Tradition and Its Discontents

Families, Rabbis and Education

Families, Rabbis and Education

by Yehudah Mirsky

Judaism teaches the unity of body and soul. The soul has gotten most of the ink, but in recent decades historians have made an effort to give the body its say by uncovering and interpreting the material circumstances that, together with the learning and the spirituality, have comprised the weave of Jewish life. Prominent among these historians is the Hebrew University’s Shaul Stampfer, whose new book, Families, Rabbis, and Education, explores the diverse currents coursing through the 19th-century Jewish heartlands of Eastern Europe.

Like his mentor, the late, great, Jacob Katz, Stampfer adopts a sociological approach to his materials, culled from decades of research in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, and other sources, both printed and archival, both sacred (halakhah, sermons, commentaries) and secular (communal records, census reports, newspaper accounts, memoirs). These he reads in light of one another and with an eye toward disclosing the processes that held Jewish society together, enabled it to deal with change, and, when internal and external challenges seemed to tear it apart, framed both its debates and their attempted resolutions. Throughout, his writing is marked by historical and theoretical sophistication mixed with sound common sense and a refreshing absence of jargon.

A number of Stampfer’s conclusions cut against the conventional picture of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. To name a few: early marriages were not the norm but took place only among the elite, and then only during a relatively brief period; the traditional family was far less patriarchal than we think, with women exercising real power albeit in the absence of formal authority; women were also far more literate than we think, often more so than men; the Jewish elderly tended to live on their own, not in the midst of family; the Gaon of Vilna was indeed a genius, but not recognized as such in his lifetime.

In an extension of his earlier, path-breaking study of Lithuanian yeshivas, Stampfer elaborates here upon how these institutions, in academicizing Talmud study, fostering a youth culture, and displacing local rabbis as sources of authority, were as much of a piece with the decline of traditional life as was the Enlightenment (Haskalah). Central, meanwhile, to all the developments he surveys was the desuetude of the traditional communal structure, the kehilla. Even before that institution was formally disbanded by the Tsarist regime in 1844, its authority rested ultimately with its lay leaders rather than with the rabbis—though the latter remain better known to posterity through their writings, their spiritual and intellectual legacy, and, Stampfer mordantly notes, the disproportionate attention they received from modernizing critics, reformers, and, later, historians.

Modernization as a whole, Stampfer writes, “was not a process of liberalization from the rule of rabbis . . . . [N]or is there any reason to think that ‘the rabbis’ could have led the Jewish community forward or in any other direction had they wanted to. The fact that the rabbis received so much attention is because they personified tradition. The struggle against tradition needed targets, and the rabbis were handy.” This perspective—of a power struggle between two classes of communal leadership—encourages us to reach beyond clichés about the allegedly perfect subservience of pre-modern communities to rabbinic authority or the misleadingly neat picture of a conflict strictly between rabbis and their intellectual foes, the Enlighteners.

As a historian, Stampfer has already moved farther than his mentor Katz in the readiness to explore not only how traditional communities and institutions functioned but also how they often failed. One hopes that he and others will continue to integrate this spirit of critical freedom with their intimate knowledge of and respect for the complexities and struggles of earlier generations.

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