Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A proverb about London among Polish Jews, 1822.

An almost unending fount of interesting material is the Missionary Journals of Joseph Wolf, which I've quoted many times before (see here, for example, for a bit about how the rabbis of Jerusalem stood for Rabbi Yaakov Emden's granddaughter when she walked into a room).

The protagonists in this exchange areWolf, the missionary, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, disciple of the Vilna Gaon and leading Ashkenazic sage in the Land of Israel at the time (1822).

I admit that it took me a minute to understand this "proverb:" "We Jews in Poland have a proverb; The wicked one draws a Jew after him to London, but as soon as the Jew is arrived in London, the Jew draws the wicked one after him."

I think it means to say that the spiritual environment in London is so bad for Jews that the Jew in London, who was after all lured there by Satan, once there he has fallen so far that he lures the very Satan himself. Have you got a better interpretation?


  1. Satan = Yetzer HaRah.

    IHMO this is similar to the explanation of Al Cheit SheChatanu Lefanecha BeYetzer HaRa - even where the evil inclination didn't see any sin and was minding his own business, we managed to find one.

    The pshat seems to be that the Yid in London went beyond the call of duty to sin.

  2. "Satan = Yetzer HaRah."

    Well yes, I know that.

    I wonder actually if this isn't specifically connected with conversions, considering the circumstances, and what Wolf said to him right before. This was the heyday of the London Missionary Society.

  3. I know you do...

    BTW While the first edition used the spelling Wolf (one F), he himself later used two Fs and is universally known as Joseph Wolff. I like Wolffs diaries but they are far from being a reliable historical account. I always found the debates with R' Mendel and the other perushim pretty far-fetched. Wolff was 27 at that time.

    Then again, no one at that time expected the developments (conversions) of 1840s...

  4. How about this, along the same lines as you but a bit deeper:

    Wolf's comment was that "no worldly object has induced me to embrace that belief." In other words, no one has forced him to come to this conclusion, it's all real, it's all HIM. R. Mendel's retort is that the wicked one takes the Jew to London, but once the Jew gets there he convinces himself that what's wicked is good, and then he begins to take all the credit for coming, all in order to assuage his guilty conscience. In other words, he's saying, Wolf, you're full of it. Maybe I'm over-thinking this, it's just a thought.

    Wolf's attempt at a witty comeback could then be simply alluding to his belief that there is nothing bad about London in the first place.

    I would say that the proverb in general referred to London the way we'd refer to Vegas and the like. In this specific context it probably refers to Christianity.

    I probably am over-thinking this. Now back to my Gemara...

  5. Of course caution should be used, but I doubt he fantasized it all. In fact, at times you can see that he (or the editor) doesn't right the Jewish response, and one might infer that it was pretty good. For example, Wolff pointed out to R. Mendel that the Radak explains "elem" to mean "hidden," and thus "alma" must mean virgin. No word on what R. Mendel responded. There are also a number of details which are undoubtedly reliable. One such thing is that he not only mentions the so called Vilna Ger Tzedek, but even that his name was Potocki. Now there is a lot to say about whether that story really happened, if it was conflated with the documented story of another ger, etc. - but there can be no doubt that R. Mendel told him this - which makes it important since aside from this account there is not even a hint of the entire story in the writings of any disciples of the Gaon (a point lamentedly admitted in an article about Avraham ben Avraham in a memorial volume for R. Wachtfogel of Lakewood). Another example would be this "proverb" itself. There can be little doubt that, however to interpret it, R. Mendel told something like it to Wolf. There can be also little doubt that they stood up for R. Yaakov Emden's granddaughter, that her great learning was mentioned (or wisdom?) and that R. Mendel said that the important thing for women, though, was to be pious, etc. All these one can learn from his diaries, and much more besides.

    As for the plausibility of so much debate, first of all the Perushim made a strategic decision to befriend the missionaries and receive material and political support in exchange. Aryeh Morgenstern documented this well. As you allude, this was well before the 1840s, and they evidently didn't yet feel burned.

  6. Excuse my ignorance; what was special about the 1840's?

  7. It's not ignorance. There was a Messianic fervor and fever about the year 1840 which many at the time believed was the year predicted by the Zohar for the redemption. When it came and went two of the rabbis among the Perushim converted to Christianity in 1843 (and a third one almost did, but in the end didn't).

    Here for example is one contemporary quote - and it is not fiction:

    "Messrs. Luria and Goldberg were, before their conversion, Jewish rabbies m the Holy City, known as Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Benjamin; in 1843, they were added by baptism to the Jewish Christian community on Mount Zion, and were at that time exposed to severe persecution from their unbelieving brethren, who tried by every means in their power to prevent their making a public profession of their faith. Mr. Luria was compelled to divorce his wife, deprived of his only child, and pillaged of all he possessed. From Russia, however, to which country his wife had been removed, she, after two years, returned to her husband (partly at the instigation of her own Jewish relatives; themselves, from intercourse with the missionaries, favourably disposed towards Christianity), now desirous to be instructed in the knowledge of that Saviour whom she had once rejected, although in so doing she exposed herself to persecution from the Jews in Jerusalem. She was baptized in November last."

  8. Thank you. Please provide the source for the fascinating quote. I had thought that the missionaries were so successful in Jerusalem was because of the free high-quality medical treatment they made available. I've seen descriptions that patients would be admitted and find clean beds and bed clothes, good kosher food and the new testament in yiddish or hebrew. If I'm not mistaken, this is the reason why R. Shmuel Salanter and other orthodox leaders, who opposed secular education and modernization, nevertheless supported Jewish owned and operated hospitals.
    What your adding here is a very different dimension.

  9. Google is your friend. The Jews of the nineteenth century by William Ayerst (London 1848) happens to be the source of that quote, but this is a well documented story.

    What you are describing is largely a phenomenon of the second half of the 19th century. The first half (until 1840ish, really) was more along the lines of how I described. I should point out that the leadership among the Perushim tried to keep their masses apart from the missionaries, preferring to dialogue with them themselves (trusting themselves, obviously). This became problematic in light of what occurred, as described above. There is no question that Joseph Wolff was welcomed into the home of Rabbi Mendel of Shklov, disciple of the Gra, and they discussed Judaism and Christianity (and this is only the tip of the iceberg). The thought of something like this occurring today in Jerusalem is outlandish, to say the least.

    For their part, the Sefardim took a much warier approach, trying to totally shun the missionaries - they already had protection from the Ottomans, while the European Jews needed protection, not to mention material things. (This is the most likely explanation, although one cannot also discount the possibility that Middle Eastern Jews saw Christians as second class in their own lands of origin, so why bother with them?) This was before the consular system became firmly established and there were non-missionary means of gaining protection from European powers.

    See here and here, where I discussed it a little.

  10. Thanks, S. I would love to see the Morgenstern book. BTW this all ties into my own family history, but I'll take that off line.



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