Synopses & Reviews
The essays collected in this book look at the past through the prism of the lives of ordinary people, with results that are sometimes surprising and always stimulating. The topics they treat are varied, but common to all of them is the concern to explain what lay behind the visible realities of family and community for east European Jews of the period: how children grew up and how they studied; how people married; and how they later negotiated such challenges as divorce, bereavement, remarriage, and caring for elderly parents. These areas of community life are always evolving, but in the nineteenth century the pace of change was exceptionally rapid. Shaul Stampfer deals with these social realities objectively and analytically. Some of the essays presented here are classics that have been widely acclaimed, earning him a well-deserved reputation for authoritative research; all have been comprehensively revised for this book. They avoid sentimental descriptions and judgmental attitudes, a
Moses Hayim Luzzatto (1707-1746), rabbi, mystic, teacher, poet, playwright, and writer of ethical works, gathered around him in his 'house of study' in Padua an inner circle of devout Jews who shared his belief in the imminent arrival of the messianic age and who privately identified members of their circle as divinely ordained to usher in the Redemption. To the rabbis of Venice and Frankfurt, however, Luzzatto was a heretic, whose claims to have written works at the dictation of a messenger from heaven could not be genuine. Under pressure from them he was obliged to withdraw a number of such works, and the manuscripts were either lost or destroyed. Yet his known works came to earn him admiration: as a literary figure among the adherents of the Enlightenment, as a great kabbalist and profound mystic by hasidim and even by some of their leading opponents, and as a great ethical teacher by all religious streams. Isaiah Tishby spent many years in the study of Luzzatto and his group, and succeeded in tracing a number of the lost manuscripts.
In the essays in this volume translated by Morris Hoffman, he described and annotated the manuscripts which he found, giving the full text of some of the prose works and of all the poems. From these manuscripts and Luzzatto's published works, he was able to correct and add detail to the incomplete picture of Luzzatto and his mystical world which had been current among scholars. He showed how far the views of earlier kabbalists and messianists had been accepted or modified by Luzzatto, and found evidence that he had influenced the early hasidic movement, so lending weight to Hayim Nahman Bialik's description of Luzzatto as 'the father and first begetter' of the three main streams of Judaism in modern times. Tishby also clarified the messianic role for which, as the Padua group believed, certain of their members were destined under the leadership of Luzzatto. One of the most illuminating documents discovered by Tishby and reproduced here is Luzzatto's version of his ketubah or marriage contract.
The phrases of the traditional contract are interspersed with a mystical commentary in which Luzzatto identifies himself with the biblical Moses and interprets his earthly marriage as a marriage with the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence or female element of the Godhead. Thus she would be rescued from exile among the forces of evil and the way would be cleared for the final redemption. A second key document is the personal, mystical diary which Luzzatto's second-in-command, Rabbi Moses David Valle, wrote in the margins of his own voluminous commentary on the Bible. The commentary itself, written in impersonal terms, yields autobiographical information, but the diary entries, in short and often enigmatic notes, record the personal mystical visions and experiences, encouragements, and disappointments of the man who saw himself and was seen in Luzzatto's group as the Messiah ben David.
The realities of Jewish life in eastern Europe that concerned the average Jew meant the way their children grew up, the way they studied, how they married, and all the subsequent stages of the life cycle--including the problems of divorce, remarriage, and elderly parents. The family and the community were in a very real sense the core institutions of east European Jewish society. These realities were always dynamic and evolving but in the nineteenth century, the pace of change in almost every area of life was exceptionally rapid. This collection of essays deals with these social realities objectively and analytically. Some of the essays presented here are classics that have been widely acclaimed, earning their author a well-deserved reputation for authoritative research; all have been comprehensively revised for this book. They avoid both sentimental descriptions and judgmental attitudes. The result is a picture that is far from the stereotyped view of the past that is common today, but a more honest and more comprehensive one. Topics covered in the studies on education consider the learning experiences of both males and females of different ages.
They also deal with and distinguish between study among the well off and learned (not surprisingly, the two went together) and study among the poorer masses. A number of essays are devoted to aspects of educating the elite. Here too, the reconstruction of the realities of the past, as opposed to the stereotypical popular image, reveals the remarkable creativity of what is often mistakenly considered a highly conservative element of society. Several essays deal with aspects of marriage, a key element in the life of most Jews. Using both quantitative and qualitative sources, the author has been able to identify and document characteristics of both first and subsequent marriages and to highlight and explain trends that have hitherto been misunderstood. The problem of aged parents and the changing nature of the nuclear family is also considered. The attempt to understand the rabbinate in its social and historical context is no less revealing then the studies in other areas.
The realities of rabbinical life-the problems of getting appointments, job security and insecurity, changing responsibilities and the difficulties of dealing with fragmented and modernizing communities-are presented in a way that explains rabbinic behavior and the complex relations between communities, ideologies, and modernization. These essays look at the past through the prism of the lives of ordinary people, with results that are sometimes surprising but always stimulating. The topics they treat are varied, but the concern to explain what lay behind the visible reality is common to all of them.