Sunday, May 19, 2013

A 'Conservative,' Reform, and Orthodox rabbi (so to speak*) on the possibility of teaching old school piety and Torah scholarship in America in the late 19th century

Here's an interesting part of Gotthard Deutsch's obituary for David Rosin in the American Hebrew (Jan. 22, 1895). Rosin taught in the Breslau Rabbinical Seminary established by Zechariah Frankel, and is best known for his edition of the Rashbam's commentary to the Torah. To give some context to the Deutsch's remarks below, in the same article Deutsch cites an alleged quote by Samson Raphael Hirsch, that the Right and Left sides of the street are for men, the middle of the road is for horses. 

As you can see, Deutsch, an American Reform rabbi, had maintained that it was impossible to "restore the old Jewish piety with its ideal of conforming to the law" - halacha. Not that Deutsch wanted to, mind you. Rosin, however, strenuously objected that this was "a policy of despair" and that individuals could be brought to strict observant, even if this could not work on a communal level.

Deutsch, incidentally, wrote the following in September of 1905: 
"Our women will not submit to the "Sheitel:" our men will not banish ghosts by Cabbala: our boys and girls will read novels in spite of Joseph Caro, etc."
And he continued to say that across the spectrum, what needed to be fought was indifference.

Since we are talking about religious Jewish life in America at the turn of the 20th century, it would be interesting to produce a page from a book that was first called attention to the world by Mendel Silber in his 1916 article "America in Hebrew Literature." The book, published by R. Chaim Shlomo Silbermann in Jerusalem (1899; not 1859 as per Silber) is called Or Yaakov, and the bulk consists of various unpublished commentaries by the Vilna Gaon, for example, there is a piece explaining the aggadot of Rabbah bar bar Hannah. 

Appended to the end are two pages of a bar mitzvah derasha given by Silbermann's nephew, Yitzhak. The reason why this was important, says Silbermann, is that the boy, whom he is exceedingly proud of, grew up in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. When he received the text of the derashah it was to him like the day the Torah was given at Sinai. This boy is a "tzaddik ben tzaddik" - the boy's father was an alumnus of Volozhin; a student of R. Hirsch Leib (=the Neziv) - Silbermann gives two examples of the lad's boyish piety: he answered "amen" at age 4, and would not eat without making a berachah at age 7 or 8. And there is the derashah itself, which shows that it is possible to raise a ben Torah in America. Most interesting is his dichotomy between raising a child to learn Torah and teaching a child parnassah ke-minhag America.

* The reason I wrote "so to speak" about these rabbis is because, technically, only Gotthard Deutsch was a practicing rabbi. The others were scholars, one affiliated with an institution (the Breslau Seminary) and the other, apparently, an independent talmid chochom. However, for the purpose of that snappy, snappy title - these were all three learned Jews, each with a vision about the apathy and unlearnedness of Jews of their time, and the potential for restoration.

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