Monday, January 16, 2012

R. Chaim Yoseph David Azulai's controversial position on divorce as it was discussed in the Parisian journals. Etc.

Pre-Revolution, divorce was not legal in France, in accordance with Catholic belief and, of course, the morals of a society shaped by that belief. French Jews, however, were allowed autonomy in matters of marriage, and therefore they were allowed divorces. In 1775 a banker named Samuel Peixotto (b. 1741) decided to divorce his wife Sara (Mendes-D'acosta), his elder by ten years, whom he had married in England. They moved to Bordeaux and had three children. She refused to be divorced and apparently some rabbis supported her refusal. So he took his case to the Paris courts, arguing that as a Jew he had a right to get divorced and the court should affirm it, just as it legalized Jewish marriages. The case dragged on for years, because no one was quite certain what the exact status of the Jews in France were.

As a result, much discussion of their status, as well as public debates about how the French ought to deal with minority values that conflicted with their own, emerged. In addition to this, in the background was the movement in favor of divorce, championed by men of the Enlightenment. The case dragged on, and both he and she dragged rabbis into it, their opinions being cited in legal briefs (which were published, and dissected by the press). Tiring of the endlessness of the wrangling, ultimately Peixotto fixed upon a solution - he converted to Christianity in a ceremony before the king of Spain, apparently hoping that this would automatically dissolve the marriage. Two years later Sara died, but Samuel tried to inherit her possessions then! - he was married to her, you see.

We know from more than one source that both Peixotto and his wife tried to enlist the Chida (R. Chaim Yosef David Azulay) on their side, enticing him with promises of donations to the Jews of Hebron. From the Chida himself we see that more than he was willing to support Sara (as he in effect did) he was unwilling to support Samuel. Samuel had promised him a very, very large donation for Hebron, which he refused to accept. Sara made a donation, which he did accept. When asked his view about the case, he vaguely answered that so long as the wife was not guilty of licentiousness, if they had children, then the husband has no grounds to divorce her against her will.

This opinion was cited - and ridiculed - in one of Peixotto's legal briefs, on the grounds that the Chida had only cited an aggadah (that the very altar weeps when a man divorces his wife, as you will see below) but not the halacha!

We see, for example, the following pro-Peixotto position in "Causes Célèbres, Curieuses et Intéressantes, etc." (Paris 1780), which claimed that Peixotto's enemies were claiming that he was trying to divorce his wife so that he could convert and then marry another women. They also tout a "ban" of Rabbi Haim-Joseph Azulai. This "ban" (l'anathême) - I think it means legal decision - by him does nothing for the case, they say. His decision (against the divorce) references the Bible, the Mishnah and the Talmud, but doesn't quote them. Why doesn't Azulai give the volume, and the page number? We can read the Bible as well as him, and we can see many places in the Bible, where divorce is allowed. The Mishnah, a very authoritative work among the Jews, was translated into Latin, and is to be found in the royal library (where, ironically, the Chida himself had the opportunity to examine it, as I posted about here). Anyone can see this Mishnah and read it. As opposed to Haim-Joseph Azulai's vague words, Chapter 14 of Jebamoth presupposes that divorce is permitted.

The Talmud, it continues, is a 24-volume commentary on the Mishnah, and clearly we have not consumed the entire 24 volumes for the joy of guessing what Azulai claimed to speak about, but would not quote. However, we can still rest assured that the Talmud is far from against divorce, since the commentary must be consistent with the text (i.e., if the Mishna is not against divorce, neither is the Talmud). In fact, the piece continues, in Gittin 55 it says that a man may divorce his wife without her consent. So where did Haim-Joseph Azulai get his opinion from?

Actually, Sara's supporters resorted to trickery in getting him to support her. He was asked, if a woman is modest and virtuous, can she be divorced? Was this descriptive of the case? To divorce a modest, virtuous woman, without blemish? What kind of monster would divorce such a wife? A man would pay a price in blood to keep her, such a treasure is she. But this wife was unfaithful (says Peixotto) and such a woman can only ruin the life of her husband, people of all classes and religions know that this is so.

And as a matter of fact, it continues, when the facts were presented properly, the following rabbis disagreed with Azulai:

Saul Levi, rabbi of the Hague, in his reply, decided that since Sara asked for the property to be divided in court, Samuel can divorce her by force, and the Cherem de-Rabbenu Gershom (rabbin Guerson) does not apply.

Also Ezekiel Landau, Chief Rabbi of Prague, asked on the same issue, knows of no difficulty by law, and that the claims of the lady Peixotto are worthless. This woman, who wants to be separated from her husband, but still remain connected with him all their life, is a rebellious woman, and the Choulchan Arousels [sic] 154 teaches the rule regarding her. After a long excursus, he comes to his legal decision: the husband is not obliged to support her with food and her other needs, because she is rebellious, neither accepting the divorce or living with him.

And it continues in this vein. Here's a sample from this article, and you can read the entire thing here:

Now let's turn to the Chida's side of the story. Since Chida was keeping a diary at the time of his travels in Europe we are in a position to know his thoughts about the major things which occurred to him during that period of his life. The particular passage most relevant to this case was published three times.

Here's a summary:

This is dated 14 Tammuz 1778. As you can see, what he says is that someone (a big name in French Sephardic Jewry of the time) asked him if a man is allowed to divorce his wife against her will. He said no, and was asked to put it in writing. Since he didn't want to be disagreeable, he wrote that it is forbidden to divorce a first wife if she is virtuous, without fault, and has children with the man.

Regarding the Peixotto case, his lawyer used this opinion. The lawyer described him as an honest man, but not learned. His written opinion was written either for money, or out of ignorance. He gives no Talmudic authority for what he wrote, only quoting the Aggadah that the "altar weeps for him who repudiates his first wife."

All of this was written in a brief, printed, and distributed to the Parliament. This was advised by a half-apostate Jews named Calmer, and another named Raba (both big names, like the aforementioned Gradis). Between the three of them, Peixotto, Calmer and Raba, you get PaKaR. Chida continues that all of this stuff was printed and is going to get widely distributed in Amsterdam, Bordeaux and London (ABeL, i.e., mourning) and all this, which is very troubling to him, is for his sins.

He continues that Friday night he was further disturbed because Mordechai Venture (more on him below) brought Peixotto's printed text to the synagogue and read them to several people. He wasn't intending to humiliate the Chida, but to show what a terrible person Peixotto was. Nevertheless, he felt terribly ashamed, and tried to think of what sin this could be punishment for. And then he had a change in humours that night, so it was a bad time all around.
In 1879 parts of this diary, called Ma'agal Tov, were published in Livorno by Eliyah Benamozegh (link). Here is how the relevant passage appears:

A perfectly adequate translation of this appears in Elkan Nathan Adler's Jewish Travellers, published in 1930:

This is not the only place where Chida mentions Peixotto or his wife. On 29 Kislev (end of December 1777) he writes that
On this night the great wealthy man Sr. Peixotto spoke to me concering the matter of his wife, that I should help him try to obtain his divorce. He pledged 1000 escudos for Hebron if I would take his cause. I said to him, if you want me to make peace between you and your wife, I will do that for free, since everyone says that your wife is modest. Impose any condition on me that you want, and I will strive to fulfill them. But to cause a separation [between spouses] - that would be Hillul Hashem. I told him that according to the law it is forbidden to divorce a faithful wife, if she is the mother of the man's children, and his first wife. I told him more along these lines. Another time a man had pledge me four Louis D'or if I would sign a legal decision written by a famous rabbi allowing one Israel Vidal to remarry, and I said that even if the decision is correct, as it presumably is, in the eyes of the masses it will cause Hillul Hashem. So I did not want to even see the legal decision, much less sign it.
In any case this is more or less the story, from the point of view of Peixotto and from the point of view of Hida himself. It should be mentioned that eventually he did read the pesak concerning Israel Vidal, and he writes that it was wrong.

Incidentally, the aforementioned Calmer (Liefmann Calmer), whom he says goes to Church, etc. - Hida had some nicer things to say about him earlier in the year. Writing on 2 Tevet 5538 (Jan. 1, 1778) he describes his background (Ashkenazi, from Holland) and his powerful position at the royal court. He also says that he went to visit him, and Calmer greeted him beautifully, and gave him a donation of two Louis D'or. They also played some Jewish geography, and the Hida pointed out to him that a relative of Calmer's was in financial need, and Calmer promised to send him money. He wasn't yet part of the PaKaR trio yet.

Hida also mentions Mordechai Venture, who inadvertently embarrassed him, by bringing the pamphlet arguing Peixotto's position to the synagogue and publicly discussing the abused heaped upon himself. Mordechai Venture is a very interesting person; the Chida mentions him numerous times in his diaries. Venture (in French his name was Mardochee Venture) was a scholar who is famous for his translations; of the Sephardic liturgy into French, and of the Targum to Esther into Hebrew (Patshegen Ha-ketav Amsterdam 1770). In addition, there are a series of Hebrew and French prayers composed by him for various occasions, such as the health of King Louis XV or for the success of Marie-Antoinette's pregnancy (on the title page of these works he is described as a "teacher of Hebrew, Chaldee, Talmud, Italian and Spanish). Hida describes him (26 Kislev 5538/ 1777) as a "medakdek u-vaki be-leshonot." Venture accompanied him to Versailles in the first week of January of 1778.

Here is a sample page from his prayer for the sick king:

What is, essentially, a devar Torah by Mordechai Venture, appears in a most unlikely place. Given his skill, scholarship (and, one imagines, his connections) he obtained a position at the Royal Library. There he made the acquaintance of an Englishwoman named Mary Freeman Shepherd, whom he taught Hebrew. The following excerpt from one of her letters to to Adam Clarke (1760-1832) concerning gratitude.

She writes that how gratitude and humanity are a trait of the Jews ("the Hebrews" who do not hunt, race, bull-fight, cock-fight, etc.) and this can be attested by their "Scriptures, their law, their history." She continues to praise the Jewish belief that the damned do not suffer in hell on Shabbat, and that for this reason the Jews begin the Sabbath early and delay its close. This, she writes, is far kinder than our priests (she was a Catholic). The Jews prolong the suffering of the lost spirits without getting a penny for it. "No penny, no Pater," says she. She then goes on to quote something that Mordecai Ventura told her about the process by which Moses redeemed the Israelites and afflicted Egypt, how it was filled with symbolism of gratitude, for Egypt had reared Moses, the water had harbored him, etc. Essentially, he told her Rashi to Exodus 7:19 (from this week's sidra) based on the Tanhuma.

Finally, one point of interest. In Chida's Ma'agal Tov he transliterated monsieur as "מוסו."


  1. Wait a minute...where do the humours come in? The English translation either interpolates or deletes things.

    And I would love an explanation for the cryptic comment
    במק'לי עברתי בבוא דו'אג
    because it looks like there is worthwhile esoteric knowledge there.

    "The Jews prolong the suffering of the lost spirits without getting a penny for it." I think you meant something else.

  2. Really interesting, not much different today I think(donation promises..)

    However what puzzles me, if he had so much money to donate, he should've just "bought" his way out of the marriage.



Related Posts with Thumbnails