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. 

Who Was R. Pinhas Hurwitz?

 

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 abramson@touro.edu.

Who Was Sarah, Wife of Shabbetai Tsvi?

Orphaned by the Eastern European pogroms of 1648-49, the volatile Sarah became the spouse of the infamous messianic pretender. Her life, filled with controversy, illustrates the egalitarian elements in Shabbetai Tsvi’s antinomian message.

 

Here is a link to the Prezi.

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.

MONDAY NIGHT: FINAL LECTURE OF THE SEMESTER

We’ll be looking at the life and work of Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620), 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.

We’ll be meeting as usual in the main auditorium of the Lander College of Arts and Sciences, Touro College, 1602 Avenue J, Brooklyn NY 11230.

Lecture begins at 7:00 pm promptly and is free of charge.

A community project of the Lander College of Arts and Sciences.

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Free Download of The Kabbalah of Forgiveness (Tomer Devorah)

Free for the High Holiday Season: a free download of The Kabbalah of Forgiveness, a translation and commentary of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s Tomer Devorah.  Especially valuable reading in preparation for Yom Kippur!

To download, visit https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/464044 and enter coupon code BQ57Y, valid through October 7, 2015.

If you really must have a hard copy, visit Amazon or Createspace.

May you enjoy the cleansing power of forgiveness!

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Who Was Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav? Jewish Biography as History

One of the most creative, unusual, and controversial Hasidic leaders at the turn of the 19th century, Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav (Nachman of Breslov) continues to inspire generations of disciples. Part of the Jewish Biography as History series, more available at http://www.henryabramson.com.

Who Was Rabbi Shlomo Alkabets? Jewish Biography as History by Dr. Henry Abramson

Famed author of the Lecha Dodi hymn sung on the eve of the Jewish sabbath, Rabbi Alkabets was one of the founding members of the 16th-century school of Kabbalists based in Safed (Tsfat), Israel.

Next week’s lecture: Gluckel of Hameln!

Love Yiddish culture? Check out the new poster for the 2015 Kultur Festival in Boca Raton! I’m really proud to be doing a book reading (The Kabbalah of Forgiveness) there on March 6. Main event, as always, will be Maestro Aaron Kula’s phenomenal Klezmer Company Orchestra concert on March 1!

KULTUR 2015

Who Was the Rashba? Jewish Biography as History by Dr. Henry Abramson

Rabbi Shlomo ben Adret, known to his student by the acronym of his name Rashba, was one of the most brilliant Talmudists of medieval Spain. Student of Nachmanides (Ramban) and teacher to the Ritva, his writings are studied to the present day.

Here’s Dr. Abramson in print (because there are times and places where one just can’t enjoy a video).  Check out the eBook versions as well.  

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The Sea of Talmud

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