Saturday, January 03, 2009

Revolutionary Rabbis, part 2, or "A plea for Historical Honesty"

Got more confirmation on the Kotzker and Gerer rebbe's involvement in the November revolution of 1830. The source?

Rabbi Berel Wein:

[Footnote:] Reb Mendel's original family name was Halperin, but because of his support of the Polish national revolution, he changed it to Morgenstern to confuse and escape the punishment of the Russian conqueror. Rabbi Yitzhak Meir's original name was Rottenberg but he changed it to Alter for the same reason as Reb Mendel. Whether their support of the Poles was voluntary or coerced is still a debate among scholars.

Given that I've only been able to find mention of this in one journal article and one book on Jewish history I'd be interested to find out which scholars Rabbi Wein is talking about here (or is he just trying to hedge his bets by not openly saying the rabbis supported Polish indepence?), but I'm glad he's at least helping spread some information about a little-known part of Jewish history that has ripple-effects down to the present-day. If rosh yeshivot are flipping their lids hearing about rabbis of yesteryear just listening to Zionist lecturers, I can't imagine what certain Hasidim would think about their Alter-Alter-Alter-rebbes actively supporting the Polish independence movement and becoming fugitives in the process. Doesn't exactly provide the desired model of "otherworldlyness" or keeping the goyim at arm's length now, does it?

But wait, I found another: Rabbi Dov Ber Meisels, descendant of the Rema, author of a commentary on Rambam's Sefer ha-Mitzvot, and Chief Rabbi of Krakow and later Warsaw. A contemporary of the Kotzker, Rabbi Meisels was an arms-runner for the same 1830 uprising that caused the Kotzker and Gerer to go on the lam. He was also involved in the Krakow Uprising sixteen years later, serving as one of twelve city council members, was elected to the Austrian Parliament (where he sat with the radicals against the occupying government).

Meisels was a major figure in organizing Warsaw's Jews for Polish independence before and during the 1863 Uprising and was involved in various joint Polish-Jewish demonstrations. His activism got him arrested and deported from Warsaw in 1861. Returning a year later, he organized aid and wrote speeches supporting the Uprising as it occured and was again arrested and expelled by the Russians. Upon returning a second time, he lived under constant surveilance by authorities.

Rabbi Meisels died in 1870, and his funeral was the site of a major Polish-Jewish rally against Russian occupation. He was such a volatile figure that the army forbade printing any obituaries following his death.

What does all this show? Only that Jewish history is a lot more complicated than some modern-day arbiters of truth would have us believe. Remember that 150 years ago, "Poland" encompassed most of the European Jewish population, among them many of the most traditional and religious. These are people we have been trained to think of as merely pious, apolitical, even conservative. And some of them were. But there were also others who held some very radical positions, and who saw no conflict between being frum, or even a rabbi or rebbe, a leader and model to hundreds, thousands of other Jews, and interacting with the outside world, with non-Jews, or tangling with thorny political issues.

We should examine our past openly and honestly before enforcing our own pet issues supposedly "on the authority of our grandfathers." If we take a look at the whole picture (as some have tried to do), we find that our grandfathers and their grandfathers had a much more nuanced view of the world than we give them credit. We should not let the creative, even radical personalities of yesterday be co-opted or sanitized by the narrow views of their grandchildren today. Would the Hidushei ha-Rim even recognize his great-great-great-grandson? Would he recognize himself as he has been re-imagined in Ger haigography? Would the Baal Shem Tov, for that matter? Or the Rambam?

I am beginning to think that the great debates of our time will not focus on which denominational clique we affiliate with, but over how intellectually honest we are willing to be with each other and ourselves, and with the source material of Judaism and Jewish history. We will have to struggle over whether we decide to make truth, honesty and openness important values in of themselves, worth defending and fighting for.

The irony is that by censoring the past of "the sages", Orthodox leaders perpetuate the idea to other Jews that there is nothing interesting, engaging, or relevant in Jewish history or tradition. Then again, maybe that is part of the intent and problem-- that some would rather spread the notion of a sanitized past to keep their hold on their own communities and children and could care less if other Jews care about their heritage or not.

The problem is that even if a Jew is not Orthodox, or even no longer a Jew, their communal and family history should still be accessible to them. This is one of the reasons I am so passionate about genealogy and am intrigued by the concept of translating Yizkor books, maintaining the oral history and heritage of communities, with all the squabbles and messiness that implies-- as much as some people may not like the idea, the greatest rebbe and the grandest heretic can still be landsmen, or even family. And their tastes should not dictate what history is allowed to continue on down the line. I have no rabbinical lineage, but some of my ancestors did come from Vilna, and as such, I have just as legitimate a claim-- and right-- to the history of the Vilna Jews as a descendant of the Gaon. By the same token, their lives and histories should not be censored in order to create the image that Vilna was an "ideal" community (by whose standards?) free of strife and conflict in order to somehow honor or elevate the Gaon or his birthplace.

The same point, incidentally, applies to other historical biases present in Jewish history-- for instance, viewing all events through the prism of Zionism or proto-Zionism, and emphasizing the denigrations of the "Ghetto Jew" existence to justify the "New Jew" prototype of Herzl and Nordau, or whitewashing the complexities, setbacks, and failings of Zionism and Israel themselves. The American branch of the discipline has similar blind spots; in particular, focusing on or elevating groups of Jews from certain ethnic, class or political backgrounds at the expense of others.

The bottom line is that we distort our history at our own peril-- and now, more than ever, we, all of us, religious, secular, questioning, American, Israeli, Zionist, Socialist, Republican, Democrat, we all need history and role models we can relate to, use for inspiration, and most of all, trust. Do not purge our history of the great and creative men and women who found a way to engage with their worlds and balance their identities. Do not deny our children our history. It is our right. It is their legacy.

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