech, complete controlled speech would be monitored.  Instead of one master Jewish disputant, a team of disputants would participate to make sure that no consistent response could be achieved.  And finally the choosing of an apostate who was a former rabbi fluent in the language of the Talmud to make sure that the Church would not be bested by a Jew.

For a Ramban victory, Professor Chazan expected the dismissal of Paul Christian for being incompetent and would disappear into oblivion. I believe, however, that Paul Christian continued as a  missionary not because he was successful against the Ramban, but rather his credentials as a former Jew fit too well into the Church program.  The appearance of a former Jew (without even opening his mouth) was a powerful argument in and of itself and could not be passed up by the Dominicans and Franciscans.  At such an early stage of the missionary work, Paul Christian was an invaluable commodity for the Church.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement by Immanuel Etkes

What is striking about the Gaon Rabbi Yisroel Salanter is his originality and determination to change the Litvish Yeshiva world.  According the Etkes, we learn of the rabbi's enlightened sources, his strong opposition to the enlightenment, his strong support of Hirsch's and Hildesheimer's methods in Germany but strong opposition to bringing "Neo-Orthodoxy" to Eastern Europe.  We learn of the rabbi's depression and his failure to make a real change during his lifetime and that his personal family life is shrouded in mystery although we learn that at least one son went off the religious path.  The success of Mussar does not come to fruition until it is incorporated into the Torah elite yeshivos instituted by the rabbi's students.  Ultimately, Mussar's harsh message of Yira, Fear of Heaven, is a hard sell seen in stark contrast to Hasidism where the stress is joy.

The rabbi's original intent was to bring character development and ethical changes to the working class of the Jewish world and not to the Torah elite.  Mussar fits into the milieu of Vilna Gaon that Torah learning will ultimately refine one's character.  Yira, fear of heaven however, becomes neglected as the motivating factor in preventing sin.  In order to properly restore fear of heaven in the Torah world, Rav Salanter visioned Mussar houses for the general population and not necessarily for the Yeshivos.  This innovation was vociferously attacked as usurping the traditional Beis Midrash.

I am reminded of the story told by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in his signature essay Halakhic Man, that at Volozhin, Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik rejected mussar by saying such harsh medicine is only effective when one is very sick, however, taking harsh medicine when one is healthy shall surely make one sick!  For Rabbi Soloveitchik, the learning at Volozhin was healthy and did not need the  harsh medicine of Mussar to refine one's character.  (One should keep in mind that Mussar triumphed much later in the Yeshiva world because there is not one major Lithuania type Yeshiva that has not incorporated some Mussar in its curriculum.)

We are told that Rav Salanter's inspiration came from a Maskil, a Hebrew enlightened source that actually took from Benjamin Franklin's writings!  What is clear from Professor Etkes is that Rav Salanter was opposed to the Enlightenment yet retooled some of its ideas and reformulated them into an idiom that was acceptable to the Eastern European milieu in order to curtail the Enlightenment's influence on traditional Jewish society.  For Etkes, Rabbi Salanter's career as a Jewish leader was filled with irony.

Rav Salanter approved of the teachings of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and met with Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer.  He was impressed with Hirsch's best seller "The Nineteen Letters". He saw, however, that their modern 'scientific' approach could only work in Germany where traditional Jewish life was already ravaged and assailed by the Enlightenment.  He opined that one should not subject oneself to a University environment but be auto-didactic following  the approach of the Vilna Gaon, that a Torah education should include mathematics and natural sciences.

If one compares the Mussar system to the Hasidic approach, one is struck by the contrast.  Fear of Heaven prevents sin for the Mussarnik, however, for the Hasid fear becomes the impediment to performing Mitzvos!  Self abnegation becomes an important value for the Mussarnik whereas, joy and celebration becomes the cornerstone of Torah observance for the Hasid!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ludwig Lewisohn's The Island Within

This book was published in 1928 recently after the height of Jewish European immigration (1880-1924). It is a a powerful statement repudiating the assimilation of the American Jew.

The book is similar to I.J. Singer's The Family Carnovsky in that it is a family epic story.  The family originates in Vilna that great Jewish city and makes its way to America like so many others.  Each succeeding generation becomes more bewildered about the necessity of a Jewish identity.  The book is very dated in that Freud and Psychoanalysis are fresh, and the protagonist's lover/wife is a feminist, newly associated with women's suffrage.  She is depicted as a kind soul who does not want to be tied down to a man or family but wants to pursue her career.  What I found fascinating was the author's take on feminism.  In the words of the protagonist, a psychoanalyst, the feminist has a "inferiority complex" because she is never satisfied with her own identity as a woman and must constantly compete with a man.  The relationship starts off well and the husband is accommodating to his wife's needs.  Ultimately, the marriage fails despite the fact they are parents to a baby boy.

The interchange between immigrant father and psychoanalyst son is powerful in the acceptance of intermarriage:  The immigrant father says about intermarriage 'you will not be happy' but 'we will not be the cause of your unhappiness because we will accept and treat your wife as she is our daughter!'  So the son asks why do 'you think I will be unhappy?'  Says the father: 'They hate us.'  As the story unfolds what the father calls 'hate' turns out to be non-acceptance or a certain expectation that does not exist among family members.  Expressions like 'your kind' or 'you people' slip out innocuously.  I recall as an adolescent my excitement to share challah bread with someone I was very much enamored.  My excitement and enthusiasm turned to disappointment when her reaction was 'what's the big deal! This is just egg bread!'  For me, to call challah 'egg bread' (even though that is exactly what it is) is a diminution of a whole history!  I came to a realization as an adolescent, I could never marry out of my Jewish community.

The book's message is a powerful observation that the Jewish person should not try to be someone he is not because everyone around him sees him as a Jew.  Either there is the eternal hatred of the Jew that can not be erased or even evaded or one should realize that everyone has an ancestral history that should be welcomed and accepted and not denied.

The book is about the subtle nature of Anti-Semitism in America.  The USA does not have the deep seated open hostility and historical Anti-Semitism.  Here in a America, the words are soft and sound harmless however they have a stinging aftereffect upon reflection.

Lewisohn was a founding faculty member of Brandeis University because he experienced first hand the need for an unencumbered Jewish environment. Although I am not convinced that the book will resonate with a 21st century audience, nevertheless, there is tremendous insight into the immigrant and first generation American Jew who rushed to 'be American' at the expense of Jewish identity.