(Poland) Kahal & Kabbalah (Ashkenaz)


Salo Baron makes a brief appearance in Gershon Hundert’s excellent historical study, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity. Following Baron’s lead, Hundert’s thesis runs against the lachrymose versions of Jewish historiography as regards “the ghetto.” Poland is offered up as a different form of modernity, unlike the German Jewish modernity, which was the culture of a very small and isolated minority facing the social pressures of assimilation. Polish Jewry by contrast, was the culture of a dense and growing demographic mass, what Hundert calls “a minority that is not a minority” in the major geographic areas of Jewish settlement (in the eastern half of the Polish Commonwealth) (pp.21-30, 239-40). What develops there, starting in the 18th century was a robust form of what Hundert calls a “national” consciousness, i.e. a manifest sense of social solidarity and a superiority complex (pp.239-40). Jewish life in Poland was both integrated and insular (p.238). Enlightenment and Emancipation were not part of that picture nor were the values peculiar to them reflected in the religious institutions and ideas of Polish Ashkenaz.

An excellent historical study like Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century is one that allows itself to be read against the grain. Reading Hundert against the grain more than suggests that without Emancipation (meaning civil rights and social integration) and Enlightenment (general education), the form of Jewish life represented by Polish Ashkenaz, despite its demographic bigness, was insular and deeply hedged in upon itself. The Jews of Poland and Lithuania formed a proud and closed community and spiritual tradition free from the gentile gaze that dominated the modern period for Jews in Germany and in the west. What Hundert only hints at is that Poland-Lithuania was itself a society in crisis after the Khmelnytsky rebellion and massacres, and in the wake of the Swedish Deluge and Russian Deluge in the 17th century before the ultimate dismemberment of Poland as an independent commonwealth towards the end of the 18th century. Assuming that the larger social setting was itself lachrymose, how then did that environment affect the smaller religious thought world of the Jews would be my question.

If there is a structure to Hundert’s history telling, one finds it in the chapter layout. One chapter or a set of chapters begins on a “positive” note. Those would be chapters 1-2, then chapter 4, and then chapters 6-8. These relate to the demographic muscle mass of the Jewish community, its economic integration into Polish society, the structure of the community (the kahal), and the vibrancy of Jewish religious life in Poland and Lithuania. These chapters that stress socio-economic integration and spiritual vitality are intercut by chapters 3, 5, and 10. These touch upon the hostility of the Catholic Church, the dissolution of the kahal, and the failure of the Emancipation project, i.e. attempts towards the end of the 18th century by the Jewish nascent bourgeoisie to attain civil rights and civic integration. For skeptical readers of Jewish religion, a sense of rotting social structure as a whole casts critical questions regarding the religious structures of East European Jews, meaning their lack of fit into a “modern world” defined in terms of cosmopolitan culture and social and civic integration.

Hundert explains that the historical period under question begins in the late 17th century. He refers to a period of political crisis and increasing xenophobia, some of which had to do with the victory of the Counter Reformation, also at the end of the 17th century at that historical moment when when Poland became a deeply Catholic country. Reference is made to pressures on marginal groups, discriminatory enactments (despite the opposition of magnate-aristocrats who wanted to protect Jews living under their control), and increasing separation and oppositional relations between Jews and non-Jews. All of these corrosive social dynamic were in tandem with deep economic entanglements which moderated ideological inter-group hostility while fostering “Jewish ‘national’ identity” (chapter 3).

A more lachrymose reading of Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century than the one intended by the author conveys three critical nodal points.

–The first critical node has to do with the oligarchic and corrupt social structure of the kahal, the restricted scope of rabbinic authority, the collapse of the Jewish court system, and the dissolution of the Council of Four Lands. Much has been made by Baron (and in contemporary Jewish philosophy) about the autonomous character of the traditional kahal and the authority and social dominance of the rabbinate. Intentionally or not, Hundert does much to wear away at that picture. Regarding the limited authority of rabbis in the community, already in chapter 4, we are told that the rabbinic delegates to the Council of Four Lands had formed into a presumably separate “second chamber,” apparently created in the 1670s and which may have fallen into disuse as soon as around 1720. By the 18th century representatives of the crown Treasury were attending and supervising meetings, and attenuating the independence of the Council, with Polish officials adjudicating disputes regarding rabbinic representation on the Council (p.95-6). But was there a communal “crisis” in the 18th century? Hundert says no, while he himself indicates a more complex, negative dynamic (chapter 5). He rejects the idea that Jews were (entirely?) powerless before the Polish notables, arguing that they enjoyed economic leverage, and he rejects the claim by Marxist historians that there was a class rebellion of poor Jews against communal oligarchs. Even so, Hundert notes the criticism leveled against elders and rabbis for purchasing their office, while observing that rabbis were apparently subject to gentile approval and they were meant in their office to support the owner of the local town in which they lived (p.108).  Hundert also points to Jews appealing to gentile courts becoming more frequent already in 18th century (p.107). As for the real authority of the kahal, it was owed to Polish aristocrats who tended to ignore Jewish autonomy when it suited their own economic and political interests (pp.109-110). It is Hundert’s conclusion that “most of the time” and in “most places,” the kahal continued to function and rabbis were leaned and qualified for their positions even as he describes the kahal in ways that one could construe as oligarchic and corrupt (pp.108-12, 118).

–In historical retrospect, what are critical readers to make of the religious life of Polish Jewry? Hundert’s cast of picaresque characters include [1] old-time mystical ascetics, [2] religious radicals, [3] Sabbateans and Frankists, [4] heresy hunters, [5] magicians and baalei shem, [6] Hasidim and, [7] the critics of Hasidism. A common and still interesting claim is the broad assertion that the entire religious milieu was steeped in kabbalah, seen as woven into “the very core of Jewish culture” and “part of the ‘grammar’ of literary, and religious and even folk expression” (p.152). Odd things lay scattered about; these are sexual obsessions about nocturnal emissions, acts of extraordinary penitence, stories about demons and demon possession, the charismatic authority of tzadkim and the possibility of charlatanism, the use of special knives by Hasidim for kosher slaughter for reasons having to do with beliefs about the transmigration of Jewish souls into animal bodies. Over the entire religious landscape hovers a keen sense of spiritual superiority which was the deeply embedded confidence in the inherent holiness of the community of Israel, Knesset Yisrael. While the material makes for charming folklore and great literature, Hundert is too good a historian to ask us to reflect upon the possibility that Poland in the 18th century may have been something of a religious madhouse.

–Leading up to the cusp of the 19th century and the partitions of Poland, Hundert chronicles the non-start of the liberalization project circa late 18th C. This was the failure to remove basic restrictions on Jewish life during the reign of Stanislaw August Poniatowski (1764-1795) or during the Four Year Sejm (Polish Parliament) (1788-1792). Any number of proposed reforms of Jewish life and institutions (which would have had varying impact on Jewish life) made their way out into the public. These include rights of domicile, freedom of religion, freedom of occupation, rights and duties of citizenship, confining authority of Jewish courts to religious matters, education of rabbis in general studies, Polish language instruction in schools, abolition of Jewish costume, abolition of dietary law. None of this was to any effect. Emerging from Hundert’s book as a whole and in the conclusion to the study is the picture we have already described of a large and proud Jewish community refusing to be defined by others.  Living cheek by jowl with Poles, with no “beckoning bourgeoisie holding out the promise of Emancipation, and facing the hostility of the Church, most Jews in the 18th century were hostile to change while certain of their own spiritual superiority (pp.233-40).

The responsibility of social and intellectual historians, including scholars of religion, is not to come to extra-historical judgments about historical source materials. One can look at a place like 18th century Poland from the freedom afforded by the historical distance occupied by the scholar. Regarding the religious things, they can be looked to for folklore, folkart, and religious literature. That tradition of doing just that starts with German Jewish modernists like Buber, Rosenzweig, and others, people actually untouched by the place and the people that fascinated them. But how is one to read for historical truth? It is no extraordinary act nowadays to lift an artwork from out of its historical and social context. But what about religious expression? Is it possible to detach religious things like spiritual authority, law, and mysticism from their place and time in social history? Can religious expression survive outside its situation and if so under what conditions and in what condition? In this case, can an intensive religious life live only in isolated and self-isolating social contexts as they do in ultra-orthodox communities today? Can it exist in a cosmopolitan social environment? At what point is it possible to determine that it has lost its intellectual force and spiritual power?

To follow upon Hundert’s analysis is to identify two component parts to Jewish life in 18th century Poland. These are Kahal and Kabbalah.  The kahal was more than a kehila kedusha (holy community), but stood for a mystical community, or if you prefer a community steeped in mysticism. The kahal was simultaneously large and insular, an broad and intensive social form that gave life to crystallized forms of spiritual expression, forms, and figures. Its aura was one of immanent holiness; the inherent holiness of Israel, of the body of Israel and of Jewish bodies animated by mitzvoth and mystical intentions, of the scholars and tzadikim. The insularity of the entire thought-world and the crystallization around figures of knesset Yisrael stands out as a stunning thought-image (Denkbild), perhaps uniquely so in Jewish history.

But at what price did this spiritual intensity come? Whitehead famously defined religion as what “the individual does with his own solitariness.” This can be just as true of a community as for an individual. The image of Knesset Yisrael crystallized in the great Polish-Lithuanian Ashkenazi tradition was alone indeed in the world with God and with each other. Looking past the gross ethnocentrism that still plagues orthodox Judaism today, Ashkenaz can be looked critically upon from the outside as a religious reflection of a politically isolated and exposed community, closed in on itself, and with delusions of spiritual grandeur

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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7 Responses to (Poland) Kahal & Kabbalah (Ashkenaz)

  1. Stephen Simons says:

    Fascinating article.My main question regards the last words in your conclusion: How can a historian ascertain that a community’s self image is a “delusion of spiritual grandeur”? Is the realm between spiritual reality and spiritual delusion subject to scientific measurement?

    • zjb says:

      you’re absolutely right about historians (maybe), but am wondering about how and at one point one can weigh in philosophically and ideologically on historical source material. In the case at hand, there are fundamental questions about the apparent (!) mismatch between the sense of superiority expressed by members of a vulnerable social population and their actual social position

      • Stephen Simons says:

        The issue is not their material position or their social position. An individual or group’s spiritual self perception is entirely subjective in my view.

      • zjb says:

        sure, but a self-perception should probably map up to something that come close to resembling reality?

      • Stephen Simons says:

        We will never convince one another of our points of view. I hold that physical reality and spiritual reality are of totally different essence.

      • zjb says:

        that is not a hasidic idea 😉

      • Stephen Simons says:

        How can self perception about one’s spirituality be measured? One’s inner life may or may not be comparable to one’s external life, by which I mean the observable social and material reality.

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