Monday, March 30, 2009

Solomon Dubno in Yated Ne'eman; how to make a maskil a rabbi*

*And I don't mean Dubno--read on.

I had previously posted a small excerpt from a fascinating article (from 2000) about שלמה מדובנא, also known as Solomon (or Salomo) Dubno (1738-1813). He was one of many Polish scholars living in 18th century Germany, where it was easier to make a living teaching Jewish children, than it was in any fashion at home. In contemporary sources much scorn is directed at these men, most of whom taught in Yiddish to German-speaking children, and did not use modern educational methods. This was seen by would-be educational reformers as a continuing problem for Jewish society. However, some of these Polish-born teachers were very erudite scholars, our subject being one of them. He was an expert Hebrew grammarian, Bible exegete and bibliophile. Like many, if not most, rabbis of his time he was pious as well as learned. It happened that he was employed by Moses Mendelssohn to teach his son (at that time he had only one living son), and a friendship developed between them. The specifics surrounding their decision to collaborate on a Pentateuch translation, with commentary is not directly relevant, but ostensibly the project was initiated by Mendelssohn for the benefit of his own child, although sometimes he claimed (admitted?) that it would also serve the education of children generally, allowing them to read a *Jewish* Bible translation in their own language, instead of Christian ones.

In any event, the plan was for Mendelssohn to do the translation and Dubno to write the Hebrew commentary which could explain the choices in the translation (essentially peshat-oriented gleanings from Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Radak and Ramban) as well as appending a technical massoretic commentary, to be called Tikkun Soferim, which would be derived in large part from earlier massoretic works like Syag le-Torah, Ohr Torah and Minchas Shai.

As was the custom in those days, preparing a new book required advanced subscriptions for financing. The best way to sign people up was to have a sample product to show, so they planned one with some sample pages of translation and commentary, as well as an introduction, penned by Dubno. It was released under the title עלים לתרופה. In addition, Dubno was to pen an introduction to the Pentateuch, to be included in the final product. This he did, however Mendelssohn felt it was too arcane and technical and refused to allow it to be used as the introduction. In addition, he realized that the commentary work was too much for one person, so he enlisted others (see below). Dubno insisted his introduction be used, they fought, Dubno said "See ya," and Mendelssohn wrote his own introduction (which also contained a technical section, based on Dubno's introduction) called אור לנתיבה (A Light for the Path, relating to the name of the Pentateuch itself, נתיבות שלום, Paths of Peace).

Dubno had already written the Genesis commentary, as well as most of Exodus. I am not sure what the story with intellectual propery was in those days, but evidently Mendelssohn had the Genesis commentary, he completed and edited the Exodus commentary himself, and received a Leviticus commentary from his friend Hartwig Wessely, and commissioned one on Numbers from the little-known Aaron Freudenthal of Jaroslav, and a commentary on Deuteronomy from a later-to-be-well-known Herz Homburg. The edition was published with 750 advance subscribtions sold (including, incidentally, one to Dubno). A great to-do ensued, with censures and near-bans and (reported) burnings, mainly having to do with the perception that the German translation was intended to teach literary German to uncorrupted Jewish youth, but also because Mendelssohn had failed to seek rabbinic approbation for the prospectus (the Pentateuch itself came with approbations). In fact, it seems the only reason why it wasn't banned by one of Mendelssohn's chief antagonists, R. Rafael Ha-kohen of Hamburg, was because one of the subscribers was the king of Denmark. As Hamburg was then under the Danish crown, it was impossible for a rabbi to ban a work that has been subscribed to by the king. In any case, despite this it was a success (in all senses of the term, including actually teaching many an eastern European student in the 19th century German) and went through many editions and reprints over the next 125 years.

Meanwhile, Dubno had removed to Vilna. Being a great scholar and having written excellent commentaries, he decided to publish his own edition of the Pentateuch. For this he received much rabbinic acclaim and gathered many outstanding approbations. To the present-day yeshiva world, one of those approbations stands out, namely that of R. Chaim of Volozhin, outstanding pupil of the Gaon of Vilna and founder of the modern yeshiva. Although Dubno had split with Mendelssohn, this fact remains jarring to whomever from within that world knew it. Associates of Mendelssohn, and a Bi'urist, would not seem to merit approval from the greatest representatives of the Lithuanian yeshiva world. And yet.

Until-- a new interpretation of Dubno's split with Mendelssohn was able to be propounded, based on a re-examination of materials relating to Dubno; a letter from him to Wolf Heidenheim, and an approbation for his Pentateuch.

Essentially, the interpretation is as follows: Dubno was a good guy who got involved with a bad one. Eventually (perhaps due to the influence of his own rabbi) he decided he needed to part company from Mendelssohn. For his part, Mendelssohn also really felt that Dubno was "too frum," and he too really wanted to push him out, so he made up excuses about Dubno's introduction being too technical to publish.

With that neatly in place, everything is explained.

Now, the author of this theory, R. Dov Eliach, is not a simple person. He knows how to conduct original research and to consult primary sources. My issue here is how he chose to skew them to bolster his interpretation. In his article we find SJ Fuenn subjected to scorn. Fuenn was a moderate maskil from Vilna, but like almost all maskilim, he was a huge fan of Mendelssohn, and tried to publicize the rabbinic perspectives that were favorable toward him (much the way Meir Hildesheimer's excellent and comprehensive articles on Mendelssohn in the eyes of 19th century rabbis were, with a crucial difference: not having a personal stake in it and not being a Lithuanian maskil, Hildesheimer illustrated all perspectives, positive and negative). this included publishing the approbations for Dubno's Pentateuch, which were in his possession. Eliach notes that Fuenn withheld all the approbations.

Here are typical examples of Fuenn's treatment of Dubno:

From his periodical Ha-Karmel:

Text not available

Approbation in his Kirya Ne'emana:

Which approbations were not printed? Ones which mentioned the scandal in Germany, where rabbis were displeased with the Bi'ur. In addition, these approbations posit that Dubno's edition could limit the reach of Mendelssohn's. Fuenn's purpose was to show leading Lithuanian rabbis and students of the Gaon of Vilna favoring Dubno whose association with Mendelssohn was well known. Presumably mention of the scandal did not serve this purpose. Eliach is certainly correct that this is why Fuenn did not print such approbations.

Now, Eliach wrote this article in response to an accusation that HE withheld any mention of Dubno's receiving a haskamah from R. Chaim Volozhiner in a prior article so as not to publicize the association of Dubno with a student of the Gaon like R. Chaim. In other words, he was accused of doing just what Fuenn did. In this article it seems that Eliach came to appreciate Dubno, so his tactic was to sever him from Mendelssohn (using facts and interpretations). However, it seems his preference was to not mention Dubno to begin with! When pressed to do so, you have the above article.

In closing, Eliach gives the reason why he did not mention R. Chaim's haskamah to Dubno: at the time he didn't trust Fuenn, and needed to confirm it from another source! And a source he did find afterwards. Unfortunately, this second source is a maskil, so rather than denigrate him like he does Fuenn, Eliach chose to pretend that this second source is not maskilic, but that of a traditional rabbi, and presumably the vast, vast majority of the readers of Yated Ne'eman would have no idea whatsoever.

Therefore Eliach portrays another figure, who also published approbations, in an entirely different light. SJ Fuenn is not a "R'" or a "Reb," of course. But the other fellow, Gabriel Jacob Polak from Amsterdam is "R' Gavriel Falk[sic]"1.

Now, I'm not saying there is anything wrong with Polak, but to Eliach there ought to be! Namely, he was just as much a maskil as Fuenn. Polak, a printer and scholar in Amsterdam, was not a Chareidi rabbi, nor was he a kind of Hirschian rabbi. He was a participant in the literary republic of 19th century European haskalah, and of course did not pretend otherwise. However, he lived in Amsterdam and not Vilna.

So, Polak (or "R' Gavriel Falk") published the approbations "in his sefer, Ben Gorny." It's true that the book is actually titled "Sefer Ben Gorny," but come on--Eliach would not refer to another maskil's "sefer, X" unless he wanted the reader to view the work as a sefer and not a bukh. (Come to think of it, this might be an editorial/ translator's decision and not Eliach's, see fn. below.)

And here begins the section on Dubno in Ben Gorny:

As you can see, Polak calls Mendelssohn הרב הרמב"מן ז"ל. This isn't proof that he was a maskil (which he was)-- it just illustrates the point.

What is the motivation to portray Gabriel Polak as "R' Gavriel [Polak] of Amsterdam"?
The result of this is to authenticate both ledgers which place Reb Shlomo Dubno in his correct light, exonerating his character and repudiating Sha"Y Fein's accusation that the Gaon and his circle admired haskalah.
It is unclear why it took another source for the approbations to write about how they existed at all. It is further unclear why Gabriel Polak is a clean, corroberating source to someone who automatically suspects people like him and Fuenn. Of course, it is a neat trick to simply call him R' Gavriel Falk and then that problem isn't there.

Another piece of the article which deserves notice is this:
It is known that all the individual members of the Berlin haskalah were tainted with either false ideas, Bible criticism, reform-style demands for change, or a combination of these. Reb Shlomo Dubno however, has never been accused of harboring any such ideas. His sole occupation was with Torah, either in explaining the pesukim according to the rishonim or studying their grammar and the traditions for reading them. Throughout his life, he was scrupulous in his mitzvah observance. A list of the volumes and manuscripts in Dubno's library, which was published prior to the library's sale in Amsterdam in 5574 (1875), contains the names of many works on kabolo, which their owner studied during his lifetime. This is further evidence of his dissimilarity from his former colleagues, who denied the authenticity of the kabolo to a man. (This was pointed out to me by my friend Rabbi Dovid Kamenetsky.
I'm sure the examination of Gershom Scholem's library would show many works of kabolo, too. In addition to kabbalists, two other kinds of people would possess kabbalistic works: people with an academic interest in kabbalah, and people with an ideological hostility to it.

In any case, is it true that Dubno's former colleagues "denied the authenticity of the kabolo to a man"? Certainly Yitzchak Satanow didn't, being as he was an enthusiast of kabbalah who even defended the antiquity of the Zohar against R. Yaavet"z Embden. A quote from him: ""This Book of Zohar is great and vast. There are in it allusions and uncountable items of divine information built on the foundations of true intellect . . . which were spoken in divine secret with greater force and greater strength than what philosophical speculation spoke, as is known to one who contemplated them with reader and knowledge of their inner intention according to their truth, and the words are ancient." I've never heard of Wessely voicing a complaint against kabbalah. It is certainly true that stereotypical maskilim denied the authenticity of kabbalah, but it cannot be said that this applies to a man. Furthermore, Dubno's possession of those texts prove nothing regarding his attitude toward kabbalah.

Edit 2011: See this post where I more thoroughly attempt to debunk Eliach's point here, by noting that Mendelssohn himself apparently upheld the authenticity of the Kabbalah.

(Discussion about Dubno's letter to Wolf Heidenheim to come.)

1 The article, incidentally, was apparently translated from Hebrew. The translator made certain errors which are not Eliachs fault. For example, Shmuel Yosef Fuenn [or Finn] became "Fein" in this article, because the translator had no idea how to read פין, presumably having never heard of this person. In edition, Gavriel J. Polak became "Falk," because פלאק was misunderstood for the same reason. However, the latter error is more easily understandable. See the title page shown above: someone actually crossed out "פאלק" and penciled in "פולאק."

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