Review of Shaul Stampfer, Families, Rabbis and Education: Traditional Jewish Society in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe
Marc B. Shapiro
The continuation of my last post will be ready soon, but in the meantime I am posting my short review of Shaul Stampfer’s new book. It appeared on the H-Judaic listserv, but since most readers of Seforim Blog probably did not see it, I am posting it here as well.
For many years, Shaul Stampfer has been recognized as an authority in all things dealing with nineteenth-century Jewish Eastern Europe. In his newest book, we have a collection of numerous essays representing more than twenty years of his scholarship, including one essay published for the first time ("The Missing Rabbis of Eastern Europe"). Stampfer's focus is not on the purely intellectual debates between rabbinic elites. He is more interested in social history, how average people and in particular women lived. Even his discussions of rabbis emphasize such matters as inheritance of rabbinic positions and the rabbi's role in communal life. His sources are quite broad: traditional rabbinic works as well as Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian texts and newspapers.
I could write extensively about every essay, each of which taught me a great deal. (And I never imagined that an entire essay could be written on the pushke and its development.) Yet to remain within the word limit for this review, let me just mention some of Stampfer's most important points, the major theses of the book.
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, there is much more that can be said about Stampfer's careful scholarship, which is a treat for all readers. I know that many share my wish to soon see in print the English edition of his classic work on the Lithuanian yeshivot.
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Let me now add a few additional comments especially for the benefit of those who had already read the review before I posted it here.
1. Stampfer’s book is published by my favorite press, Littman Library. I want to call readers’ attention to another recent and wonderful book published by Littman: Sharon Flatto, The Kabbalistic Culture of Eighteenth-Century Prague. Interestingly, two dissertations were written at the same time on the Noda bi-Yehudah. The other was by David Katz, which bears the interesting title “A Case Study in the Formation of a Super-Rabbi: The Early Years of Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, 1713-1754 (University of Maryland, 2004). Although Katz’ dissertation has not yet appeared in print, there is definitely room for the two as they focus on different areas and are both works of great learning. (Yet I hope that when Katz publishes his book, he changes the title. It is bad enough that today we have people writing about how they “consulted Daas Torah” as if there is such an individual so named. The only thing worse would be to hear people recount how “I asked the Super-Rabbi his opinion” or to have Yated tell how how “The Super-Rabbi has issued his Daas Torah.” That will surely leave the religious Zionists reaching for their kryptonite.)
Regarding how Landau was indeed a "Super-Rabbi," to use Katz' expression, I found interesting testimony in R. Shraga Feivish Shneebalg, Shraga ha-Meir, vol. 2, no. 76. He states that he heard from R. Dov Berish Wiedenfeld, who heard from R. Meir Arik, that the Noda bi-Yehudah was the posek ha-dor. Assuming there is such a position, I don’t know of anyone more qualified for it than Landau. I must admit, however, that this is an Ashkenazic-centered perspective, because it is unimaginable that a Sephardic scholar would ever come into consideration by most of those who like to speak of the gadol ha-dor. Thus when people refer to R. Yitzhak Elhanan Spektor, R. Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski, etc. as the gadol ha-dor. they never wonder if perhaps there was a great sage in the Sephardic world who fit the bill. When people speak about the gadol or posek ha-dor, it really means the gadol or posek of their world.
ודאי שרבני ליטא ופולין ילעגו על דברים אלה ואולם המחבר הנ"ל הי' גאון וצדיק מפורסם וחלילה לבטל דבריו בתנופת יד גרידא. כתבתי כל הנ"ל כדי להוכיחו שצריך הוא להיות זהיר ומתון ולא להמשך אחרי הקולות של רבני ליטא ופולין שהם גדולים וחכמים בהלכה אבל בהוראה למעשה עולה עליהם רבני אונגארן וגאליציען ומובחרי השו"ת בהוראה למעשה שיצאו בזמן האחרון נתחברו על ידם.
כבר רמזתי לכת"ר שבעינים כאלו יש לסמוך יותר על רבני אונגארן הקרובה לאשכנז ויודעים מצב הדברים באשכנז יותר מרבני פולין וליטא. ובכלל נוטה אני מדעת חברי ורבותי רבני פולין וליטא שאינם משגיחים הרבה ברבני אונגארן. גם אני הייתי סבור כן קודם בואי לכאן, אבל אח"כ ראיתי כי בעניני הוראה עולים הם על רבני פולין וליטא, כי יש להם חוש מיוחד להוראה מעשית וכמעט כולם נתחנכו בבית מדרשו של רבינו שבגולה החת"ס ז"ל שהוא הי' עמוד ההוראה כידוע ומפורסם.
These words are amazing because Weinberg is admitting that before he came to Germany, he too shared the feeling of superiority that he describes here. Before then it was unimaginable to him that a posek outside of Lithuania or Poland would have had much of value to add.
2. In a previous post, available here, I wrote about rabbis who began writing books at a very young age. I was asked if there are additional examples of this. There are indeed a number, and in a future post I will discuss one in more detail. For now, here is the title page of R. Aaron Friedlander’s Avrekh, where it tells us that part of the book was written when the author was nine years old! See also the approbations to this volume.
Here is the title page of R. Hezekiah David Abulafia’s Ben Zekunim. If you read the introduction you will see that the first part of this book was written when the author was thirteen years old.
R. Yitzhak Arieli reported being told by R. Kook that the latter authored a book on Song of Songs when he was only eleven years old. You can find Arieli's testimony here.
As I am writing this people are once again outraged by something R. Ovadiah Yosef said, in that he attributed the fires in Israel to lack of Sabbath observance. Obviously, this is not the sort of comment that appeals to those with a modern temperament, but in traditional societies it is an expectation of the people that the leading rabbis will find some spiritual reason to explain tragedies. So why I am mentioning this now? Because in the document from Arieli, no. 38, he quotes R. Kook as saying something that people will find even more shocking than anything R. Ovadiah has ever said. (I don’t think you will find the students of R. Kook ever repeating it.) R. Kook wondered if the 1929 pogrom in Hebron was perhaps due to the fact that the Hebron Yeshiva brought in their “modern” ways to Israel, by which he means their way of dressing, hair style and beardless faces.
בהפרעות (בשנת תרפ"ט) בחברון מצאתיו ביום ראשון יושב ובוכה והבליט מפיו שמא מפני שהכניסו תלבושת והנהגה חדשה בארץ (היה מתנגד לגלוח הזקן (כמובן במכונה או בסם) ובלורית ואולי גם בגדים קצרים, ובישיבה העיר כ"פ ע"ז ( אבל קשה היה לשנות ההרגלים שבחו"ל).
I agree that this sounds shocking and offensive to modern ears, especially to those who lost family members in this event. I mean, can you imagine telling someone whose child was killed that it was because certain yeshiva students were dressing in a modern fashion? But again, the traditional mind works differently than the modern mind. I say this not to recommend that we all reprogram our minds so that these sorts of explanations are once again appealing, any more than I would wish that, as with Jews in medieval Germany, we once again believe that demons are all around us causing all sorts of problems. I mention it only to add some context and help explain how the most influential rabbinic mind of the twentieth century could say something which to modern ears sounds outrageous. Just as it wrong to judge pre-modern science negatively because it didn’t have access to modern technology, so too we must be careful about being prejudiced against traditionalist explanations because we might no longer share the same assumptions as our predecessors
3. With regard to R. Baruch Epstein’s discussions about his uncle the Netziv in Mekor Barukh, the irony is that the Netziv thought that there was no good purpose in reading the biographies of great Torah sages. He thought that this was nothing less than bitul Torah. See the letter from R. Hayyim Berlin printed at the beginning of his father’s Meromei Sadeh.
The Netziv’s concern with bitul Torah was such that when his wife (I presume his first wife, Rayna Batya) had to have an operation and the students wanted to say Tehillim for her, the Netziv refused to stop the learning for this. After the students continued to push, he agreed to allow five minutes of tehillim. This was reported by R. Zvi Yehudah Kook, who must have heard it from his father. See R. Hayyim Avihu Schwartz, Be-Tokh ha-Torah ha-Goelet (Beit El, 2006), p. 201.
In an e-mail discussion with one reader, he contrasted the Netziv to R. Chaim Soloveitchik and R. Velvel ,saying that the Netziv was so “normal”. I don’t want to use words like that, and while R. Chaim had many unique qualities, I don’t think the stories told about him are any more unusual than those told of other gedolim. Most of these stories are, in fact, quite inspiring. The stories about R. Velvel are, I admit, of a different flavor. I mentioned two such examples here.
Furthermore, from my perspective I can’t take an author seriously when he says things like how in the Far East there are people who have the power to use black magic, and their knowledge is part of a tradition that goes back to Abraham. P. 133:
ואכן במזרח הרחוק יודעים שמות של טומאה, ויש להניח ששורש הידיעה היא מאברהם אבינו. ואף על פי שהם כוחות אמיתיים, אסור לנו להשתמש בהם.
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I want to take this opportunity to invite all Seforim Blog readers on what I know will be an amazing Jewish heritage tour to Central Europe this summer. Details can be found here. They are still working on the price, and it will be posted soon. Those who want further details are invited to contact me.
With Christmas Eve almost upon us, I also invite readers to watch, or listen to, my lecture “Torah Study (or Lack of It) On Christmas Eve: The History of a Very Strange Practice.” It is available here. The few dollars (Canadian) that it costs go to support a very worthy organization, Torah in Motion.
 Wiedenfeld, who is the source for the information from Arik, actually had a special place in the eyes of the Lithuanian yeshiva world. Haym Soloveitchik writes (TUMJ 7 , p. 144):