American Jewish History (Essential Lectures in Jewish History)

Brief overview of the history of Jewish immigration to the United States and demographic developments to the beginning of the 21st century.

Who Was R. Yaakov Emden?

Intimidated by neither power nor position,  Rabbi Yaakov Emden left a remarkable literary legacy in the form of his autobiography, Megilat Sefer. This brief lecture provides an overview of his life and work, including his epic controversy with Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz.

R. Yaakov Emden, Megilat Sefer

People of the Book: Great Works of the Jewish Tradition

Dr. Henry Abramson

One of the more remarkable documents to emerge from the contentious 18th century is Rabbi Yaakov Emden’s Megilat Sefer, the first known autobiography of a major Rabbinic figure.  Surprisingly frank and comprehensive, Megilat Sefer provides an unique glimpse into the mind of one of Europe’s most celebrated Judaic scholars, known not only for his erudition but also for his strident attacks on his contemporary Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz, a popular figure who stood accused of neo-Sabbatean tendencies.

Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) took his surname from the German town where he briefly held his only formal position as a community Rabbi. Most of his scholarly and communal activity, however, took place in Altona, which together with Hamburg and Wandsbeck formed the important “Triple Community.”  Frustrated by his inability to win a permanent position as a communal leader, he maintained himself as an independent scholar, pursuing a variety of business ventures (mostly unsuccessful) until he paired his extensive learning with a private printing press that he set up in his home. He published widely, and his incisive commentary on the Siddur in particular has withstood the test of centuries.  An autodidact and polymath, he once hired a young Dutch boy to teach him the German alphabet, and went on to study a wide variety of scientific and medical texts.

Sadly, his impressive Rabbinic credentials were overshadowed by a major campaign he championed to discredit Rabbi Eibeschutz. After brief involvement with Rabbi Moshe Chagiz’ attack on R. Eibeschutz (see http://5tjt.com/r-moshe-chagiz-shever-poshim/), Rabbi Emden took his cause to another level when copies of a number of amulets, written by R. Eibeschutz for the protection of pregnant women, were sent to R. Emden for scrutiny.  R. Emden determined that the Kabbalistic formulations used in the amulets were veiled references to the false messiah Shabbetai Tsvi.  The ensuing controversy engulfed Europe for much of the 18th century and involved hugely influential Rabbinical figures such as the Pene Yehoshua and the Vilna Gaon. R. Eibeschutz was ultimately vindicated, but R. Emden maintained his efforts to discredit his rival even after the latter’s passing in 1764.

Megilat Sefer is R. Emden’s personal account of his life, written in the midst of the controversy. The autobiography is characterized by an unusual degree of transparency, with R. Emden describing everything from his unhappiness as a husband and a parent to the minutiae of his business failures.  His personal ill health is also chronicled, including his passion for the curative properties of a particular tea to which he may have developed a dependence. Prominent in the memoir, of course, is his dispute with R. Eibeschutz, and the reader gets a clear sense of how all-consuming the conflict was for R. Emden, who was prepared to sacrifice all in his relentless search for ideological truth.

An unflattering biography of R. Emden based on Megilat Sefer appeared in the 1930s, taking unfair liberties with the author’s searing honesty. The great historian Salo Wittmayer Baron of Columbia University published a rather devastating book review of this work, identifying the multiple weaknesses of the biographer’s tendentious, Freudian psycho-social interpretations of R. Emden’s account of his life.  Professor Baron also pointed out that R. Emden’s life and work should not be viewed solely in terms of his opposition to R. Eibeschutz, but also in terms of his phenomenal contribution to Jewish scholarship and spirituality.

Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought, serving as Dean at the Avenue J campus of Touro College.  He may be reached at henry.abramson@touro.edu.

 

Who Was R. Moshe Hagiz?

 

Detractors and admirers alike called him a “zealot, the son of a zealot” a fitting title for arguably the most divisive figure in early eighteenth-century Jewish history. A native son of Jerusalem, Rabbi Moshe Chagiz (1671-1751) originally journeyed to Europe to raise funds for his beleaguered Yeshiva. Within a short period of time, however, he commanded center stage as  a major polemicist in the movement to extirpate all traces of Shabbatai Tzvi’s confused legacy in the Jewish community. Chagiz published widely, both his own Rabbinic works and those of others, but he is best known for his aggressive attacks against Jewish heretics, real or perceived. Unfortunately, his zeal for ideological purity ultimately drew him to criticize the activity of a young Kabbalist named Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. R. Chagiz’ persistence drove R. Luzzatto into exile and an early death.  History would nevertheless vindicate the victim of Chagiz’ calumnies as one of the greatest minds of the Jewish people since the 16th century Safed circle.

After the conversion of Shabbetai Tzvi in 1666 and his death a decade later, his eighteenth century followers may be divided into three categories. The core supporters followed Shabbetai Tzvi into Islam. Known as the Doenmeh, they continued to maintain a distinct communal status for centuries. A second group retained Jewish identity, but openly practiced antinomian Sabbatean practices such as the elimination of fast days and radical experimentation with traditional Jewish marital laws. Certainly the most visible and controversial, these Sabbateans attracted the most attention of polemicists. Rabbi Chagiz, however, was especially concerned with a third category, potentially the largest and certainly the most insidious: crypto-Sabbateans. These Jews, often very learned and occupying leadership positions in the community, secretly harbored Sabbatean inclinations and ambitions, hoping to slowly infiltrate key sectors of the Jewish population and ultimately win the community over to the messianic delusion of Shabbetai Tzvi.

“The Destruction of Sinners” (1714) was Rabbi Chagiz’ first major polemical work, attacking the crypto-Sabbatean Nechemia Chiya Chayon. The text pioneers many techniques that became standard practice for anti-Sabbatean attacks: a relentless search for hidden allusions in the writings of a given Rabbi, the meticulous examination of signatories of his letters of approbation, and the secret collection of testimonies about his personal practice. After a drama that involved several major European communities, R. Chagiz emerged victorious over Chayon.

The experience was transformative, and R. Chagiz went on to build a virtual career as a type of Jewish Inquisitor. For some, he became a heroic defender of Torah-true Judaism, teaming with other opponents of Shabbetai Tzvi like Chacham Tsvi Ashkenazi and Yaakov Emden. For others, he was the pinnacle of intolerance and a purveyor of artificial controversy. After the success of “The Destruction of Sinners,” however, there was no stopping his “pursuit of heresy” (the title of a brilliant biography of R. Chagiz by Columbia professor Elisheva Carlebach, whose career includes teaching at Touro College). When news of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Kabbalistic circle reached him, R. Chagiz embarked on his final crusade. The highly respected Rabbi Isaiah Bassan, teacher to R. Luzzatto since his youth, shielded him from the most egregious charges of crypto-Sabbateanism, through R. Luzzatto was coerced into signing an oath severely limiting his public teaching. After wandering through Europe, R. Luzzatto journeyed to Israel where the ban on his activity did not apply, ultimately dying a premature death.  The victory of R. Chagiz was a tragic loss for the Jewish intellectual tradition.

This article originally appeared in the March 16, 2016 issue of the Five Towns Jewish Times. 

Sefer Ha-Heshek

People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on March 3, 2016. Click here for a video lecture on the topic.

By Dr. Henry Abramson

Working in the abandoned Judaica collection of the Kiev Vernadsky Library during the immediate post-Soviet period, a brilliant young Jewish historian named Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern discovered a rare 300-year-old manuscript. Ignored by Communist scholars for a century, the well-thumbed, 760-page manuscript, bound in leather with a wooden cover and copper breastplate, was not catalogued in any of the collections of the library. Its unusual Ashkenazic script and numerous drawings of complex Kabbalistic symbols fascinated Petrovsky-Shtern, who was on a personal journey to rediscover his ancestral faith. What was this mysterious, one-of-a-kind book?

After nine years of extensive research that took him to archives around the world, Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern published the answer. Sefer HaCheshek was a rare, secret guide to practical Kabbalah, written when Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of the Chassidic movement, was just beginning to deliver his revolutionary teachings. The author’s name itself sheds light on the significance of the text. Hillel styled himself as a Ba’al Shem, literally Master of the Name [of G‑d], a term used to describe itinerant amulet-makers who typically sold their services to simple Jews seeking Kabbalistic remedies for their problems. Shaman-like, these frequently unlearned and often unscrupulous individuals traveled from shtetl to shtetl, performing exorcisms, treating various ailments, and writing amulets for a wide variety of purposes: health, prosperity, marriage, children. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, by contrast, was known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, the “Good” Master of the Name, because his work was of an entirely different order.

The Sefer HaCheshek contains both extensive instruction in Kabbalistic healing and a surprising degree of autobiographical information. Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern, now a distinguished historian at Northwestern University in Chicago, argues convincingly that the manuscript was written as a type of curriculum vitae, as Hillel wished to end his peripatetic existence and secure a permanent position, preferably in Germany. Sefer HaCheshek was intended as a demonstration of his experience and expertise, having apprenticed to both medical doctors and reputable Kabbalists. Whether or not he received the position—an honor that was bestowed on his contemporary, the Ba’al Shem Tov, in the Ukrainian town of Medzhybizh—is unknown. Nevertheless, Hillel Ba’al Shem’s description of his prior experiences (especially a dramatic exorcism in Ostrah) illustrates the state of popular religious practice in pre-Beshtian Eastern Europe, and provides a vivid backdrop for the emergence of Chassidism.

Why did Chassidism flourish, and the populist, theurgic Kabbalah of Hillel and other ba’aleiShem decline? Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern provides a salient analysis by identifying what was absent in Sefer HaCheshek. Despite its encyclopedic coverage of remedies for every possible physical, psychological, romantic, and economic malady, Hillel Ba’al Shem delivers no message of universal human redemption. Unlike the Ba’al Shem Tov, whose teachings emphasized human potential and the value of community, Hillel relies on magical one-time fixes, not personal spiritual growth. To the crestfallen he offers no counsel; to the bereft, no benefit. The terminology employed in his work is similar—Hillel refers to Kabbalistic disciples as chassidim, for example—but the contrast between the numerous but forgotten Ba’alei Shem and the magnificent Chassidic world founded by the Ba’al Shem Tov could not be more profound.

Sarra Copia Sulem’s Manifesto

Sarra Copia Sulam’s Manifesto

People of the Book: Great Works of the Jewish Tradition

Dr. Henry Abramson

This article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of the Five Towns Jewish Times. 

An unlikely literary duel in Venice took an unexpected turn in 1621 with the appearance of a slim volume entitled “The Manifesto of Sarra Copia Sulam the Jewess, Who Therein Refutes and Reproves Signor Baldassare Bonifacio’s False Accusation that She Denies the Immortality of the Soul.” In concise, even blunt language, the young socialite took arms against a Catholic priest and philosopher who had written a direct attack on her religious beliefs under the title “On the Immortality of the Soul: A Discourse by Baldassare Bonifaccio for Signora Sarra Copia.” This was no mere pamphlet:  charging a Jew with nonbelief in a central article of faith could draw the unwanted attention of the Inquisition, with deadly results. Bonifaccio, however, had no idea who he was dealing with. Young Sarra’s direct and unequivocal response was the first example of a Jewish woman defending her faith in print in early modern Europe.

The roots of the confrontation went back several years, when Sulam began a correspondence with the respected Genoese author Ansaldo Ceba. Deeply impressed with his epic poem on the life of Queen Esther, Sulam gushed that she even slept with the poem on her pillow, such that it might be the first thing she sees upon waking. Ceba, some thirty years her senior and now retired to a monastery, was flattered by her exuberant praise, and resolved to persuade her to convert to Christianity. In a flurry of letters that extended over several years, Ceba directed every literary device to this goal, without success. In a final act of attempted proselytism months before his death, he published all his letters to Sulam in a single volume. Her letters, unfortunately, were not included.

Awareness of Ceba’s pet project to convert this perspicacious young Jewess was well known in Venetian literary circles, motivating a Priest (later Bishop) Baldassare Bonifacio to force her baptism through more aggressive means, thinking that his public attack on her personal Judaism might pressure her to accept Christianity. When news of the publication reached Sulam, she wrote her impassioned defense in two short days and rushed it into print before Bonifacio’s broadside could have any impact: the narrative shifted from Sulam’s intransigence to her brilliant “smack-down” of a meddling interloper. Brilliantly, she dedicated the Manifesto to her late father, pointedly asking Bonifacio how she could do so if she truly believed that the soul of her father was no more? She had no compunction against defending herself with an aggressive counter-attack.

Sulam’s Manifesto did not break new ground philosophically, but it stands alone as an unique statement of a Jewish woman’s voice in early 17th century Venice. Taking advantage of the relatively new technology of printing, Sarra Copia Sulam fearlessly defended her faith from senior Church officials, leaving her mark in Jewish literary history.

 

Who Was Sarra Copia Sulem?

When Sarra, a bright young poetry lover of 17th century Venice, wrote to a senior literary figure, she thought she was merely expressing her admiration for his literary work.  In the end, she was forced to defend publicly her refusal to leave Judaism.

Click here for the Prezi. 

Sarra Copia Sulam’s Manifesto

People of the Book: Great Works of the Jewish Tradition

Dr. Henry Abramson

This article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of the Five Towns Jewish Times. 

An unlikely literary duel in Venice took an unexpected turn in 1621 with the appearance of a slim volume entitled “The Manifesto of Sarra Copia Sulam the Jewess, Who Therein Refutes and Reproves Signor Baldassare Bonifacio’s False Accusation that She Denies the Immortality of the Soul.” In concise, even blunt language, the young socialite took arms against a Catholic priest and philosopher who had written a direct attack on her religious beliefs under the title “On the Immortality of the Soul: A Discourse by Baldassare Bonifaccio for Signora Sarra Copia.” This was no mere pamphlet:  charging a Jew with nonbelief in a central article of faith could draw the unwanted attention of the Inquisition, with deadly results. Bonifaccio, however, had no idea who he was dealing with. Young Sarra’s direct and unequivocal response was the first example of a Jewish woman defending her faith in print in early modern Europe.

The roots of the confrontation went back several years, when Sulam began a correspondence with the respected Genoese author Ansaldo Ceba. Deeply impressed with his epic poem on the life of Queen Esther, Sulam gushed that she even slept with the poem on her pillow, such that it might be the first thing she sees upon waking. Ceba, some thirty years her senior and now retired to a monastery, was flattered by her exuberant praise, and resolved to persuade her to convert to Christianity. In a flurry of letters that extended over several years, Ceba directed every literary device to this goal, without success. In a final act of attempted proselytism months before his death, he published all his letters to Sulam in a single volume. Her letters, unfortunately, were not included.

Awareness of Ceba’s pet project to convert this perspicacious young Jewess was well known in Venetian literary circles, motivating a Priest (later Bishop) Baldassare Bonifacio to force her baptism through more aggressive means, thinking that his public attack on her personal Judaism might pressure her to accept Christianity. When news of the publication reached Sulam, she wrote her impassioned defense in two short days and rushed it into print before Bonifacio’s broadside could have any impact: the narrative shifted from Sulam’s intransigence to her brilliant “smack-down” of a meddling interloper. Brilliantly, she dedicated the Manifesto to her late father, pointedly asking Bonifacio how she could do so if she truly believed that the soul of her father was no more? She had no compunction against defending herself with an aggressive counter-attack.

Sulam’s Manifesto did not break new ground philosophically, but it stands alone as an unique statement of a Jewish woman’s voice in early 17th century Venice. Taking advantage of the relatively new technology of printing, Sarra Copia Sulam fearlessly defended her faith from senior Church officials, leaving her mark in Jewish literary history.

Who Was Rabbi David Gans?

David Gans (1541-1613) was a Rabbinic scholar, historian, and astronomer.  A student of Rabbi Moshe Isserles and the Maharal of Prague, he collaborated actively with Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler and left behind important scholarly works.

 

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Sefer HaChinuch (People of the Book)

People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

By Dr. Henry Abramson

Written with a deep humility that nevertheless could not disguise the author’s brilliance,Sefer HaChinuch remains one of the most thought-provoking halachic studies some 800 years after it first appeared in the Iberian Peninsula. The deceptively simple title, “The Book of Education,” alludes to the anonymous author’s intent: to provide his young son with a basic introduction to the Torah and its commandments. Sefer HaChinuch is therefore an example of the medieval genre of “counters of the commandments” (monei ha’mitzvot), books that list the precise number of positive and negative commandments to add up to the 613 as reported in the Talmud. Many rabbis participated in this scholarly quest, often differing with each other with regard to which act was actually a full commandment, which was only a corollary action, and so on.

Sefer HaChinuch, however, was distinguished by one highly unusual feature: unlike the other monei ha’mitzvot, the Book of Education attempted to answer why each commandment exists. Other scholars, Maimonides and Nachmanides among them, relegated this crucial question to more-sophisticated philosophical works. The Sefer HaChinuch, on the other hand, sought to satisfy the basic curiosity of an adolescent youth. In so doing, he left an intellectual legacy for generations.

The book is often attributed to a well-known 14th-century rabbi named Aharon of Barcelona, but most scholars estimate it was written over a century earlier by an unknown scholar, possibly with the same name and hailing from Barcelona. The author’s attempt to hide his identity is betrayed by a few details in the text, such as the emphasis he places on telling his son to pay special attention to commandments relevant to their family tribe of Levi. He was likely a student of Nachmanides, and possibly wrote the text before the great scholar was banished from Spain in the 1260s.

The book is organized according to the sequential appearance of the commandments in each Torah reading, making it ideal for weekly study. After describing the scriptural basis of each commandment, the text briefly describes how it is observed, who is responsible for performing the commandment (men, women, kohanim, etc.), and under which temporal and conditional circumstances it takes effect (while the Temple was standing, or levirate marriage when the widow is childless, etc.). Finally, each mitzvahconcludes with a remarkably concise and often boldly philosophical description of the “roots of the mitzvah,” meaning its purpose in the Divine Plan.

Some of my favorite sections include the author’s discussions of forbidden mixtures (wool and linen, meat and milk, etc.) that draw upon Kabbalistic ideas about the quality of energies that make up material entities and the spiritually deleterious effects of combining them improperly. The author was also sensitive to the psychological implications of the mitzvot, and is perhaps best known for a theme that runs throughout his work: a person is shaped by his or her actions, not vice versa. By training ourselves in the performance ofmitzvot, even in the absence of a clear awareness of their purpose, we purify ourselves and prepare for ultimate understanding. The Sefer HaChinuch’s purpose as a guide for young people thus retains its evergreen status even for adults living in spiritually and intellectually troubled times.

Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought, serving as dean at the mighty Avenue J campus of Touro College. He may be reached athenry.abramson@touro.edu.

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on January 28, 2016.

People of the Book: The Ways of the Righteous

“When I speak, I regret what I say, but when I am silent, I do not regret. And if I may regret my silence once, I regret speaking many times over.”

—Gate 21: The Gate of Silence,
The Ways of the Righteous

Is it possible that The Ways of the Righteous, among the most influential works of Jewish ethics written over the past millennium, was secretly authored by a woman? Proponents of this controversial view advance three principal points to bolster their argument. First, the text was published anonymously. It was not unknown for authors in the mussar tradition to refrain from claiming authorship. It is also sadly true, even today, that women authors seeking publication are forced to hide their gender with a pseudonym, a single initial for their given name, or even pose behind a living male to have their work circulated. The 15th-century appearance of a deeply learned text like The Ways of the Righteous would certainly have aroused suspicion, even notoriety, with a woman’s name on the title page. Second, the text was first published in Yiddish, the vernacular of Eastern European Jewry, but Hebrew was common language of higher learning. Yiddish was known in some circles as der vayber sprach, the “women’s language,” because female literacy was usually limited to this Hebraized version of Middle High German. Third, and most tantalizingly, internal literary evidence reveals frequent use of domestic metaphors and similes. The author often makes reference to cooking, cleaning, and other home-based work that would have been readily grasped by homemakers. Thus if it were true that a woman authored Orchot Tzaddikim, then she would certainly represent the most learned woman since ancient times.

Tempting as this theory is, the arguments rest on relatively weak foundations. Much more likely is the probability that the author was a conventionally educated man with passing familiarity with domestic chores. Research into the several manuscript versions currently housed in the libraries of Oxford, Hamburg, and Budapest suggests strongly that the original version was written in Hebrew, and then translated into Yiddish for a broader, female audience of readers. The mystery surrounding the author, however, should not distract us from the fact that The Ways of the Righteous is a brilliant exposition of Jewish ethics, demonstrating a profound understanding of human psychology and infused with an abiding message of hope for self-improvement.

The book is divided into 28 “gates,” each of which is dedicated to a particular character trait. Versions of the text circulated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries under the title The Book of Character Traits (Sefer HaMiddot). For each character trait, the author describes both the positive and negative aspects of this particular moral quality, and suggests development of the beneficial and avoidance of the deleterious factors. The influence of Maimonides’ Hilchot Dei’ot is prominent, although an analysis of the author’s source base reveals an exceptionally broad familiarity with the scope of rabbinic writings through the medieval period.

The Ways of the Righteous insists repeatedly that there is no such thing as a bad character trait, only a misdirected character strength. Misunderstood attributes like hatred, cruelty, worry, anger, jealousy, falsehood, flattery, and gossip are treated extensively. Similarly, the text also discusses many positive traits that can be misused, including humility, mercy, alacrity, and repentance. My personal favorites include the remarkably original chapter on silence, and I often turn to the chapter deceptively named “The Gate of Joy” for its moving discussion of faith (bitachon).

The Ways of the Righteous retains evergreen popularity in mussar-oriented yeshivos, especially the Chofetz Chaim movement. It has been adapted into a three-volume children’s book, and a new four-volume translation with commentary was recently completed by my Miami-based colleague, Rabbi Avrohom Yachnes.

This column originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on Thursday, January 21, 2016.

Who Was Rabbi Chaim Vital?

Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620) was the principal disciple of the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal). Three days after the death of his master, Rabbi Vital received a vision in a dream that consumed his scholarly life for decades: preserving the mystical heritage of the great Safed tradition.

Please click here for the Prezi.