Friday, February 28, 2014

Tradition and Reality: the impact of History on Modern Jewish Thought by Nathan Rotenstriech

Since the emergence of the Jewish people into modernity from their Ghettos of Europe, their intellectual class has grappled with the tension between a unique Jewish Tradition the implies obligations and commandments from a Divine Authority and precludes the outside world vs. the joining of the common historical process of the outside surrounding nations.  From the 19th century onward, beginning with the Science of Judaism, one has seen a gradual withdrawal from a fundamental religious tradition centered around Hashem's commandments given at Mount Sinai to a secular national identity reduced to a common ancient language (Hebrew) centering around the modern concept of the state, specifically the modern State of Israel.  Professor Rotenstreich shows how far adrift the Modern Jew is from his authentic Jewish Tradition.

With a discussion of Zunz's and Krochmal's determination in finding the unique conceptualization of the eternity of the Jewish people, calling upon the "eternal spirit" or perennial cyclical upheavals, one understands a tension being uncovered when applying critical 'scientific' methods to studying Jewish History.  Abraham Geiger understood that historicism inevitably creates changes in Tradition.  With Henrich Graetz, Jewish tradition is reduced to a strict process of History in a Hegelian sense.  With Ahad HaAm and Nachman Bialik history turns nationalistic in a strict cultural way turning off the path of a rigorous historical process.

According to Professor Rotenstreich the Modern Jew has gone far away from Jewish Tradition, yet, he yearns to retain somehow his unique Jewish Identity.  Mr. Rotenstreich expects that the modern Jew must come to terms with his authentic Tradition and come back to it.  He does not advocate in any one direction but rather, he sees that the sociological experiment with the study of History has run its course.  

Written in 1973, this book is somewhat prescient because now one has seen somewhat of a renaissance of Jewish Tradition among the secular and Reformers who are now encouraging more adherence to Jewish Tradition.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rebecca Gratz - Women and Judaism in Antebellum America by Dianne Ashton

Professor Ashton has written an excellent American Jewish history surrounding the outstanding personality of Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia. Gratz is famous probably for the legend about the character, Rebecca of York in the Sir Walter Scott historical novel Ivanhoe.  In the novel, Rebecca of York is invited to stay on with Ivanhoe and his wife, Rowena as court doctor on condition that she converts to Christianity.  The sympathetic Jewish character delivers a formidable defense of remaining true to her people and religion in declining the offer.  In real life, Rebecca Gratz devotes her entire life promoting traditional Judaism and arguing against conversion and intermarriage despite the fact that even some of her siblings marry Christians. During this period of Antebellum America, Evangelicalism keeps pressuring Jews to convert; Gratz only demands respect for her own convictions without preventing her from carrying on close correspondences with her gentile sisters in law.

Gratz was a member of the Philadelphia elite.  Her father and uncle were patriots (Ben Franklin even contributed to the building of their synagogue, Mikva Israel).  Her home was essentially a salon to a literary class - Washington Irving was a frequent guest.  She was a voracious reader and enjoyed writing poetry and excelled at correspondence.  She was a remarkable voice against Reform.  Not believing in parochialism, nevertheless, she understood the need for Jewish education and founded the first Hebrew Sunday School system patterned after the Protestant model.  She also founded the first Female Hebrew Benevolent Society and also the first Jewish Foster Home in Philadelphia.

Antebellum America (first half of the 19th century) was an environment that lacked Jewish Scholarly leadership.  Often times, a Rabbi's credentials could not be verified.  What made Gratz extraordinary was the fact that she did not know Hebrew, but was content with a Siddur with English translation on the opposite side of the page, that her devotion to Judaism was Bible centered with little rabbinic insights.  She was, nevertheless, an implacable foe to any changes to Jewish practice and could not identify with the leaders of Reform, David Einhorn and Isaac M. Wise. She believed that Jewish people had no reason to feel inferior to Christians; that American values demanded equality and respect for all. The dearth of educated Jews was acutely felt because without Jewish education one could not intelligently respond to the arguments of Evangelicalism.  Her clergyman, Isaac Leeser, also acutely understood the need for Jewish education and vigorously defended Traditional Judaism in his influential periodical, The Occident. 

The uniqueness of Rebecca Gratz lies in her benevolent work and her spinsterhood.  Although considered an outstanding beauty, she remains single but that does not lead her into a lonely life lacking traditional domesticity.  She often has to care for her immediate family and raise her nieces and nephews when they become orphaned. She expresses a deep love for children and articulates deep affection through her correspondence for her extended family. She is also clearly a powerhouse, an organizational leader in the benevolent community.

Why Rebecca Gratz did not marry remains a curious mystery. As an orthodox Jewess, often defending Judaism, she must have understood the value of marriage.  There is evidence from her correspondences, however, that perhaps she was skittish about entering into a bad marriage.  This is speculation (based on little evidence) that her suitors were gentile and she refused to marry for religious reasons. Unfortunately, why she remains single is a mystery.

At the end of this fine history, Professor Ashton ruminates on the lessons learned from Rebecca Gratz's individuality, single-hood and her legend making some interpretations that serve as examples for modern Jewish women who remain single or deviate from traditional domesticity . I feel her interpretations are difficult. The interpretations take Gratz out of context of her milieu and position. The motivation for Gratz's single-hood is unknown.  The fact of single-hood should not be enough to serve as a meaningful model.  One who defends tradition, advocates no changes (meaning that the Torah is sufficient to inspire everyone and needs no improvement) would seem to me hardly an example to inspire those that have strayed from Traditional Jewish practices.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Salvation by Sholem Asch

This complex historical novel covers the period after the Napoleonic wars during the polemics against Hasidism and end of the Kotzker Rebbe's life and beyond.  It is about a simple son who yearns to learn Torah and to succeed in the spiritual realm of fear of Hashem.  He develops into a highly sensitive person able to empathize with the simple folk. In spite of the scholarly elite's ridicule, this son grasps the meaning of saying Psalms with the community of the ignorant. With the Kotzker's blessing Psalms becomes the vehicle for gaining an understanding of Jewish thought and fear of Heaven.  The Yiddish title of the book is "The T'hiliner Yid" (the Psalm Jew).  His empathy, sincerity, and ability to understand people catapults him unwillingly as the leader, a rabbi of the ignorant community.  Ironically, his reluctance to give advice mirrors the reluctance of the Kotzker to give advice claiming unworthiness.

The basic plot follows the career of the T'hiliner Yid who is told by the Kotzker that one can actually go very far through Psalms and one should not despair about one's learning.  Slowly but surely he gains much understanding and becomes a unique leader of a non - scholarly community.  The rabbi is approached with a demand to guarantee a child to a childless couple.  The demand coming from a highly unscrupulous horse trader is not simple but with strings attached that will help the poor.  The T'hiliner Yid makes the promise that Hashem will deliver, however, not without sacrifice: his own wife and newborn die in childbirth.  The rabbi becomes known as a miracle maker by also nursing a poor man back to health who claims that the rabbi gave back feeling to his feet, the rabbi cured his frostbitten feet and becomes his servant.

The promised child, a daughter grows up only to fall in love with a gentile peasant.  Although she is pledged to a Jewish scholar, the plan is to ride off with the gentile to the convent to be baptized and be entered into the Catholic faith and then marry the gentile.  With tremendous angst and turmoil, the child has doubts about carrying through with her apostasy, nevertheless the nuns and priest deny exit from the convent without conversion.  Eventually, the daughter commits suicide without leaving the faith of her ancestors. The rabbi, however, who throughout his life refuses to believe that the Divine could be anything less than good has a crisis of faith and wants to abandon his role as rabbi to the community.  He argues that one with little faith can give no serious advice.  Yet he overcomes his crisis with the argument of simple piety: one is not to question the Almighty but rather one is only to believe in His goodness.  Some questions are not meant to answered and thus should not be asked.  The book concludes with the rabbi predicting a very good year after Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.  The rabbi expires with the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

The symbolism of this book is overwhelming.  This is a story of tension between father and son, tension between the learned and ignorant and the tension between rich and poor.  It is a scathing criticism of scholarly arrogance.  The book also touches on the tension between Judaism and Catholicism.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Herod The Great: statesman, visionary, tyrant

Norman Gelb’s study of Herod the Great rehabilitates the tyrant into a multifaceted positive personality in contradistinction to the common notion that Herod was a typical Near East evil tyrant.  Mr. Gelb uses the critical skills of the historian to show that Herod was actually sympathetic to Jewish communities of the diaspora and quite philanthropic making him popular outside of the land of Israel.  Herod's paranoid personality does not obstruct his ability to adapt to the political machinations of Rome to his own benefit. The author details the rise of Herod's father in the court of Hyrcanus, Herod's murderous defense of the northern district being summoned to the Sanhedrin for judgement, his escape, his alliances with the different Caesars and their accompanying political intrigues.  Eventually the reader is told that he stabilizes his kingdom all the while rooting out real and imagined Hasmoneon threats to his rule.

Dismissing the authority of Jewish tradition, the author makes a vigorous case about Herod’s Jewishness, despite the fact that the local Jewish populace never accepts him and he himself identifies more with Rome than with Jewish observance.  The author makes the Jewish claim based on Herod's patrilineal descent through his grandfather's forced conversion during John Hyrcanus' conquest of Idumea. Mr. Gelb utilizes critical historical methods when he says that the traditional Jewish line of matrilineal descent is not established until well over 300 years later. [Such a claim is limited by the assumption that a lack of evidence implies actual evidence.  I am assuming that he is pointing to the Mishnaic source of matrilineal descent appearing much later.]  He ignores the possibility that the Mishna represents traditions much older.   

One must also point out that the Jewish tradition accepts the phase of Herod’s renovation of the Second Temple (although Mr. Gelb calls it a third Temple, not a renovation like Jewish tradition) as a rehabilitated phase, a result of regretting his harsh brutality against the rabbis.  

Mr. Gelb oddly claims that the salient feature of the Herodean era is the emergence of Jesus and his followers.  One can argue, however, that the salient feature is the rise of Pharisaic Judaism, the schools of Hillel and Shammai and the literary output of the Oral Torah publicized by the rabbinic tradition.  Hillel, a contemporary of Herod the Great, being a Babylonian and not Hasmoneon poses no threat to Herod and his teaching house flourishes. By contrast, Jesus and his followers only appear during the end of the Herodean period and remain an insignificant group of sectarian Jews, without affecting the Jewish people of the land of Israel. 

After displaying the tools of the critical historian throughout the book concerning Herod, Mr. Gelb seems to drop those tools and accepts the Christian narrative uncritically as the sequence of the events during the concluding years of this era discussing the crucifixion, Paul's dispute with Peter to evangelize to the pagans, the Jewish Christian sect breaking away much later beyond this era to form a completely different religion.  

The strength of this book is the author's understanding of the politics of Rome and describing Herod's connections and talents in fitting in and coming out on top.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

East River by Sholem Asch

A 1946 NY Times Bestseller, this profound novel of Jewish life on the East side of New York touches on all the major themes of growing up in a NYC immigrant household with a Hasidic foundation: poverty, Anti-Semitism, Assimilation, the rise of the Jewish garment industry with emerging Socialism and Jewish radicalism through the growth of the Unions.  It is basically the story of a struggling Jewish family originally from Eastern Europe whose initial residence was the Lower East Side of Manhattan but moves up to 47th Street between First and Second Ave.  The family comprises an Orthodox couple named Davidowsky with two sons, one emerges as a very successful manufacturer in the garment trade, and the other a paralytic struggling to find his voice among the socialist activists.  The real main character of this story, however, is arguably, a sensitive daughter of an Anti-Semitic Irish Catholic who lives among the Jews in the neighborhood.  Although the book probes some very complex psychological issues relating to family dynamics, it analyzes the psychology of Anti-Semitism.  Asch's idealism shines force,however, that despite profound differences in religion, familial love ultimately triumphs.

Mary McCarthy, unable to pay cash, having been rejected by the Italian Catholic grocer, out of desperation, enters Moshe Wolf Davidowsky's grocery .  Mary's first stereo type of Jews is shattered when the Orthodox Jew warmly extends not only credit but also generously recommends traditional Irish corned beef.  She is introduced to Jewish kindness, something unheard of in her Catholic education.  She attributes her fate to Jesus' directing her there.  Her father acts violently upon hearing that his daughter did business with a Jew.  Her experience is different and she ends up befriending the paralytic and becomes his dresser and aid and even confesses being in love with him.

The book takes on a complex plot line making neighborhood childhood friends adult rivals: Catholic Mary competes with Jewish Rachel for the attentions of Irving, Moshe Wolf's younger son, successful businessman.  After surviving the famous Triangle Shirt factory fire at Washington Square, Mary decides on a course of action to maintain financial stability and marry Irving.  Irving goes against Jewish tradition on two counts by marrying out of the faith and denying the request of a man on his death bed.  With the mitigating circumstances of Mary's impending pregnancy  a la Irving and never having been officially committed to Rachel even though the entire neighborhood is under such an impression, Irving never fulfills the dying man's wish and marries Mary.  Irving, nevertheless uses Rachel to gain funding for his own company by taking out a loan from her wealthy Uncle.

When the intermarriage is revealed much soul searching ensues despite the traditional Shiva period as if one died, Moshe Wolf says kaddish for Irving.  The intermarriage seems intact, however, until Mary violates the agreement with Irving that the child not be raised in either faith when she brings the child to baptism in the Church. The married couple argue; Irving is devastated and Mary goes off on an anti-Jewish rant because such an agreement is illegitimate from the beginning from a Christian point of view and Irving should have known that from a Jewish point of view too.

The whole family is initially broken up and even disgraced in the Synagogue. Ultimately, the qualities of reconciliation and kindness triumph. Moshe Wolf struggles with the concept of an uncircumcised gentile grandson, "one to grow up and hate the Jews". Jewish concepts of never shaming a person, and of being merciful ring out in the piety of Moshe Wolf when he does not hold a grudge against Mary for baptizing her child.  He argues that the child goes after the mother.  All this time, Mary is overwhelmed with Moshe Wolf's piety and humanity.  There is even a hint at Mary's faith in Jesus beginning to wane since all of her Jewish experiences comprise of love, something that was lacking in her own family. The Davidowskys accept her even with her faith.

The Passover scene where Mary as a believing Catholic attempts at making sincere kosher preparations for her pious father in law seems to strain credibility.  What makes this book a compelling read is, however, the reality of assimilation in America and the American value of liberal acceptance.  The sad truth is when one lacks a strong faith, lacks a Jewish education, and strives to Americanize, then the Biblical prohibition of intermarriage is overwhelmed by simple love and acceptance.