Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Non-Orthodox rabbis behaving badly in Egypt; Karaites, Maimonides and a ben Asher codex.

I came across this really interesting letter to the Jewish Observer in an early 1979 issue.

It seems that a group of American rabbis and rich laymen took a tour of Egypt. One of them, Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz, wrote about it in a Conservative Judaism article called Yetziat Mitzrayim: From Cairo to Jerusalem. One of the laymen, businessman and bibliophile Manfred R. Lehmann felt that he witnessed some boorish and appalling behavior on the tour, not reflected in Rabinowitz's article, and he sent a letter to Conservative Judaism, which they declined to publish. So he sent it to the Jewish Observer, which delightedly published it.

Here is a part of it:

". . . Your readers may be interested in the reaction of an Orthodox person traveling for the first time at close range with Conservative and Reform rabbis. Here are some examples of my experiences, and impressions . . .
"1. When I had located the Karaite community in Cairo and reported this to the group, there ensued enough interest among its members to sacrifice a half hour of the time allocated for the Sphinx and the Pyramids, for a quick breezer through the Karaite main synagogue and community buildings. But by contrast, when I had located the Beth Hamidrash of Maimonides in the Old City -- and this was a most difficult task in itself -- and then, full of excitement, told the group about my discovery, not one member (to my utter amazement, bordering on disbelief) was interested in paying a visit to this hollowed (sic) shrine of Jewish scholarship. Could it be that Conservative and Reform rabbis feel more kinship with the Karaites, than with one of the greatest personalities normative Judaism has produced since the close of the Talmud?"
He then goes on to relate two more vignettes. One concerns an encounter with a middle-aged Jewish couple who wanted to have a Jewish wedding. Lehmann writes that the rabbis paid no attention and "avoided them like the plague." Lehmann himself performed the wedding, using a local Ketubah form he had acquired, and interviewing the woman's 79-year old mother to ascertain that she was indeed Jewish. He said that finally some of the participants helped by making a makeshift chuppah out of a tallis. The last incident concerns the Moshe ben Asher codex of the Prophets1. Lehmann had privately negotiated a deal with the custodians of this codex (presumably the Karaite synagogue in Cairo) to be loaned to the Yeshiva University Museum in New York. He writes that no one else had anything to do with the deal, but when the others learned of it they tried to have the exhibit moved to the JTS. When this failed, some even wrote letters to the Egyptian government opposing it! Lehmann concludes that he simply could not believe it, and could only think גם לי גם לך לא יהיה Kings 3.26!

1 You can read some material on this Bible codex written and collected by a Karaite, Morad el-Kodsi here.

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