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    Three books – one of them my own!

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report on 20 April 2020.

    THE RABBIS’ SUITCASE: LETTERS FROM A TURBULENT AGE
    By Eli Friedwald
    Mosaica Press, 2020

    An old battered suitcase containing a treasure trove of rabbinical letters spent a century being passed down through generations of the rabbis’ family until Eli Friedwald, a retired actuary living in Jerusalem had the courage to ignore the dust, decipher the writing and turn the letters into this remarkable book.

    The rabbis whose correspondence with rabbinic gedolim sat in the suitcase for all these years were Jacob Reinowitz (“Reb Yankele”) and his son-in-law, Chaim Sussman Cohen, dayanim of the London Beth Din and halachic decisors of British Jewry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    The London Beth Din was not at first a formal judicial body. Until 1875 the rabbi of each London synagogue dealt in ad hoc fashion with halachic questions, where necessary co-opting two “old school” learned men as his “assessors” and probably paying them from his own pocket. When a synagogue had no rabbi, the congregation chose whom to consult, usually but not always the rabbi of the Great (Dukes Place) Synagogue. When Solomon Hirschell held the latter office, the lack of a rival made him more or less “chief rabbi” (the gentiles called him “high priest of the Jews”). He generally gave rulings for the whole community and thus became Britain’s first modern chief rabbi.

    The 1833-1845 minute book of Hirschell’s Beth Din is in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. It gives the names of the “assessors” who sat with Hirschell in cases that required three judges, especially divorces and conversions. There were few of each; from 1866 a Beth Din divorce was not legally sufficient without an accompanying civil divorce, and there was a view that the Jews had promised Cromwell not to make converts, so the Beth Din had little work to keep it busy. In the 1870s Rabbi Hermann Adler found that there was actually no undertaking to Cromwell, so the Beth Din now dealt openly with conversions instead of sending them to the Continent. Civil cases were rare, since Jews were attracted by the opportunity to go to the civil courts.

    Resort to ad-hoc dayanim continued when Nathan Marcus Adler, Chief Rabbi from 1845, assumed control over the Ashkenazi congregations of England and the Empire. Adler chaired the Beth Din, co-opting “assessors” as necessary.

    The status of the Beth Din rose in the 1870s with the arrival in England of Jacob Reinowitz, whom Adler appointed as his right-hand man and paid a gratuity. The official dayan was Dov Ber (Bernard) Spiers (1827-1902), who came to England about 1866 and in 1876 succeeded Dayan Aaron Levy (Reb Oran). Spiers was certainly a rabbinic scholar with a unique ability to teach the Talmud in English, but he was not on Reinowitz’s level.

    Adler’s son Hermann (whom Friedwald calls by his Hebrew name Naftali) sometimes acted in a Beth Din role though not as an official dayan, as father and son may not sit on the same Beth Din. When Nathan Marcus Adler semi-retired in 1879, he remained Av Beth Din, though the day to day work was done by Hermann with halachic rulings formulated by Reinowitz, who could answer almost a hundred she’elot (halachic questions) in a day. Reinowitz is thought to be the original of Reb Shmuel in Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto. He died in 1893 and was succeeded as dayan by his son-in-law Chaim Sussman Cohen (1841-1906), who in turn was succeeded by his own son-in-law, Harris Myer Lazarus.

    By 1899 the Beth Din handled about 35 conversions a year and about ten divorces. The civil cases often concerned the conditions of service of synagogue officials. Kashrut matters occupied considerable time, especially because of a long conflict with the Machzikei HaDath congregation.

    Some of the she’elot addressed to Reinowitz and Sussman Cohen were rather routine, but many were important and complex, and were discussed in writing with the leading rabbis of continental Europe, who had considerable respect for these two London dayanim, especially Reinowitz. There is an appendix to Friedwald’s book which lists the gedolim whose letters are part of the collection – and what an impressive list it is.

    These are some of the halachic issues that the book deals with:
    • If a man disappeared in a shipwreck, can his wife now marry again?
    • How do we write “Denver” in a gett?
    • If a woman is mentally incompetent, can her husband divorce her?
    • If a woman was raped in a pogrom, can she marry a kohen?
    • At a Shabbat election may a Jew ask a gentile to record his vote for him?
    • Is machine-made matzah acceptable?
    • Are grafted etrogim from Corfu acceptable?
    • May an animal be sedated with chloroform before shechitah?
    • May Jews buy salmon at a non-Jewish store?
    • At a circumcision how is metzitzah (suctioning of the blood) performed?
    • May a body be moved from one grave to another?

    Items in the suitcase reflect Jewish life in England and in pogromic Russia. This makes the correspondence a social history of the time. We see how hard it was for immigrants to keep Shabbat and how hard it was for Eastern European Jews to believe in God. It was indeed a turbulent period.

    To control the immigrants from Eastern Europe the United Synagogue determined that the Beth Din should meet more frequently, not just on Mondays and Thursdays; the immigrants should be urged to bring their disputes to the Beth Din; and two “English” dayanim should be appointed. The appointees (who assumed office in 1902) were Moses Hyamson (1862-1949) and Asher Feldman (1873-1948), neither of whom was highly regarded in London’s East End, though there was more opposition to Hyamson than to Feldman.

    Hyamson became Senior Dayan and after Hermann Adler’s death in 1911 was acting Chief Rabbi but was defeated in the contest for the substantive position by JH Hertz and then moved to the United States. Feldman remained on the Beth Din for many years. In Hermann Adler’s time the Beth Din was frequently assisted by Avigdor Chaikin (1852-1928), though it took years before his official appointment. Sussman Cohen had retired from office in 1906 after a long illness.

    Professor Lloyd Gartner thought Anglo-Jewry made little contribution to the history of Jewish law. This book tells a different story.

    THE DAWN: POLITICAL TEACHINGS OF THE BOOK OF ESTHER
    By Yoram Hazony
    The Shalem Press, 2000

    If you’re put off by the title of this book or dismiss it as only meant for Biblical academics or political scientists, you’d be wrong.

    It’s not only a beautifully written work but offers an angle on a famous story that makes something dawn in your mind, which might well explain the book title. Once you have read “The Dawn” you will never again see the Megillah as just an ancient sideshow. Instead you will have discovered the true context of the Esther story.

    Yoram Hazony muses about the principles and paradigms of politics and asks whether they can be applied to the Book of Esther or to other Biblical narratives, especially those of Joseph and Moses.

    We used to think of the Megillah as a mere Purim Spiel. Taking it more seriously, other recent writers such as Stephen Rosenberg have skilfully interpreted it as a chapter in the history of Persia; Hazony sees it as a chapter in political history in general and in particular the politics of a fragile Jewish people caught up in a gentile host society, with the fragility, ambiguity and ambivalence that accompany life in two worlds.

    There are two ways of presenting the philosophy of a story. You can focus on the target and reach it if you’re lucky; you can also shoot first and then draw a circle around the arrow. You can delve into a story and listen to what it tells you; or you can start with a preconceived idea and fit the facts to your theory.

    A good researcher gets his material to speak for itself. This is Hazony. He finds that the text itself suggests a political theory. He says Esther is a story of the Jews in exile. They have no sovereign political institutions but try to manage within those of others. They are part of the host society, but with their own Jewish priorities at the same time. Do they need to compromise Jewish concerns for the sake of the king’s? Do they jeopardise their broader influence by seeking the welfare of their fellow Jews? A paradigm of the Jewish diaspora?

    Specific questions abound. For instance, how do Mordechai and Esther handle their situation? Why does the king reject Vashti and choose Esther? Why does he drop the minders who provide a fig-leaf of democracy in order to give Haman autocratic power? Can Mordechai utilise the techniques of persuasion to get the public to oppose and isolate Haman?

    Can Esther make the king agonise over Haman’s loyalty, even though the Jews as such mean very little to him one way or another? Would it help Mordechai and Esther to remain silent? What finally turns the king against Haman? Why does the king humiliate him? Who is to replace Haman? How politically savvy are the cast of characters?

    The story is an exciting political drama. If you think politics is an art, this is the book for you. If you think that politics is dirty, this book is for you too.

    EIGHTY DAYS AND EIGHTY NIGHTS:
    WISE WORDS FOR EVERYDAY

    By Raymond Apple
    iUniverse Publishing, 2012

    I have a bias in favour of this book. I am both the author and the reviewer. The book was written by me, but I still think it is a good piece of work.

    It is not a heavy tome, either in terms of size or style. It takes eighty themes ranging (alphabetically) from Adulthood to Youth, i.e. every age, stage, variety and challenge of everyday life. It makes pithy, sometimes provocative comments about them. It claims to offer “wise words for everyday”, but wisdom is as wisdom does. Some people will find the “wise words” worth noting; others will reject the author’s views but may be stimulated by them to crystallise their own opinions.

    I could quote at length, but that would be like reading the denouement on the last page of a detective story and skipping the build-up. It would reveal in advance why the author is in favour of some things that some people are against – anger, death, doubt, fear, and a range of other emotions and experiences.

    The book is not a religious work – sometimes it takes a swipe at formal religion – but it constantly refers to the Bible and contains quotations from a range of theologies. Most of them are Jewish, because the author is a believer, a religious leader, and a rabbi.

    Someone asked my wife, “Is your husband Rabbi Apple? I saw him on TV! He’s famous!” I looked through this book to find out what I said about fame. Strangely, I don’t have a chapter on the subject but I recall the Yiddish saying that when God wants to destroy a person He makes him famous. I am not in a hurry to be destroyed, and I don’t personally lay claim to too much fame. What I do admit is a passionate concern for the quality of society. That’s why I have distilled a lifetime’s involvement with people and their problems into a book on wise living. You don’t have to follow my prescription, but I hope the book will help you towards your own (maybe unwritten) volume of values.

    My books don’t make money. They cost me more than they earn. But I enjoy writing them and I hope you will find them a good read.

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