BEFORE THE DELUGE
And the Lord said to Moses, Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and go astray after the gods of the strangers of the land, into which they go to be among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them. Then my anger will burn against them on that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them; so that they will say on that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us? And I will surely hide my face on that day for all the evils which they shall have perpetrated, in that they have turned to other gods.
JEWISH EDUCATION IN AMERICA: AN OVERVIEW
Topics of Interest
The Difficult and Troubled Progress of Jewish Education in America
The Notion of Community in the Jewish Educational Configuration in America
The Difficult and Troubled Progress of Jewish Education in America
An understanding of the changes brought about by the Second World War requires some knowledge about that which was changed. What was the history of Jewish Education in America during the centuries and decades preceding the war?
Lawrence Cremin has noted that "with Jewish education better established and financed during the 1960s than ever before, American Jews seemed functionally illiterate with respect to their Judaism." And concludes by saying "it is a paradox that tells us much, not only about the nature and limitations of education, but also about the character of life in twentieth-century America. . . . that extends far beyond the confines of the Jewish community." 1 These words appear in the Foreword to Jewish Education in the United States: A Documentary History by Lloyd P. Gartner. The work throws some light on the establishment and struggle of Jewish education in America. Gartner's introduction reveals the historical development of Jewish educational efforts:
Scripture commands the Jew to "impress upon your children" the revealed Divine teaching, and to think and speak of it day, and night . . . Every member of God's unique people had to be imbued with the Bible and with the oral traditions later committed to writing as the Talmud, which were also regarded as Divine in origin. Lifelong study and contemplation of the Torah became essential in the Jewish paideia. . . . Social prestige and religious merit were thus ultimately linked in Judaism with intellectual effort . . . . Nowhere did the zeal for pious study exceed the intensity it attained in Poland and Lithuania, the areas from which the greatest masses of Jews came to America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. . . . "It is a positive commandment of the Torah to study the Torah . . . . therefore ever Jewish person is so obligated . . . .He must fix a time for Torah study, day or night . . . .Until when is a man obligated to study? Until the day he dies." (Hayyey Adam, Section 10, Parts 1 and 2.) The main content of all this study was law, as discussed in the tractates of the Talmud--civil, criminal, moral, ritual. 2
The fate of traditional Jewish education in the open, emancipated, enlightened and democratic American society is the subject of our present interest and of Gartner's book. Cremin has noted that "the settlement of America, had its origins in the unsettlement of Europe" 3 , and nowhere is this more true than in the transplantation of Jews from Europe to America. The first Jewish settlers in America were fleeing from Christian persecution. Spanish and Portuguese Jews were the first to attempt to set up a "Jesiba" and hired a full-time teacher for their children: ". . . a Suitable Master Capable to Teach our Children ye Hebrew Language; English & Spanish he ought to know, . . . to keep a publick school at the usual Hours of the forenoons on every Customary at our Jesiba," at Shearith Israel (Spanish and Portuguese) Congregation, New York, 1760. 4 The concern seemed to be about obtaining someone learned in "Hebrew", yet also worldly and well-spoken in secular matters.
This trend continued with the arrival of the second wave of Jewish immigrants primarily from Germany and England. Butts and Cremin have pointed out that while there had been a few Jews in America in the 1700s, and while their number had increased significantly with the German immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s, they had not exercised a particularly important influence on religious, educational or social thought. 5 " Isidore Bush's Advocacy of Public Schooling for Jewish Children (1855)" explains the position of the secularist Jew in America. The credo of the Reform movement that was an expression of the times is stated:
. . . After mature reflection and due consideration of all its bearings, I am utterly opposed to all sectional or sectarian schools, nor would I change my opinion if our means were as ample as they are deficient. . . . Would the descendants of our Christian fellow-citizens be more liberal . . . , or would they not rather be strengthened in their lamentable prejudice? . . . Which class of our children are in a better condition to meet and overcome the spectre of Intolerance? . . . Having thus refuted the standing arguments for sectarian schools, I cannot think of any object to be obtained by them to which full justice could not be done by establishing good Sabbath, Sunday, and evening schools for religious and Hebrew instruction only. . . . Sending our children at the same time to our public schools for the acquirement of other branches of learning, the result would exceed our most sanguine expectations. 6
Whatever the expectations, this approach has proven to be a remedy for loss of Jewish identity. Gartner puts it well when he says that the public school was viewed as the symbol and guarantee of Jewish equality and full opportunity in America. The deep American Jewish affinity for the public school lasted a full century, and "turned to disenchantment only in places subjected to urban school crisis in the 1950s and 1960s". 7 We would add that the events of 1939-1945 and their consequences contributed to a re-evaluation of public schooling for Jewish children.
Gartner states that the year 1880 marks the great divide in the history of American Jewry, as unprecedented numbers of Jewish immigrants began to pour into the United States. Prior to 1880 there were approximately 280,000 Jews in the U.S. By 1900 there were about 1,000,000. In 1915, there were 3,500,000. When mass immigration was shut off in 1925, by the Immigration Act of 1924, there were 4,500,000 Jews in America. Today, the figure stands at about six million.
These millions came primarily from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Galicia, and Hungary where pogroms, vicious anti-Semitism, and unstable economic and political conditions, made America a much desired haven. After all, America was free, and its streets were "paved with gold"! The fact that these new arrivals were generally of traditional Orthodox or Hasidic background and commitment, was testimony to the general efficacy of the traditional Jewish educational configuration in Eastern Europe. But the impact of American culture added to the lack of any established vast-scale traditional educational networks, contributed to a severe break-down of accepted practice. The industrial and commercial nature of American life forced most to compromise on Sabbath-observance, dress, schooling, and life style to become Americans, or simply to eke out a living.
The already well-established brethren saw it as their mission to speed up the Americanization of the newly arrived Jewish masses. They entered into "kehillah experiments" together with the homely "greenhorns" in order to gain greater social control and influence amongst the "Ostyidden". Newspapers, settlement-houses, philanthropic and cultural groups provided sustained, systematic and deliberate instruction as to the best and quickest ways to give up the "old" ways and enter into the "new". The surrender of the Jewish masses was not unconditional. Hedorim, Talmud Torahs, and a few yeshivahs were established, lasting well into the 1940s and beyond. "It expressed the determination to maintain the old ways rather than the new. It symbolized ethnic continuity in the ways of their fathers, especially yearned for when neither the fathers nor their ways were to be seen." 8 The order of the day was now "cultural pluralism"; an expression of uniqueness in the face of conformity.
Two unique syntheses were born in America during this period: The Conservative Movement and Yeshiva University. Gartner reports that the traditionalist Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and, Yeshivath Etz Chaim (later to become a part of Yeshiva College) both opened in New York in 1886. Israel Friedlander (1876-1920), professor of Bible at JTS, provides an example of a Conservative view, when dealing with "The Problem of Jewish Education for the Children of Immigrants (1913)", as recorded by Gartner:
. . . The downfall of the central pillar that had supported the structure of Russian Jewish life, the ideal of religious knowledge or scholarship, involved the downfall of all those institutions which had served it. Hence the beth hamidrash and the yeshivah were doomed from the beginning, and, though attempts at reproducing them have been made they did not yield tangible results.
What then was needed? Friedlander reports that, under the auspices of New York's Bureau of Jewish Education:
The aim of Jewish education was formulated to be "the preservation of the Jews as a distinct people, existing and developing in the spirit of the Jewish religion". The plan of parochial Jewish schools was rejected, on the grounds that it was undesirable for the Jews from the civic point of view and was surrounded by insurmountable practical difficulties.
The curriculum of the Talmud torahs . . . stands midway between the high and, in this country, unapproachable standards of Jewish education in Russia, on the one hand, and the meager requirements of the Jewish Sunday School on the other. 9
The difficulties were viewed as "insurmountable" and high standards were "unapproachable". There is a tone of pessimism and resignation. The "Russian" past appears to be unattainable in the American present. The hallmark of such thinkers and communal leaders was their rejection of the past with the rationale that it could never be recreated under modern American conditions.
Yeshiva University's ethos, a proudly self-declared synthesis, is aptly stated in the "Eulogy to Bernard Revel" by P. Churgin (1940):
For the Yeshiva has never rejected secular studies. . . . During recent generations restrictiveness grew dominant in the Torah world. . . . on account of the dangers of the Haskalah movement the yeshivot began to close themselves in and lock all doors against those trends borne in on the clouds of science and secular activity. . . . The area of Torah became increasingly narrow, and Torah more and more limited its illumination.
Dr. Revel saw this, and set out to restore to Torah its power and untrammeled rule. He brought secular creation within--into the place of Torah, closing the gap and healing the rift. . . . The College is not a world of its own, but is part of a whole. It and the Yeshiva are one unit . . . . Very slowly its image, an image all its own, is becoming fixed, and through the College and the Yeshiva the blemish in Jewish creativeness will be healed. 10
The contribution of Bernard Revel (1885-1940) and Yeshiva College to the establishment of Orthodoxy in America is documented by A. R. Rothkoff in Bernard Revel (1981). He records the vehemence of the Reform movement in opposing, the establishment of a "yeshiva college". In an editorial of the American Hebrew of New York (January 31, 1924) the antagonism is open:
But, now comes something new and fraught with greater danger to American Jewry. This is nothing less than an abominable project for establishing Jewish parochial schools, not merely religious schools . . . . for teaching the secular branches
. . . It is difficult to write temperately on this subject. It is little short of exasperating to stand idly by while a band of fanatics, so blinded by religious bigotry as to the unavoidable consequences of their acts, are playing into the hands of the anti-Semites, the anti-immigrationists, the KuKlux and all other enemies of Israel. 11
It is revealing that this editorial had decided who were the "enemies of Israel", whilst overlooking those who abandoned time-honored Jewish religious practice. The language left no doubt about the rabid anti-traditionalism of its writers. Thus too, when Louis Marshall was approached to aid Yeshiva College, he wrote: "Such a college would be nothing more than a Ghetto Institution. Under the circumstances, I would not be willing to do anything which would favor the creation of such a college." 12
In spite of such criticism, Revel persevered, and sought constantly to reorganize the Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University so that it would be "the equal of its East European prototypes". Revel was troubled that yeshivahs such as Mir and Slobodka were revered "while his Yeshiva was considered an inferior American institution". He therefore sought an accomplished European rosh yeshiva to teach the highest class. 13
Several outstanding East European Talmudists took up permanent positions or gave guest lectures. Rabbi Solomon Polachek (The "Meitsheter Illui") , Rabbi Moses Soloveitchik, and Rabbi Shimon Shkop served as heads of RIETS. Rabbi Abraham Kahane-Shapiro, the chief rabbi of Kovno, Lithuania; Chief Rabbi Abraham Kook of Palestine; Rabbi Moshe Epstein, the dean of the Slobodka Yeshiva; Rabbi A. Bloch of Telshe; Rabbi J. Hurwitz of Meah Shearim Yeshiva in Jerusalem; Rabbi J. Kahaneman of Ponevez; Rabbi A. Kotler of Kletzk; Rabbi B. B. Leibowitz of Kamenitz; Rabbi M. D. Plotski of Ostrov; Rabbi M. Shapiro of Lublin; Rabbi Y. Sher of Slobodka; Rabbi B. Uziel, Sephardic chief rabbi of Palestine; and Rabbi M. Zaks of Radin--all delivered guest lectures to RIETS students. 14 Each of these visitors gained impressions of Jewish education in America which influenced their own attitudes and policies.
During the late 1920s and the 1930s, "Orthodox ideals vastly different from those of the Yeshiva (College) were starting to germinate in America. . . The Yeshiva could no longer claim to be the only advanced American yeshiva, although it was the largest and most important." Rothkoff points out that Revel's course of action was no longer the only alternative for American Orthodoxy, and those who did not comprehend or approve of Revel's innovations could support other American Torah institutions. In 1926 the Yeshiva Torah Vodaath opened an advanced yeshivah, or Mesifta, for high school and post-high school students. Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz (1886-1948), as principal of the Mesifta, was determined to continue the tradition of the famous Lithuanian yeshivahs. 15 In addition, other yeshivahs, such as Rabbi Jacob Joseph, and Mesifta Rabbi Chaim Berlin, established advanced divisions that rejected the "synthesis" notions of Yeshiva College.
In retrospect, the establishment of Yeshivath Etz Chaim in 1886 was a turning point. When Moses Weinberger exclaimed at the time: "Oh! What pleasant news! A yeshiva for the study of Mishnah and Gemara! . . . Is it possible, can it be? Here in New York? In America?" 16 -- his euphoria was not unfounded. But it would take over eighty years before yeshivahs would become entrenched and a way of life for tens of thousands of Jews in America.
Gartner's work understates dramatic changes in Orthodox life following the Second World War. Asher Penn's excerpt on "Advanced Talmudical Academies" typifies the surprise that such intense Jewish phenomena can be found in America, in 1958. Gartner's words of introduction are that "full-time talmudic education, without college study, flourished at a number of extremely Orthodox yeshivot, mainly in ,the New York City area." The use of the word "flourished" is inaccurate, it should state "flourishes". Writes Penn:
At the Beth Midrash Govoha [in Lakewood, New Jersey] . I held lengthy discussions with a great many students. They were almost unanimous in demonstrating to me that "here in Beth Midrash Govoha" everyone learns solely to deepen himself in Torah. One does not come to . . . acquire rabbinic ordination . . . they have come here to study for years. "one sits and learns"--constantly. . .
(At the Mirrer Central Yeshiva in Brooklyn, New York] I walked down a very long corridor on the second floor, off which on either side are classrooms. At the end of the corridor I noticed a broad window. I looked down, and my surprise was really beyond description. Before my eyes there unfolded the scene of a bright, modern, vast hall filled with about one hundred young people, all swaying over their Talmud tractates. 17
In the early 1980s, the total enrollment at Beth Medrash Govoha was close to 1,000--possibly the largest single concentration of Torah scholars in centuries. In addition, the yeshivah has established affiliated "branches" in other cities. At the Mirrer Yeshiva, not part of the "Lakewood" constellation, enrollment stands at about 500 students. Both Lakewood and Mir did not exist in America before the Second World War.
What amount to spectacular victories for Torah Judaism, and also the most underestimated and misunderstood, have been the establishment of yeshivahs and Hasidic communities in America. The most glaring omission in Gartner's book is that nowhere do we find any mention of the Hasidic movement as transplanted and thriving in America. This is an unforgivable omission for a work purporting to deal with Jewish education in America. It ignores perhaps one of the most dynamic and widespread phenomena in Orthodox Judaism during the modern era.
The portentous visits to America of Rabbi Aharon Kotler in 1935, and Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman in 1938, showed the direction that Orthodox Jewish education was to take after the war. Rabbi Kotler, rosh hayeshiva of the Slutzker Yeshiva in Kletzk, Poland (later re-established as Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J.) was reluctant to deliver a guest shiur (lecture) at RIETS requested by Rabbi Revel in 1935. Rabbi Wasserman, rosh hayeshiva of the Yeshiva Ohel Torah in Baranowitz, Poland, "refused to lecture at the Yeshiva (RIETS) and gave all his support to Mesifta Torah Vodaath." 18
Prior to his death in 1940, Rabbi Bernard Revel wrote his final article entitled "Our Thought and Hope". In it he stated: "We behold the guiding hand of the Hashgaha (Divine Providence) in the fact that, before the spiritual sun of Israel has set in Europe, a sanctuary of the eternal soul of Israel has been established on this continent." 19 He was aware that a profound change was taking place not only demographically, but spiritually as well. Rothkoff maintains that it was Revel who was the first to wrestle with America and successfully established a beachhead for Orthodoxy in the New World. It was only that: a beachhead. Talking of Revel and his times, Rothkoff's conclusion is worth noting:
An era ended with his death. Europe was now completely caught up in chaos and destruction. The historic European Jewish community which nurtured Bernard Revel was now ended. Its Torah centers, rabbis, and scholars were soon to be decimated by the Nazi hordes. American Jewry was to face a host of complex problems and responsibilities in the postwar era. American Orthodoxy, in particular, was to undergo rapid challenge and change, rejuvenation and revitalization, at the conclusion of the global conflict. 20
The tide of history and events following the Second World War, and a resourceful and uncompromising nucleus of Rabbinic leaders and roshei yeshiva (heads of Talmudical Academies), were instrumental in what amounted to nothing less than a firm reorientation of Jewish communities and educational institutions towards greater awareness of the importance of Jewish--Torah--education for Jewish survival in America.
The Notion of Community in the Jewish Educational Configuration in America
An examination of Arthur A. Goren's New York Jews and the Quest for Community: The Kehillah Experiment, 1908-1922 (1970), serves as a useful means of bringing together some of the central motifs of the Jewish experience in modern America. The central area of concern in Goren's book is fundamentally related to the ideas and themes in Gartner's Jewish Education in the United States (1969). The attempt by partly or completely secularized Jews to enter into an organized community compact or gemeinde (or "kehillah" in Hebrew) with newly arrived traditional East European Jews, can be viewed as an attempt at communal and cultural synthesis:
For (Dr. Judah L.) Magnes and his friends, the Kehillah venture represented a step towards realizing that vision.--So singular an undertaking entailed considerable experimentation: it required synthesizing Old World practices and New World skills. 21
Goren states that the "dual process--the struggle to maintain ethnic integrity and to achieve social accommodation--is the ultimate concern of this book". 22 This process" of "synthesizing" is at the core of the attempt by the Jew to remain loyal to what he perceives to be his traditions and at the same time function normally as part of a broader secular society.
Goren's work shows how the vast majority of Jews in the United States were swept away by the main currents in American education: The Jews of "uptown" New York, descendants of earlier migrations from Germany, had adopted a "Protestant-congregational model of communal polity". The "young professionals of the Bureau replaced scriptual authority with Dewey's educational philosophy". The powerful policymakers of the community appointed a director of education who "embraced the tenet of the public school as the sine qua non for a Jewish educational system". The minister of New York's Temple Beth El asserted: "Judaism must drop its orientalism and become truly American in spirit and form. . . . It will not do to offer our prayers in a tongue which only few scholars nowadays understand. We cannot afford any longer to pray for a return to Jerusalem. It is a blasphemy and lie upon the lips of every American Jew." The American Jewish educator, as conceived by some theorists, would be the dominant figure in the community because he was motivated by the ethical and professional standards of "modern educational practice" and be a "scientifically trained professional" and a "devoted democrat". And, that after the Kehillah experiment of 1908-1922 "most Jews remained interested in the minimum of separation from the larger society necessary for maintaining their Jewish identity. They would be content with a more modest vision of community" 23, which are Goren's own concluding sentences in his book.
Goren declares that "the Kehillah's most substantial achievement--its educational system--rested upon the attempt to apply modern pedagogical insights to an archaic but hallowed curriculum." Not surprisingly, "the controversy it roused, convulsed the community" 24. The Kehillah's "substantial achievement--its educational system" was riddled with inconsistencies and never received the huge financial backing ,it deserved from its own leaders. A major inconsistency was the dedication of the Bureau of Education, and its Director, to public schooling as a means to "help" Jewish education.
Benderly, the Director, did everything in his power to undermine the potency of Jewish education received in the Talmud Torahs and Hedorim. He was basically committed to the secular ideal because his attitudes, approach, methodology and techniques represented the antithesis of traditional Orthodox Jewish education. Not surprisingly, Groren records that: (i) Not a single member of the education committee identified with Orthodoxy was promoted to the inner circle of policy makers. (ii) The yeshivah was anathema in the eyes of the "uptown" wealthy, receiving little support from the "downtown" men of means. (iii) Dushkin suggested that instead of teaching Hebrew or Bible or Prayers or Talmud, the Jewish schools should "teach Jewish children". (iv) Money was withheld from those schools that needed help most, namely the small Talmud Torahs and Hedorim. 25
The so-called "archaic but hallowed curriculum" that Goren refers to, Magnes sought to modify and modernize, and, Benderly, in effect, sought to nullify, was as archaic as the attempts at destroying it. The rise of the Hebrew day schools, the proliferation of European-type yeshivahs, and the growth of vast Hasidic communities, kehillahs in a greater sense, became living and not archaic disproof of all rationalizations for a fallen Judaism. Regrettably, Goren ends on a rather pessimistic note. Nowhere in his book is there any mention of the eventual establishment of a significant number of large kehillahs in New York during the 1940s, 1950s, up to the present. He appears to leave us with the impression that a "kehillah experiment" can never work in modern New York. In reality, the type of "experiment" that he dealt with collapsed, but subsequent "experiments" succeeded in Brooklyn and beyond. Perhaps it could be said that the "kehillah experiment" of 1908-1922 was a "trial run" at cooperation between diversely oriented secular and Orthodox Jews, after which the Orthodox realized that they would have to be more independent.
In the light of developments during 1939-1945, and since then, the notion of applying "modern pedagogical techniques to an archaic but hallowed curriculum" becomes ironic. Perhaps the order should have been reversed? It has been the ancient and hallowed curriculum of Jewish Ethical Monotheism that has nurtured and defined humane and disciplined communities serving as an example to all. The policy of the Kehillah's secular backers and directors was misguided for they sought not to encourage Jewish growth but a blending into society at large. They lost a golden opportunity to really further Jewish education on a vast scale.
A new pattern, albeit faint, was discernable in the decades preceding the Second World War. The latent traditionalist leanings of the millions of East European immigrants was illustrated by their desire for a kehillah. The fact that they were courted by the "uptown" wealthy was recognition that they were a force to be reckoned with. Even though prior to the Second World War, Manhattan was the hub of Torah and traditional life never seen before on such a scale in America, the break-down in traditional life was even greater. But something different was taking shape, and it was soon to be Brooklyn's turn to prove that traditional Jewish Orthodoxy need not compromise and synthesize in order to survive and flourish.
1 Lloyd P. Gartner, ed., Jewish Education in the UnitedStates: A Documentary History (New York: Teachers College Press,Columbia University, 1969), pp. ix-x.
2 Ibid., pp. 1-2.
3 Lawrence A. Cremin, Traditions of American Education (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. 3.
4 Gartner, Jewish Education, pp. 41-42.
5 R. Freeman Butts and Lawrence A. Cremin, A History of Education in American Culture (New York:Henry Holt and Company, 1953), p 320.
6 Gartner, Jewish Education, pp. 68-75.
7 Ibid., p. 9.
8 Ibid., p. 9-12.
9 Ibid., pp. 132-148.
10 Ibid., pp. 155-156.
11 Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy, Diss. Yeshiva University 1967, (Jerusalem: Phillip Feldheim, 1981), p. 97.
12 Ibid., p. 99.
13 Ibid., p. 115.
14 Ibid., pp. 123-125.
15 Ibid., pp. 147-148.
16 Gartner, Jewish Education, p. 107.
17 Ibid., pp. 212-213.
18 Rothkoff, Bernard Revel, pp. 154-155.
19 Ibid., p. 219.
20 Ibid., p. 223.
21 Arthur A. Goren, New York Jews and the Quest for Community: The Kehillah Experiment, 1908-1922 (New York:Columbia University Press, 1970), pp. 4-5.
22 Ibid., p. 3.
23 Ibid., pp. 247; 119; 97; 14; 123.
24 Ibid., p. 5.
25 Ibid., pp. 96; 98; 121; 130.
JEWISH EDUCATION IN EUROPE:
ENLIGHTENMENT VERSUS TRADITION
Topics of Interest
European Jewry Prior to 1939: Intellectual Roots of Cultural Conflict
Jewish Education and Jewish Survival at the Edge of the Abyss
European Jewry Prior to 1939: Intellectual Roots of Cultural Conflict
It is the “unsettlement of Europe” that must be studied in order to understand the cultural origins of American Jewry as well as the European cataclysm of 1939-1945. Paul E. Grosser and Edwin G. Halperin in Anti Semitism: The Causes and Effects of a Prejudice (1976), have written that “today there is a tendency to assume that the problem of Jewish security and the attitudes of Jews toward their survival grow from the experience of the Holocaust alone". Why? Simply because "the actions of the Nazis and their collaborators are of such a scale and horror as to obscure the long history of anti-Semitism." What has transpired is that "often lost in appraisals of anti-Semitism is the fact that the underlying spirit of the Holocaust is almost 2,000 years old. The genocide carried out by a civilized and cultured nation in the mid-twentieth century was an extreme manifestation of this spirit, but not an isolated one." 1 Jewish history before 1939 certainly attests to these assertions.
The migrations of Jews from Europe to America, and certainly within Europe itself, is dark tribute to the power of anti-Semitism. Jews have also moved voluntarily when motivated by new opportunities or hope for a fresh start and a better life:
The normal migratory behavior of populations, the refusal of Jews to convert or completely acculturate, outbursts of anti-Semitic violence and the condition of statelessness have combined to make Jews the most mobile people in history. . . .
However , . . . most of this migration was caused by Jews refusing to become non-Jews, their alien status, and anti-Semitism. . . . As outbursts of anti-Semitism occurred in a region or a country, Jews residing there sought refuge in other areas. Another cause of migration was the anti-Semitic practice of expulsion. 2
Anti-Semitism has had two ironic consequences that are worth noting: Firstly, some have argued that continuous persecution of the Jews has been one of the major forces that not only shaped the stance and content of Judaism, but made Jewish survival possible. "Without persecution Jews would have assimilated and disappeared as a people, a religion and an ethos." Secondly, anti-Semitism has a life of its own whereby "anti-Semitism causes anti-Semitism". Grosser and Halperin assert that Western history created and nurtured a symbiotic, interacting prejudice against the Jews. It was "deep-rooted, obsessive, cumulative, self-perpetuating, the old sustaining the new, and effect often becoming new cause." 3 This has meant that perpetual anti-Semitism has achieved the opposite aim: Jewish survival, whether it be by migration or as a cumulative human response.
Grosser and Halperin list the reactions of Jews to anti-Semitism, noting that during both ancient and modern times there were numerous reactions which "justified" or encouraged more anti-Semitism and which in turn caused more reaction, "setting in motion a vicious circle." They qualify that although these reactions are not "prime causes" of anti-Semitism, they are contributing factors. These reactions fall into three categories:
1. Defenses: (i) The attainment of success and position to counter insecurity resulting from persecution. (ii) A further strengthening of the family and community, inter-communal as well as local, "which caused more distrust and resentment which engendered more persecution, which further strengthened the family . . . ". (iii) The acceptance of stereotypes imposed by their Christian neighbours, "occasionally, as a result, they literally fled their original identity." (iv) Other Jews, out of fear and a desire to escape the stigma placed on them by society sought to respect and join that society. (v) Infrequently the Jews counter-attacked their persecutors physically. "They were then accused of being vicious, or clannish."
2. Attitudes: (i) Fear of Christianity owing to the villainous roles into which it had cast them and the offensive characteristics it had assigned to them. (ii) Resentment against the Christian for his persistent efforts to convert them..(iii) Over-reaction, over-sensitivity, and paranoia, which were encouraged by "persecutions, the Western tendency to minimize it, to attribute its cause to Jewish character, to ignore its danger signals and to fail to acknowledge it in history," and by "the subtle ubiquity of anti-Semitic attitudes in Western culture, seen even in its models and heroes, in its literature and saints."
3. Characteristics and Customs: Jewish "characteristics" and customs were affected to some degree by anti-Semitism, but these "were exaggerated by the non-Jew and many of them were presented as 'further' proof of the ancient theological slander that Jews hated Christians." 4
The reactions of Jews to anti-Semitism in the modern era were similar to those when they had been the victims of earlier persecutions, but at much greater cost. For a time it seemed that anti-Semitism would disappear as nations became more secular. But,
The new models for ordering and making sense of the world still needed an explanatory devil. Writers of such divergent persuasions as social Darwinism, capitalism, socialism, conservatism and philosophy of history in turn embraced the old Devil of Christianity--the Jew. A new term, a new justification for hating and persecuting Jews developed in the scientific and secular age of the 19th century--anti-Semitism. The term anti-Semitism was coined by the German, Wilhelm Marr in the 1870s to label anti-Jewish attitudes and behaviors based on racial and pseudo-scientific theories of history and economics. 5
The twentieth century may be dubbed "the century of anti-Semitism". Grosser and Halperin maintain that anti-Semitism correlates in its incidents and savagery with social dislocation, tension and change. The economic, social, and political patterns of the world were wrecked and swept away. Crown, church, and family were replaced by nationalism, science, and psychology. The works of Freud, Darwin, Marx, Einstein, Lenin, and Nietzche, "undercut virtually all that had previously passed as natural, the truth or civilization". Thus was born the century of nationalism and total war. The two are symbiotic, feeding and nourishing each other. "The two world wars drew and redrew the political geography of the globe. Nationalism continues the job of cartography." 6
The readjustments and changes that followed World War I created tremendous insecurity and anxiety. One of the attractions of fascism is its promise of order and stability within a revolutionary framework. Fascist movements thrived and succeeded during this period and, its most insane manifestation, Nazism, came to dominate as the Nazis gained control of Germany and later most of Europe either by alliance or conquest. While all fascism includes romantic blood and soil and racial myths, for Nazism this was the dominant feature. The concept of the Aryan uber mensche ... Nazi anti-Semitism combined pell-mell the religious and racial varieties and came to overshadow all other features, policies and goals of the Third Reich. This is evidenced by the sacrifice of rational military needs, while losing a major war, to the requirements of the Final Solution.
The twelve-year period of Nazi power, especially the last six years of their regime, was the most precarious period in Jewish history. In contrast to other periods of anti-Semitic excesses, such as the Crusades and the Black Death, no havens were available and virtually no escape was possible for Jews under Nazi control. The very survival of Jews was never more seriously threatened than during this period. If the Axis powers had been successful in their push for world domination, as appeared quite likely in 1942, the Final Solution would have been more final and horrible than it was." 7
The origin of Hitler's "war against the Jews" during 1939-1945 is traced by Lucy S. Davidowicz. Starting with the Jews in Hitler's "mental world", Davidowicz asks if the idea of the Final Solution originated in passages of Mein Kampf, germinating in Hitler's subconscious for some fifteen years before it was to sprout into practical reality. Those fifteen years were in turn connected to a two thousand year legacy of antipathy to Jews. What is of concern to us, is Davidowicz's grappling with the bridge between idea and act:
The idea of a mass annihilation of the Jews had already been adumbrated by apocalyptic-minded anti-Semites during the nineteenth century. . . . Hitler . . . succeeded in transforming the apocalyptic idea into concrete political action. The mass murder of the Jews was the consummation of his fundamental beliefs and ideological conviction. 8
Thus, the "nexus between idea and act has seldom been so evident in human history with such manifest consistency as in the history of anti-Semitism". It was Hitler's ideas about the Jews that would be a "starting place for the elaboration of a monstrous racial ideology that would justify mass murder whose like history had not seen before." 9
What of the Jews' "mental world"? What of Hitler and anti-Semitism in the mental world of the Jew? How did Jewish thinkers interpret the "nexus" between the idea and act of anti-Semitism? How did Jewish scholars deal with the challenges of the modern era? If we are to gain a meaningful insight into the "habits of mind" of the thinkers and educators of Orthodox Jewry, we must appreciate their attitudes and reactions to secularity in general, and the modern Enlightenment in particular.
Bruria Hutner David, in "The Dual Role of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes: Traditionalist and Maskil" (1971), states that the end of the eighteenth century marked the beginning of a new era in European history. European Jewry was directly affected by contemporary events. Jewish history often paralleled European history. In the political realm the authority of absolute monarchs was crushed with governmental control passing to the people. Similarly, "the Jewish world, too, was swept by the revolutionary quake which shook western Europe. The new motto of 'liberty, equality and fraternity' spelled the downfall of economic and social barriers between Jew and non-Jew. . . ghetto walls came tumbling down it became the life ambition of many Jews to be accepted by the 'outside' world." 10 It was within this framework that the haskalah movement was born and nurtured. The literature of the period called for "change and enlightenment" in Jewish life. David quotes Salo W. Baron who defines haskalah as "a pre-emancipation rapprochement with the environment". Rapprochement, and a union, with the outside world constituted the core of the movement. 11
The seeds of the successes gained in Jewish education after the Second World War were already sown in Europe two hundred years earlier by the leading Rabbinic and Talmudic figures. Haskalah had called for a "drastic change in the curriculum of the Jewish school in Germany and Eastern Europe, where secular studies were completely disregarded." In striving to "normalize" Jewish life, it proclaimed "the ideal of . . . agricultural pursuit . . . as..... cure for the sorely tired Ghetto Jewry". It "sought..... to shatter ancient forms and patterns of thought and behavior. In short, Haskala aspired to reform Jewish life socially, religiously and aesthetically." 12
Opposed to this tendency towards "reform" were the rabbis and traditional leaders of European Jewry. Haskalah was confronted with the representatives of halachah. The halachah had literally been "the way" in which Jews had lived, and haskalah was its antithesis. In Western Europe the Enlightenment prevailed, in Eastern Europe its Hebraized progeny, haskalah, met a formidable foe: halachah. David's description of the confrontation between Orthodoxy (as the embodiment of halachah, and haskalah in Europe, touches at the root struggle between Orthodoxy and its opponents not only in Europe, but in the re-established Jewish communities of America:
The tendency to turn towards the outside world and the resultant attempt to reform Jewish life led the Orthodox camp to a bitter battle against haskalah. Hasidim and mitnagdim, although opposed to each other, joined hands and closed ranks against their common maskilim enemies. The essence of the Jewish spirit would be jeopardized by the assimilatory tendencies of haskalah. The inner urge to be accepted by the non-Jewish world would wreak havoc in Jewish life. The unique nature of Judaism as a religious entity of its own and its structure of communal life would be challenged. Thus the translation of the Pentateuch into German by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the first fruit of haskalah in Germany, was banned by the leading rabbinic figures of the age. The battle extended from Germany and Austria, where it was headed by Rabbis Pinhas Horowitz and Ezekiel Landau, to Hungary, under the leadership of Rabbi Moses Schreiber, and eastwards to Russia. It was indeed an age of storm and strife with far-reaching effects on the course of Jewish history. 13
The "storm and strife" was no mere gentlemanly encounter between opposing camps. Jewish maskilim working in tandem with anti-Semitic governments conspired to impose their notions of Jewish education by force. The best known example of this trend in the history of yeshivah education is the forced closing of the Volozhin Yeshivah in 1892 by the Russian authorities. Volozhin, known as the "mother of yeshivas" had been founded by Reb Chaim Volozhiner (1749-1821) a close talmid (student) and disciple of Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, "The Vilner Gaon", (1720-1797). It was the prototype of the Lithuanian style yeshivahs of the modern era. The main issue involved the compulsory introduction of secular studies into the yeshivah curriculum. Rabbi Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, "The Netziv", (1816-1893), as the rosh yeshiva (dean) of Volozhin refused to accept the government's demands, which resulted in closure.
Aharon Surasky in Giants of Jewry (1982), states that the Jewish maskilim in Russia constantly sought ways to close down the yeshivah. They attempted to destroy it internally by seducing small numbers of students away from their talmudic learning and undertake university studies. External assaults on the yeshivah included informing government circles about the yeshivah's opposition to secular studies. In 1858 the yeshivah was officially closed but remained functionally open as Rabbi Berlin attempted to negotiate with government authorities. 14
By 1880, writes Surasky, the situation had grown worse:
The maskilim grew more persistent, and an editorial in Hameilitz openly demanded changes. Netziv, as Rosh Yeshiva, remained firm in his position to guard at all costs the purity of his sacred trust. In a private letter to the editor of Hameilitz, Netziv writes, "you must understand that we appreciate the value of our sacred Talmud more than you, and we know that just as undefiled chulin defiles kodesh through contact, so do secular studies, even when there is no impurity in them, disturb the sanctity of the Talmud and the success of its study when they come together.” 15
The struggle grew more vicious as the Tsarist education ministry, egged on by the petitions of maskilim, began to attack the yeshivah in new ways. There were decrees that the number of students be reduced, and orders that special courses in the study of Russian language and literature be included in the curriculum. It was insisted that all students be taught secular studies no fewer than two hours per day. The coup de grace came on January 22, 1892, when the yeshivah was surrounded by "hundreds of peasants commanded by dozens of policemen . . . . Some government officials stepped into the beis hamidrosh and ordered the students to stop learning, while a police captain read out to Netziv the government order closing the yeshivah. . . . The officials demanded that the students leave the building immediately. Their job was not only to close the institution but also to lock the building and seal its doors." 16
In a general overview of Europe, David has stated that although the haskalah campaign ranged over the entire European front throughout the nineteenth century, the form it assumed varied from country to country. "In this respect, too, Jewish development echoed and followed the pattern of the general enlightenment." Quoting Carlton J. H. Hayes' A Political and Social History of Modern Europe (1929), David says that as a general rule, "'the further west one went . . . the larger proportion of liberals one found, and conversely, the further east one went . . . the larger proportion of conservatives one encountered.' The same holds true for the haskalah movement, except that Germany should be substituted for France." 17
David observes that it was in Germany that the greatest number of Jews were swayed by the forceful trends of haskalah, only to be followed by the greatest number of conversions. The haskalah ideology gradually moved across Europe. At first to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then to Lithuania, and finally to Russia. However, "when it did penetrate the more eastern sections, it did not receive as hearty a welcome as in western Europe. It encountered strong resistance of the traditional orthodox masses of Jewry." 18
The significance of the "unsettlement" of Jewish life in Europe cannot be over-emphasized. The tenor of Jewish life in America was set by the cultural wars in Europe between haskalah and halachah, modernity and tradition. At the centre of this struggle lay the domain of education. Each side conducted deliberate, systematic, and sustained efforts to transmit, acquire, or evoke its point of view. We have already noted that haskalah called for a drastic change in the curriculum of the Jewish school. This call varied in content from country to country, but its aim was always the same: rapprochement with the secular environment.
Western and eastern European Jewry reacted differently to enlightenment reforms. Educational reform was a reliable litmus test of how far enlightenment had penetrated Jewish minds. Thus, when in 1782, Emperor Joseph II of Austria issued the Patent of Tolerance, ordering the abolition of an offensive body tax, and granted permission to Jews to engage in commerce and send their children to public schools, there were two main responses:
The Jews of Trieste, then under Austrian rule, responded with joy to the revolution in education introduced by the law. In Galicia, on the other hand, there was anger and consternation. This section was geographically part of Poland, a center of pulsating orthodox life. While the Partitions of Poland brought the greater part of that country under Russian rule, Galicia was annexed by Austria. These Polish Jews reacted with fury at the mere thought of abandoning the traditional setup of hadarim. The abolition of this system was the dream of the maskilim, but was viewed as a great catastrophe by the masses of Galician Jews. 19
Thus, an image of Europe at peace with itself as it marched towards two world wars is as fallacious as that of European Jewry sitting idly as catastrophe beckoned. Jewry was afflicted by internal resistance against those who would change its traditional character. Externally there arose particularly vengeful and anti-Semitic European regimes that threatened Jews throughout Europe. The relationship between internal turmoil and external threats was complicated and not easy to define. The scholar and observer had to reach into his philosophy of life and weltanschauung to define the "nexus between idea and act", between body and mind or between the metaphysical and the tangible. The traditional Jewish thinkers, chazal or the talmidei chachomim, the Talmudic sages, did not shirk from interpreting, however cautiously, the unfolding patterns of history.
One such personality was Rabbi Elchonon Bunim Wasserman (1874-1941), one of Jewry's greatest scholars and leaders before his execution by Nazi forces in Lithuania. Popularly known as "Reb Elchonon", he was an active force among the millions of Jews in eastern Europe and was among those "who achieved first rank in the Torah empire of Poland and Lithuania." 20
In an essay entitled "An Analysis of the Jewish Tragedy--Its Causes and Solution", Rabbi Wasserman writes that "in our approach to a solution of the Jewish problem we must attempt to discover the cause which, in so short a period of time, has brought upon the great majority of world Jewry untold miseries which have not had their like since the destruction of the Temple." He states openly that to seek natural causes for this phenomenon would be futile because "all the events of contemporary Jewish history are beyond the laws of the natural course of human history." As proof of this, he points out that "Hitler's phenomenal rise from paperhanger to the position of the all powerful master of the destinies of nations is inexplicable by the normal course of human history." His conclusion is that "our only recourse is to turn to the Torah. There we shall find both the explanation of and the cure for our malady." 21 At the heart of this "cure" lay the domain of Jewish education.
Jewish Education and Jewish Survival at the Edge of the Abyss
Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, reflecting rabbinic thinking, draws on Talmudic and Rabbinical sources when he states that:
Whenever, in the course of history the Jew loses consciousness of his heritage and mission in life, it becomes necessary that his enemies rouse him and restore him to the possession of his faculties. The magnitude of his enemies and the severity of the methods they employ in awakening the Jew depend entirely on the intensity of the latter's lethargy. 22
According to Rabbi Wasserman then, the upshot of haskalah and the enlightenment movement was to bring about a national "lethargy" amongst Jews. This brought them face to face with myriads of enemies. "When the Jew completely ignores the covenant which God made with his ancestors and desires to live like other peoples of the earth, then hordes of beastly anti-Semites swoop down upon him with terrific force and fury, as is the case in our own day." The major problem, as perceived by Rabbi Wasserman, was the denial of faith, and it was impossible to reach faith except through the study of Torah.
Since the Torah is forsaken by a great portion of our people, faith is also weakened accordingly. It becomes apparent in the final analysis, that the reason for our present plight, unparalleled in Jewish history, must be attributed to the abandonment of the study of Torah. . . . If this prime cause of all our ills shall be removed, we shall, of ourselves, become cured . . . . It is but for us to seek this salvation, by attempting to spread Torah in Israel . . . . No other method can, therefore, avail us. 23
What emerges is that Torah study is viewed, as the raison d’etre of Jewish survival and existence. Abandonment of Torah by Jewry becomes an invitation to anti-Semitic reprisal, claimed the rabbis. The sharper the turn away from Torah, the deeper the potential backlash against Jews. The thinking of the traditional Jewish sages was that only by strengthening Torah study as the primary element of Jewish education, can Jews feel secure about their existence. There is no other way to ensure Jewish survival. There was a clear sense of "unsettlement" and there was alarm that a catastrophe was approaching. Once the catastrophe arrived, there were those who believed that they knew why it was the latest in a long chain of persecutions.
Irving J. Rosenbaum in The Holocaust and Halakhah (1976) declares that the mistaken assumption that the Holocaust was without precedent in Jewish experience has not only spawned an entire literature of "Holocaust theology", but also has been responsible "for an almost total unawareness of the role played by the Halakhah in the lives and deaths of the Holocaust's victims." No matter how great the inroads of haskalah, when the executioners appeared, the Jews were still able to draw on the legacy of Torah and halachic education. Indeed, "it has been estimated that more than half of the millions of Jews caught up in the Holocaust observed the mitzvot, the commandments of the Torah, in their daily lives prior to the advent of the Nazis." 24
Rosenbaum asks whether this commitment to halachah crumbled and disintegrated under the pressures of the "final solution". or, did it continue to bring not only some semblance of order, but of meaning, sanity, and even sanctity into the lives of the victims? Raul Hilberg in The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) has stated that the reaction pattern of the Jews was characterized by almost complete lack of resistance. "In marked contrast to German propaganda, the documentary evidence of Jewish resistance, overt or submerged is very slight. On a European-wide scale the Jews had no resistance organization, no blueprint for armed action, no plan even for psychological warfare. They were completely unprepared." Hilberg lists compliance as one of five ways a group can react when confronted by force. In a tone of wonderment he notes that the supreme test of the compliance reaction came in front of the grave "yet here, too, the Jews managed to console themselves." 25
What kind of paideia was it that helped Jews to cushion the blows against them and placed events into a framework of acceptance? Where lay the strength of the teachings that brought scholars and children alike to accept the horrifying decree with a faith that "all will not be in vain"?
Rosenbaum asserts that "long, long before the Holocaust, the Halakhah had developed its theoretical 'theology' and its practical course of action when confronted with such tragic events." The conclusion is that the halachah was uniquely equipped to adjust to death and suffering: “… In the face of events which would make Job's trials seem trivial, Jews retained their confident belief in a just creator, whose secret purposes they might not be able to fathom, but whose revealed and clear dictates in the Halakhah they were bound to observe." 26
When Rabbi Wasserman made his call for strengthening the study of Torah he was in fact calling for the direct strengthening of the observance of halachah. For Rabbi Wasserman, the greater the threat of holocaust, the greater the need for a more vigorous Torah education. It would undo the dangers to Judaism which threaten destruction of Jewry. Thus, he declared that whoever works in the cause of spreading and propagating Torah "promotes the salvation of Israel". Those who seek to stand from afar should bear in mind the precept "Thou shalt not be indifferent to the blood of thy fellow Jew." In sum: "Those who are engaged in spreading a denial of Torah in Israel must be considered fully responsible for the Jewish blood being shed in our day." 27
Rabbi Wasserman asks: "How must this sacred work of spreading Torah be organized?" He then provides an educational outline for what he fervently believes to be the "salvation of Israel":
The Renaissance of Torah must start with the small child, for youth is the foundation of a nation, particularly in these days, when parents are influenced by their children, rather than children being influenced by their parents. . . . It is essential that we organize elementary schools to instruct the young in the study of Chumash and the commentary of Rashi which brilliantly links the Written Law with the Oral Law of the Talmud. Such a course cannot fail to instill in their hearts faith in the knowledge of the rudiments and fundamentals of Torah, and an adequate preparation for the study of Mishna and Talmud.
The prime prerequisite in such schools is that the teachers in these schools be God fearing and that they practice and live that which they preach.
. . . A good competent staff will attract a great number of pupils for in the innermost recesses of every Jewish heart there is an inextinguishable spark of love for Torah. It needs only to be blown into a bright flame. 28
Rabbi Wasserman's confidence in the "inextinguishable spark of love for Torah" in the heart of every Jew was not unique, it was shared by those who survived and rebuilt the Torah way of life in America.
1 Paul E. Grosser and Edwin G. Halperin, Anti-Semitism: The Causes and Effects of a Prejudice (Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1976), p. 3.
2 Ibid., p. 21
3 Ibid., pp. 295, 307
4 Ibid., pp. 311-314.
5 Ibid., p. 207.
6 Ibid., p. 237
7 Ibid., pp. 238-239.
8 Lucy S. Davidowicz, The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 ( New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975; reprinted ed., New York: Bantam Books, 1981), p.3.
9 Ibid., pp. 3-4.
10 David, "The Dual Role of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes", pp. 1-2
11 Ibid., p. 3.
12 Hillel Bavli, "The Modern Renaissance of Hebrew Literature" in The Jews, ed. by Louis Finkelstein, II (3rd ed.; New York, 1960), 894, in ibid., p. 2.
13 David, "The Dual Role of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes", pp. 3-4.
14 Aharon Surasky, Giants of Jewry: Volume One (New York: Chinuch Publications, 1982), p. 60.
15 Ibid., p. 61.
16 Ibid., pp. 61-65
17 David, "The Dual Role of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes", p. 4.
19 Ibid., pp. 4-5.
20 Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, eds., Reb Elchonon: The Life and Ideals Of Rabbi Elchonon Bunim Wasserman of Baranovich (New York: Mesorah Publications, 1982), P. xvi.
21 Elchonon B. Wasserman, An Analysis of the Jewish Tragedy--Its Causes and Solution" in Epoch of the Messiah (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Ohr Elchonon Publications. First printed as Ikvese Dimeshicha, New York, 1938), p. 44.
22 Ibid., pp. 44-45.
23 Ibid., pp. 45-46.
24 Irving J. Rosenbaum, The Holocaust and Halakhah (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1976), p. 1.
25 Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews, pp. 662; 669.
26 Rosenbaum, Holocaust and Halakhah, pp. 1-2
27 Wasserman, "An Analysis of the Jewish Tragedy--Its Causes and Solution" in Epoch of the Messiah, pp. 46-47.
28 Ibid., pp. 47-48.