Grand Old Man
by Nahum N. Glatzer
On Jewish Law and Lore. By Louis Ginzberg. The Jewish Publication Society. 262 pp. $3.50.
The late Louis Ginzberg, a collateral descendant of the Gaon of Vilna, was one of the few Jewish savants of our time who combined first-rate scholarship with success in enlightening the much courted intelligent layman. The author of the learned Hebrew Commentary on the Palestinian Talmud also wrote elegant monographs like those gathered in his Students, Scholars and Saints. The first four volumes of his Legends of the Jews, which present the non-legal traditions of the Talmud and the Midrash, make pleasurable reading, which does not prevent the two volumes of “Notes” that follow them from being documents of meticulous research into the original texts and their variants, as well as into general and Jewish folklore, into comparative religion and ancient Near Eastern thought.
The bibliography of Ginzberg’s writings—which comprises several hundred books, studies, encyclopedia articles, and reviews—does not begin with the usual doctoral dissertation expected from a scholar trained at a German university; the first item on the list reads simply: Gedichte (Poems), Basle, 1894. The world of living things and people retained the interest from first to last of this man who became in his time the most distinguished representative of Talmudic learning in the Western world.
On Jewish Law and Lore, originally planned as an anniversary volume to mark Ginzberg’s eightieth birthday, is a collection of essays and studies which demonstrates his interest in both scholarship and its popularization.
Easily the most significant piece is the translation of a paper read in Hebrew at the Jerusalem University and entitled, “The Significance of the Halachah for Jewish History.” This gracefully styled lecture, well documented but not overloaded with evidence and completely devoid of the customary bickering with fellow scholars, has been the springboard for extensive work and research by other scholars.
Of the two rival schools in the Jerusalem of the first pre-Christian century, that of Hillel is known to be lenient and forbearing, that of Shammai strict and uncompromising, in the interpretation of the Law. These differences were usually explained as expressing the personal dispositions of the founders of these schools. Ginzberg re-examined the sources and came up with the sociological theory that Shammai’s adherents were from the upper and middle classes and represented their interests, whereas Hillel’s came mostly from the lower classes and tended to champion their rights.
According to the school of Shammai the so-called “New Year for Fruit Trees” is observed on the first day of the Hebrew month of Shevat; according to the school of Hillel, on the fifteenth. In Ginzberg’s opinion, the reason for this difference in dating was economic: the rich had better fields and gardens, whose fruit matured earlier than that in the gardens of the poor. The school of Shammai forbade the baking of twists, or thick loaves of bread, on holidays, while the Hillelites permitted it. The difference was again socio-economic: the rich had no need for such bread on holidays, since they enjoyed various other savories; the poorer classes used bread in any form on weekdays and even on holidays. Also, in determining the minimal amount to be spent on festivals and pilgrims’ sacrifices, the school of Shammai had the well-to-do in mind, the school of Hillel, those of limited means. In discussing the policy of admission to their schools, Shammai required that the student be not only wise and modest but rich and of good family, while Hillel said “one ought to teach every man.”
This sociological insight—simple enough once arrived at—is important for more than Talmudic research. Hillel fought for the common man (in the field of legislation as well as by ethical pronouncements) at a time when official Jerusalem, under Herod and his successors, went out of its way to please Rome. Political power was on the side of a Hellenist bureaucracy when Hillel resumed the ancient prophetic protest against the rich and the mighty “who oppress the poor and crush the needy”—this time, however, by patient social action rather than by passionate criticism. To designate Hillel’s social attitude, the Talmudic sources use the term hesed, meaning loving-kindness, grace, mercy, loving loyalty. This term had been employed by the prophets before Hillel to denote that which God wanted of man, and throughout Jewish history it has inspired the hasidim, or “pious ones.”
Although Louis Ginzberg’s research spreads over many fields of Jewish and related studies—the volume before us is a true mirror of his many-sidedness—his major interest remained the clarification of the vast Talmudic material. This, as a pre-condition for correcting generally distorted notions about Pharisaism. What was needed was a better understanding of the process of separation from the mainstream of Western history that Judaism underwent in late antiquity. This separation was not effected in order to preserve “outward” as against “inward” religiousness; only the preciousness of the inner life under Judaism and the dedication to the hesed idea became less and less visible to the outside world. The verdict of post-Classical Europe is understandable only under the historic conditions that accompanied it. The Christian notion of Pharisaism cannot be dogmatically perpetuated, for it is no longer valid. But while practically all the other intellectual and spiritual factors we know of in late antiquity have been revaluated in modern times, Pharisaism still remains misrepresented. Toynbee, who understands very well the ethical humanism and religious dedication to peace on earth of Hillel and his chief disciple, Johanan ben Zakkai, nevertheless classes them together with the militantly nationalist Zealots, thus confirming—on a new level—the ancient distortion. Here the works of Louis Ginzberg, as well as a few other scholars, could be of great help.
The one great limitation in Ginzberg’s work is his inhibited appreciation of the role of mysticism in the growth of Judaism. His essay, “The Cabala,” tries hard to do justice to its subject by classifying mystical terms neatly and by attempting an intelligible definition and a historical delineation. Ginzberg admits that the “great importance of the Cabala for rabbinical Judaism lies in the fact that it prevented the latter from becoming fossilized,” but this insight remains unrelated to the essay as a whole. Isaac Luria, whose theologia mystica, conceived after the expulsion from Spain, was described by Gershom G. Scholem as “a mystical interpretation of Exile and Redemption,” a doctrine which “raised every Jew to the rank of a protagonist in the great process of restitution,” appears in Ginzberg’s article as an initiator of “fanciful religious exercises” in a school which practiced “the writing of amulets, conjuration of devils, mystic jugglery with numbers and letters.” Ginzberg maintains that the Hasidic school of Habad alone has “shown that the Lurianic Cabala is something more than a senseless playing with letters,” but that other forms of Hasidism “derived from the Cabala, represent the acme of systematized cant and irrational talk.” The essay (illustrated as if on purpose with blurry and indistinct mystical diagrams) ends by pointing to the “most pernicious influence on the intellect and soul of the Jew” that certain mystical teachings have had. Here speaks the Lithuanian Jewish rationalist whose broad and intense rabbinic learning and profound piety did not stand in need of correction, improvement, or “defossilization” by mysticism.
That Ginzberg, who in “The Codification of Jewish Law” was patient enough to deal with all those intricacies of Biblical criticism which destroy the unity of Torah—a blasphemy in the eyes of a Halachist—that same Ginzberg almost instinctively opposed the intrusion of non-rational trends into intellectually clear-cut rabbinic Judaism. Once, when talking of the glib latter-day syntheses of rational and irrational interpretations of Judaism, he told this reviewer: “I like my whisky straight.”