Monday, March 25, 2013

The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the making of modern Judaism by Eliyahu Stern

This contribution to Modern Jewish history is quite wide ranging in scope attempting to put the Vilna Gaon in the context of the currents and trends of contemporary ideas and righting the wrong of many Jewish historians who posit that Eastern European Jewry was not really part of the modern world.  Stern shows very forcefully that in deed, Eastern European Jewry fit into to the modern world. The author attempts at showing the affinity of the Gaon's approach as an idealist thinker with Leibniz.  He observes a certain irony about the approach of Mendelssohn's defense of Tradition in contrast to the Gaon's innovative practices of textual emendations and challenges to the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law.

Prof Stern details the absolute differences affecting Western and Eastern Europe: the Jewish community is a minority culture in the West, trying to fit in whereas the Eastern European Jewish community is the dominant community with no pressure to conform.  Mendelssohn and his followers contend with Protestant Church thinkers, defending Judaism, whereas the Gaon and his followers see no challenge posed by a Catholic Church. The author points out what he sees as ironic: Mendelssohn known as the progenitor of Reform actually spends his career in the Salons defending Traditional Judaism, whereas the Gaon, known as the representative of Traditional Judaism trail blazes a path of innovative changes in practices.  I believe, however, at a closer look at these two personages, the conventional understanding of them is nevertheless compelling.  For example, although Mendelssohn himself did not agitate for any Reform and for the most part represented Traditional Judaism admirably, he was nevertheless, rebuked by Rabbi Yakov Emden in suggesting a compromise when the State demands to stop immediate burial.  The willingness not to fight the State for Minhag Yisroel disappoints Rabbi Emden and perhaps makes him suspicious of Mendelssohn.  In addition, although the Vilna Gaon changes Jewish practices, those practices can hardly be called Reforms since the innovations were results of deeply rooted traditional Torah learning.  Mendelssohn accepts the authority of the State almost immediately without a fight, whereas, the Gaon is determined to arrive at the correct practice. One is drifting away from traditional authority whereas the other is correcting a perceived mistake in Tradition.

There actually is a stark difference between Mendelssohn and the Gaon which has to do with Torah learning.  To illustrate my point let's allow the following comparison:  Mendelssohn translates the Torah into the vernacular, German and Artsrcoll Mesorah publishers (representatives of followers of the Gaon's tradition) translate not only the Torah but also the Talmud into the vernacular, English.  Most historians agree that Mendelssohn's translation no matter how accurate it is, nor how traditional it is to the 'sensas literalis', its main purpose is to bring the Jewish community out of the ghetto and into the mainstream culture. whereas Artscroll who's main purpose is to enable access to ancient texts, has successfully brought so many people back to the authority and observance of Jewish Tradition.  The social trending of the followers of Mendelssohn and the followers of the Gaon go in opposite directions.  The followers of Mendelssohn abrogate the Torah in their discovery of the German language whereas the followers of the tradition of the Gaon fortify Torah observance through the learning of classical Hebrew texts.

In his discussion of the Gaon's opposition to Hasidism, he observes that the Gaon accepted 'Maskilim' with courtesy yet rejected courtesy when dealing with Hasidim, giving the impression that Hasidism posed more of a threat to the Gaon then the Haskalah.  With the professor admitting that the Haskalah and also Emancipation were not battles being waged during the Gaon's time and place in Eastern Europe, I did not find this point proven.

Prof. Stern astutely describes the change of the medieval corporate structure of the Kehillah as the 'privatization' of the Jewish community.   The Jewish community today is still 'privatized'. This point can be seen today very easily in the concept of the 'Shtiebl', often the private home of the Hasidic rebbe.  Moreover, He proves privatization by showing us how the modern Yeshiva is funded privately.

Sometimes professor Stern's tone gets in the way of his point.  His enthusiasm for the Gaon's broad shoulders in Halakha brings him to hyperbole when he says that the Gaon "rejected out of hand" the Shulchan Aruch.  No doubt, the centrality of Torah learning (as opposed to learning codes) brings a fresh understanding of Jewish practice. One would be hard pressed, however, to think that the Gaon advocates the dismissal of the Shulchan Aruch.

Although I enjoyed reading this book because of its subject matter, and it is a major academic positive contribution to the understanding of the Vilna Gaon, it revived, nevertheless,  because of its tone, an old religious complaint of mine: 'Fear of Heaven' does not fit into the academic world.  It's as if immediately, when one walks into the halls of the Academy (not Yeshiva) one must check 'Yiras Shomayin' at the door!  I can already hear a professor's screed: 'scholarship must be objective, and Yiras Shomayin colors a bias.' The truth is Yiras Shomayin will make one more careful and conservative in what one publishes, more deliberate and considerate, and hence, a better scholar.

Friday, March 22, 2013

American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram Korn

This is an enduring classic.  The book reveals great personages and issues that affected the American Jewish community.  The reader is introduced to influential rabbinic figures, Isaac Meyer Wise, Isaac Leeser, and David Einhorn who shaped the Jewish community.  One sees the sympathetic attitude of Abraham Lincoln toward American Jewry, his friends Abraham Jonas and Isachar Zacharie and one is mystified by General Grant's sweeping order 11 to expel the Jewish people from his department.  The Northern side's chaplaincy controversy is reminiscent of the Medieval European oath of fealty to Christianity in that the government had a stubborn determination not to allow a Jewish chaplain because of a Christian requirement in the military code.  In the Confederate South, one recognizes that it is filled with antisemitism.

One learns that Isaac Meyer Wise was a Democrat, not truly identifying with Lincoln until he was assassinated and excoriates Abolitionism.  Isaac Leeser saw the need for Jewish education and pushed for the 'Maimonides' school; he rejected  David Einhorn's abolitionism and radical reform.  The Jewish approach toward slavery resembled regional attitudes.

Abraham Lincoln was close to two Jews, Abraham Jonas, a political associate and Isachar Zacharie, MD, his foot doctor.  One sees, however, Lincoln's real attitude when he rescinds Grant's order of expulsion immediately upon hearing from an anonymous shop keeper from Paducah,KY, one Caesar Kaskel.  Lincoln comes off as a real 'father Abraham'.

The infamous order of expulsion is the most antisemitic act of American history.  It probably is more a reflection of Grant's frustration with speculators than actual antisemitism.  Korn shows that Grant maintains friendships with Jews before the war and after the war.  Korn entertains the possibility that the order came from someone else in Washington that Grant refused to reveal.

The Union's stubborn refusal to appoint a Jewish chaplain because of a Christian clause smacks of the Medieval requirement of fealty to Christianity that prevented the Jewish people from fitting in to the feudal communal structure.  During this controversy we see a persistent demand of freedom and equality from an emerging organized Jewish community.  The Confederacy had no clause that would prevent a chaplain, however, there were simply more anti-Jewish attitudes that precluded appointed a Jewish chaplain!  The anti-Jewish attitudes were so vehement, for example, that the number 2 man in the Confederate government, Judah P. Benjamin suffered constant abuse because of his background, despite the fact he was completely unobservant in Jewish tradition and married a Christian.

The book is essential reading for one interested in American Jewish history.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Hammerin Hank Greenberg: Jewish Pioneer by Shelley Sommer

This slim volume seems to follow quite closely the documentary film by Aviva Kempner, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.  It is a fine contribution for one seeking a succinct synopsis of the career of Jewish home-run king Hank Greenberg.  It was probably written for Middle School.

When studying modern Jewish American history, one realizes that Hank Greenberg is a key figure because he represents the first generation American wanting to blend in to American life.  He is the product of Jewish immigrants from the greatest wave of Jewish migration of 1880's-1924.  His playing career spanned the 1930's that coincided with the rise of Nazism and Hitler's takeover oversees and the rise of Antisemitism here in America.

Observing Greenberg, one can learn much about being Jewish in a hostile environment,

Greenberg was a perennial optimist; he always saw the good in people and never blamed others for his mistakes.  He had a strong work ethic and worked hard to master the different positions that he was asked to undertake for the sake of the team. (First base and then Left field)  He was not afraid to ask for help.  When he made the transition from First to Left field, he asked Barney McCosky, the Tiger Center fielder to give him direction and help.  He humbled himself to ask the Yankee great, Joe DiMaggio for tips in playing the outfield. (One learns that Greenberg became friendly with DiMaggio because they both were regulars at the famous NY saloon club Toots Shor's)

In the hostile environments of his career, first in Beaumont Texas and then the American League, Hank learned to mostly ignore the barbs and insults.  Only on occasion did he feel it necessary to enter the other side's locker room after a game to ask if anyone had anything more to say to him.  There was never a fight because nobody wanted to pick a fight with such an imposing figure.  Hank encouraged Jackie Robinson to which Robinson replied with a compliment.

Personally, I would say in comparing Greenberg to Sandy Koufax, historically Greenberg is more significant to Jewish history. They both did not play on Yom Kippur, however, Greenberg sought rabbinical advice about Rosh Hashanah and although one need not agree with the permissive ruling, the idea of asking for advice is quintessentially Jewish.  Both superstars were secular in religious outlook, innately modest and  uncomfortable with being lionized as special Jewish heroes. Both did not want to be recognized with the adjective "Jewish" ahead of "ball player".  As a matter of fact, Greenberg mentioned that the service during WWII removed the ethnic adjectives from one's identity; everyone who served became just American!  Greenberg, however, seemed more at ease later on with his Jewish identity and enjoyed the idea that he trail-blazed a path for Jewish kids.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tradition and Crisis by Jacob Katz

Professor Katz of Hebrew University wrote a seminal contribution to modern Jewish history in discussing the convergence of massacres, the Enlightenment and Hasidism that resulted in the breakdown of the corporate structure of the traditional Jewish community of Germany and Eastern Europe.

After a detailed description of the different parts of the Jewish community of the Middle Ages, Katz explains that historical events were too profound for the community to withstand.  The impact of the new age was like a juggernaut that left the leaders of the community staggering to recover the past.  With a new neutral society the Jewish community had to resort to the power of persuasion to retain the allegiance of the membership. 

The traditional isolation of the Jewish community in Western Europe saw an open door to the outside world with the rise of the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment.  Moses Mendelssohn stepped out the of Study Hall and into the Salons of Philosophy with the hope of acceptance.  Although acceptance did not really come, the lure of the outside was overwhelming.  The requirement of Jewish domicile was loosened and the Jew could live among the gentiles.

The despair that resulted from the attacks on the Jewish people created new trends among the people and instead of traditional scholarship and Torah study, charismatic and ecstatic experience attracted the simple folk.  Individuals of charisma, not known for their scholarship created an atmosphere of equality  instead of the 'elitism' of Torah Scholars.  This new group now wanted to create their own communities and NOT to integrate into the traditional society.  Their especially sharpened slaughter knives were not just a halakhic stringency but rather, a guarantee that their adherents would not eat the meat of the traditional community!

Professor Katz believes that the Enlightenment and Hasidism were successful assaults against the traditional Jewish community from opposite ends of the social spectrum.  The Enlightenment created a neutral society that essentially disarmed the rabbinic ban.  If one disagreed with the community, one was free to live somewhere else.  The ban meant little.  Hasidut demanded fervor and enthusiasm that the traditional community lacked.  Hasidim encouraged defection from the traditional community.  As a result, the corporate structure crumbled which gave rise to talented individuals who had to rely on their ingenuity to rebuild, reconstruct, and retain their constituency.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Hunter by Tuviah Friedman

If I had to recommend one book that teaches about the Holocaust, I would suggest this slim (279 pages) volume.  The book is a multi-layered memoir of the one who hunted down Adolph Eichmann, the specialist in the Nazi S.S., assigned to carrying out the "final solution" of annihilating the Jewish people of Europe.  Friedman calls himself 'obsessed' with tracking down Eichmann.  When the world was ready to forget, Friedman along with Simon Wiesenthal refused.  They both shared information and they both maintained Documentation Centers. (Wiesenthal in Vienna, and Friedman in Haifa) Friedman's audacious report to the newspaper that Eichmann was seen in Kuwait resulted in someone coming forward to give the true details of Eichmann's whereabouts in Argentina.

I met Friedman at the wedding of one of my sons.  He was from the same town as my Father-in-law, Radom, Poland and came to the wedding as a companion to my wife's elderly aunt.  He was a very unassuming man, refined and pleasant.  He was already in his upper 80's.  Giving me his card, he asked if I was informed about what happened during WWII.  With my affirmative answer, he suggested that I read his book if not just to further my knowledge.

I am sorry that it took me so long to get around to reading it because I wanted so much to thank him for writing the book when I finished it: he unfortunately passed away in 2011. The book has everything about the Holocaust: descriptions of Nazi persecution, of escape and survival, of labor and Death camps; a discussion of the process of elimination, how it evolved from simple shootings to gassings and crematoria, the process of post war interrogations and trials to bring the criminals to justice.  Ben Gurion is described as tough but a "man of integrity" with Friedman hoping that Ben Gurion would put the hunt for Eichmann on the State Agenda.  He worked for the Hagana, the precursor to the IDF, doing intelligence work after the war.

One quality of the book that stands out is its brutal honesty.  In describing his survival, he reveals that at one point he takes on a Polish name and identity to continue the hunt for Nazi criminals and even carries on a serious relationship with a Polish woman after she initiates the companionship, who wants to marry him even when she finds out his true identity.  There is an interesting scene at a church, when Mr. Friedman is observed as completely clueless on what to do, his girl friend assumes that he is an atheist, however, Friedman reveals that he is not an atheist but actually Jewish.

There is ample documented evidence against Eichmann.  The famous Wansee Conference minutes are published and the damning testimony of the Rudolph Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz is detailed.

Friedman honestly expresses himself throughout the book on a variety of topics. The book is multi layered and an excellent discussion of the Holocaust era through the founding of the State of Israel up to the capture of Eichmann.