Rabbinic Judaism: A Missed Opportunity?

This post is a companion to my post on twenty notable rabbis coming later today.  One of the conclusions of my research for the 20 rabbi post is that Rabbinic Judaism, with a few notable exceptions, missed an opportunity to make significant contributions to World theology and to mankind, and at the same time, isolated the Jewish people and failed to protect it from persistent persecutions from other nations.

In the beginning…

The genius of Judaism, or Hebraism (Note 1) I should say, is the idea of One God.  Maybe the original Hebrews borrowed the idea from another place or another tribe in Canaan or in the Euphrates region, but Abraham and his cohorts made it work.  Monotheism became and is now the leading and most successful World theology.  The Rabbinic system of Judaism took off after the second destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 BC and replaced the priestly system that was in place then. The early rabbis felt that they needed to rebuild the religious foundation of a people who had just lost its land, power and temple for the second time in 600 years.  One of their priorities was to write down and discuss Jewish laws (Halakha).

The good…

Positive

Rabbinic Judaism has some important and positive attributes: it values intellectual honesty and justice, it is (or was) largely a merit-based, democratic system (no central authority.) Rabbinic Judaism formed the basis of a Jewish education system long before other nations, providing opportunities for dissenting opinions, and generally advocating a positive, life-affirming approach.

The bad…

Here are some areas where, in my opinion, Rabbinic Judaism fell, and still falls, short:

  • NegativeWith a few exceptions, discourse in Rabbinic Judaism has been narrow, focusing as I said above on conduct and obedience (Halakha).  Rabbis have spent millions (perhaps billions!) of hours on minute and obscure details of little or no importance to the Jewish as a whole.  One could argue that Rabbinic practices contributed to the isolation of the Jewish people.
  • I mentioned intellectual honesty as a plus, but Rabbis often use(d) convoluted, illogical and obscure arguments such as numerology or “miracles” in order to  make a point.
  • The Rabbis created a closed system of Yeshivoth where deep religious knowledge was shared and discussed within the system and rarely outside of it.  Those who attended yeshivoth often came from wealthy families who could support the students (Note 2).  successful rabbis were often connected in the community and politically astute.  They competed for lucrative positions in wealthy Jewish communities.
  • The Rabbis’ focus on halakhic minutiae has, in turn, hindered or precluded them from addressing important religious issues that could benefit all nations in the areas of morality, equality, oppression of minorities, compassion, interfaith unions, personal choices, etc.
  • To complement this thought, it is my observation that the most impactful rabbis and sages are the ones who were able to bring into their closed loop environments non-Jewish sources of knowledge, and integrate this knowledge into their own work.  For instance, Sa’adia Gaon integrated components of Greek philosophy, Maimonides was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and David Hartman used modern philosophy which he integrated with his Talmudic knowledge (Note 3).

A modern creed…

Modern-Space-Living-Room-Window-DesignCaring for strangers is mentioned more times in the Torah than any other commandment.  Yet morality is a topic seldom addressed in Rabbinic Judaism, except in the context of the law.   Early Christianity, on the other hand, was able to address some of the social and moral issues of the time while leveraging Judaism’s overall framework (Note 4.)

The Rabbinic “us versus them” model likely contributed to Jewish isolation in the World and missed an opportunity to share the strength and true meaning of the original biblical message.  Today, Judaism needs a new framework in tune with our science and fact-oriented world, a framework that focuses more on values and morality than halakhic details.  Morality has the power of truth, said Maimonides.  Judaism needs to become an open and moral religion, a modern room with windows. “Judaism beyond the (kosher) kitchen” as David Hartman said (Note 3).

Notes:

(1) One idea, attributable in part to Rabbi Leon Askenazi is that Ever (the original Hebrew), grandson of Noah, is really the founder of Judaism.  I will post on this. later.

(2) Just an example:  “At age fifteen, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi married Sterna Segal, the daughter of Yehuda Leib Segal, a wealthy resident of Vitebsk, and he was then able to devote himself entirely to study.”    Rabbi Akiva married the daughter of the Ben Kalba Sabu’a, a wealthy citizen of Jerusalem, etc.

(2) It is no coincidence that I mention Rabbi David Hartman who created the Shalom Hartman Institute.  Rabbi Hartman was a philosopher and leader of the Modern Orthodox Movement .  Some of the ideas in this post originate with his teachings and vision.  The first post on this blog was devoted to a short but critical essay by Rabbi Hartman called “Auschwitz or Sinai“.

(3) Early churches met almost exclusively in homes. These gatherings became close, supportive communities that shared resources, including money, when someone was needy. They became surrogate families. Not only that but they were radically egalitarian—something novel in the Roman world of that day. Paul made his ringing announcement that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

***

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The Amazing Travails of Tobias Cohn, Inventor of Modern Medicine

Eleazar Cohn, a Jewish physician, emigrated from Safed (then part of the Ottoman) to Poland in the late 1500’s – early 1600’s.  Eleazar’s son, Moses, also a physician, moved to Metz, France to escape the Chmielnicki (Khmelnytsky ) pogroms.  Tobias Cohn (Cohen, or Kohn in Polish) was born in 1652 in Metz.  At age 21, Tobias returned to Poland with his elder brother where he pursued traditional Jewish studies  in Kraków .

First Jewish Student in Germany

Portrait_of_Tobias_Cohn_Wellcome_L0014928Coming from a renowned family of physicians, Tobias ultimately wanted to graduate with a medical degree from the University of Padua (Margalith, 2007,) the Harvard of the time…  But he decided to try to get into the Frankfurt-an-der-Oder University first.  In 1678, Tobias and his friend Gabriel Felix of Brody appealed directly to the Grand Elector of the State of Brandenburg Friedrich Wilhelm who agreed to sponsor their studies.  The scholarships came with conditions: Tobias and Gabriel had to learn German and volunteer as Hebrew teachers to Friedrich Wilhelm. Wilhelm was interested in “going back to the sources” of the Old Testament, spurred by the Protestant Reformation. Tobias Cohn later wrote that his knowledge of the Scriptures, the Talmud and the Midrash had not prepared him well for the scientific approach that was taught at the school and for the interactions with other students [1]

Padua

Related imageTobias and Gabriel eventually left Frankfurt for Padua, where they joined a number of Jewish students from Italy, Poland and other European countries at Solomon Canegliano‘s (1642-1719) preparatory school. Tobias described Canegliano as one of the greatest physicians of his time.  Tobias and Gabriel eventually entered the University of Padua and graduated in June 1683.  The first Jewish medical students graduated from the University of Padua in the fifteenth century.  For most of the Middle Ages and the early Modern Period, Padua was the only medical school in Europe where Jewish students could study freely.

Ma’aseh Tuviyah, 1708

In 1700, Tobias Cohn completed the manuscript of his book “Ma’aseh Tuviyah,” meaning Tobias’ Works, or Opus, in Hebrew.  The book was officially published in June 1708 (or 1707) by the University of Padua.  The book was printed a total of five times in Venice between 1708 and 1850, followed by seven further editions most recently in Brooklyn, New York, in 1974, and in Jerusalem, in 1967 and 1978.

The book brings together a view of the “new sciences” with the traditional Jewish view of science and medicine.  The first part of the book covers five chapters:

  • ‘The Upper World’ (corresponding more or less to metaphysics),
  • ‘The World of the Spheres’ (astronomy),
  • ‘The Lower World’ (geography),
  • ‘The Little World’ or ‘Microcosm’ (ethnography), and
  • ‘The Foundations of the World’ (alchemy).

The second part includes three main chapters:

  • ‘A New Land’,
  • ‘A New House’ and
  • ‘The House Watch’ or ‘Guard’.

This corresponds to the traditional division of medical texts into three parts: physiology, pathology and therapy (limited here to hygiene). A third part includes:

  • ‘A Garden Enclosed’ (gynecology and obstetrics),
  • ‘Fruit of the Womb’ (pediatrics), and
  • ‘A Fountain Sealed’ (on sterility).

The chapter titles in the first part of the book relate to the idea of the “world”, and those of the second part to the theme of novelty and the house. The headings in the third part all derive from the Bible, particularly the Song of Songs (Lepicard.) The book also includes a section on medical botany and a list of remedies.

The House Metaphor

Another important feature of the book is the scientific and medical illustrations it provides.

s130

The illustration above is part of a chapter on pathology in the medical part of the book, the section entitled ‘A New House’.  To the left of the illustration is the figure of a man with an open chest and abdomen, exposing the main internal organs.  A Hebrew scroll separates this figure from that of a house with four floors on the right of the illustration (Lepicard.)  In accordance with common practice in anatomy texts of the period, the organs are marked with letters.  On the scroll, the letters, in alphabetical order, are followed by the name of the designated part of the house, and that of the corresponding organ.

Where is the heart?  The reference letters and accompanying text show that the cauldron is located in the kitchen of the house. It represents the stomach. The heart is on the floor above, hidden behind a latticework grille. The heart belongs on the upper floor as Tobias said, where it can benefit from fresh air without being too exposed.  The “kitchen” level below corresponds to the bodily functions as understood at the time.  Tobias’s decision to write his book in Hebrew was likely driven by his desire to bring the “new science” to his Jewish community.

On the Road Again…

After Padua, Tobias Cohn went back to Poland and practiced medicine for a while then moved to Adrianopole (today’s city of Edirne close to Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria.)  There, he became the physician to five Ottoman sultans (Muntner, 2007,) moving to Constantinople (Today’s Istanbul) then Jerusalem in 1724 until his death at the age of 77 in 1729.

 

Footnotes and Sources

[1] Louis Lewin, The Jewish students at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, in: Yearbook of the Jewish Literary Society 14 (1921), S. 231 f See also Richarz, entry, p.34…

David Margalith, Cohn, Tobias ben Moses, in: Encyclopedia Judaica: Bd. V, Detroit 2  2007, S. 44 f.; Asher Salah, La République des Lettres. Rabbins, écrivains et médecins juifs en Italie au XVIII siècle, Leiden/Boston 2007, S. 182-184.

Carsten Schliwski, Tobias Kohen (1652-1729) – the first Jewish student in Germany: Tobias Kohen as a Jewish student in Germany, from: Andreas Speer, Andreas Berger

A convincing case for accepting that Tobias Kohen and his friend were in fact the first Jewish student (Lewin, students, S. 222-226.)

Tobias Kohen, Ma’asseh Tuviyyah. Vol. 1, Venice 1707, pp. 5b.  The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America owns a first edition of Maaseh Tuviah, with the call number of RB 144:4. The book was published in Hebrew and consists of one volume containing multiple works, for a total of 321 pages.

 

David B Ruderman, Jewish thought and scientific discovery in early modern Europe, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2001(c. 1995), pp. 100–17, 229–55.

For biographic information, see also J O Leibowitz, ‘Tobie Cohen, auteur médical de langue hébraïque (1652–1729)’, Revue d’Histoire de la Médecine Hébraïque, 1964, 63: 15–24.

Solomon Conegliano, ‘Preface to Ma’aseh Tuviyah’ (in Hebrew), in Tobias Cohen, Ma’aseh Tuviyah, Venice, 1708. It is not unusual to find 1707 as the date of publication. The Hebrew date (tav-samekh-zayin – 5467) can correspond both to 1707 and to 1708.

D. Kaufmann, ‘Trois docteurs de Padoue: Tobias Moschides – Gabriel Selig b. Mose-Isak Wallich’, Rev. Etudes Juives, 1889, 19:293-298.

D. Kaufmann, ‘Une lettre de Gabriel Felix Moschides’, Rev. Etudes Juives, 1896, 32: 134-137.

Figure 1. Tobias Cohn (1652-1729). From T. Cohn, Ma aseh Tobivvah. Venice, Stamparia Bragadina, [1708], front. engr. (Copy in the Wellcome Institute Library, London.)

Anti-Semitism being ‘normalised’ in Poland, Jewish Congress warns

Source: Anti-Semitism being ‘normalised’ in Poland, Jewish Congress warns

The European Jewish Congress expressed “grave concerns” Thursday over an increase in anti-Semitic acts in Poland under the rightwing Law and Justice government.

“There has been a distinct normalisation of antisemitism, racism and xenophobia in Poland recently and we hope that the Polish government will stem this hate and act forcefully against it,” EJC president Moshe Kantor said in a statement.

The group cited a proliferation of “fascist slogans” and unsettling remarks on social media and television, as well as the display of flags of the nationalist ONR group at state ceremonies.

Such incidents “appear to have coincided with the Polish government closing its communications with the official representatives of the Jewish community,” Kantor said.

According to the congress, it has been around a year since a senior Polish minister met with leaders of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, which represents the fewer than 10,000 people who belong to Jewish organisations in the country of 38 million people.

Poland was once home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, numbering around three million people, or 10 percent of the Polish population in 1939.

But only about 300,000 survived the Second World War after Nazi Germany occupied Poland and set up the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau on its territory.

Earlier this year, University of Warsaw’s Centre for Research on Prejudice found that acceptance for anti-Semitic hate speech — especially among young Poles on the internet — had risen since 2014.

The study, released in January, found that 37 percent of those surveyed voiced negative attitudes towards Jews in 2016, up from 32 percent the previous year, while 56 percent said they would not accept a Jewish person in their family, an increase of nearly 10 percent from 2014.

Read more: http://www.digitaljournal.com/news/world/anti-semitism-being-normalised-in-poland-jewish-congress-warns/article/501334#ixzz4rN1HVOTz

The Antwerp Bible

The Antwerp Bible (its official name is “Biblia Sacra, Hebraice, Chaldaice, Graece et Latine: Philippi II. reg. Cathol. pietate, et studio ad sacrosanctae ecclesiae vsum, Christoph Plantinus excud.“) was printed between 1568 and 1573 by Christopher Plantin in Antwerp (now Belgium.)

The Catholic king of Spain Philip II financed the project and sent Spanish theologian Benito Arias Montano to Antwerp to watch over its translation in five languages.  The Bible comprises eight volumes and was printed in 1100 copies.

  • The first four volumes contain the Old Testament. The left page has two columns with the Hebrew original and the Latin translation, the right page has same text in Greek with its own Latin translation. Underneath these columns there is an Aramaic version on the left-hand page and a Latin translation of this on the right-hand side.
  • Volume 5 contains the New Testament in Greek and Syriac, each with a Latin translation, and a translation of the Syriac into Hebrew.
  • Volume 6 has the complete Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek, as well as an interlinear version that has the Latin translation printed between the lines.
  • The last two volumes contain dictionaries (Hebrew-Latin, Greek-Latin, Syriac-Aramaic, grammar rules, list of names, etc.) that were of value to scholars.

For printing the Hebrew text Plantin used among others Daniel Bomberg’s Hebrew type, which he had received from Bomberg’s nephews. Bomberg was a Christian printer and publisher of Hebrew works. He was born in Antwerp and died in Venice in 1549.  After having learned from his father, Cornelius, the art of printing and of type-founding, he went to Venice, where, from 1517 to 1549, he published many editions of Hebrew works.

A complete copy of the Antwerp Bible is on display at the Plantin-Moretus Museum (the site of the original printing press), including the typefaces which were designed for this project.

Photo: http://drc.usask.ca/projects/archbook/archbook_admin/images/FisherG-10_00137.jpg

About Charlie

I can’t help but contribute a few comments here on the whole Charlie Hebdo incident, although it is probably too soon to get a good perspective on this.  Many around the World see this as a black and white issue: Do not kill men who exercise their freedom of expression on one hand, and do not ridicule an entire creed in the name of that freedom on the other hand.  In a recent article (Charlie Hebdo: Why Islam, Again? on eskeptic.com), Kenneth Krause brings up some interesting facts:

  • The Jewish (Hebrew) and Christian faiths at one time killed thousands of “unbelievers” in the name of their religious principles.  The Bible stipulates that infidels must be killed (Leviticus 24:16 and Deuteronomy 13:7–11 for instance)  Even more explicit than Qur’an 9:73!
  • Moses himself  “organized a “death squad” to murder the 3,000 men and women (Exodus 32:27) who actually betrayed their strangely jealous god.”
  • Monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have a “tendency to regard one’s own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god”, and are more prone to encourage sacred killings than polytheist religions that have  “a more open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice”.

Judaism evolved (a theme of this blog), following the destruction of the second temple and in part through contact with greek philosophy.  The rise of Rabbinic Judaism resulted in a system of interpretations and traditions (including the Mishnah, the Talmud and oral law) that moved away from literal texts.  Temple rituals were replaced by prayers.

In Christianity, crusaders pillaged and killed many in the name of the religion.  In 1252, Pope Innocent IV authorized the use of torture in Inquisitions and in 1478 Pope Sixtus IV established the Spanish Inquisition…  The reformation and the age of reason finally put an end to religiously-sanctioned violence towards more peaceful endeavors.

Islam may need a similar revolution to officially move from literal to more conceptual interpretation of texts.  The Taliban and Boko Haram know that separation of Church and State, and secular education are some of the biggest threats to their extremist theology.  In the meantime, those who profile an entire religion like Charlie Hebdo will likely help rally the faithful and are likely to suffer the consequences.

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About the Lev Tahor Controversy

Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans

Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans

Word came in the news  today that the ultra-orthodox Jewish group Lev Tahor (meaning Those of Pure Heart) was essentially kicked out of a small town in Guatemala after having been pushed out of Canada over the last few years.   The group of about 80 families is led by its founder, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans and depends mainly on charitable contributions to survive.   The group believes that all Jews must follow God’s commandment to live in exile (Diaspora) within the nations of the World until the Messiah comes and orders them to return to the Land of Israel.  The group practices a stringent form of Hasidism, where, for instance, prayers are twice as long as in the other Hassidic orders, and chanted slowly and out-loud.

Trouble came in Israel then Canada from civil authorities concerned about the group’s treatment of children, including brain washing and possible corporal punishment.  In Guatemala, village elders complained that the group was not willing to integrate with their society.  

This brings a couple of interesting points.  Last week, I posted about the 1264 Statute of Kalisz and the tenuous relationships between Jewish Communities and the laws of the lands in which they dwelled throughout the Middle Ages.   This is no different, really.  The second point is that the group’s goal is primarily the preservation of the Jewish People, which I talked about in the Auschwitz or Sinai post.  There is intrinsically nothing wrong with this last point.  

The Jewish People has survived for 5,000 years by interpreting and re-interpreting the words of our Sages.  The group Lev Tahor is living what they believe.  More than anyone else, we Jews ought to be tolerant of others and defend the group’s right of religion. Rather than decry their approach and seek to vilify their practices, civil authorities where they reside ought to engage in a dialog with them to find, like in Kalisz in 1264, a liveable compromise between the rules “of the Realm” and the rules of their Community.

Robin Williams, Suicide and Judaism

After the shock of learning of Robin Williams’ passing, my first reaction was anger.  How can a man so loved by others take his own life?  What kind of message does this send to others around the World who may think of doing the same?   I quickly followed that thought with another one.  When my mother first developed the symptoms of Alzheimer, repeating the same questions incessantly, I told my kids: “It is not really her, it is her disease speaking”.   There are studies, some over 100 years old  (for instance Morselli, Enrico Agostino, 1852-1929) that suggest that the suicide rate among Jews in the country where they live is less than that of other faiths.  This has been corroborated by studies in Israel and in other areas. 

The reasons are not obvious. They stem, I believe, from the strong value system that has sustained the Jewish people throughout the last 4,000 years (see my blog on this). The key concept is the  belief in only one God which leads, according to Martin Buber, to a personal relationship between man and God.  This idea of a covenant with God, according to Max Dimont, is what gives the Jewish people the will to survive.

Many Jews (including me) assumed that Robin Williams was a Jew (Jewish Times online) and were therefore doubly shocked to learn about the manner in which he died.  The fact that he is not Jewish does not take any of his genius or the joy that he brought his fans away, but perhaps it would have changed the way he thought about his life.  God has given us free will, but God has also created and given us precious life.

 

See also: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14101-suicide ,  http://www.gallup.com/poll/108625/More-Religious-Countries-Lower-Suicide-Rates.aspxwww.mdpi.com/2077-1444/3/3/725/pdf