Celebrating the Triumph of the Books of the People of the Book
By Rabbi Norbert Weinberg,
[Rabbi Weinberg recently donated books of archival value to the Leo Baeck Institute. On the occasion of the yahrzeit, on Shushan Purim, of his father, Rabbi Dr. William Weinberg, he penned this account of the story of the Jewish people as reflected in the books from his collection. He is the author of a blog on 20 th Century Jewish history, Courage of the Spirit( www.Courageofspirit.com ). He and his wife operate Huntington Learning Center School Services in the central and eastern SFV and is advisor to a new social media network to assist family caregivers of elderly relatives, www.celsyalife.com .]
The medieval Jewish translator, Ibn Tibbon, expressed the Jewish
relationship to books when he commanded his sons, ”Make your books your companions, let your
cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens.”
. We render special treatment to books of religious content, as if they were elderly parents--kiss them when they fall, never place them in a disrespectful position, and when no longer viable, give them an honorable burial.
It was with this regard that I had treated books that had been in my father's collection.
Rabbi Dr. William Weinberg had served as Rabbi to the survivors of the Shoah and was the first State Rabbi of Hesse (Frankfurt and environs), Germany and these been part of his library. He passed it on to me; with time I had augmented it as well. Many of these books had survived both World Wars, travelled the ocean twice, been moved and packed countless times.
Over the years, I had begun to donate books that I no longer could use or store; some had gone to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, others to a scholar at a Yeshiva. I had hoped to keep the one's I felt were most precious. Finally, it had come to the point that I saw these books become ever more fragile and vulnerable to the dangers of moisture and parasites. As time would go on, they would lose all value as historical texts unless transferred to an academic institute where they would be properly cared for.
A few weeks ago, these books made their way to the Leo Baeck Institute. It was a very fitting place for these texts, as most of them were the fruit of German Jewry, which is the focus of the Institute. Even more appropriate , from a personal perspective, the Institute is named after Rabbi Leo Baeck, the Chancellor of my father's Rabbinical school in Berlin( Hochschule füer die Wissenschaft des Judentums) .Furthermore, the President of the Institute , Professor Ismar Schorsch, had been Chancellor of my Rabbinical alma mater (Jewish Theological Seminary of America). (Note: If readers have any manuscripts or documents from the period before, during or after the Holocaust, please contact Dr. Frank Mecklenburg, the director, about donating them to the Institute for safe keeping for future generations, email : firstname.lastname@example.org. Their website is www.lbi.org .)
A glance at some of the books that had been in my collection serves as a walk through the woods of Jewish religious, intellectual and political history .It reminds us of the vitality and creativity of the Jewish spirit.
We can start from Bereshit, the Beginning, a Yemenite manuscript of the Chumash, Pentateuch, with Aramaic translation, written in the 19th century.
( Yemenite Genesis manuscript,c 19th c)
Printing was rare in much of the Moslem world till modern times , as the Ottoman Sultans feared the corrupting power of the press in spreading ideas dangerous to the faith. Jews in far flung realms like Yemen had to count on hand-written texts. Jews who grew up in Yemen were renowned for being able to read upside down or side-ways with ease because the "Mori",the teacher could get hold of only one book to put on the table . The child at the end of the table that day read an upside down text!
In the 17th and 18th century east Europe, the Chumash served as the springboard for Yiddish as a language of literature. Jewish women, while not schooled formally as were the men, nevertheless were often taught to read and there was a need to provide edifying religious texts. The classic case was the Tsena Rena, a paraphrase in Yiddish, of the Chumash, written by one Yaakov ben Yitzhak of Janow in the early 17th century. Herein was an amalgamation of the narrative of the Chumash with moral comments drawn from Rashi and Rabbinic lore.
(excerpt from Tsena Rena, circa 1700's).
We Jews never had an exclusive lock on the Bible. There is an extensive history of Bible study, of course, by Christians who had just as great a need to understand the sacred words as we did. To do so they needed access to our manuscripts of the Bible and printed the text reflecting the variations in these manuscripts , such as this 1839, Leipzig edition of Biblia Hebraica
A Christian scholar would need a good dictionary as well for the Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, such as this one by Johannis Cocceis. He was a noted early Protestant theologian, who, in 1669, defined the entries in Latin, Greek, Belgian and German with explanations drawn from Rashi and the Talmud in his Lexicon et Commentarius Sermonis Hebraici.
The period of the Second Temple and the centuries that followed saw the formulation of classical Judaism in the works of the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash. Original texts of the period were rare finds, save for the famous scrolls at Qumran or the later Genizah in Cairo. As a result of medieval persecutions and burnings of the Talmud, very few texts of the core document of Judaism survived. One exception was a manuscript of the Babylonian Talmud, transcribed in 1342 and preserved in the Royal Library of Bavaria and made public by the publication of a facsimile copy in 1912 by Christian scholar of Judaism, Herman Strack, Talmud Babylonicum Codicis Hebraici Monisenis 95
(Talmud Babylonicum Codicis Hebraici Monisenis 95)
The Middle Ages was also a period of Jewish creativity in the realm of Jewish law, philosophy and thought.
The paramount guide to Jewish law, coming towards the end of the Middle Ages, was the Shulkhan Arukh, of Rabbi Josef Karo in 16th century Safed. This was an abridgement of his master work, the commentary on the earlier code, The Tur. It was intended as a guide to help Rabbinic students determine what had become accepted practice, so that one could come to his work and feast as at a set dinner table, hence, Shulkhan Arukh ; in Poland, an equally great scholar, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, decided that the banquet table was missing one element, a tablecloth, Mapah , of the customs and practices of Ashkenazic Jewry. From then on, the Table and its Tablecloth set the standards for European Jewry.
(1795 edition, printed in Amsterdam).
Back in Yemen, where , as I mentioned, printed books were a rarity , Jewish texts were hand written with painstaking exactness ( some of the oldest texts of Midrash were preserved by the scribes of Yemen). One of the greatest leaders of Yemenite Jewry was 18th century R. Yichyeh Tzalach ( Maharitz), who was the authority in his days of Jews from Ethiopia to India. When, centuries later, another scholar, R.Yihyeh ben Yakov, wanted to write a text on Kashrut, Zivchey Shelamim, he wrote it, in classical medieval style, around the text of Makor Chayim of Rabbi Tzalach.
( manuscript of Zivchey Shelamim in my possession, c 1880)
By the end of the Renaissance, the new trends of critical thinking among Christian Europeans were beginning to make headway into Jewish circles, so that Azariah dei Rossi, an Italian Jewish physician in the 1500’s, began to apply these critical methods to question the historicity of the “aggadah”, the traditions of events that appeared in the Talmud and other early Rabbinic literature. For this, he was almost excommunicated and his work, “Maor Eynaim “,( A Light for the Eyes) almost burned by instruction of the famous Rabbi Karo, author of the Shulkhan Arukh. His work was reprinted two centuries later by the students of the new perspective on the world, The Enlightenment.
( 1794 Berlin edition).
This brings us to a scholar from Desau who folowed his teacher to Berlin to continue his Rabbinic studies and then became one of the most celebrated philosphers, both German and Jewish, of his day, Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn, with his keen intellect, was soon admitted to the highest intellectual circles in Berlin.He became the inspiration for a play by a German Christian author, Lessing, called Nathan the Wise and was the inspiration for the acceptance of Jews into German society. At the same time, Mendelssohn was concerned with the challenges that a newer, more embracing German culture, with its emphasis on reason, presented. He felt the need to bring German culture to his fellow Jews by translating the Bible into German as a vehicle tol lead them to a literary German. On the other hand,he defended Judaism to German society. Jerusalem, or Religious Power and Judaism was his most noted work, presenting Judaism as based on a system of revealed laws but not on dogma, in contrast to Christianity, based entirely on dogma;Judaism in this new Age of Reason was therefore the true religion. In this new and liberal Europe,a Jew could openly challenge Christianity and then be a cultural hero to boot.
While Mendelssohn wrote and the French filosof proposed, Napoleon smashed open the gates of Europe’s ghettoes and promised Jews recognition as citizens of this new enlightened world. No sooner, though, than Napoleon fell and the doors began to close again;it took more years of struggle to give Jews their full place in European society ( rescinded yet again in Germany under Hitler) .In 1831, a Jewish attorney, Dr. Gabriel Riesser, who had been barred from teaching at the local University, published a challenge to the government to give Jews full rights as citizens:Uber die Stellung der Bekenner des Mosaischen Glauabens in Deutschland ( On the Position of Confessors of the Jewish Faith in Germany,1831 , Altoona edition). Sixteen years later, he would become the first Jewish citizen of Hamburg and the first Jewish judge in Germany
The new era of Enlightenment created unprecedented shifts inside the Jewish communities of western, central and later, eastern Europe.In an age in which faith itself was challenged, many Jews had no compunction about converting to Christianity in order to obtain a political or profesisonal appointment. For example, one of the greatest of German poets, Heinrich Heine, went to the baptism font yet openly regarded himself as a Jew and referred to Jewish themes repeatedly in his works, such as his novel,”The Rabbi of Bacharach” about persecution of the Jews.
(Heinrich Heines Werke, 1884).
More noble and courageous move was to incorporate the ideals of the Enligtenment as the ideals of Judaism in what became the Reform movement. The Reform prayerbook, Olat Tamid, by Rabbi David Einhorn, was published it in 1858 in New York This was a creative work expressing Einhorn’s Reform ideal of the universality of humanity with an anti-particularistic strain. He removed the Kol Nidrei, the Musaf service, the blessings for the blowing of shofar or the lighting of Chanukah lights. He de-emphasized Israel as the Chosen People, and removed all references to a personal Messiah, a return to Israel, or the resumption of the sacrificial cult. The same Rabbi, infused with the ideals of German enlightenment, was a champion abolitionist who was chased out of Baltimore for hhis preaching. The prayerbook itself was in German, as the Jews he preached to were all refugees of the reactionary crackdown on liberals after the failed revolutions of 1848 in Germany.
( Gebetbuch-Prayerbook Olat Tamid, 1858)
One young Jewish intellectual was dismayed at the attack on faith from rationalists and reformers. This young scholar combined high secular academic training with traditional Rabbinic studies and was determined to show that would now be called “ Orthodox “ Judaism was compatible with contemporary thought. He preached in German and even called for the removal of the Kol Nidre ( just as his Reform contemporary above had done); on the other hand, Halakhah in principal was immutable and he saw no choice but to separate his community, legally, from the civilly recognized community of Frankfurt, Germany, now under the control of a Reform-minded majority. His first salvo in defense of Orthodoxy is Neunzern Briefe uber Judentum von Ben Uziel, ( Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel) written in 1836, when he was not yet 30
( Neunzehn Briefe,1901 edition)
A third way arose, between, rejection of all Jewish observance on the one hand, and unquestioning adherence on the other hand, arose in the school of “ positive historical” Judaism, now identified with the Conservative movement. This school of thought sought to defend the validity and force of Jewish law in the light of a “scientific” (Wissenschaft) examination of sources and then determine the original intention and possible implications in applying ancient precepts to modern situations. Rabbi Zecharia Frankel for example brought together the great researchers of his day to shed new light on ancient themes in his journal, Monatschrift fur die Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, founded in 1851. The journal continued publication until the Nazi regime. Almost all copies of the last volume, 1939, were destroyed; my father had one of the only extant copies, which is now in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Yet another route opened to the Jewish people—the route of Zionism, both in its religious and secular variation. The only place for Jews in a Europe that was becoming increasingly nationalistic and turning its back on the ideals of the Enlightenment was in the ancient Land of Palestine—Eretz Yisrael. Before Herzl, there was Leo Pinsker, who called for Jewish political resurgence in the Land of Israel in 1883, Auto-Emancipation ( 1936 edition).(No image).
Forty years after Herzl’s call for a Jewish state, Chaim Weizmann was pleading the case for Jewish immigration to Palestine to the British government’s Peel Commission. Shown here is the German translation of the text of Weizmann’s appeal, “The Right to the Homeland”,Das Recht auf die Heimat 1936.
(Das Recht auf Die Heimat, 1936)
Zionism gave rise to a new living Hebrew; my father’s uncle ,Jonah Gelernter, was editor of a Hebrew language journal in Vienna. There arose, as well, another nationalist trend, focused in Europe, that led to the flourishing of Yiddish as a literary language of cultural value comparable to the other languages of Europe. Could one think of a European and American Jewish culture without the works of a Sholem Aleichem or Yitzhak Leib Peretz?
(Alle Wereke fun Sholem Aleichem, 1944 ed.)
(Chasidish , Yitzhak Leib Peretz)
The end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century saw an intellectual world dominated by the triumvirate of Jewish German-speakers- Marx in politics, Freud in psychology, and Einstein in science. The “ Deutsche Kultur-Kreise”, the German cultural sphere, gave rise to a unique flowering of Jewish creativity that expressed itself secularly ( as in great writers, scientists, musician,poltical thinkers) but also Jewishly. This continued unabated up to the eve of the Shoah, The great spiritual and intellectual leaders in the Jewish world lived at one point or another in German-speaking countries- Rabbis Leo Baeck, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joseph Soloveitchik, and Menahem Mendel Schneerson ,philosophers of Judaism- Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, or the psychologist, Alfred Adler, who served as mentor to young Zionists in Vienna.
(Baeck, Wege im Judentum, The Path of Judaism, 1933
(Buber, Hundert Chasidische Geschichte A Hundred Chasidic Tales, 1935)
Popular German authors revealed their Jewish side as well. Austrian playwright, son of a Jewish father and a French mother , popularly known as Ferdinand Bruckner, produced his own edition of the Psalms of King David,in a numbered limited edition, published under his real name of Theodor Tagger
(Psalmen Davids, 19/50 numbered editon, 1918.illustration)
The cream of Jewish intellectual production was surely the comprehensive Encyclopedia Judaica , published in Berlin beginning in 1928. The editors succeeded published up to Volume 10. in 1934, the Nazi regime made further progress on this work impossible.
(Encyclopedia Judaica, Berlin ,
1934, Vol 10)
Nazism sought to destroy not only the Jewish people but every vestige of Jewish cultural, intellectual, spiritual and moral teaching. This was at the heart and soul of the reign of terror that befell the entire world. The dark night had set upon European Jewry and this flourishing culture.
The will for decency ultimately triumphed over the will to evil in 1945, with the defeat of the Third Reich by the Allies.
In the aftermath of the Shoah, the survivors in the DP camps picked themselves up to start life anew. It was fitting then, that the United States Armed Forces, which did so much to defeat Nazism, helped publish an edition of the Talmud for the benefit of the survivors of the holocaust. This set, which I donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is perhaps the only edition of the Talmud to be dedicated to a gentile military! On the cover page there is, at the bottom, the darkness of a concentration camp, and at the top, the brightness of the sun rising over the Land of Israel . Fittingly, it was printed in Heidelberg, Germany —in 1948, the year of Israel’s Independence!
( Talmud, 1948)
I close this essay with a note on the triumph of the Books of the People of the Book.
Die Juden in Deutschland, (The Jews in Germany) is an almanac of the Jewish communities in Germany, printed in 1953. One page shows a photograph of the rededication of the magnificent Westend Synagogue of Frankfurt in 1951.My father, as presiding Rabbi, is holding the Torah scroll, the Book of Books of the People of the Book, on the left, in front of the ark. What better way to declare the triumph of the spirit of the Jewish people on a land soaked in Jewish blood and the victory of human decency over nihilism and evil than to stand under the inscription,” Ki Mitziyon”—From out of Zion shall go forth the Torah and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”!
(Die Juden in Deutschland, 1953)