Friday, March 30, 2018

Passover with Apostates: A Concert in Spain and a Seder in the Middle of the Ocean by Elie Wiesel (1957)

Passover with Apostates:
A Concert in Spain and a Seder in the Middle of the Ocean
By Eliezer Wiesel

Forverts (22 April 1957) [Yiddish]

[Translated into English by Shaul Seidler-Feller (2018)]

If someone says to you that Passover is the festival of redemption not only of a nation but of each individual, believe him;
If someone explains to you that a Jew remains a Jew deep at heart, despite the masks he is often forced to wear, do not doubt him;
If someone tells you that, no matter what a Jew does, he will remain a living legacy of his people and his past, nod your head and say: True!
I ask that the skeptics among you listen to a story that happened to me a few years ago.
However, I must warn you: I know the beginning and middle of the story; the end, I do not know to this day.
I believe that, in this case at least, the end is not important. In any event, read on:

The Drunkard
In 1949, I traveled to Spain on assignment, spending several weeks crisscrossing the country, chatting with ordinary citizens as well as circumspect politicians, and seeking out here and there Jews and vestiges of Jewish life from the time of the Inquisition.
I found both Jews and tragic remnants of the Jewish past in that country of Judah Halevi and Samuel ha-Naggid.
However, the most interesting among them I encountered by chance, not in a museum or in Jewish company but in a cabaret.
Spanish colleagues, who brought me to Madrid and wished to show me the nightlife of the capital, led me to a cabaret, where overstuffed rich people came to admire flamenco performers who, in dancing and gyrating their bodies to some crazy rhythm, seemed as though they had been possessed by a dybbuk.
I do not know why my gaze, which wandered not only to the stage but also throughout the hall, suddenly fixed on a man in his 40s, who was sitting alone not far from us and did not stop drinking whiskey.
Perhaps the drunkard drew my interest and curiosity because I have met many drunkards in my life, but this one was different.
Most drunkards drink to forget; he drank to remember. So it seemed to me, based on the way in which he held the glass in his hand, brought it to his lips, and placed it back on the table.
He had a gentle face with a high, wrinkled forehead; thick eyebrows hanging over dark, mournful eyes; and delicate hands with fingers ranging from long to extremely long.
We sat in the cabaret for three hours, but, for all his drinking, the drunkard did not get sleepy.
My curiosity grew by the minute until I could no longer contain it. I called over the waiter and asked him who our bizarre neighbor was.
Oh, you must mean Paul,” the waiter replied.
Good, now I know his name,” I answered, “but who is he?”
The waiter smiled: “Wait a bit, be patient for a couple hours. Then you will see something you will not forget for the rest of your life. Wait, señor, it’s worth it…”
I wanted to question him further, but other guests summoned him. We had no choice but to wait.

The Divine Violin
In the meanwhile, the dancers grew tired from their dancing and the music itself began to die down.
The cabaret slowly started to empty out and a sudden gloom overtook this hall, to which people would come seeking false happiness and hollow illusions.
Our drunkard continued to knock back one glass after another, as if he had decided to drown himself, his life and his sadness, in the ever-full, ever-empty glass he held in his hand.
Suddenly, he gave the waiter a wink, and the latter understood what the guest wanted from him.
The waiter approached the stage, where the orchestra was playing sentimental melodies, and returned to the drunkard’s table with a violin in hand.
The drunkard took the violin, and a deathly silence descended upon the hall. All eyes were trained on him, on this elegant drunkard, who, eyes closed, stroked the bow for a long while, his face glowing as though flames were about to burst out of his head into the night.
Then he began to play.
And I shuddered.
I have heard many virtuosos in my lifetime, among them some of the most famous and talented.
But I had never heard anything like this.
Suddenly, it seemed to me that the cabaret had been transformed into a temple where he, the cantor, sought to purify his soul and ours in the blue sea of musical notes, of divine songs and harmonies.
I do not recall how long he played. I only remember that the impromptu concert was suddenly cut short and I was unable to catch a glimpse of the violinist, since he had already left the cabaret.
The magic came to an end, disappeared, and everything happened so quickly that I could barely believe it had been anything more than a dream.
The waiter then approached and told us that the drunkard comes every evening to the same cabaret, drinks his fill, and once he is good and plastered, he takes the violin and gives a free concert – for himself.
Who was he, this Paul? A German Jew, before the war he was a violinist who gave concerts. Hitler deported him to a concentration camp where he played in the camp orchestra. After the war, he was no longer up to performing in public. He came to Madrid in 1945-46. He had enough money – presumably from wealthy relatives. Many people suggested that he again give concerts, but he can only play when he is drunk.
That story left me then with a terrible impression. I decided to return to the cabaret the next day. But at the hotel a cable was waiting for me directing me to make a short trip to Tangier.
Two years later, I again visited Madrid and went to the same cabaret, but Paul was no longer there. They informed me that he had traveled to settle in Israel.

Apostates at the Seder
Three years ago, I celebrated Passover on a French ship, somewhere in the middle of the ocean between Brazil and Argentina.
We observed the Seder as it should be done. More than fifty people were seated at the table. But not all of them were Jews: thirty of them were… apostates.
The State of Israel was then going through difficult times, and Christian missionaries had arrived to buy up Jewish souls. Anyone who agreed to apostatize received a visa to Brazil and food for the journey.
Several hundred Jews left Israel then, having allowed themselves to be persuaded by the missionaries.
On a beautiful day, I took the French ship Provence and sailed to Brazil to see how the apostates were living there.
I knew that a couple dozen apostate Jews were traveling on that same ship, but I did not have access to them. First of all, the ship was large (with more than a thousand passengers), and go ask someone if he was not only not a Jew but an apostate! Second of all, the officers told me that many passengers almost never leave their cabin, so how is one supposed to go in to see them and ask indiscreet questions?
To my “luck,” a dramatic incident took place in Brazil: in Rio de Janeiro, the Immigration Authority refused to recognize the apostates’ entrance visas (to this day, no one knows why), and they were not allowed off the ship. According to international maritime law, the Provence had to bring them back to Marseilles, France. But because the ship was first traveling to Buenos Aires, they locked the apostates in the ship’s cellar and held them there under arrest.
I myself was supposed to disembark in Brazil, but immediately upon hearing about the incident, the journalist in me decided to travel on with these unhappy Jews to chronicle their suffering.
In the meanwhile, Passover sneaked up on us and I received permission from the ship’s captain to lead a Seder. The announcement came over the megaphone that those Jews who so wished could have a special “service” after dinner, as required by Jewish law.
I did not expect the apostates to come. But come they did. They numbered thirty-something: men, women, children. They sheepishly entered the coach dining hall and silently sat down at the table, where matzos and kosher wine symbolized their connection to the old traditions of the Jewish people.
At that moment, I remembered our Sages. Even at the gates of Hell, they said, a wicked person can repent. And they were correct, our Sages. It is enough that he witness an old-time Passover Seder for even the worst apostate to free himself of his shackles.
It goes without saying that I was in seventh heaven, sitting together at the table with Jews who had returned, reading the Haggadah.
But the greatest shock came a few minutes later. The door opened and there stood… Paul.
He did not appear drunk. But his eyes were cloudy. He came to the table, sat down, and… was silent.
After the Seder, I tried to have a conversation with him, but I could not extract anything from him.
One thing I understood more from his silence than from the few words he uttered: the Jew in him had remained.
On the return from Argentina, thanks to the intervention of Jewish organizations in Brazil, they allowed the apostates off the ship.
Paul also left the ship, and in Brazil he escaped my eye.
I warned you: I do not know the end of this story. I have no idea what happened to Paul and the other apostates.
I know only this: if someone tells you that Passover is the festival of redemption not only of a nation but of each individual, believe him.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Jews, Baseball, and The Yiddish Press

Jews, Baseball, and The Yiddish Press
By Eddy Portnoy
Dr. Eddy Portnoy is Senior Researcher and Director of Exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He is the author of the recently-published (and much acclaimed, and fun) book, Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Stanford, 2017), available here.

This is his second contribution to the Seforim Blog. His previous essay, “The Yiddish Press as a Historical Source for the Overlooked and Forgotten in the Jewish Community,” was published here.

Jews love baseball! Well, maybe not all Jews. On the one hand, the editors of the Forverts, the largest and most successful Yiddish newspaper in history, enthusiastically commissioned an article at the end of August, 1909 explaining the fundamentals of the game to their audience of Yiddish-speaking immigrants. While they may not have expected their readers to run out and play ball, they did understand that it was of value culturally to understand how the game was played. In short, it was seen as part and parcel of the Americanization process.

And yet, on the other hand, a cartoon that appeared a few years later reveals somewhat of an antipathy to baseball from a different Yiddish precinct. Baseball appears to have been one of those rare matters upon which both Orthodox rabbis and secular Yiddish cartoonists could agree. It is thus with great sympathy that one of the cartoonists working for Der groyser kundes views the difficulty Orthodox rabbis in America had in trying to convince American Jewish boys to attend heder. Der kundes, a very popular and very secular satire publication oriented to Left Labor Zionism, lamented the disinterest the lunkheaded, foul-mouthed, baseball-obsessed Jewish youth. Not that they necessarily supported the acquisition of a traditional Jewish education (even though all their writers had one), but they didn't like baseball either.

Not unlike Nusakh sfard, baseball won the battle and is now a pastime enjoyed by large numbers of American Jews. Many of them even went back to heder. Left Labor Zionists satire magazines, however, aren't doing so well anymore.

Der groyser kundes, New York, May 29, 1914

The Forverts, New York, August 27, 1909
The Fundamentals of the Base-Ball ‘Game’ Described for Non-Sports Fans,” The Forverts (27 August 1909): 4, 5, translated by Eddy Portnoy.
Uptown, on 9th Avenue and 155th Street is the famous field known as the “Polo Grounds.” Every afternoon, 20 to 35 thousand people get together there. Entrance costs from 50 cents to a dollar and a half. Thousands of poor boys and older people go without some of their usual needs in order to pay for tickets. Professional teams play baseball there and the tens of thousands of fans who sit in row after row of seats all around the stadium, go nuts with enthusiasm. They jump, they scream, they simply go wild with enthusiasm when one of “their” players does well, or, they are pained or upset when they don’t succeed.

A similar scene takes place every day in another place – in the Washington Heights. And the exact same thing goes on in Brooklyn, in Philadelphia, in Pittsburgh, in Boston, in Baltimore, in St. Louis, in Chicago – in every city in the United States. And the newspapers print the results of these games and describe what happened and tens of millions of people run to read it with gusto. They talk about it and they debate the issues.

And here we’re only talking about the “professional games:” practically every boy, nearly every youth, and not a few middle-aged men play baseball themselves, belong to baseball clubs, and are huge fans. Every college, every school, every town, nearly every “society” and every factory has it’s own baseball “team.”

Millions are made from the professional games. Related to this, there is a special kind of “political” battle between different cities. A good professional player gets eight to ten thousand dollars for one season. Some of them are educated, college-educated people.

To us immigrants, this all seems crazy, however, it’s worthwhile to understand what kind of craziness it is. If an entire people is crazy over something, it’s not too much to ask to try and understand what it means.

We will therefore explain here what baseball is. But, we won’t do it using the professional terminology used by American newspapers use to talk about the sport; we must apologize, because we’re not even able to use this kind of language. We will explain it in plain, “unprofessional” and “unscientific” Yiddish.

So what are the fundamentals of the game?

Two parties participate in the game. Each party is comprised of nine people (such a party is called a “team”). One party takes the field, and the other plays the role of an enemy; the enemy tries to block the first one and the first one tries to defend itself against them; from now on we will call them, “the defense party” and the “enemy party.”

The “defense party” also takes the field and plays. Two of the team players play constantly while the other seven stand on guard at seven different spots. What this guarding entails will be described later. Let us first consider the two active players.

One of them throws the ball to the other, who has to grab it. The first one is called the “pitcher” (thrower) and the second is called the “catcher” (grabber).

Each time, the “catcher” throws the ball back to the “pitcher.” The reader may therefore ask, if so, doesn’t it happen backwards each time – the catcher becomes a pitcher and the pitcher becomes a catcher? Why should each one be called with a specific name – one pitcher and one catcher?

We will soon see that the way in which the catcher throws the ball back is of no import. The main thing during a game is how the pitcher tries to throw the ball to the catcher.

The enemy party, however, seeks to thwart the pitcher.

This occurs in the following way:

One of the team’s nine members stands between the pitcher and the catcher (quite close to the catcher) with a thick stick (“bat”) and, as the ball flies from the pitcher’s hand, tries to hit it back with the stick before the catcher catches it.

This enemy player is called “batter.” The place where he stands is designated by a number of little stars (****).

(The other eight players on the enemy team, in the meantime, do not participate. They each wait to be “next.”)

Imagine now, that the “batter,” meaning the enemy player, finds the flying ball with his stick and flings it. If certain rules, which we will discuss later, aren’t broken, this is what can happen with the ball: if one of the “guards” catches the hit ball while it is still in the air, then the opposition  of the “batter” is completely destroyed and the batter must leave his place; he is excluded (he is “out”). He puts down the “bat” and another member of his party takes his place.

The roles of the seven guards of the defense party are also specific: they must try and catch the hit ball in order to destroy the enemy’s attempt to hinder them and to get rid of the player doing the obstructing. They stand at various positions because one can never know in which direction the ball will fly. They watch the different trajectories in which the ball might fly, so a guard can be there, ready to catch it.

The readers can see the way the seven guards are distributed in our picture.

The entire official field on which the game is played is a four-sided, four-cornered one. This is in the center of our picture (The two round lines which go around it represent the tens of thousands of seats for the audience. That is how it usually is for the big professional games. It actually looks like a giant circus with a roof only for the audience. The field, with all the players, is under the open sky.).

As the readers see in the image, one corner is taken by the “catcher.” The other three corners of the four-cornered figure are stations. Each one is called a “base.” With the catcher facing the pitcher, the first “base” is outward from the direction of his right hand, just opposite him is the second base; and from his left hand is the third base.

A little bag of sand lay on every base. The guards, however, must not stand on the base, but next to it.

We previously mentioned three guards. They are called the first baseman, the second baseman and third baseman. A third guard stands between second and third base. He is called the “short stop;” when a ball is hit, it often goes in that direction and the “short stop” gets a chance to catch it in the air.

But if the ball flies way over the heads of these four “guards,” there are three other guards who stand on the outside field, or the “out field.” One of these is called the “right fielder,” the second, the “center fielder,” and the third, the “left fielder.”

Two of the four sides of the four-sided figure in our picture are marked with dots. When a hit ball flies over one of these two lines, it is called a false ball (foul ball). For it to be a proper ball (a fare ball), it must fly forward, or over the other two lines of the four-cornered figure.

When the batter doesn’t manage to hit the ball with his stick, it is called a “strike.” If he gets three “strikes,” he is “out,” or eliminated. Certain kinds of “foul balls” are considered “strikes,” however, we will not go into these details.

When the batter hits the ball and it is “proper,” and the guard doesn’t catch it, this means that the opposition, in this case, is successful. However, this success can either be greater or smaller. Depending on the level of this success, the following is done: as soon as the batter hits the ball, he throws his “bat” away and starts running; if nothing disturbs him, he runs to first base, from first to second, from second to third, and from third to the place where the catcher stands. This place is called “the home.” If he gets to the “home” spot, it means that the success of the opposition is complete.

This means that he made a whole “run:” and, based on these “runs,” the results of the game are figured out. The party which makes more runs is the winner.

But to make a full run at one time doesn’t happen all the time. In order to do so, the zetz that the batter gives the ball must be especially successful. It happens more often that he makes a quarter run, or a two quarter, or three quarter.

The rule is this: the running batter has no right to go to first base if the guard (the first baseman) holds, at that very moment, the ball in his hand. If the hit ball falls on the ground and one of the guards picks it up, the running batter is not yet eliminated.  He runs. But imagine that some guard throws the ball to the first baseman and that this first baseman catches the ball before the running batter physically arrives at first base: then this runner is eliminated. But if he catches the ball when the runner is already on the base, the runner is “saved” (safe).

If the runner keeps running to second base, the rule is a bit different: the second baseman can eliminate him only if he touches him with the ball; and the same rule works for the third baseman, he has to touch him with the ball in order to get him out. The catcher or pitcher can also get a runner out with a “touch” if he finds himself near the base or the “home” to which he ran.

Each player is the embodiment of agility, with strong, swift muscles and sharp, fast eyes. And the whole game is full of “excitement” for those who are interested in it.

Monday, March 26, 2018

כעומד לפני השכינה בשעת ער לערנט: Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein on the Divide Between Traditional and Academic Jewish Studies

כּעומד לפֿני השכינה בשעת ער לערנט:
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein on the Divide Between Traditional and Academic Jewish Studies
By Shaul Seidler-Feller

Shaul Seidler-Feller strives to be a posheter yid and an oved Hashem; the rest is commentary. This is his third contribution to the Seforim blog; for his previous articles, see here and here.
This post has been generously sponsored le-illui nishmat Sima Belah bat Aryeh Leib, z”l.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein enthusiasts might be surprised to learn that there was a time when the rosh yeshivah, zts”l, lectured publicly in Yiddish. I myself had no idea that this was the case until my dear friend, Reb Menachem Butler, who fulfills be-hiddur the prophetic pronouncement asof asifem (Jer. 8:13) in its most positive sense, forwarded me a link containing a snippet from a talk Rav Lichtenstein had given at the Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut-YIVO on May 12, 1968, as part of the Institute’s forty-second annual conference. Feeling a sense of responsibility to help bring Rav Lichtenstein’s insights to a broader audience, I quickly translated that brief excerpt into English, and, with the assistance of YIVO’s Senior Researcher and Director of Exhibitions Dr. Eddy Portnoy, my translation was posted on the YIVO website in early December 2017. Realizing, however, that the original lecture had been much longer, Menachem and I made some inquiries to see if we could locate the rest of the recording, only to come up empty-handed.

As hashgahah would have it, on the Friday night following the publication of the translation, I was privileged to share a meal with another dear friend, Rabbi Noach Goldstein, whose great beki’ut in Rav Lichtenstein’s (written and oral) oeuvre was already well-known to me. In the course of our conversation, Noach mentioned that there was another Yiddish-language shi‘ur by Rav Lichtenstein available on the YUTorah website. I was stunned: could this be the missing part of the YIVO lecture? After Shabbat, I followed up with Noach, who duly sent me the relevant link – and lo and behold, here was the (incomplete) first part of the speech Rav Lichtenstein had given at YIVO![1] I told myself at the time that I would translate this as well; unfortunately, though, work and other obligations prevented me from doing so…

But then, in another twist of fate, one of the orekhei/arkhei dayyanim at The Lehrhaus, Rabbi (soon-to-be Dayyan Dr.) Shlomo Zuckier, reached out to me at the end of December in connection with a syllabus he was compiling for a class he is teaching this semester at the Isaac Breuer College of Yeshiva University on “The Thought of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.” I mentioned to him at the time that Noach had recently referred me to the YUTorah recording and that I had hoped to translate it. With his encouragement, the permission of YUTorah (thank you, Rabbi Robert Shur!), and the magnanimous support of an anonymous sponsor (Menachem Butler functioning as shaddekhan), I present below a preliminary annotated English version of the lecture, whose relevance to the current debate about Rav Lichtenstein’s attitude toward academic Jewish studies should be clear. It is my hope to post my original Yiddish transcription (which awaits proper vocalization), as well as any refinements to the English, shortly after Pesah; please check back then for an update.

[UPDATE (June 15, 2018): My vocalized Yiddish transcription of both recordings is now available as a PDF here. The text of the translation below has also been improved accordingly.]

Note: As was the case with my translation of the shorter recording published previously, Romanization of Yiddish and loshn-koydesh (Hebrew/Aramaic) terms attempts to follow the standards adopted by YIVO,[2] and all bracketed (and footnoted) references were added by me. It should also be borne in mind that the material that follows was originally delivered as a lecture, and while the translation tries to preserve the oral flavor of the presentation, certain liberties have been taken with the elision of repetitions in order to allow the text to flow more smoothly.

[A Century of Traditional Jewish Higher Learning in America]

I beg your pardon for the slight delay. It was not on my own account; rather, my wife is not able to attend, and I promised I would see to it to set up a recording for her. In truth, I must not only ask your indulgence; it may be that this behavior touches upon a halakhic matter as well. After all, the gemore says that “we do not roll Torah scrolls in public in order not to burden the community” [see Yume 70a with Rambam, Hilkhes tfile 12:23]. It is for that reason that we sometimes take out two or three Torah scrolls: so that those assembled need not wait as we roll from one section to another. The gemore did not speak of tape recorders, but presumably the same principle obtains, and so I beg your pardon especially.

When they originally asked me to speak on the topic of “A Century of Traditional Higher Jewish Learning in America,” they presented it to me as a counterbalance, so to speak, to a second talk, which, as I understand it, had been assigned to Professor Rudavsky.[3] They told me that since we are now marking the centennial of the founding of Maimonides College, which, as Professor Rudavsky capably informed us, was the first institution of higher Jewish scholarship in America, perhaps it would be worthwhile to hear from an opposing view, so to speak, from the yeshive world, regarding another type, another model, of Jewish scholarship. This was certainly entirely appropriate on their part – and perhaps it was not only appropriate, but, in a certain sense, there was an element of khesed in their invitation to me to serve as such a counterbalance.

I wish to say at the outset that what I plan to present here is not meant to play devil’s advocate, contradicting what we heard earlier; rather, just the opposite, I hope, in a certain sense, to fill out the picture. However, as proper as the intention was, my assignment has presented me with something of a problem. Plainly put: my subject, as I understand it, does not exist. We simply do not have a hundred years of so-called “traditional higher Jewish learning in America” – at least, not in public. Privately, presumably there were “one from a town and two from a clan” [Jer. 3:14], a Torah scholar who sat and clenched the bench[4] here and there. But in public, in the form of institutions, yeshives, a hundred years have not yet passed, and for that centennial, I am afraid, we must wait perhaps another ten to twenty years. At that point – may we all, with God’s help, be strong and healthy – they will have to invite a professor as a counterbalance to the yeshive world.

The first yeshive, which was a predecessor, in a certain sense, to our yeshive, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, a yeshive known as Yeshiva University, was the Etz Chaim Yeshiva, founded in 1886. As a result, I find myself facing something of a dilemma here, bound in – as it is known in the non-Jewish world – a Procrustean bed, that same bed familiar to everyone from the gemore in Sanhedrin. The gemore describes that when a guest arrived in Sodom, they had a one-size-fits-all bed, and it seems that in Sodom they were not particularly attentive to individual preferences. So they took each guest and measured him against the bed: if he turned out too short, they stationed one fellow at his head, another at his feet, and they stretched him in both directions until he covered the bed; if he turned out too tall, they would cut him down to size, sometimes at his feet, sometimes at his head, so that, in any event, he would fit [Sanhedrin 109b].

Here I face the same problem, and I have one of two ways to extricate myself from my present impasse. On the one hand, I could, perhaps, make a bit of a stretch and broaden the definition of “traditional higher Jewish scholarship and learning,” so that my title, my subject, would be accurate and so that I might, after all, be able to identify a hundred years during which people sat and learned. But, on the other hand, perhaps I should rather stay firm and close to the title, maintaining the pure, unadulterated conception of what constitutes “learning,” “Jewish learning,” “traditional learning,” even if doing so would come at the expense of completely fulfilling the task assigned to me: to speak not about a brief span of years, but a full hundred. You yourselves understand very well that, given these two options, it is certainly better to choose the latter – perhaps abbreviating a bit chronologically – in order to grasp, at least partially, the inner essence of traditional learning as I understand it.

In taking up the work of presenting an approach to traditional Jewish learning here in America, I believe that, in truth, I have two tasks. The first is to define, to a certain degree, how I conceive of “traditional Jewish learning,” or, let us say, more or less, yeshive learning – what constitutes the idea in its purest manifestation? – though I fear this might take us to an epoch, a period, that does not fit the title as it stands, in its literal form.

Second, having somewhat limited the definition, I wish to briefly introduce the principal players and give a short report simply on the historical development of this form of study in the course of the last hundred, or, let us say, a bit less than a hundred, years.[5]

When we speak of “traditional higher Jewish learning,” we must analyze four different terms. And, in truth, one could – and perhaps should – give a lengthy accounting of each of the four. However, I mentioned earlier the concept of not burdening the community, so I will not dwell at all on the latter two. Rather, I will speak about the first two, “traditional” and “higher,”[6] and it will be self-understood that my words relate to “Jewish learning.” I especially wish to focus on the first term, “traditional.”

[Three Definitions of “Traditional”]
What does it mean? When we speak here of “traditional” learning – or when we speak in general about some occurrence or phenomenon and wish to describe it as “traditional” – I believe we could be referring to three different definitions:

First, learning can be “traditional” in the sense that it involves the study of traditional texts – khumesh or gemore – in the same way that one could say about a given prayer, ballad, or poem that it is “traditional,” and sometimes we speak of a custom or even of a food as “traditional.” Here, the adjective refers, simply, to a text that goes back hundreds or thousands of years, that is rooted in the life of the nation, and that takes up residence there – at least, so to speak, in a word.

Second, we can speak of “traditional” learning and refer thereby to learning that operates, methodologically, using concepts, tools, and methods that are old. There were once yeshives… – but this issue does not concern yeshives only: whatever the discipline, the learning is “traditional” if one is using methods that are not new, that do not seek to shake up or revolutionize the field, that have already been trod by many in the past, with which all are familiar, and that have been employed for study by a long “golden chain of generations.”

Third, though, and perhaps especially, when we describe learning as “traditional,” we refer to a methodology that is not only old, but that is rooted in – and, to a certain extent, implants within the student – a particular relationship to the past, or to certain facets thereof; in other words, an approach to learning through which the student absorbs a certain attitude to the Jewish past.

Among these three points, the first – studying traditional texts – is the least important in establishing and defining what I mean, at least, when I say that I will speak about “traditional” Jewish learning. At the end of the day, one can take a gemore or a khumesh, study it in a way that is consistent with the spirit of the Jewish past, and thereby strengthen one’s commitment to Judaism; or, Heaven forbid, one can do the opposite, studying the same text in such a way that it undermines that commitment. Khazal say of Torah learning itself that it can sometimes be a medicine and at other times, Heaven forbid, a poison [Shabes 88b]. Of course, if one is not dealing with “traditional” texts, one cannot be engaged in “traditional Jewish learning;” but this is nothing more than a prerequisite, so to speak, not a determining factor in establishing what constitutes “traditional Jewish learning.”

The second sense – in which one follows a path one knows others have trod in the past – is much more directly relevant. First of all, it gives a person a sense of continuity: that he is not the first, that he is not blazing a trail, that he is not entirely alone, and that before him came a long chain, generation after generation of Torah giants, or – excuse the comparison – in the case of another discipline, of professors, thinkers, or philosophers, who established a certain intellectual tradition to which he can feel a kind of connection. This feeling is obviously important not only in relation to an intellectual tradition; it is significant in general and is relevant to a person’s approach to social questions writ large – but perhaps especially to intellectual questions. Second, aside from not feeling isolated and alone, the benefit is straightforwardly intellectual: when working in a traditional manner, a person has at his disposal certain tools that other specialists developed before him. He also has a common language with others who are engaged in study, so that it is simply easier for him to express himself, understand what his fellow says, and communicate with others. For in the ability to communicate, of course, lies much strength.

However, I am especially interested in discussing and defining the third sense: a “traditional” methodology which is not only inherited from our ancestors, a kind of memento from the house of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, but which seeks to implant within us, on the one hand, and is rooted in, on the other, a particular relationship to those great-grandfathers. And here I wish – and I hope you do not misunderstand me – especially to distinguish and define the wall – and it is a wall – separating what we conceive of as a yeshive style of learning from what is considered a more or less academic approach: that same Wissenschaft des Judentums which Professor Rudavsky mentioned earlier, which was identified with those pioneers of the previous century – [Leopold] Zunz, [Abraham] Geiger, and their associates – and which, of course, has many exponents to this very day.

[Two Differences Between Traditional and Academic Learning]
Where, then, is the point of distinction dividing a yeshive approach from a more academic one? I believe that there are two points in particular upon which it would be worthwhile to focus briefly.

[Historical vs. Analytical Orientations in Studying the Text]
First, the academic approach is more historically oriented. It is more interested in collecting facts from the past; taking a particular author or text – it makes no difference: it could be a popular painter or poet, rishoynim, Khazal, even the Bible itself – placing it within the context of a particular epoch; seeing to it to study, as much as possible, all the minutiae of that period; and thereby attaining a clear understanding of the nature, the essence, of the text, work, artist, or author. On the other hand, the yeshive or “traditional” approach – “traditional” at least in yeshives, and not only in yeshives but in the study of halokhe in general – is more analytical in its character. It does not seek to expand upon a particular work in order to construct an entire edifice, a whole framework of facts, that would help us understand the circumstances under which it was written, or what sort of intellectual or social currents acted upon a person, driving him to work, paint, or portray one way and not the other. Rather, it is more interested in exploring and delving deeply into the work itself. Whatever was happening in the world outside the gemore has a certain significance, but the main emphasis is not there. The main emphasis is instead on understanding what the gemore itself says, what kind of ideas are expressed therein, what sort of concepts are defined therein, and what type of notions can be extracted therefrom. In other words, the focus is not so much on facts as it is on ideas; the approach is more philosophical than historical; one is concerned more with the text than with the context.

And this point – the difference between a yeshive or traditional approach, on the one hand, and a more academically oriented one, on the other – is not limited to the walls of the besmedresh; it is not our concern alone. Those familiar with the various approaches to and methods of treating and critiquing literature in general know that the same argument rages in that field as well – though perhaps not as sharply. For example, in 1950, during a session of the Modern Language Association conference, two of the most esteemed critics in the world of English literature spoke for a group dealing specifically with [John] Milton. One of them, A.S.P. [Arthur Sutherland Pigott] Woodhouse, then a professor at the University of Toronto and a man with a truly incisive approach to literature, gave a paper whose title – it was given in English – was “The Historical Criticism of Milton.”[7] From the other side, Cleanth Brooks, a professor at Yale and one of the “renewers,” so to speak – or perhaps not a “renewer” but, at the very least, one of the propagandists arguing on behalf of the so-called “New Criticism” – gave a different paper entitled “Milton and Critical Re-Estimates.”[8]

This is nothing more than a single example – they were specifically treating Milton in that case – of the aforementioned difference in approach. On the one hand, Woodhouse argued consistently that in order to understand Milton, one must delve deeply into the history of the seventeenth century and of its various intellectual currents – one of them was mentioned earlier by Professor Rudavsky: the great interest in Hebrew studies that exerted its influence upon him – and only once one has gathered together such information and is able, as much as possible, to reconstitute the seventeenth century as it was, can one properly understand Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes. And Brooks, who came from an entirely different school of thought – from I.A. [Ivor Armstrong] Richards’ school and others’ – claimed that certainly there is some value to that as well, but the main thing, at the end of the day, is to understand the poem itself. To do so, one needs to focus on addressing a different set of problems, problems of form, and to grasp not so much the relationship of Milton to, let us say, [Oliver] Cromwell, [Edmund] Spenser, or [John] Donne, but rather the relationship of the first book of Paradise Lost – or of Paradise Regained – to the second, and so on. And, of course, this difference in approach, in the goal one wishes to accomplish, manifests as well at the basic level of one’s work. According to one line of thinking, one must busy oneself with many small minutiae; according to the other, one can limit oneself and concentrate on the poem itself.

The same question can be asked in regard to learning and understanding Torah. And it is possible that this question presents itself more sharply with respect to Torah learning than with respect to other fields of study. In the editor’s introduction to Chaucer’s poetry, F.N. [Fred Norris] Robinson, one of the most prominent Chaucer scholars – forgive me, before I became a rosheshive I studied English literature – mentions that a French professor had once bemoaned the fact that we find ourselves now in, as he termed it, l’âge des petits papiers,[9] in a period that busies itself with small scraps of paper. What he in fact meant was that the aforementioned broadening required by the historical approach – which was, of course, influenced by German Wissenschaft, especially in the last century – can at times simply overwhelm. Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Berliner put it differently. Someone was once speaking with him about Jewish Wissenschaft and the like, so he said to him, “If you want to know what Rashi looked like, what type of clothing he wore, and so on, go consult Zunz.[10] But if you want to know who Rashi was, what he said, better to study with me.”[11]

And I wish to emphasize: when we speak here of a historical, academic methodology, we refer not only to research. Those who adopt such an approach certainly go much further, undertaking not only historical research but also historical criticism. In other words, after having studied all the minutiae through various investigations, one assesses to what use they can be put and what light they can shine on some dark corner of Jewish history. However, this form of criticism, which is mainly rooted in a more historical approach, is different from the yeshive approach. The question turns mainly on what direction one is looking in: from outside in, so to speak, or vice versa. Does one stand with both feet in the gemore, or does one stand outside and look in?

This question is particularly important in regard to learning Torah. For, at the end of the day, when we speak of “traditional learning,” “yeshive learning,” we are dealing not only with an intellectual activity but a religious one as well. This means that learning is not only a scholarly endeavor meant to inform a person of what once existed, what Khazal thought, what they transmitted to us, what the rishoynim held, but is bound up in a personal encounter wherein the individual, the student, is wholly attached and connected to what he learns and feels that he is standing before the Divine Presence while he learns. If one takes to learning in this way, one’s entire approach of emphasizing the need to keep one’s head in the gemore attains a special significance unto itself.

Lionel Trilling once wrote about [William] Wordsworth and Khazal.[12] There he tells us a bit about his youth – Trilling is, of course, a Jew – going to synagogue with his father, perusing an English translation of Pirkey oves since he did not know Hebrew, and years later realizing that the relationship of Wordsworth to nature is the same as that of Khazal to the Holy Scriptures and that of the rishoynim to Khazal. What they found therein he expresses by quoting the last line of Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode”: “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”[13] Trilling recognized that for Khazal or the rishoynim, the Torah was not simply some sort of intellectual exercise. Rather, it was something that penetrated into the depths of their souls. It is to attain that feeling that every yeshive student strives. Not all achieve it, but everyone does, and must, aspire to it.

This is one point distinguishing the method which emphasizes the text from that which focuses on what surrounds it.

[Respect vs. Reverence for the Text and the Jewish Past]
A second difference between the yeshive and academic approaches is their respective attitudes to the text. I just mentioned this a moment ago: a benyeshive approaches a gemore and other traditional works with a certain reverence, each time with a greater sense of “Remove your sandals from your feet” [Ex. 3:5], feeling that he is handling something holy, that he is standing before a great, profound, and sacred text. And this goes hand-in-hand with an approach not only to a specific text, but to the entire Jewish past, a past which a benyeshive not only respects – after all, academics respect it as well – but toward which he displays a certain measure of submissiveness and deference. He stands before it like a servant before his master [Shabes 10a], like a student before his teacher.

If we seek a parallel to this point in the world at large, we should not look to modern literary criticism; I do not know whether such an approach exists among today’s literary disciplines. Rather, we should go back, perhaps, to the seventeenth century – Professor Rudavsky mentioned this as well – and the whole question, the great debate that raged within various circles in Europe, regarding what sort of approach one should take to the classical world: the so-called “battle of the books.” You know well that [Jonathan] Swift, the English author, once wrote a small work – more his best-known than his best – about a library whose various volumes suddenly began fighting with one another, this one saying, “I am better,” and the other saying, “I am better.” What was the whole argument about? The debate turned on the issue of which literature should be more highly esteemed: the ancient, classical literature, or the new, modern literature?[14]

Once upon a time, people assumed this was just a parody, a type of jeu d’esprit; Swift was, after all, a satirical writer, so he wrote it as a joke. However, almost fifty years ago, an American scholar, R.F. [Richard Foster] Jones, wrote a whole book about it, The [Background of the] Battle of the Books,[15] in which he demonstrated that this was not merely a parody in Swift’s time. Rather, he was treating an issue that, for some, actually occupied the height of importance: the so-called querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, “the battle of the Ancients and the Moderns,” which manifests itself in many, many literary works, especially in critical works of the seventeenth century. For example, in [John] Dryden’s essay Of Dramatick Poesie,[16] there is an entire dialogue between four different speakers, each of whom deals with the question: how should one relate to the classical world? And let us recall that during the Renaissance and Reformation, people related to the classical world differently than even a professor of classical literature does nowadays. For example, [Desiderius] Erasmus, one of the greatest figures of the European Renaissance, made it a practice to pray, Sancte Socrates, ora pro nobis, “Holy Socrates, pray for us.”[17] By contrast, today, even in the classical universities, I do not believe that they pray to Socrates for help.

By the seventeenth century, the feeling that was, for Erasmus, so intense had somewhat weakened, but, nevertheless, the question was still looming. For an academic today, in his approach to traditional Jewish texts, “the Ancients” – the classics, Khazal, rishoynim – are, in the words of the English poet Ben Johnson, “Guides, not Commanders.”[18] A bentoyre, by contrast, recognizes to a much sharper and greater degree the authority of Khazal, rishoynim, Torah, and halokhe. For him, texts are not only eminent or valuable, but holy. And this is a basic difference in attitude which, perhaps, distinguishes the two approaches and leaves a chasm between them.

Edmund Wilson, writing one time in The New Yorker magazine – he is, of course, a non-Jew, but one who is greatly interested in the Land of Israel and Jewish matters – mentioned that he believes that a non-Jew cannot possibly grasp what an observant Jew feels when he holds a Torah scroll, and not only when he is holding one; how he thinks about khumesh, about Torah. To a certain extent, it is difficult to convey to a modern man who has no parallel in his own experience; perhaps it is complicated to describe how a bentoyre or benyeshive approaches a gemore. Of course, it is not the same way one approaches khumesh, for khumesh is, from a halakhic perspective, a kheftse of Torah. Of what does Torah consist? Text. However, the kheftse, the object, of the Oral Torah is not the text alone – which was itself, after all, originally transmitted orally – but the ideas contained therein and, in a certain sense, the human being, the mind, the soul that is suffused with those ideas by a great mentor. Still, while it may be that the relationship of a benyeshive to a gemore is difficult to convey, it is certainly, at the very least, sharply divergent from the approach of an academic.

And so, we have, for the time being, two points that distinguish the traditional form of learning, yeshive learning, from a more academic approach. But these two points, it seems to me, are not entirely separate from one another; rather, just the opposite, one is bound up in the other. At the end of the day, why does a benyeshive devote himself so fully specifically to text alone, to the arguments of Abaye and Rove, and why is he not terribly interested in knowing Jewish history and the like? Firstly, because he considers the text so important; if one holds that a text is holy, one wishes to study it. Secondly, because he believes that the text is not only holy, but deep – there is what to study there! It contains one level on top of a second level on top of a third. The more one delves into Torah, the more one bores into its inner essence, the more distinctly one senses the radiance and illumination that Khazal tell us inhere within the Torah [Eykhe rabe, psikhte 2].

In order to establish the various levels of interpretation and maintain that one can examine a particular nuance with great precision, one must actually believe that a text is both holy and important and that it stems from an awe-inspiring source. For example, in the Middle Ages, in – excuse the comparison – the Christian world, people were involved in all sorts of analysis, each person seeing from his own perspective…


* I wish at the outset to express my appreciation to my dear friends, Rabbis Daniel Tabak and Shlomo Zuckier, for their editorial corrections and comments to earlier drafts of this piece which, taken together, improved it considerably.

[1] The date assigned to the shi‘ur on the YUTorah website is erroneous; it should read: “May 12, 1968.”
Those who listen to the original audio will note that it begins to cut in and out at about 42:40, thus effectively eliminating the direct connection between the present recording and the one posted on YIVO’s website. However, it is clear from the short snatches of Rav Lichtenstein’s voice that have been preserved after 42:40 that the recordings do in fact belong to one and the same talk (and not two separate Yiddish lectures on the same topic). Incidentally, if any of the Seforim blog’s readers knows where the intervening audio can be found, please contact the editors so that it, too, can be translated for the benefit of the public.
For other Seforim blog studies related to Rav Lichtenstein, see Aviad Hacohen, “Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s Minchat Aviv: A Review,” the Seforim blog (September 8, 2014), and Elyakim Krumbein, “Kedushat Aviv: Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l on the Sanctity of Time and Place,” trans. David Strauss, the Seforim blog (December 5, 2017) (both accessed March 25, 2018).
[2] See the YIVO website (accessed March 25, 2018) for a guide to Yiddish Romanization, as well as Uriel Weinreich, Modern English-Yiddish, Yiddish-English Dictionary (New York: Schocken Books, 1977) for his transcriptions of terms deriving from the loshn-koydesh component of Yiddish.
[3] David Rudavsky, research associate professor of education in New York University’s Department of Hebrew Culture and Education, presented before Rav Lichtenstein on “A Century of Jewish Higher Learning in America – on the Centenary of Maimonides College.” See the conference program in Yedies: News of the Yivo. See also David Rudavsky, Emancipation and Adjustment: Contemporary Jewish Religious Movements and Their History and Thought (New York: Diplomatic Press, 1967), 318-320, for a brief discussion of Maimonides College.
For a history of Maimonides College, founded in Philadelphia in 1867 by Isaac Leeser – not to be confused with the post-secondary school of the same name located today in Hamilton, Ontario – see Bertram Wallace Korn, “The First American Jewish Theological Seminary: Maimonides College, 1867–1873,” in Eventful Years and Experiences: Studies in Nineteenth Century American Jewish History (Cincinnati: The American Jewish Archives, 1954), 151-213. The charter of Maimonides College was published in “A Hebrew College in the United States,” The Jewish Chronicle (August 9, 1867): 7 (I thank Menachem Butler for this latter source). See also Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 80, 431.
[4] Yiddish kvetshn di bank/dos benkl is a particularly evocative way of referring to someone putting in long hours learning while sitting on a bench or chair in a besmedresh.
[5] For this part of the lecture, see my aforementioned, previous translation published on the YIVO website.
[6] It appears that the section of the lecture relating to Rav Lichtenstein’s understanding of “higher” learning has not been preserved in either of the two parts of the recording available at present.
[7] See A.S.P. Woodhouse, “The Historical Criticism of Milton,” PMLA 66:6 (December 1951): 1033-1044.
[8] See Cleanth Brooks, “Milton and Critical Re-Estimates,” PMLA 66:6 (December 1951): 1045-1054.
[9] F.N. Robinson, ed., The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Boston; New York; Chicago: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933), xv.
[10] Leopold Zunz, Toledot morenu ge’on uzzenu rabbenu shelomoh yitshaki zts”l ha-mekhunneh be-shem rashi, trans. Samson Bloch ha-Levi (Lemberg: Löbl Balaban, 1840).
[11] For a survey and discussion of the various people to whom this critique of Wissenschaft has been attributed, see Shimon Steinmetz, “What color was Rashi’s shirt? Who said it and why?the On the Main Line blog (June 10, 2010) (accessed March 25, 2018). For a recent biography of Zunz, see Ismar Schorsch, Leopold Zunz: Creativity in Adversity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). It should be noted that Zunz (1794–1886) had just turned six when Rabbi Berliner (also known as Hirschel Levin or Hart Lyon; 1721–1800) passed away.
[12] Lionel Trilling, “Wordsworth and the Rabbis: The Affinity Between His ‘Nature’ and Their ‘Law,’Commentary Magazine 20 (January 1955): 108-119, a revised version of his earlier “Wordsworth and the Iron Time,” The Kenyon Review 12:3 (Summer 1950): 477-497. The essay, or a version thereof, also appeared in a number of other forums.
[13] William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” Wikisource, l. 206 (accessed March 25, 2018). (The poem was first published under the title “Ode” in Wordsworth’s Poems, in Two Volumes, vol. 2 [London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807], 147-158.) This line does not actually appear in the aforementioned Trilling article. The Ode itself was the subject of a different essay by Trilling published under the title “The Immortality Ode” in Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: The Viking Press, 1950), 129-159.
[15] Jones’ monograph, The Background of the Battle of the Books (St. Louis: Washington University Press, 1920), was actually an offprint of an article by the same name that appeared in Washington University Studies: Humanistic Series 7:2 (April 1920): 99-162.
[16] John Dryden, Of Dramatick Poeſie, an Essay (London: Henry Herringman, 1668). See also the version reproduced here (accessed March 25, 2018).
[17] Desiderius Erasmus, The Colloquies of Erasmus, trans. N. Bailey, ed. E. Johnson, vol. 1 (London: Reeves & Turner, 1878), 186.
[18] Ben Iohnson, Timber: or, Discoveries… (London, 1641), 89.

Print post

You might also like

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...