Saturday, January 05, 2008

Elliott Horowitz -- Isaiah Berlin on Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan) and Saul Lieberman

In a previous post at the Seforim blog, Prof. Elliott Horowitz of Bar Ilan University and co-editor of Jewish Quarterly Review, described Edmund Wilson's unique Christmas card and some thoughts on the Talmud [see here].

This is his third contribution to the Seforim blog. We hope that you enjoy.
Isaiah Berlin on Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan) and Saul Lieberman
Elliott Horowitz

Although there have been some fine reviews of the collection of letters by Isaiah Berlin published in England under the title Flourishing: Letters 1928-1946 (Chatto and Windus, 2004), and in the United Sates (by Cambridge University Press) under the subtitle of the British edition,[1] not much attention has been given to the candid comments included therein about some of the twentieth century’s leading rabbis and Jewish scholars. Moreover, although one of the reviewers (Ilan Stavans in Forward) commented on the "overzealousness of its editor" Henry Hardy in annotating and contextualizing Berlin's letters "to the point of dizziness," this zealousness is less than excessive in his annotations of the letter written by Berlin, who had recently become the first Jew to be elected to a fellowship at Oxford’s All-Souls College, from Jerusalem to his parents in London on the first day of Rosh Ha-Shana, 1934 (pp. 96-98). Among the Jerusalemites he mentions having met since arriving a week earlier are "Dr. Scholem the Kabbalist," "Baneth of the University," and "Meir Berlin" - all of whom are dutifully identified by Hardy. The Volozhin-born Berlin, who settled in Jerusalem in 1926 and later changed his name to Bar-Ilan, is described by Isaiah (to whom he was not related) as a "clever cunning man with an unpleasant son in law, who teaches the Yerushalmi at the University." Hardy informs the reader that the Yerushalmi is "the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud," but he has not been as "overzealous" about identifying the "unpleasant son in law," who, as most readers of the Seforim blog have already recognized, was Saul Lieberman, who completed his MA at the Hebrew University in 1931 and married the former Judith Berlin in the following year.

In April of 1943, while serving at the British Embassy in Washington, Isaiah dryly informed his parents that "there were some serious social complications about the Sedarim this year (428)." Among those who had invited him were Chaim Weizmann (sometimes referred to as "Charles" in Berlin's letters), the latter’s "factotum, a certain Weisgal," and "Meyer (sic) Berlin and his daughter Judith." Hardy explains what "Sedarim" are, identifies "[Meyer Wolf] Weisgal," and provides the information that Judith Berlin Lieberman was "married to talmudic scholar Saul Lieberman. (428-29)" Somehow, however, he fails to connect this son-in -law of Berlin’s, who by that time had become a professor at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, with the "unpleasant" man who during the previous decade had taught Yerushalmi at the Hebrew University. One of the factors complicating Isaiah's decision as to where to spend the Sedarim of 1943 was that three of his potential hosts – Meir Berlin, Vera Weizmann, and Tamar de Sola Pool (wife of Rabbi David de Sola Pool and president of Hadassah) - were "reciprocally not on speaking terms," and thus "to go to one is to insult the other two automatically." He spent the first Seder with the Weizmann’s and the second, which was "fantastic," with Meyer Weisgal. Consequently, as he explained to his parents, he found himself in the position of having to "grovel to Rabbi Meyer Berlin…and Mrs Tamar de Sola Pool, great Zionist powers with whom diplomatic relations must be preserved. (430-31)."

In a subsequent letter to the British diplomat Angus Malcolm, however, Berlin referred the Mizrachi leader less charitably as "Rabbi M. Berlin of Palestine and Riverside Drive, an enemy of Weizmann and a clerical maximalist (438)." Although Weizmann (who died in 1952) and Bar-Ilan (who died three years earlier) had their differences, both now have universities named after them – in only one of which, it may be added, is the Yerushalmi taught.

[1] See, for example, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "The Book of Isaiah," The New York Times (June 27, 2004): 11; Simon Schama, "Flourishing," The New Republic (January 31, 2005): 23-30.

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