Review of Shaul Stampfer, Families, Rabbis and Education: Traditional Jewish Society in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe
by 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.
People have generally assumed that marriages in Jewish Eastern Europe\ were very stable, with divorce being quite rare. Stampfer, however, provides evidence to demonstrate that divorce was common and not shameful. Based on his evidence, he is fundamentally correct. In addition to citing statistics, Stampfer also refers to memoir literature that mentions divorce. Yet I also think that Stampfer (and ChaeRan Y. Freeze before him) exaggerates the frequency of divorce. For example, one of his statistics of marriage and divorce is from the 1860s in the city of Berdichev where for every three to four marriages, there was one divorce. He cites similar statistics for Odessa (p. 46). Stampfer goes so far as to claim that "it may well be the case that there were thirty divorces for every hundred weddings in the nineteenth century" (p. 128). However, these numbers are certainly skewed for the simple reason that while marriages took place in every town, to obtain a divorce couples had to travel to a larger city where there was a beit din and scribe. Thus, divorces from any one city do not reveal a ratio of marriage to divorce. The situation is identical to what happens today. Couples get married anywhere they want, but must come to a central location for their divorce.
Stampfer also argues that contrary to another popular stereotype, early teenage marriage was not at all common in traditional Jewish society. While it occurred among the economic and intellectual elite, and is immortalized in memoirs of the latter, early teenage marriage does not reflect the life experience of the average young Jew. Similarly, the lower class, which encompassed most Jews, did not have much use for matchmaker services, and indeed, romance was a factor in their marriages.
Tied to the points made so far is the place of women in society. Many of us are accustomed to think of traditional society as one in which men had all the power and made all the decisions, and in which the husband went out to work while the wife served as a homemaker. Yet Stampfer shows that while this perception fits in very well with contemporary "family values," it is not how East European Jewish society functioned. Women generally worked, were involved in business ventures, and were thus "out of the home." Unlike today, the stay-at-home wife and mother was not necessarily an ideal. Stampfer also notes that many Jewish names were created from women's names, which he thinks "reflects a reality in which both men and women could be in the centre" (p. 133).
Adding to these arguments, Stampfer includes the following suggestive comment: "Another indication of the place of women in Jewish society can be found in the aesthetics of Jews in Eastern Europe. Males were regarded as attractive if they were thin, had white hands, and wore glasses. These were all reflections of lives devoted to study and perhaps to asceticism. On the other hand, attractive women had full bodies and were strong and active. Their appearance promised work and support. Different ideals are expressed here, but the image of the ideal woman is not one of weakness" (p. 133). In short, East European Jewish society was not what we would regard as a patriarchy. Conservative views on the importance of women staying in the home to raise children might be sound social policy, yet we should not assume that this is how East European Jews ever actually lived.
Another fact noted by Stampfer, which will no doubt be surprising to readers, is the existence of coed heders. This is certainly not the image that people have of this institution. Yet while the coed aspect is interesting, especially, as Stampfer states, "given the contemporary concern (or obsession) in certain very Orthodox Jewish circles regarding co-educational education even in elementary grades," even more significant is what this says about education for girls (p. 169 n. 11; see also p. 32). Contrary to what many think, there were East European Jewish girls who were educated just like their brothers, and Stampfer thinks that the ratio of girls to boys in heder was approximately one to eight (p. 170).
As for education in general, while some people like to imagine Eastern Europe as a placenwhere Torah study always thrived, Stampfer notes that "one can safely conclude that by the mid-1930s there were far more young Jewish males in secondary schools than in yeshivas" (p. 272). Also worthy of note is Stampfer's point that the kollel (a school of rabbinic studies for married men) system developed because there were no longer many rich fathers-in-law willing to support a son-in-law who was studying. In addition, he argues that the shrinking of the job market for rabbis also had a share in the development of the kollel.
Let me conclude with some minor comments and corrections. On page 69, note 39, the proper reference in Pithei Teshuvah is Even ha-Ezer 9:5, and the rabbi cited should be R. David Ibn Zimra (Radbaz), not R. Jacob Willowski (Ridbaz).On page 181, Stampfer discusses the famous description by R. Barukh Epstein of his aunt, Rayna Batya, the wife of R. Naphtali Zvi Judah Berlin. While acknowledging that some have doubted the veracity of Epstein's story, Stampfer states that "the account seems plausible." Here I must disagree. While there can be no doubt that Batya was an unusual woman, Epstein's account of his conversations with her, as with much else in his autobiography, cannot be relied on. I have discussed this at length elsewhere, and readers can examine my arguments at the Seforim Blog here.
On page 285, Stampfer refers to the Moscow crown rabbi Jacob Mazeh (1859-1924) as having been martyred. Yet this is incorrect as Mazeh died a natural death. On page 326, note 6, regarding the Vilna Gaon's attitude toward R. Jonathan Eibeschuetz, see Sid Z. Leiman, "When a Rabbi Is Accused of Heresy: The Stance of the Gaon of Vilna in the Emden-Eibeschuetz Controversy," in Ezra Flescher, et al, eds., Meah Shearim (2001). Finally, on page 327, Stampfer offers evidence of criticism of the Vilna Gaon during his lifetime. In my September 12, 2009, post at the Seforim Blog, available here, I offer another example of such criticism. This is reported by R. Hayyim Dov Ber Gulevsky who heard it from his grandfather, R. Simhah Zelig Rieger, the dayan of Brisk. (Incidentally, Gulevsky is quoted by Stampfer on page 353.)
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.
Returning to Arik, he said that after the Noda bi-Yehudah the Hatam Sofer held that role. Here again, I don’t think there will be much argument. But the names he gives after this show how Arik, a Galician scholar, sees matters differently than a Lithuanian. He claimed that R. Solomon Drimer was the next posek ha-dor, yet I don’t think most people reading this post have even heard of him. For the next period, he gave the Hungarian posek R. Solomon Leib Tabak of Sighet (died 1908), author of Erekh Shai. Again, I don’t think most people reading this post have ever heard of Tabak. Yet Arik regarded him as the posek ha-dor. As a Galician, not a Lithuanian, Arik had a different perspective on who the great poskim were. Yet a Lithuanian hearing this would laugh. If you asked him who the posek ha-dor was for the period of Tabak, he could give all sorts of names: R. Yitzhak Elhanan Spektor, R. Naftali Zvi Judah Berlin, R. Jehiel Michel Epstein, R. Joseph Zechariah Stern, and the list goes on, but Tabak wouildn’t even make it to the top twenty.
This different perspective was recognized by R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg. In one responsum (Kitvei R. Weinberg, vol. 1, no. 11), after quoting a position of a Hungarian posek, Weinberg writes:
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.
Earlier in this responsum Weinberg writes:
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.
Yet lest one thing that these type of stories are unique to R. Velvel, let me mention a story about the Aderet "brought down" (to use the yeshiva lingo) in the book I just referred to, Be-Tokh ha-Torah ha-Goelet, p. 324. R. Zvi Yehudah told how one of the Aderet’s sons died right after birth, just as Shabbat was starting . The Aderet told his wife that she should perpare the Shalom Zakhor as if everything was normal, for there is no avelut on Shabbat and the community does not need to know that anything is wrong. When the Rebbetzin began to cry the Aderet replied to her that she is acting this way because she doesn’t study Talmud. If she studied Talmud she would know that there are often times when we are left with questions, and the same is true in life.
4. Stampfer's point about the frequency, and lack of shame, of divorce in Eastern Europe was an eye-opener to me. In Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy, p. 22, I mention that divorce was very uncommon in traditional Lithuanian Jewish society, and almost unheard of among the rabbinate. I now see that I was mistaken in this assumption (which was based on my general impressions, not on the sort of evidence Stampfer makes use of). For examples of rabbinic figures who got divorced, see here.
5. I referred to Daas Torah above, and since someone asked me if I could write up what I said about it in a recent lecture, I will do so now. In this lecture I quoted what appears in R. Yitzhak Dadon's new book, Rosh Devarkha. This is the follow-up to his earlier book, Imrei Shefer, both of which record the teachings of R. Avraham Shapiro, Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz ha-Rav. On p. 10 one finds R. Avraham's very harsh comments against Daas Torah. He would refer to it as Ziyuf ha-Torah. Here are some of his words:
האם התורה עוברת רק דרך אדם אחד?! בחו"ל לא היה כדבר הזה! זה אמר כך, וגדול פלוני חלק עליו וחשב אחרת, מישהוא אמר שהפלוני הזה הוא נגד "דעת תורה"?! מהיכן הביאו את הדבר הזה? אם ה"חפץ חיים" סבר כך ורבי מאיר שמחה אחרת ופלוני גדול אחר
חלק עליהם, יש מי מהם שהוא נגד "דעת תורה"? איזו הנהגה היא זו? זו השתלטות על דעת הרבנים, ולא היה כזאת בעם ישראל.
As for the practice of declaring what the Daas Torah is through the newspaper or through placards, without any sources to support this, here are R. Avraham's strong words (and apologies if any wives are offended):
כלפי רבנים המוצאים חוות-דעת ותלמידיהם מפרסמים זאת תחת הכותרת: "דעת תורה", בלי שום אסמכתאות ומקורות נאמנים היה מרן זצ"ל אומר: "איזו מין דעת תורה היא זו? כשאדם אומר "דעת תורה" בלי שום מקורות, אז הכוונה היא כזאת: זה קצת מבוסס על מה שהוא למד, והרוב זה מה שאשתו אמרה לו, זה הפירוש דעת תורה.
Anyone who is honest will admit that the current practice of Daas Torah is completely phony. My proof of this is very simple. If tomorrow R. Elyashiv would declare that everyone has to say hallel on Yom ha-Atzmaut, would the Lithuanian yeshiva world listen to his Daas Torah? Of course not. They would simply replace him with another gadol whose Daas Torah is more palatable to them. In other words, the gadol only has Daas Torah because the masses, or the askanim, let him have it, and only when they like what he says. (I am curious. Has R. Elyashiv's ruling that fashionable sheitls are forbidden had any effect on his supposed followers?).
Try to imagine what would happen if someone in the haredi world discovered a letter from the Hazon Ish, the ultimate Daas Torah authority, in which he said that only the best and the brightest in the State of Israel should devote themselves to Torah study. However, everyone else should go to work. Does anyone think that this letter would ever see the light of day? Of course not! We all know what would happen. The letter would be kept hidden, and if by chance some rebel did publish it, the haredi world would find a way to justify why they don't accept the Hazon Ish's viewpoint.
6. In this post I referred to a mistaken point by R. Ezriel Tauber in his recent book Pirkei Mahashavah al Yud Gimel Ikarim le-ha-Rambam. I was asked if my negative comment relates to the entire book, or just the one point I referred to. My answer is that I wasn’t referring to the entire book, and I am sure that people will find things that are valuable in it. Yet I have to say that I don’t find it helpful when an author like Tauber asserts, p. 428, that people who claim to be atheists are really not. Rather, they just don’t want to believe, but deep down they know the truth.
Contrary to Tauber (and he is not the only one to express himself this way), the only intellectually honest position is to take people like Christopher Hitchens at their word and deal with it. Claiming that the atheist really believes is no better than the atheist saying that the believer really knows the truth that there is no God.
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):
Intellectually, the Lithuanian approach to talmudic study (derekh ha-limmud) has triumphed. One could scarcely imagine a Hungarian rosh yeshiva being considered as a candidate to head a Lithuanian yeshiva. Nor is it accidental that with one early, minor exception (the Tchebiner Rav [Wiedenfeld]), all the embodiments of da’at Torah, both in America and Israel, have been Lithuanian.