- I just finished Samuel Heilman's 30-year-old memoir about doing his early sociology fieldwork among Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. I rather enjoyed this short meditation-- verging on a Misnagdic approach to 71 1/2 Mystics-- on the frustrations of a rationalist modern Jew trying to integrate himself into the world of Talmud study-- to stop observing others long enough to let the process of studying touch and change himself. Heilman passes between various study circles in Mea Shearim, dabbling among the Breslovers for a few chapters, all the while struggling and doubting his own bona fides as an Orthodox Jew if he cannot truly engage in what he sees as the quintessential Jewish act. What I found most refreshing was the relative ease and fluency in which Heilman was able to enter the worlds of the Jerusalem Haredim. I'm not sure whether this was due to Heilman's Hebrew skills, his cultural knowledge, or the differences in social context in the mid-80s versus today, but it was a refreshing and warm portrait of a community that today is more than often painted in shrill caricatures (including, according to some of his critics, by Heilman himself!). And, while the details are obviously different, I saw quite a bit of my own spiritual search in Heilman's, and found some of his insights and experiences quite fascinating. It was also entertaining to note how more culturally fluent I've become in the last 10-plus years.
- It turns out Mitnagdim did more than just stay in their study houses. Arieh Morgenstern uses institutional records among the Yeshivish community in Israel to chart decades of proto-Zionist work an immigration beginning in the early 1800s. While a bit dry, I found Morgenstern's work well worth the effort, as it helps provide valuable context for the early Yeshivish population in Israel (and Europe). Morgenstern shows that beyond Torah study, many Mitnagic leaders and laymen were also involved in messianism, political activism (and infighting), and settling Israel before Herzl and "modern" Zionism came onto the scene. I originally found Morgenstern's book through a few articles about the Hurva synagogue, which is closely tied with the history of Lithuanian Jews in Israel. Even if the book is a bit much for you, I highly recommend the articles.
- On a similar note, I recently finished David Assaf's book on the seamier side of Hasidic history. Like Morgenstern's book, the fact that it took me about 3 years to read the whole thing took a little bit away from its impact, but on the whole I found it quite readable, engaging, and refreshing in terms of looking at Hasidic figures and culture from a scholarly lens, rather than a specific polemical or hagiographic perspective. Assaf got a lot of attention (and a fair amount of criticism) when his book first came out (particularly the Hebrew edition) as being just a series of sensational attacks on Hasidism, but my take on it was that the focus was more on trying to uncover, if not "the truth" behind specific personalities and events, then at least to trace the history of the accounts and stories about them (particularly useful is his contrast of Hasidic sources, maskilic sources, and historical records, when available, to try to get to the bottom of various stories). For instance, what happened to the Seer of Lublin in 1814 when he fell out the window of his house? What caused the fall? Hasidic stories have represented it as a miraculous but aborted attempt to bring the messiah. Contemporary maskilic works suggested he was drunk. There is even a possibility it may have been a suicide attempt. Which one is true? Ultimately, Assaf isn't sure, but it's an interesting journey along the way.
As a family historian who is often most intrigued by the scandalous stories, I recognize and understand the urge and tendency to try to protect the memories of one's ancestors, ideological or biological. Similarly, I think there can be a danger in giving too much validation to the desire to snoop through other people's dirty laundry in the name of "truth" (something today's culture is all too willing to perpetuate). That said, I think that Assaf's work is worthwhile, and of particular value as a corrective to the "Artscrollization" of Jewish history which presents every European Jew before the Holocaust as pious, Orthodox, and uniformly uninterested (to say nothing of untroubled) in modernity. In the hagiographic view, it is as if pre-Holocaust Jews were living outside of time. Learning about the lives of various rebbes as well as their children who actually engaged with (and struggled with) modernism does not diminish my respect for them or their ideas, but rather makes them more approachable, understandable and real. Towards the end of the book, Assaf quotes a fellow historian who notes that from the mid-19th century onward, there was a noted phenomenon among the children of rabbinical dynasties investigating "other paths" (ranging all the way from religious Zionism to socialism to communism). As the other historian puts it, "The sons and daughtes of the zaddikim were the first to sense that their fathers' paths had no future..." One interesting aspect of this, though, is that in essentially all the hasidic dynasties, the oldest son, as the heir, continued the role of rebbe, but oftentimes their younger siblings, not having specifically prescribed roles within the community or succession structure, were more or less "free" to pursue other religious and political directions. Whether this was uniformly true or not, it's a fascinating point that merits further study and offers much food for thought. Readers don't have to agree with everything Assaf writes to find his book useful and interesting, if only as greater context for Jewish history of the period.
- Rodger Kamenetz's second book was good, but not quite as filling as his first. While I value Kamenetz's commitment to Jewish exploration and spiritual meaning and found some of his descriptions of various Jewish mystical teachers interesting, in the end it was challenging for me to relate to many of them. Part of this may be that Stalking Elijah also coincides with Kamenetz becoming more ensconced in the Jewish Renewal movement, so most of the voices in this book come from that orientation, as opposed to Jew in the Lotus, which contained a wider range across the spectrum. It was interesting to get a snapshot of the Renewal movement's biggest personalities in the mid-90s, and some of the points raised, such as the challenge of keeping Judaism relevant as well as authentic to Jews hungry for more practice and meaning than what they find in your run-of-the-mill synagogue, are certainly still relevant.
I respect Kamenetz's willingness to dive into some of the deeper ends of the Judaism pool, such as Kabbalah and meditation (which does have historical precedent in Judaism, check out Aryeh Kaplan if you're not convinced), but for me this book epitomizes some of the gaps between various cross-sections of liberal Judaism: broadly speaking, you have many middle-aged Jews who are either not very connected to "traditional" Jewish practice and go through the motions, or you have the ones who are both dissatisfied and mad about it, and so they are willing to go as far as they need to in order to reconnect themselves to the tradition. (A lot of this, IMO, is also a result of living through, or being influenced by the ripples of, the 1960s and the radical experimentation in many areas of American culture.) That's all well and good, but it doesn't quite work for people that are either young enough that they don't have a soulless 1950s Jewish strawman to rebel against, and/or are of a more intellectual bent as opposed to an emotional one. Honestly, out of all the people Kamenetz spoke with, the voices I found most relevant and useful were Rabbis Jonathan Omer-Man, who specializes in meditation and Kabbalah, and Art Green, a Jewish mysticism scholar and former dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the non-denominational Hebrew College. In short, personalities that are open to mysticism, but are still intellectually grounded. The inability or unwillingness to fully let go, to need to ground my faith and practice in the intellect, may be a personal failing, but it's how I approach Judaism, and as a result, while Stalking Elijah had some interesting a-ha moments, I don't think it's going to stay with me as long as Jew in the Lotus.