The SECRET History of Chanukah

The following eight brief videos are scheduled for release over the holiday (two on Friday morning, none on Saturday), looking at the Maccabean revolt and some aspects of the development of the Chanukah festival over the centuries. Enjoy in good health, but warning up front: some of them appear to have been written by the Grinch who stole Chanukah!

What is a “Moser”? The ugly, complicated history of Judaism’s most dangerous accusation

Thanks to Laura Adkins and Philissa Cramer for really strong edits in today’s article in JTA.

(JTA) The intermediate days of Sukkot in the holy city of Brooklyn are normally a time of singing, prayer and communal fellowship. This year the celebrations were marred by violence. 

Egged on by a rabble-rousing individual who literally wore a political bumper sticker on his chest, a crowd of angry haredi Orthodox Jews protested coronavirus restrictions, burning masks and denouncing government authorities. Police, wary of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests but unaccustomed to angry mobs of Hasidim in their Yom Tov finery, were unprepared for the melee. 

Scenes of the demonstrations were widely circulated on social media, including sporadic episodes of shameful violence. In one notorious bit of cellphone footage, a Yiddish-inflected curse was repeatedly thrown at Jacob Kornbluh, a Hasidic reporter for Jewish Insider. With his back to a wall and surrounded by Hasidim, the threatening crowd chanted “moser, moser, moser!” as jarring, festive holiday music blared incongruously in the background. Barely protected by a handful of police officers, Kornbluh fled the scene, chased away by a surging mass of kaftans and stiff-brimmed black hats.

Incredible.

What, exactly, is a moser? The term “snitch” was also thrown at the hapless writer, but the translation doesn’t come close. 

Moser (also pronounced “moiser”) literally means “one who hands over,” in the sense of one who informs or turns over a Jew to the secular authorities. The term is laden with portent in Jewish law: roughly parallel to a rodef (“pursuer”), a moser is worthy of the death penalty. 

Maimonides wrote in the 12th century that “an informer may be slain anywhere, even at the present time when Jewish courts do not try capital cases. It is permissible to slay him before he has informed…. it is a religious duty to slay him; whoever hastens to kill him attains merit.” There should be no misunderstanding here: Maimonides was writing in a particular social context, prevalent for much of the past two millennia, when Jews constituted a tiny Diasporic minority subject to the whim of often hostile, capricious and brutal governments. 

Halachic authorities like Rabbi Herschel Schachter, head of school at Yeshiva University’s REITS seminary, have been quick to declare that this law does not apply in modern, democratic societies: Reporting criminal behavior to police, or even tax evasion to the IRS, does not make one a hated “moser.” Maimonides’ ruling is more comprehensible in the context of Nazi Germany, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or perhaps Stalin’s Russia. The distinction between “informant” and “slanderer” is unimportant — the simple act of delivering a fellow Jew into the hands of an anti-Semitic autocratic regime is a crime in and of itself.

Jewish history is unfortunately well-populated with contemptible individuals who seek self-promotion by slandering the Jewish community in more public forums. From Nicholas Donin in the 13th century, who initiated literally centuries of anti-Semitic fodder when he denounced the Talmud before Pope Gregory IX, to Jacob Brafman, whose salacious 1869 “Book of the Kahal” outlined anti-Jewish themes that would be exploited by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and even Hitler himself, there have always been Jews whose personal careers were built on putative, tendentious “exposes” of Jewish society. 

No wonder the term “moser” is perhaps the most hated epithet one can apply to a Jew — part traitor, part informant, wholly despicable.

But it is hard to understand the ugly events of Brooklyn last week in terms that would even approach the threshold of rendering anyone a moser. The actions of the state — in this case, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Gov Andrew Cuomo — were clearly motivated by a desire to protect the Hasidic community, and the broader population, from a deadly virus that took the lives of tens of thousands of New Yorkers this spring. Their imposition of the New Cluster Action Initiative threatened economic, social and religious hardships for certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens (including, incidentally, my own), but only the most extreme opponents of the measure would argue it was more than heavy-handed governance. 

Even those who argue that the government measures are draconian and unnecessary would find it hard to justify the unlawful, physical attack on fellow Jews.

If anything, the historical precedent was closer to that of early 19th century Russia, when Tsarist authorities imposed a major reform of the Jewish educational system. Liberal Enlightenmentoriented Jews like Max Lilienthal were convinced at the Tsar’s sincerity and supported the effort to bring the Jews into the modern era. Appointed a special advisor in the Count Uvarov’s Ministry of Education, Lilienthal nevertheless faced withering opposition from traditionalist Jews who saw the plan as a thinly veiled attempt to convert Russia’s Jews to Christianity (they were not entirely wrong). Within five years, Lilienthal resigned his position and moved to Germany and then Cincinnati, where he served as a rabbi of a Reform congregation.

By the turn of the 21st century, the slur of “moser” served primarily as a rallying cry and justification for those who intend extrajudicial violence and seek to silence legitimate opposition. When Yigal Amir, for example, gunned down Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, he called Rabin a moser for his peace efforts with the Palestinians. It’s used as a tool of intimidation against victims of sexual abuse who may be tempted to report their abusers to the authorities. 

Branding a Jew as a moser is, historically speaking, a dangerous charge with horrific, real-world implications. A crowd recklessly chanting “moser, moser, moser” is terrifying, especially in our era of cell phones, social media and WhatsApp. 

Yitzchok Kornbluh, father of the journalist under attack, painfully noted the life-threatening implications of the observed that the irresponsible application of the term moser is literally life-threatening: “All you need is one crazed person to take that “Mitzva” on board,” he wrote, ending with the Hebrew phrase “chas ve’sholom,” Heaven forbid.

Chas ve’sholom indeed.

We’ve Been Here Before. At Least Twice.

Some thoughts on what the pandemic means for Jewish history.

Welcome to the Future, Third Time Around

Historians Will Mark 2020 as a Revolutionary Year for Higher Education

October 05, 2020

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Dr. Henry Abramson

Dr. Henry Abramson

Dr. Henry Abramson, historian and dean of Touro’s Lander College of Arts & Sciences, puts the transition to remote learning into historical perspective. Writing and printing caused similar upheavals in the world of education when they were first introduced.

Despite a raging pandemic, colleges and universities took advantage of mature technologies to transition online, preserving the safety of students and faculty while maintaining true to our educational goals.

Understandably, many participants in this bold enterprise lamented what was lost, even temporarily, myself included. The digital divideZoom fatigue, and the annoying experience of teaching and learning while masked were common complaints. But let there be no doubt: we are at the cusp of a bold new era in education, particularly tertiary education.

But we’ve been here before. Twice, at least.

The first time educators encountered this phenomenon was in the ancient world, when the technology of recording the spoken word became widespread. Clay tablets incised with wedge-shaped script, friable inked papyrus, and of course scrolls from animal skins preserved instruction for generations, the first global experiment in distance learning.

Socrates subjected the educational value of writing to withering criticism, saying that “writing…is very like painting. The creatures in a painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.” Writing lacks synchronous interactivity with an instructor, and is therefore critically impoverished. That said, Socrates’ argument is undermined by the fact that we receive his words only because his student Plato (ahem) wrote them down.

And with synchronous Zoom classes, Socrates’ argument is rendered moot.

Related concerns were raised by the Sages regarding the commitment of the Oral Torah in textual form, and the Talmud was only rendered in its current form after strenuous debate.

So despite the objection of the early Greek philosophers, western civilization marched ahead with writing anyway, considering this technology an invaluable add-on to in-person instruction, not its replacement.

The next major challenge came some 2100 years later, with the advent of cheap printing technologies. Long accustomed to beautiful Arabic calligraphy, the Islamic world largely rejected the poor quality mass-produced equivalent, inadvertently missing an opportunity to participate actively in the scientific revolution that would give Christian Europe a distinct advantage entering the modern era. But not all Europeans were pleased—Hieronimus Squarciafico, himself an employee of an early Venetian print shop, panned the new technology in 1477, writing “already abundance of books makes men less studious; it destroys memory and enfeebles the mind by relieving it of too much work.” Better, argued Squarciafico, to learn more deeply with expensive handwritten texts than read lots of cheap printed books.

But the printers won that debate. Five centuries later, it is increasingly rare for instructors to assign bound physical books, let alone manuscripts on vellum or parchment. No one will doubt the diminished aesthetic value of a mass-produced book when compared to a hand-written work, painstakingly completed by a human scribe. The value of increased access, however, widely overwhelmed the sacrifice of artistic beauty of individually produced written works. And just as Socrates’ objection to writing was recorded in text, so too was Squarciafico’s lament preserved in a printed book.

And with synchronous Zoom classes, the increasing range of personal customizations—virtual backgrounds, gallery vs. speaker views, filters and so on—suggest that even the aesthetic features of remote learning may be overcome to meet individual tastes.

Historians are notoriously unreliable when speaking about the future—we tend to do our jobs best when we are looking backwards, not forwards. But that rear-view perspective suggests that if 2020 is anything like 400 BCE, or like 1500 CE, the Zoom revolution in higher education will certainly not eliminate live, in-person education: we will take these new digital tools to expand, not diminish, our pedagogic power.

AKEIDA: A Conversation on The Binding of Isaac in Jewish History and Thought

Genesis 22–the description of the patriarch Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac and the angelic intervention that followed–is a key text in the Jewish tradition, and forms part of the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah. Join philosopher Dr. Michael Chighel (Milton Friedman Egyetem, Budapest) and historian Dr. Henry Abramson (Touro College, New York) for a conversation on the way this moving Biblical passage has resonated throughout Jewish culture over the centuries. Moderated by Mr. David Kraus (Jewish Museum of Prague).

Wednesday, September 16 @ 1:00 PM EDT

Click here to RSVP

Dr. Michael Chighel (Milton Friedman Egyetem, Budapest)

Michael Chighel holds a doctorate in Philosophy and is the author of Kabale: Das Geheimnis Des Hebraischen Humanismus Im Lichte Von Heideggers Denken (Klostermann, 2020)

Dr. Henry Abramson (Touro College, New York)

Henry Abramson is currently working on a multi-volume survey of Jewish History for Koren Publishers, Jerusalem.

Mr. David Kraus (Jewish Museum of Prague)

Plagues, Pandemics, and Preparation for the High Holidays

A brief overview of infectious disease in Jewish history from ancient times to the present COVID-19 era, and then some thoughts on how to prepare for the High Holidays based on Maimonides’ work on repentance. Join me today for a live chat and premiere of this lecture at 3PM EDT today.