Who was Josephus, the Roman Jew? A brief lecture providing an overview of the life and work of Josephus, a major Jewish historian who lived through the first Roman-Jewish war of the first century. Part III of The Jews of Italy series.
Conference presentation at the “The 100th Anniversary of the Ukrainian Revolution and the Proclamation of Ukraine’s Independence,” held at the Ukrainian Institute, New York, Sunday, January 21. My talk was inspired by a thought-provoking article in the Forward by Avital Chizik-Goldschmidt. A fascinating panel, which included Anna Procyk of CUNY, Serhy Yekelchyk of University of Victoria, and the incomparable Alexander Motyl of Rutgers. Discussant was Lubomyr Hajda of Harvard (lectures in English).
The 1999 Harvard printing of my book, A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in Revolutionary Times, 1917-1920 has been out of print for some time, but a second, revised edition with new essays is forthcoming this Spring. The Ukrainian translation is available under the title Molytva za vladu: Ukraïntsi ta yevreï v revolutsiinu dobu (1917-1920), published in Kiev by Dukh i Litera (2017).
It’s nice to see that something I wrote nearly twenty years ago still has some value! Just received a proof of the Ukrainian translation of A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in Revolutionary Times, 1917-1920, published by Harvard in 1999. The original went out of print a while ago (there are used copies on Amazon for over $5,000, if you can believe it–good thing I got some author copies when they were published, because I’d never afford one now!). Anyway, this new Ukrainian translation was produced by the prestigious Kiev publishing house Dukh i Litera, translated by Anton Kotenko and Oleksandr Nadtoka.
Fellow Scholars and Students of History!
I’m busy working on my next book, and I’m really enjoying the writing process. I’ve been working on this research for over a decade, even wrote a 500-page manuscript before deciding to start over with an entirely new approach.
This book is on the Holocaust writings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro, known to his followers as the Piaseczno Rebbe. His most well-known work, the subject of this book, is Holy Fire (Aish Kodesh). I also recorded a biographical lecture a while ago, you can find it here.
Here’s the link to the first two chapters. As an experiment, I uploaded the rough draft to academia.edu. I would be delighted to receive helpful comments from interested readers. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Soviet Campaign to Eliminate Passover
One of the most unusual episodes in the long history of anti-Semitic persecution is the Soviet anti-Jewish campaign of the 1920s. Utilizing formerly Jewish converts to the new secular messianism known as Communism, under the leadership of a former Rabbi, Shimon Dimanshteyn, the Soviets embarked on a bizarre yet creative program of anti-Jewish propaganda.
Cover of the fall edition of Der Apikoyres, Kiev 1923
Some of this was expressed in traditional media, such as the Jewish version of the Russian-language magazine Bezbozhnik (literally, “The Godless”), published in Yiddish under the appropriately Talmudic title Der Apikoyres (“The Heretic”). Communist youth were enlisted to organize lavishly catered Yom Kippur dances and stage anti-Jewish plays. Recognizing the powerful hold that religion had on Soviet Jews, the Jewish Section of the Communist Party (Yevsektsiia) also attempted to co-opt the population by capturing and transforming Jewish traditions and texts, including the Passover Haggadah. Called “Red Haggadahs,” several were published in the 1920s with the explicit goal of replacing belief in God with faith in the Soviet Union, and they have been the subject of recently published studies by Dr. Anna Shternsis of the University of Toronto.
The traditional text, read at Seder tables for generation after generation, reads “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but Hashem our God took us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. If the Holy One, Blessed be He, did not take our ancestors out of Egypt, then we, our children, and our children’s children would remain slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”
Cover illustration of a Red Haggadah by Alexander Tyshler, Moscow 1927
The officially atheistic Soviet Union could not tolerate such a passage, so the text of a Red Haggadah read instead: “We were slaves to capitalism until October (Soviet shorthand for the Communist Revolution of 1917) led us out of the land of exploitation with a strong hand. Were it not for October, we and our children would still be slaves.” Instead of God’s destruction of Egyptian army, the Soviet Haggadah describes success of the Red Army; instead of washing hands for ritual purity, the Communist text eliminates “rabbinical laws and customs, Yeshivot and schools that becloud and enslave the people.”
At the Seder’s conclusion, Jews famously proclaim “This year we are here – next year in Jerusalem!” Following the Red Haggadah, participants at the Seder are urged to pronounce, “This year, we have revolution in this land – next year we will have a world revolution!”
By 1930, the notoriously antisemitic Soviet leader Joseph Stalin lost patience with the quixotic and typically unsuccessful propaganda efforts of the Yevsektsiia. Under his influence, the attacks on Jews and Judaism grew far more vicious and deadly, and celebrating even Sovietized Passover Seders became dangerous, entering a phase of persecution that is unfortunately familiar to students of Jewish history.
The Red Haggadahs of the 1920s, however, testify to an unusual period when overt government discrimination was milder. In her research Dr. Shternsis transcribed the childhood memories of Samuil Gil, who recalled how the Komsomol (Communist Youth) movement organized distribution of forbidden hametz on the first day of Passover: “We were given the task of going to Jewish homes and throwing a piece [of bread] into the window of ten different houses. The one who was fastest would receive a prize. We enjoyed the game very much, especially when the old, angry women ran out of their houses and ran after us screaming ‘apikorsim![heretics]‘ We felt like heroes of the Revolution and were very proud. In the evening, though, we would all go home and celebrate the traditional Seder with all the necessary rituals.”
Gil’s experience, specific to the unusual conditions of 1920s Ukraine, is also illustrative of the eternal pattern of Jewish history: “In every generation, someone rises to destroy us – but the Holy One rescues us from their hands.” Just as this truism is affirmed, so too may the conclusion of the Haggadah become our collective reality – next year in Jerusalem!
This article can also be read at: http://www.aish.com/jw/s/The-Soviet-Campaign-to-Eliminate-Passover.html
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Brief overview of the history of Jewish immigration to the United States and demographic developments to the beginning of the 21st century.
Appointed as the head of Napoleon’s Grand Sanhedrin, respected Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva David Sintzheim created a political modus vivendi for Jews in modern Europe.
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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 email@example.com.
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.
Two hundred years ago, Sefer Ha-Brit was a fixture in the library of every educated Jewish home. First published anonymously in 1797, this hugely popular 800-page tome appeared in forty editions, including translations into Ladino and Yiddish. It was widely read by Ashkenazim and Sefardim, western and eastern European Jews, Hasidim, Mitnagdim and Maskilim with equal enthusiasm. Indeed, the author’s initial decision to hide his identity sparked rumors that the book was written by figures as diverse as the Vilna Gaon and Moses Mendelssohn. After a poorly produced pirated edition appeared in 1801, however, the author revealed his identity in an expanded second edition. His name was Pinchas Hurwitz of Vilna, and his unique passion for both Lurianic Kabbalah and modern science ultimately articulated a theological space for Jewish identity in the modern world.
Despite its longevity through the 19th century, Sefer Ha-Brit has not retained its universal popularity over the last fifty years. This is probably because the first half of the book is dedicated to an exuberant survey of the scientific world as it existed at the end of the eighteenth century. Modern readers would find this information about subjects like the technology of hot air balloons quaint, but only specialists in the history of science would read it seriously today. For traditionalist Jews emerging into a rapidly changing industrial society, however, Sefer ha-Brit represented an accessible, authoritative, and religiously kosher view of modern science, and its endorsement by leading Rabbinic figures guaranteed its widespread adoption by intellectually curious Jewish readers.
A recent study of Sefer Ha-Brit by distinguished University of Pennsylvania historian David Ruderman explores the larger significance of Hurwitz’ work, arguing that scholars have underestimated the importance of Sefer Ha-Brit. Ostensibly, Rabbi Hurwitz was inspired by Safed thinker Rabbi Chaim Vital’s Classic work of Kabbalistic ethics, Shaarei Kedushah (discussed in this column: see http://5tjt.com/the-gates-of-holiness/). At first glance, the rapid pace of scientific change represented a grave intellectual challenge to religious piety: given the demonstrable successes of the scientific worldview, what hope of survival would traditional Judaism have for the future? Borrowing from contemporary philosopher Immanuel Kant’s decisive attack on accepted wisdom, Rabbi Hurwitz confidently proposed a theological posture that consisted of two distinct elements. First, the euphoria associated with scientific discovery must be tempered by the realization that later scholars will ultimately refine and even reverse these “laws of nature,” just as Newtonian physics replaced Aristotelian models, and would in turn be superseded by Einstein’s theories. Ultimate truth may only be found in faith, eternally outside the dimensions of empirical measurement. Second, scientific discovery should be received by Jews with open hearts and open minds, recognizing the advance of secular knowledge as the gradual unfolding of Divine wisdom, “the wonders of the Creator.” This twofold proposition, a remarkable combination of contemporary science and Lurianic Kabbalah, created an intellectual space suitable for the adaptation of Jews to the modern world without sacrificing religious integrity.
While the first half of Sefer Ha-Brit is of great value to intellectual historians, the second half remains directly relevant to a much wider audience. Rabbi Hurwitz was deeply concerned with the state of Jewish society, and the second part–significantly expanded after his work was produced in a plagiarized edition in 1801–was a large, substantive discussion of traditional Jewish ethics. Of particular value was the section entitled “Ahavat Re’im,” in which Rabbi Hurwitz argued that the commandment to “love your neighbor as your self” should be understood as a broader directive to respect and hold the dignity of all human beings. Professor Ruderman points out that Rabbi Hurwitz’ moral cosmopolitanism reached further than most commentators, who tended to interpret this verse more narrowly. Rabbi Hurwitz’ wide experience with diverse populations, undoubtedly a result of his extensive European travels, inspired him to promote a more expansive view of human society. Ahavat Re’im was published as a stand-alone work several times after Rabbi Hurwitz passed away in 1821.
A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2016 issue of the Five Towns Jewish Times.
Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought, serving as Dean on the Avenue J campus of Touro College. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.