Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Review of Dr. Michael Stanislawski, "A Murder in Lemberg: Politics, Religion, and Violence in Modern Jewish History"

Some have already pointed out that Columbia University Professor Michael Stanislawski has a new book/thriller.[1] This book describes the murder of R. Abraham Kohn and the events leading up to it and its aftermath.

Prof. Stanislawski attempts to discern whether, in fact, R. Kohn was murdered -- Stanislawski thinks so -- and in doing so, provides a wonderful description of Lvov (Lemberg) during the mid-nineteenth century. The basic background is that R. Kohn was a Reform Rabbi who became the main Rabbi in Lemberg. This allowed him to enact various rules, some such as the abolition of the various Jewish taxes which were collected by Orthodox Jews and thus they profited from it at the expense of the poor could be viewed as postive. But, as he was Reform, even the poor who benifited from this, still complained about such changes. As Stanislawski shows, much of R. Kohn's actual reforms to Jewish practice were to be found in his articles (and his prior pulpit) rather than his public speeches or proclamations in Lemberg. While the book is interesting and Stanislawski does a good job on the whole, there are several points which I think need to be addressed.

The first is his conclusion. Although he does allow there may be room to doubt whether Kohn was murdered, anyone reading the book comes away with the impression that Stanislawski thinks Kohn was murdered. Stanislawski chides prior authors who don't conclude Kohn was murdered. The problem with this, is Stanislawski provides the entire legal history after Kohn's death, which seriously questions whether Kohn was murdered. That is, after Kohn died one person stood trial for his murder and was convicted. However, on appeal this was overturned. After the verdict was overturned, it was again reviewed by the highest court and the appellate court's judgment was upheld.

While there are some issues with both of these appellate decisions, I don't see how, after 150 years, and the fact that he admits he doesn't have all the documentation, Stanislawski could then chide these other authors for relying upon these contemporaneous decisions! If Stanislawski unearthed some document which pointed to the perpetrator that would be one thing, but that is not the case here.

Additionally, Stanislawski intimates that as the accused was Orthodox, later Orthodox writers and publishers attempted to cover up the whole incident and label it as a death. He singles out the publishing house Mossad HaRav Kook and lays claim they also deliberately got it wrong. [2] Setting aside the possiblity that these Orthodox publications decided to rely upon the decision of the abovementioned courts, it is disingenuous to accuse Mossad HaRav Kook when in fact, another one of their publications -- one that they have reprinted just a few weeks ago -- includes the story as Stanislawski wants to believe it happened. Included in Prof. Meir Hershkovics' biography on R. Tzvi Hirsch Chajes (Maharetz Chajes) published by Mossad HaRav Kook, it is noted that Kohn and his child were murdered by Orthodox Jews.[3]

While, a conspiracy theory makes for more exciting reading, the facts don't seem to support it.

[1] Michael Stanislawski, A Murder in Lemberg: Politics, Religion, and Violence in Modern Jewish History (Princeton University Press, 2007)
[2] See esp. id. p. 77
[3] See Meir Hershkovics, Maharetz Chayot: Toledot Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Chayot u-Mishnato (Mossad HaRav Kook, 2007), p. 103-05.

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