Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pressburg Under Siege by Rabbi Moshe Sofer

This slight (only 93 pages) autobiographical memoir of the French invasion of Pressburg during the Napoleonic wars describes the shelling of Pressburg (present day Bratislava, 40 miles from Vienna) and how the Jewish community and Austrian troops responded to the carnage.

The Chasam Sofer, (synonymous with his Halachic Work) tells his reader about the miraculous saving of the Jewish community and how no one was killed except for one individual cut down by a bullet to his thigh that the doctors kept trimming away muscle until he succumbed to his wound but not before confessing his sins. His confession is a fascinating glimpse into the politics of community and the role of the chief rabbi.  Rabbi Sofer reports that the young man was under the influence of a very manipulative woman.  She swayed the man to raise rents preventing the poor from gaining residence thus creating a housing shortage.  As a result, the chief rabbi had to campaign against such inequality.  The young man in response to the rabbi's campaign hurled false charges against the rabbi!  Knowing his time was up, the young man confesses and dies a penitent.

One can not help but wonder about the miraculous saving of the Jewish community.  Although the Jewish quarter was utterly ravaged by fire with home after home destroyed, no sefer Torah was destroyed and no member of the Jewish community lost his life.  As a matter of fact, the rabbi tells of heroic behavior by some carrying others to safety.

I could not help but wonder about this account.  It reminded me of the 9/11 attacks destroying the World Trade Center.  Scores of Hatzalah first responders were on the scene furiously working hard to save lives and incredulously not one lost.  The Fire Chief when asked how many rescuers were lost and heard that none were lost, replied,"your community is obviously blessed!"  To have such a great personage as the Chasam Sofer who at every opportunity interpreted the goings on prudently and accurately creates an obvious blessed community and makes for a fascinating read.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

History of the Jews of Russia and Poland: from the earliest times until the present day Volume I by Simon Dubnow

This classic history outlines the vicissitudes of the great Jewish community of Eastern Europe and how the authorities abused the Jewish people with hatred and suspicion.  It is a story of Medievalism and its independent corporate structure of the Kahal, the Jewish community.  Anti-Semitism is an obvious trend, with a story of the desire to ameliorate a 'strange' people.  Volume one goes through Tzar Alexander I's reign.

The Kahal, the corporate structure of the community remains isolated from the gentile community and operates with autonomy.  The gentiles view the Jews with suspicion and hatred categorizing them as Christ Killers keeping their distance.  The economic necessities of commerce bring the respective communities tenuously together.

Both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Polish Catholic Church remain hostile to the Jewish settlement.  The Polish and Russian dynasties never appreciate the talents of the Jewish people and are either condemning, isolating, restricting or massacring the Jews.

With the onslaught of the Napoleonic armies there seems to be a glimmer of hope that perhaps the liberalism of the West will penetrate the heart of the Tzar who was educated in the West.  His fanaticism, however, toward his church, his hatred and suspicion of the Jews prevent him from ever making any serious reforms in favor of the Jewish people.

Within the Jewish community one witnesses the conversion toward Hasidism away from Rabbinism. Lithuania seems to be the only strong hold of Rabbinism.  The strong leadership of the Vilna Gaon keep the Hasidic advance in check.  The intrigues between the two sides never seem to stop.

The famous attitude of Shneur Zalman of Liadi that Napoleon was a greater threat to Judaism was highlighted.  He held that the liberal values would sweep the simple Jew away from his father in Heaven. In contrast however, being loyal, the Tzar would only be a physical harm and not a spiritual one.  When the Jewish people showed loyalty, the Tzar was actually shocked and almost moved to actually alleviate some of the Jewish suffering.  That motion passed, however, with the passing of the threat of Napoleon.

What is absolutely clear from this history is that the Jewish people are viewed as an alien people.  The authorities are motivated to somehow change them by trying to convert them, conscript them or at least modernize them.  Their efforts fail repeatedly.

The Jews of Eastern Europe really don't experience emancipation until the great migration out of Eastern Europe from the 1880's onward.