Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Unexpected experiences in Jewish Berlin, 1860.

Ah, old newspapers.

This piece from Hamaggid (1860) describes a visit to Berlin. The writer describes how he went to shul (or shall I say, schule) Friday night and was most impressed by the beauty, the spirituality, the quality praying. It even had gas lamps! "Is this Berlin," he thought, "about which they say that most of our brethren nowadays lack faith and reverence for God?" He mostly praises the cantor, named Lichtenstein. And notes that there was a choir of children.

(There was an old joke about a yeshiva bochur who went to Paris, and the entire time he was in a Beis Midrash. After his trip he said, "I don't get what everyone's always going on about Paris [how immoral it is]/ What are they talking about? I learned Torah the entire time I was in Paris!)

The visitor goes on to describe the next morning, which featured an excellent baal kriah (Torah reader). Then he describes the sermon by the famous Michael Sachs, and boy was he impressed. He really, really like Sachs's sermon, which was a major feat of oratory, exhorting the masses to observe the sabbath meticulously. It was unlike the sermons of the Reformers, who stand before the Ark without reverence, like they are on stage in a theater, and they preach a new Torah, etc. Sachs ascended and descended the bimah reverently. He addressed everyone sweetly. He explained Tanach, Talmud, Midrash and the other holy books to his flock. He labored faithfully for the needs of his congregation, and at home one could find him studying Gemara, Rashi and Tosafos. He also had a great and precious personal library. Lucky is the congregation which chose someone like him!

Sigh . . . Dr. Michael Sachs.

Then he had a nasty surprise on Sunday. He was shown the new cemetary, which was renowned. He says that if not for the gravestones you'd have thought you were in a beautiful park. etc. etc.

Then he was shown the row reserved for rabbis and scholars and !!!!!!! he saw the grave of Dr. Samuel Holdheim, the Reform rabbi in Berlin, and he was also buried in the rabbi's row. His community had erectd a nice head stone, and one of the Russian maskilim wrote a poem, which was inscribed on it. At the top it said "Here lies, etc. "Gadol me-rabban Shemo . . ."

The traveler's reaction can best be described by the extra large type he used and the pregnant "!?" "Woe," he writes, "to the generation that saw this!"

Then he saw the hospital, but didn't get the chance to visit.




As you'd expect, there was a whole history to this. It wasn't happenstance that Holdheim wound up in the rabbi's row. In fact, the aforementioned Michael Sachs opposed it.

First, a note about Holdheim. He was one of the most radical reformers, so even people who were for some reforms felt he went much too far. For example, it was he who infamously moved Shabbat to Sunday. A word about a very, very famous quotation of his is in order. Everyone says that Holdheim said "The Talmud was right in its day and I am right in mine." Even a responsible, meticulous scholar like Jay M. Harris quotes this ("How Do We Know This? Midrash and the Fragmentation of Modern Judaism," p. 167), albeit the correct version (in translation): "The Talmud speaks out of the religious consciousness of its age and for that time it was right; I speak out of the higher consciousness of my age and for this age I am right."

Now, there isn't much about the context that changes the meaning - yes, he meant what it sounds like - save for one important point. In context it is not nearly so arrogant as it sounds, since he did not mean to say that he alone, Samuel Holdheim, was right. What actually happened was that the reform rabbis at the 1844 conference in Braunschweif were giving their opinions, but they were all trying to ground them in the Talmud in some way. Holdheim believed that this approach was erroneous. He believed that the Talmud truly did not support Reform Judaism, but that was alright, because the Talmud is not binding. And the reform rabbis should have the courage to acknowledge it. So he said ". . . Dr. Herzfeld should not place before us so absolute and general a statement as: "The Talmud is right." Rather, he should say, "The Talmud speaks out of the religious consciousness of its age and for that time it was right; I speak out of the higher consciousness of my age and for this age I am right." (Translation by W. Gunther Plaut, and quoted by Michael Meyer.)

See the difference? He was not saying "The Talmud was right then, but I, Holdheim, am right now." He was saying "The Talmud was right then, but we are right now." It could of course be argued that it is still arrogant to say that a room full of a couple of dozen men were "right" when millions of other Jews would not agree, but to serve truth it is important to note that he did not place himself, alone, as the one person on earth who was right. (Maybe he did so in practice . . . )

So when Holdheim died, the members of his congregation wanted him buried in the rabbi's row in the aforementioned Berlin cemetery. Michael Sachs, the modern preacher (and Wissenschaft scholar) mentioned above - who was, incidentally, considered by the Frankfurt separatist Orthodox community who hired Hirsch instead - opposed it. However, the Chief Rabbi Jacob Oettinger (he of the "Zunz knows what Rashi smoked, I know what Rashi taught" quip - see here) decided that it was okay for Holdheim to be buried there. Which is interesting, I suppose. This Yiddish-speaking, 'last traditional rabbi' of Berlin didn't oppose it, but Michael Sachs, very much a modern rabbi - not even exactly a rabbi, actually - did. If you think about it, perhaps it's not so surprising. However, it certainly seems ironic on the surface.

See this post at the lamented Ishim Veshitos blog for Rabbi Oettinger's reported words: ""Holdheim is dead? Boruch dajin emmes--he was a great lamdan; whatever else he did and his turn of thought--for that he will now have to render account to God. Death blots out everything. I have nothing against his being buried in the row of the rabbis." (This translation is by Michael Meyer, from "Most of My Brethren Find Me Unacceptable": The Controversial Career of Rabbi Samuel Holdheim Jewish Social Studies - Volume 9, Number 3, Spring/Summer 2003 (New Series), pp. 1-19.)

Here is how Rabbi Oettinger appeared in 1860:


and here is Dr. Sachs:


And to remind, here was Shadal's mention of Holdheim in a note to Geiger, where he compared Rabbi S.R. Hirsch's use of German to Holdheim and Geiger himself:


Thinking about it, I wonder what Geiger thought about being equated with Holdheim - or Hirsch. From here.



6 comments:

  1. "He was shown the new cemetary,"
    Pet peeve of mine: it's cemetery.
    Mr. Picky

    ReplyDelete
  2. The writer describes how he went to shul (or shall I say, schule) Friday night

    Shul, certainly. I doubt the Schule was open on Friday nights -- this wasn't Zilberman's, after all.

    ReplyDelete
  3. They're not the same thing.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "This Yiddish-speaking, 'last traditional rabbi' of Berlin didn't oppose it, but Michael Sachs, very much a modern rabbi - not even exactly a rabbi, actually - did. If you think about it, perhaps it's not so surprising. However, it certainly seems ironic on the surface."

    Any more ironic than the Hirsch-Bamberger dispute? R. Bamberger was similarly not a "modern" rabbi, but was far more willing than R. Hirsch to reach uneasy accommodation with Reform on Gemeindeschaften.

    ReplyDelete
  5. How do האלדהיים and ירושלים rhyme?

    ReplyDelete

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