Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A Gemeinde Gemeinheit

A Gemeinde Gemeinheit
by Shlomo and Mati Sprecher

We are delighted that the occasion of our son’s wedding (Uri Sprecher to Rivi Zand, 4 Kislev 5769) solved a 150-year-old bibliographic mystery. When we chose to provide our guests with the opportunity to engage in limmud Torah during the course of the wedding by reprinting and distributing “Tshuvah Be’Inyan Kriat HaKetubah,” we assumed that, just as the title page and the publisher’s introduction indicated, it represented an actual Halakhic Responsum issued in 1835 by the Chief Rabbi of Bialystok, Rabbi Nechemiah, to a query submitted to him by Rabbi Shalom, the Chief Rabbi of Novgorod. The Responsum had been brought to print, some 2 ½ decades later, by Rabbi Nechemiah’s devoted disciple, Nehorai Zechnech-Lefavitch, who had just taken up residence in Vienna, a city in which the necessity of the public reading of the Ketubah was coming under question.

Nehorai Zechnech-Lefavitch, informs us that he had long sought to share his teacher’s wisdom with the world at large, and so he seized this opportunity to enlighten his Viennese hosts with his Rebbi’s lengthy and learned psak, which after closely examining all the arguments ruled that such a public recitation of the Ketubah was entirely and appropriately dispensable. This Tshuvah (aside from its scarcity as an example of ephemera,[1] i.e., a solitary Responsum appearing in print) was taken at face value and duly registered as such in all the standard bibliographies of Hebrew printing and Responsa literature. Even A.H. Freimann, in his authoritative work, Seder Kiddushin VeNissu’in (Jerusalem, 1964) cites this work (on page 41) and Daniel Sperber, in his magisterial Minhagei Yisrael (Jerusalem 1995), 4:89, follows Freimann’s lead in referencing this Teshuvah. Further attestation of its acceptance as an authentic Responsum is its inclusion in an anthology of rare Halakhic material bearing on Kiddushin and Nissu’in issued by Rabbi Yitzchok Herskovitz, Mili deVei Hillulah, (Brooklyn, 1998), adorned with the Haskamah of his illustrious father, Rabbi Ephraim Fishel Herskovitz, the noted Hasidic Posek of the Klausenberger Kehillah (who is also an acclaimed expert on Seforim).

However, our close reading of this Tshuvah led us in an entirely different direction. To us, the work’s style manifested clear Maskilic echoes, and its arguments rejecting the binding nature of centuries-old Minhagim were clearly not in accord with 19th –century Halakhic thought. Our reaction was that the work must certainly be pseudepigraphical and could not have arisen from the pen of the Chief Rabbi of Bialystok. In fact, a quick perusal of the reference literature demonstrated that there never was any Chief Rabbi of Bialystok named Nechemiah, nor, for that matter, was there any Chief Rabbi Shalom of Novgorod. As for Nechemiah’s disciple, Nehorai Zechnech-Lefavitch, well, one didn’t need to do much research in order to recognize the pseudonymous nature of this publisher’s name.[2] But who was really behind this masterful forgery, which deceived so many discerning readers for a century and a half?[3] Our initial thought was to place the blame on the notorious Abraham Krochmal or his erstwhile partner in literary crime, Yehoshua Heschel Schorr. They certainly had the requisite Talmudic knowledge to perpetrate a learned forgery.[4] But the tone of the work did not reflect their slashing, acerbic style. Our Tshuvah evinced a genuine love for Talmudic learning, albeit with a clear intent to utilize earlier sources to eliminate the prevailing Minhag of Kriat HaKetubah and replace it with an edifying sermon.

At an impasse, we reached out to Professor Shnayer Z. Leiman, who suggested that the scholar most likely to solve the mystery would be the doyen of Israeli bibliographers, Rabbi Shmuel Ashkenazi.[5] We were rewarded thanks to the tireless efforts of Eliezer Brodt who, on our behalf, pestered the aged Jerusalem sage until he successfully unmasked the name, but not quite the identity, of the author. Rabbi Ashkenazi concluded that the first line of the introductory poem that prefaced the Halakhic query contained the acrostic – “Meir Ish-Shalom.” (His initial contention was that this could not be the noted 19th –century Viennese scholar, Meir Ish-Shalom, because his heretofore known literary output began only some five years later, with his publication of the Sifre in 1864.)

Once Rabbi Ashkenazi had provided the key to the author’s name via the acrostic, it became apparent that all along the title page had been proclaiming that very same message. Let us recall the passage in Bavli Eruvin 13b where it is recorded that the celebrated Tanna, known to us as Rabbi Meir, was actually named Nehorai, according to one opinion; or alternatively, that both Meir and Nehorai were laudatory appellations reflecting his enlightening wisdom, whereas his actual name was Nechemiah. Recall also that the query first originated with Rabbi “Shalom” of Novgorod, and the word “shalom” appears twice more on the title page and is highlighted by the placement of a circle above one of its appearances.

Although none of the biographies[6] and bibliographies[7] devoted to the life and works of Meir Ish-Shalom attributes the Tshuvah Be’Inyan Kriat HaKetubah to him, we believe that a re-examination of Meir Ish-Shalom’s life supplies overwhelming confirmation that he is indeed the actual author of this Tshuvah. Born, as Meir Friedmann, in 1831, to a simple village couple in Krasna, his formative years were strained by extreme material and spiritual deprivation. At the age of Bar Mitzvah, his great desire to study Torah was realized by his acceptance to the Yeshiva in Ungvar, which was led by a distant relative of his mother, Rabbi Meir Asch-Eisenstadter, a noted disciple of the Hatam Sofer. Meir’s brilliance was soon recognized by his teachers, and he made great strides in Torah scholarship and adopted many stringent ascetic practices such as prolonged fasting, ritual immersion in ice-covered rivers and hours of un-interrupted Torah study and prayer. At the age of 19, he was granted Rabbinic ordination. Unfortunately, this phase of his life was cut short by a spiritual crisis induced by his exposure to Mendelssohn’s Biur and Wessely’s Hebrew poetry.[8] After a decade of hardship and wandering through Hungary and Slovakia, his wanderlust brought him fortuitously to Vienna in late 1857. That summer, the newly hired assistant to Vienna’s Chief Rabbi Mannheimer, Adolf Jellinek, began officiating at marriages. Claiming that sitting through the recitation of the Ketubah was too burdensome for the assembled guests, Rabbi Jellinek substituted in its stead an edifying sermon in the German language.[9] This reform of the Chuppah ritual was not endorsed by his employers, the leadership of the Gemeinde, who at that time still favored the classical Viennese approach of caution and consensus in religious reform,[10] and letters of reprimand directed at Rabbi Jellinek for this innovation are extant.[11] Rabbi Jellinek’s angry retort to Josef von Wertheimer, the Gemeinde’s President is also preserved:

Tatsache ist es; dass kaum eine kleine Zahl unserer grossen Gemeinde sich mehr um die Ketuba kummert, da die Vorlesung derselben fur jeden Sachverstandigen, der niche in Zogling der Pressburger Rabbinatsschule ist, als nutzlos und storend erscheint. Tatsache ist es, dass man hier mit mir umspringt, als ware ich der unfahigste, geistloseste, taktloseste und unbrauchbarste Mensch. In Berlin sitzen Manner wie Fr. Veit, Magnus, Dr. Oesterreicher, Geheimrat Joel Meyer im Vorstande; aber wahrlich diese Manner werden es nich wagen, ihre Prediger so zu tyrannisieren, wie es hier in Wien beliebt wird, wo alle Urteile nach Horensagen under Einflusterungen gatallt warden.[12]

Apparently, the ex-Yeshiva prodigy, newly arrived from Hungary, aided Rabbi Jellinek in resisting his Governing Board’s demands to re-institute the recitation of the Ketubah by fabricating a learned Responsum from a distant (and fictional) Rabbi proving that reading the Ketubah was a practice that had no sound Halakhic basis. This fabricated Responsum relied heavily on the reasoning advanced by Rabbeinu Meshulam in his celebrated correspondence with Rabbeinu Tam, which had recently appeared in print when the Sefer HaYashar was published for the first time.[13] Meir Ish-Shalom was thus able to demonstrate that Rabbi Jellinek’s innovation, far from being a deviation from correct Halakhic practice predicated on a reformist basis, was in reality a restoration of the authentic ritual promoted by Rabbeinu Meshulam, whose arguments, in the opinion of the Responsum, clearly bested the counter-arguments of Rabbeinu Tam.[14] 
After surviving this rocky beginning, Rabbi Jellinek enjoyed a productive career that spanned the remaining four decades of the 19th Century. In 1864, Rabbi Jellinek established the Beth Midrash, an adult-education program, and Meir Ish-Shalom, our Hungarian prodigy, finally secured a steady income as a teacher at that institution. In 1893, the program was expanded to include a seminary for the training of Rabbis, and Meir Ish-Shalom was appointed Professor of Rabbinics, a job he held until his death in 1908. Among his students was a fellow Eastern European expatriate and ex-prodigy – Solomon Schechter.

Although he remained a devoted student of Torah and Rabbinics, Meir Ish-Shalom did display intentions to abrogate other time-honored practices as well. For example, he argued that it was entirely correct to accede to the expressed desires of a non-Jewish husband to be allowed to purchase a burial plot alongside that of his Jewish wife, who had been interred in the Gemeinde’s cemetery. This ruling proved too radical even for his colleague, Isaac Hirsch Weiss, who strongly protested this breach of Jewish law and custom.[15] One of the ironies of history is that Isaac Hirsch Weiss has high name recognition as a foe of traditional Orthodoxy, because of his authorship of the controversial Dor Dor VeDorshav, whereas Meir Ish-Shalom’s Midrashic editions enjoy a respected position in the typical Yeshiva library. This anomaly was first noted by an actual Bialystoker Talmid Chakham, Rabbi Eliezer HaBavli, writing in HaLevanon 8 (1872): 372, who considered Meir Ish-Shalom to be firmly in the camp of the Maskilim and thus deserving of opprobrium and censure.[16] Imagine what Rabbi Bavli would have said had he known the true iniquity of Meir Ish-Shalom – creating a forged Tshuvah that justified discarding an ancient and hallowed Ashkenazi Minhag and attributing it to the “chief rabbi” of his beloved Bialystok.[17]

[1] Attesting to its ephemeral nature is the fate of my own personal copy. Since purchasing it at the renowned liquidation sale of Feldheim’s Lower East Side bookstore in 1988, I haven’t been able to extract it from whichever book I placed it in (for safe-keeping!). My fellow Feldheim shopper, Dr. Benny Ogorek, was kind enough to lend me his copy to produce the facsimiles that were distributed at the wedding. On these forgotten Hebrew booksellers of the Lower East Side (and especially Philipp Feldheim's bookstores), see Shnayer Z. Leiman, "Montague Lawrence Marks: In a Jewish Bookstore," Tradition 25:1 (Fall 1989): 59-69, and esp. 60, 68n5.

[2] Saul Chajes, who assembled all known Hebraic pseudonymy in his Otzar Beduyei HaShem (Vienna, 1933) also overlooked Tshuvah Be’Inyan Kriat HaKetubah, as it does not appear in the what he considered to be the comprehensive repository of all such literature. What is especially surprising is that Chajes spent the last two decades of his life in Vienna (1914-1933) and he was employed as the primary assistant to Bernard Dov Wachstein, the librarian and archivist of the Gemeinde’s magnificent library and communal archives, and therefore was no doubt aware of this pamphlet.

[3] With the possible exception of Benjacob who places a question mark after listing Rabbi Nechemiah of Bialystok as the author of the Tshuvah; see his Otzar HaSefarim (Vilna, 1880), 675, item #1013.

[4] See Allan Nadler, “The Besht as Spinozist: Abraham Krochmal’s Preface to Ha-Ketav ve-ha-Mikhtav,” in Daniel Frank & Matt Goldish, eds., Rabbinic Culture and Its Critics: Jewish Authority, Dissent, and Heresy in Medieval and Early Modern Times (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008), 359-389, for examples of Krochmal’s not very successful pseudepigraphical attempts. See also Daniel B. Schwartz, "The Spinoza Image in Jewish Culture, 1656--1956," (PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 2007), who discusses how Abraham Krochmal (son of Nachman Krochmal) "became a leading advocate for religious reform in the Hebrew press and served briefly as [Yehoshua Heschel] Schorr's co-editor of He-Haluts" (page 207).

[5] For more information regarding this semi-mythic figure see S.A. Tefilinsky, Alpha Beta Kadmaita D’Shmuel Ze’ira (Jerusalem, 2000) which lists 289 publications that Rabbi Ashkenazi either wrote under various guises or had a significant role in editing (i.e., ghost-writing).

[6] The earliest complete biography of Meir Ish-Shalom was authored by his son, Joab Freidmann, Lector M. Friedmann (Wien, 1931). The noted Rabbinic scholar, Binyamin Ze’ev Benedikt, a native of Vienna and the son of Rabbi Lemel Benedikt, the Rabbi of the Adath Jeshurin Synagogue located in the Ninth District (Neunte Bezirk), had intended to write a full-length book devoted to the life and works of Meir Ish-Shalom, but settled instead for a fifteen-page essay that appeared in the Mosad ha-Rav Kook Bibliographical Yearbook, Areshet 2 (1960): 269-284. Benedikt had earlier compiled what he considered to be a complete bibliography of all Meir Ish-Shalom’s works, which appeared in Kiryat Sefer 24 (1948): 263-275. The attribution of the Tshuvah Be’Inyan Kriat HaKetubah to Meir Ish-Shalom eluded both Joab Friedmann as well as Binyamin Ze’ev Benedikt.

[7] See B.Z. Benedikt’s two bibliographies referenced above. Tuvia Preschel supplemented Benedikt’s bibliographies in Areshet 3 (1961): 468, but he too failed to include the Tshuvah Be’Inyan Kriat HaKetubah in the list of works authored by Meir Ish-Shalom.

[8] See Solomon Schechter’s obituary entitled “Lector Meir Freidmann” that was reprinted in Seminary Addresses and Other Papers (Cincinnati, 1915), 136.

[9] See Marsha L. Rozenblitt, “Jewish Identity and the Modern Rabbi: The Cases of Isak Noa Mannheimer, Adolf Jellinek, and Moritz Güdemann in Nineteenth-Century Vienna,Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 35 (1990): 111. According to Rav Moshe Leiter, "HaPulmus Hildesheimer – Yellinek," HaDarom 17 (Nisan 1963): 105-133, Rabbi Leib Schwab, the lapsed disciple of the Hatam Sofer, was the Mesader Kiddushin at Rabbi Jellinek’s own Chuppah, in Budapest (May 1850) and he was the one who initiated this practice of skipping the reading of the Ketubah. He was also responsible for moving the Chuppah from the synagogue’s courtyard to the interior. Rabbi Leiter, however, provides no citation for these claims (which can be found on page 108 of his article).

[10] See Marsha Rozenblitt, “The Struggle over Religious Reform in Nineteenth-Century Vienna,” AJS Review 14:2 (Fall 1989): 179–221.

[11] Moses Rosenmann, Dr. Adolf Jellinek: Sein Leben und Schaffe (Wien, 1931), 83.

[12] Ibid, p. 84. For those whose German is somewhat weak (and I include myself in that category, Rabbi Jellinek’s response is as follows: “only a small number of our large community trouble themselves regarding reading the Ketubah, since the vast majority (besides those graduates of the Pressburg Yeshiva) consider it a useless and disturbing ritual.” The remainder of the letter voices a complaint which many a pulpit rabbi must feel regarding the tyrannical oppression perpetrated by the lay leadership on the hired clergy.

[13] (Vienna, 1811).
[14] For a comprehensive essay on this fascinating conflict between these two noted antagonists, see Dr. Avraham (Rami) Reiner’s article, “Parshanut VeHalakhah BePulmus Rabbeinu Tam VeRabbeinu Meshulam,” Shnaton HaMishpat HaIvri 21 (1998-2000): 207-239. The section that relates to our Responsum is found on pages 228-230.

[15] See the biographical essay by Yehudah Bergmann entitled “Meir Ish-Shalom” that appeared in Sefer HaZikaron LeBait HaMidrash LeRabbanim BeVinah (Jerusalem, 1946), 43.

[16] Cited by Rabbi Eliezer Katzman, "Chalutzei Tzava: Sefer HaTzava U’Mechabro- LeDmut HaRav HaGaon Rav Eliezer HaBavli ZT”L M’Bialystok," Yeshurun 2 (1997): 666-679. 

[17] We wish to thank all those who helped us on this project: Rabbis Shmuel Ashkenazi, Eliezer Brodt, Menachem Butler, Eliezer Katzman, and Menahem Silber, as well as Drs. Shnayer Z. Leiman, Benny Ogorek, and Avraham (Rami) Reiner. And Achronim Achronim Chavivim – Uri and Rivi!

No comments:

Print post

You might also like

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...