Thursday, October 21, 2010

Some additional info re the Shafran/ Pelta interview below.

With regards to the Pelta/ Shafran interview below, I thought it might be a good idea to post some of the relevant background material, but first, here is a link to Rabbi Natan Slifkin's response to those comments concerning him.

I personally found that interview extremely interesting, not least of which because it discussed the background and point of view Rabbi Shafran regarding the "Mendelssohn Enigma" episode. What happened was, his article by that title appeared in the Jewish Observer (December 1986). The thesis was basically that there is an Orthodox consensus that Moses Mendelssohn was a pretty bad guy. The question is, why? In reality he was a pretty good Jew. Although for generations people have pointed out that his children and students converted to Christianity, the same thing happened to many wonderful Jews in those turbulent times and if this is the reason that he's bad, then so are those Jews, and we don't say they were bad. So, proposed Rabbi Shafran, a close examination of his relationship with leading rabbis of his time provides the key. It turns out that Mendelssohn wasn't really a big believer in rabbinic authority, and that is where he erred.

The next issue featured an editorial statement to the effect that publishing the article was an error, and an apology was owed to the readers. It further expressed pain that the article "was interpreted as a watering down of the traditional opposition to Mendelssohn." To atone for this mistake (my words) it also included two-thirds of a page by Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, who is today the "Rosh" of the Agudah. His piece decried the idea that it is difficult to find the problem with Mendelssohn and that it required special analysis. He writes that his flaw was obvious, it is the "synthesis" of cultures which was "worse than a departure from Jewish tradition." In contrast, stands Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who is also associated with modernizing Judaism (my words, but facts is facts) "yet, he was privileged to rescue entire generations from religious oblivion." So "unquestionably" the distinction between these two men is that Hirsch "specifically rejected" the synthesis type that Mendelssohn personified. Pelta's point in the interview was that here you have the Novominsker decrying a "synthesis" approach, yet other interpreters of Hirsch, like R. J.J. Weinberg, described his approach as a synthesis.

I found Rabbi Shafran's personal point of view to be fascinating, especially his indication that he wrote each of the members of the Moetzes at the time and received letters from them explaining what it was that was problematic in their view. Boy, would I love to see those letters! Also interesting is his revelation that this [= his article was wrong] was not the united view of the Moetzes.

Below is the article with the editorial appended at the end:

Rabbi Shafran also made reference to Rabbi Shimon Schwab's response called "To Distinguish Between Light and Darkness." Rabbi Schwab acknowledged that there were "some Gedolim who did not know Mendelssohn too well" and therefore wrote pleasantly, or at least not overly negative about him. But "this man Mendelssohn, has been treated with kid gloves too long and maybe the time has come to take off the gloves and put him in his place once and for all."

He decries the "uninformed historians" who equate Mendelssohn and Hirsch, noting that the Mendelssohn children and disciples "all marched to the baptismal font" (not all) while Hirsch's disciples marched on to the Beth Hamedresh (tell that to Graetz and Kaufmann Kohler). The article goes on to explain what in fact was the problem with Mendelssohn, and gives a handful of choice quotations translated into English meant to demonstrate clearly his heresy. Apparently they are so self-evident and so representative of Mendelssohn that Rabbi Schwab does not explain what is heretical about those particular statements. Finally, after once more discussing how wonderful Hirsch and his influence was, the article ends by quoting Proverbs 10:7 and noting that the first part certainly does not apply to Mendelssohn, which I'm sure is a lot nicer than the standard practice in some circles of openly writing שר"י, alluding to the second half of that verse, after Mendelssohn's name.

Since Rabbi Schwab was essentially addressing the yeshiva community, one wonders who it was that was treating Mendelssohn with kid gloves (apart for Rabbi Shafran, that is). I suspect that he meant in his own community, the transplanted Hirschian congregration of Frankfurt A.>, the fabled Kahal Adath Jeshurun. Truly, if one reads many of the writings of German Orthodoxy produced in the 19th and early 20th century one is struck by the fact that the "traditional opposition to Mendelssohn" just wasn't so traditional among German Orthodoxy. Neither Hirsch himself, nor his supposedly less-modern contemporaries thought he was uniquely terrible. Perhaps in the 1980s this attitude still persisted in Washington Heights, and Rabbi Schwab had enough of it, so with the Shafran article, the time had really come for a German rabbi who could read Mendelssohn in the original to put him in his place. Maybe?

In any case it is extremely interesting to me that not only did Rabbi Shafran not agree with Rabbi Schwab on this, he still does not and is not reluctant to say so.

Here it is:

Finally, mention was made in the comments of Pelta's interesting interview with Prof. Lawrence Kaplan (link). Kaplan is fairly well known in these sorts of discussions for an article he wrote for the Orthodox Forum series volume on "Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy. It was an expansion of previous work on the subject of Da'as Torah, and here it is:


  1. I remember reading R Schwab's essays with sadness and trepidation when I was in yeshiva in Israel. I disagreed with many of them, particularly his interpretation of R Hirsch, but the essay on Mendelssohn really impacted me, and Mendelssohn's "heretical" quotes frightened me away from any positive view of him.

    I look back on that trepidation now and laugh. Nothing Mendelssohn says would be something heretical or even particularly troubling to me or any of my intelligent, informed friends--all of whom are sincerely Orthodox in their beliefs and observances.

    And this is true even without correcting R Schwab's quotations by filling them in with their proper context.

  2. There's a section of "The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition" by Michael Silber, where he provides a laundry list of 19th-century German Neo-Orthodox Jews who praised Mendelssohn as one of their own.



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