Monday, January 29, 2007

Review: Jay Berkovitz's"Rites and Passages: The Making of Jewish Culture in Modern France" (Hebrew)

Merkaz Zalman Shazar has published Jay Berkovitz's book מסורת ומהפיכה-תרבות יהודית בצרפת בראשית העת החדשה discussing French Jewry and specifically the changes and challenges of modernity. This book is an expanded version of the English Rites and Passages: The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Culture in France, 1650-1860 (UPenn Press) which is available at the previous link and here. Both versions are invaluable for viewing French Jewry and France gernally, a county typically neglected in milieu of Jewish history which tends to focus on Central or Eastern Europe. But, as France experienced emancipation in the late 18th century it is important to see how French Jews dealt with their new found freedom. As Berkovitz correctly points out to understand the impact of emancipation, one needs to examine the history beforehand as well – thus he begins in the 17th century.

Additionally, this book is important in some of the persons it discusses. For instance, there is an extensive discussion of R. Aaron Worms the author of the Me'ori Or. The Me'ori Or – a seven volume work which some may be familiar due to his suggestion that one should recite the blessings of "thank God for not making me a woman or a non-Jew" silently. (See Tradition 29:4 and the articles by Joel B. Wolowelsky and Emanuel Feldman and Shu"t Beni Banim 4:1).

While this is perhaps his most well known opinion, this work contains a treasure trove of information. As is evident from R. Yosef Zechariah Stern, a rather erudite person in his own respect, who cites the Me'ori Or extensively. As one can tell from R. Aaron Worm's opinion for the blessings, he was a sort of iconoclast. While there have been a handful of articles discussing R. Aaron, this book now places him in his full historical context. Berkovitz fleshes out how R. Aaron fits with French change generally and further develops the thought and impact of R. Aaron. Aside from his Me'ori Or, R. Aaron was also part of the Sanhedrin which Napoleon convened, and Berkovitz includes R. Aaron's address to that body. And while Rabbi David Sintzheim is perhaps the most well known, Berkovitz discusses the (important) impact R. Aaron had on this body. This impact is not limited to the Sanhedrin, but a deeper understanding of what R. Aaron was advocating places him in the forefront of modernity.

All in all, Berkovitz's book is a worthwhile contribution to understanding modernity and some of the methods that prior generations have adopted in dealing with its challenges.

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