Monday, March 31, 2008

R. Nathan Marcus Adler's instructions for his family

Throughout the mid-19th century, one figure dominated the religious life of Jews in Great Britain, Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler (1803-1891).1 In addition to bearing such distinctions as being Europe's first Orthodox rabbi with a doctorate (1828; for his dissertation De idea summi Numinis), a personal friend of Queen Victoria's husband Albert from his youth, and generally successfuly navigating political minefields, he was also an accomplished talmid chochom, author of a valuable study of Targum Onqelos, Nesina Le-ger (his most famous work; he also wrote other scholarly works, many halakhic teshuvos and chiddushim on Talmud), and despite his British Hanover-origin, (ie, he was "German") he was veddy, veddy British; when he was appointed Chief Rabbi it was on condition that he learn to speak English within two years. He accomplished it in one. (Interestingly enough, another serious candidate was R. Samson Raphael Hirsch. Although he found his niche, one wonders what a Britified R. Hirsch might or might not have eventually accomplished and what his career might have looked like.)

Here are some interesting excerpts and summaries of his Last Will & Testament written for his descendants on "December 31, 5644 - 1883." The matters discussed here shed valuable light on his own priorities as well as what rabbinic concerns within Britain were at the time. His words alone are in inverted commas.

"I have been very ill and near death, but Almighty God in His mercy has so far restored me to health that I am able, although inadequately, to write. Being in Brighton, and no longer surrounded by members of my family, I feel bound to lay the following religious duties to the hearts of my children, grand- and great-grandchildren, with the earnest wish that they may always observe them, and thereby keep my memory fresh and green."

Adler goes on to explain why it may seem that he will speak less of "moral duties" than "religious duties." It is not because the former are less important - on the contrary, they are also mitzvos and thus commanded by God. However, in his time there is a greater spirit of laxity in the aforementiones religious duties, and therefore his family faces a greater temptation to neglect them. Adler then writes that the main principle of Judaism is conained in
Deut 6. They must always remember "ushmartem va'asitem," (Lev.19.37).

Next Adler explains that Tanakh, our Bible, is our most precious book, because it "affords us guidance through life," and also "it teaches Israel his origin, his history, his mission to influence mankind in the knowledge of the only one God." Furthermore, it introduces the concept of the eventual arrival of the moshiach, when the whole world will know the one God. Given how important Tanakh is, Adler councils his family, cause your children to read one perek daily, perhaps after morning prayer.

Having mentioned the centrality of Tanakh, he then stresses the importance of Torah she-be-'el peh - Oral Law - giving by way of illustration the examples of tefillin and mezuzah. Then he asks them to read the weekly sidra with targum ("or an easy commentary"), or even with English translation should his descendants not know Hebrew sufficiently. (Interestingly, he does not stress the importance of Hebrew proficiency. Perhaps these are the words of a man resigned to the fact that not all of his descendants could be counted upon to know Hebrew. It should be remarked that Adler was party to the establishment of a society for the promotion of the revival of Hebrew, spearheaded by Eliezer Lipmman Silbermann, editor and founder of Ha-maggid.) Also - study rabbinical literature so that they would be acquainted with it - at the very least, on shabbat.

Next Adler turns to the home, which he says is the most important Jewish institution and the center of Jewish life. Parents must keep kashrut with rigor and they must teach their children to keep it just as strictly outside of the home. The wife must take care that nothing trefa enters the premises and - interesting! - she should not be ashamed to involve herself in the kitchen to ensure that the servants are keeping kashrut, especially basar ve-chalav (ie, the separation of meat and dairy).

"Do not listen, my dear children, as regards the Law 'Thou shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk' (Ex. 23.19, 34.26, Deut. 14.21), to the criticism of the so-called Neologians (ie, Reformers. 'Neolog' was the term current among Hungarian Jewry. In Reform in general, but especially in Britian, there was a decided neo-Karaite tendency), who assert that the Law must be taken literally, for this would be senseless. Depend upon it, from the very time of its promulgation it was expounded and carried out in its extended sense." Adler emphasizes that the threefold repetition in the Bible teaches us to keep it scrupulously - "Depend upon it."

Furthermore, they should know that there are also the commandments called chukim, for which we do not know a reason for its command, whether such a reason is "spiritual, moral or sanitary or all three together" - but we do know that no mitzvah is without beneficient motive.

Next he discusses behavior for all week long: integrity and scrupulousness in business is a must. He reminds them that such behavior will give them a good name and make their reputation, but above all, it will constitute a kiddush Ha-shem.

He then tells them forcefully: shun usury! "Whatever your calling, shun, oh my dear ones, every kind of usury, for usury still constitutes, alas! the malignant canker which sullies the fair name of our nation."

Moving away from the week, he tells them that as industrious as they must be during the week, they must rest and keep the shabbat. The shabbat teaches the greatest truths of Judaism. It has been "the cause and moving spirit of Israel's preservation." (Ahad Ha'am may have coined the clever phrase that the Sabbath kept the Jews even more than the Jews kept the Sabbath, but you can see that the sentiment predated that.) What should their shabbat be like? It should be joyous, a day of joy and tranquility. They must "distinguish it with a better meal, better dress" and with exercise in the fresh air, but above all a "higher rest," which sanctifies God's name.

Although he already mentioned that they ought to study the sidra with Targum and also rabbinic literature, he reemphasizes this point. On shabbat they must show an even greater devotion to and more zealous study of Torah (than, presumably, during the week). He suggests that on the shabbat they give their children examinations to see how they've advanced in their Torah study.

What else mus they do for shabbat? They must keep shabbat holy - from beginning to end. There must be no business, writing or riding - no matter how early shabbat begins (presumably here we see that a tendency toward laxity with the beginning of shabbat, when it started early during winter, was rampant). Adler reminds his family to remember
Neh. 13.15-23, wherein the profanation of the beginning of shabbat brought about great evil.

He assures them that if they lead a pious life, they could expect to escape the punishments which God warned sinners of, and they will instead partake of the choice blessings that he promised the individual and the nation. They can be assured that they will enjoy this world and the world to come. שֹׂבַע שְׂמָחוֹת, אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ; נְעִמוֹת בִּימִינְךָ נֶצַח - forevermore!" (Ps. 16.11)

He concludes "Most solemnly" that they are to "be good Jews and Jewesses," and are to keep in mind future reward and punishment, to lead a life of firm morality and strict observance!

I obtained the text of R. Nathan Marcus Adler's will from Ethical Wills: A Modern Jewish Treasury, by Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer.

Further reading, see the interesting tribute "The Late Chief Rabbi, Dr. N. M. Adler ‮זצ״ל‬," by M. Friedländer in JQR Vol. 2, No. 4. (Jul., 1890), pp. 369-385.

1 It should be noted that he pioneered an interesting technique for asserting his rabbinic authority: he all but banned other rabbis from operating as such in Great Britain. To such an extent did he personally enjoy hegemony over the rabbinate in Britain, that dayyanim serving under him were unable to even use the title "rabbi," - when they were being called to the Torah or otherwise!

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