Saturday, February 09, 2008

A Response to Dr. Shapiro: A Defense of the Torah Temimah

A Response to Dr. Shaprio: A Defense of the Torah Temimah

by: Y. Lander (of the Ishim v'Shitot blog)

I read with interest Dr. Shapiro’s recent post questioning the accuracy of R’ Baruch Epstein’s tale concerning his dialogue with the Netziv’s first wife, Rayna Batya. Dr. Shapiro points to several discrepancies in R. Epstein's account and based on those discrepancies posits that R’ Baruch deliberately contrived the story in order to call attention to the plight of women in his time. I would like, however, to present a more prosaic but equally plausible interpretation of the discrepancies that Dr. Shapiro notes.

Dr. Shapiro refers to the “the well-attested fact that Epstein was a plagiarizer” [1] and therefore one must be suspicious of anything he writes. That Epstein frequently fails to provide proper attribution when quoting other authors is certainly irrefutable but I am not at all certain that this was due to conscious plagiarism. I found that only two of Epstein’s works show significant signs of plagiarism - Torah Temimah and Tosefes Bracha[2] - whereas the chiddushei Torah cited in Mekor Baruch and Baruch She’Amar (Tefillah and Pirkei Avot) are original.

If Epstein was indeed a plagiarizer then from where did he get the sudden burst of originality that appears in the latter two works? Why would he plagiarize in Torah Temimah, stop for Mekor Baruch and then continue in Tosefes Bracha?

Further, Y. Bezek, in the article cited by Shapiro, points out that among the sources that R’ Epstein plagiarizes is Maimonides Sefer Hamitzvos. Is it really logical to assume that Epstein intentionally tried to pass of a Rambam as his own chiddush? Or that he could get away with plagiarizing a Gra in Mitnaggdic Vilna heavily influenced by the Gra and his teachings. [2a]

It seems far more logical to simply take Epstein’s words in his Introduction to the Torah Temimah at face value. There he writes, (roughly translated) “this work has taken me 15 years to write and has gone through many drafts. During the course of this time much information has gathered in my mind and although I have made an earnest attempt to provide proper attribution the reader is requested to judge me favorably in this.”

Given the large volume of information Epstein was dealing with and the limited time he had at his disposal [3] it is not surprising that he had not the ability to properly identify the sources for all the hundreds (if not thousands) of interpretations he provides in his commentary. I suspect that Tosefes Bracha is based on those notes that he did not incorporate into his Torah Temimah [4] and would therefore have the same defects as the former.

Shapiro also uses Mondshine’s study on R' Epstein. But, Mondshine brings very little proof to support his assertion that the story of the Aruch HaShulchan’s meetings with the Tzemach Tzedek was simply fabricated out of “whole cloth.” Rather, Mondshine points out that R’ S. Y. Zevin who received Semicha from the Aruch HaShulchan never mentioned any of these conversations. This omission, according to Mondshine is key, as R' Zevin was an adherent of Chabad it is only natural that the AS should have mentioned these meetings to him.

It is a pity that Mondshine didn’t read Zevin’s K’sav Horaah (printed in the new Kitvei Aruch Ha-Shulchan). If he had he would have seen that R’ Zevin never met the Aruch HaShulchan. It is written there that “I recognize that this is man is indeed a Talmud Chachamim based on the many letters I exchanged with him.” Those who have read the AS’s correspondence in the Kitvei will see that the AS rarely goes into any extra detail in his letters focusing solely on the question at hand.

But all this is unnecessary, R’ Y. L. Maimon (Fishman), a Talmud of the AS, wrote a series of books with various “Gedolim” stories entitled Sarei HaMeah. In the last volume (vol. 6 pg. 101) he mentions the conversations that “the Aruch Hashulchan himself told me that at the request of some of the (Chassidic) townspeople he went to visit the Tzemach Tsedek.” Their first conversation involved a discussion of the disagreements between Chassidim and Misnagdim…." [5]

Dr. Shapiro finds it impossible to believe that the Tzemach Tsedek should have said “Had it not been for the great dispute about Hasidism, and the Gaon’s strident opposition, the new movement might have led its followers out of the ranks of halakhic Judaism.” I beg to differ. The Tzemach Tsedek’s grandfather the Baal HaTanya held the Gra in great esteem [6] thus he might have tried to find a justification for the Gra’s opposition. Second, the Tzemach Tsedek waged an intense battle against the Maskilim in their attempts to “reform” traditional Jewish education [7]. To this end, the disagreements between the Chassidim and Mitnaggdim were ignored in order to more effectively battle this new greater menace [8]. It is not unlikely that in order to cement this new found alliance [8a] that the Tzeamach Tsedek would have made this kind of conciliatory remark to the Aruch Ha-Shulchan (brother-in-law of the Netsiv who was one of the most influential of the Mitnaggdim) in order to downplay the conflict between the Chassidim and Mitnaggdim

Dr. Shapiro introduces his post admitting that – “When Mekor Barukh was published there were still plenty of people alive who had known her and it would have been impossible to entirely fabricate her personality.” This being the case the report that- “It was her habit to sit by the oven in the kitchen—even in the summertime—next to a table piled high with seforim. These included a Tanach,(Mishnayos) Ein Yaacov, various midrashim, Menoras HaMaor, Kav HaYashar, Tzemach Dovid, Shevet Yehudah, and many other books of this nature.” [9]- must also have been true. This is an important point that is the cornerstone of the whole story.

Dr. Shapiro wonders how “the rebbetzin, sitting in Volozhin, would just so happen to come across this volume on her husband’s bookshelf.” Here is one possibility. We know that there were several large libraries (for example the Strashun Library in Vilna [10]) in the area and it is certainly possible that a copy of Mayin Ganim might have made its way to the intellectual center in Volozhin.

A similar example of a very rare Sephardi book circulating is mentioned in Mekor Baruch (pg. 1224). There he mentions a Maggid who recalled seeing an alchemical recipe in a rare book. The name of the book was Nifla’ot Elokim by Abraham Shalom Chai printed in Livorno. As Shapiro writes “There would have only been a few copies of this book in all of Lithuania.” But we see that it did circulate.

I agree with Shapiro that the TT obviously copied the letter from HaTzefirah. But all this proves is that at the time of the writing of Mekor Baruch he no longer had access to a Mayin Ganim and therefore had to copy from “HaTzefirah”. We do not have any proof that years before, as a student in Volozhin, he had no access to this book.

I also would like to point out that the TT refers to Mekor Baruch in manuscript [11] (Malki BaKodesh vol. 6 pg. 45) in his letter to Hirschenson. It is clear from the letter that the passage on Rayna Batya had already been written before he wrote this letter so he could not have “uses the language in his letter to Hirschensohn to create the following reply to Rayna Batya” as Shapiro writes.

As to the addition of the term “Ulai”, a commenter has correctly noted that the TT must have conflated the term “Efsher L’ Chalek” that appears in the letter with the term “Ullai”. Erroneous readings such as these are fairly common in TT as Kasher has shown in the addendum to Torah Shelemah v. 26.

We have then two possible ways of interpreting the various discrepancies that appear in R’ Epstein’s works. Either as Dr. Shapiro contends he engaged in fraudulent behavior, including intentional plagiarism, and fabricating historical accounts, or as I contend he simply failed to approach his work systematically, meaning he didn’t keep detailed notes, relied overly much on a faulty memory (See Psalms 19:13), and perhaps engaged in some artistic license in order to heighten the effect of his stories.

I leave it to the reader to decide which of the two is more plausible.

[1] On this see the sources cited in D. Rabinowitz – “Rayna Batya and other learned woman: A realuation Rabbi Barukh Halevi Epstein’s sources” Tradition – footnote 4.

[2] Many of the Chiddushei Torah cited in Tosefes Beracha have been previously attributed to the Gr”a. Compare “HaMeor HaGadol” – A collection of the Gra”s Torah from rare source by Yissocher Kreuser to almost any Parsha in Tosefes Bracha.

[2a] Note that in Tosefes Bracha (Gen. 31,1 Exodus 8,17) he writes that “after I thought of this chiddush a sefer of the Gra’s chiddushim (D’var Eliyahu) came out containing the same idea.” It seems that he genuinely thought that these were entirely his own ideas.

[3] He had a full time employment as a bookkeeper. See also M. M. Kasher’s description in a note to Torah Shelemah 26 (300-301)

[4] TB is for the most part a repetition of his Chiddushim in Mekor Baruch and an expansion of some of his writings in Torah Temimah. It gives the impression of a collection of ideas haphazardly “thrown together” rather then following any specific writing plan.

[5] See also the study of the AS's unique use of Kabbalah here. It is not unlikely that he was influenced in this by the Tsemach Tzedek.

[6] See Iggeret Kodesh pg 86 ff. In another place he refers to the Gra as a חד בדרא

[7] See “The Tzemech Tsedek and the Haskalah Movement” – available here.

[8] Mekor Baruch describes the enthusiasm with which the Tsemach Tsedek was greeted in his visit to Lithuania. Cf. the comments of Eliach in HaGaon Vol. 3 Pulmas HaChassidus. See also “B’Mechitasam Shel Gedolei Torah” – Y. Mark on R’ Chaim Soloveitchik for a further description of the Tsemach Tsedek’s actions at the conference.

[8a] In Mekor Baruch he writes that the Tsemach Tsedek begged the AS to make every effort to prevent the rise of Reform (pg. 1291).

[9] Taken from “My Uncle the Netziv” with the addition of one word.

[10] Although the Strashun Library was only officially opened to the public in 1892, (see here), the very existence of a private collection of so many rare seforim leaves open the possibility that some of these rare books may have circulated among the intellectual “elite” in Volozhin.

[11] Specifically he refers to a passage demonstrating that Archivolti was in fact a Talmudic scholar. Since this passage is part of the Rayna Batya story it is not unlikely that the whole passage had been completed before he sent the letter.

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