Monday, January 11, 2010
Rabbi Binyamin Hamburger - Customs of Ashkenaz
Sunday afternoon, Lionel Spiegel and I went to hear Rabbi Binyamin Hamburger speak at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington. Rabbi Hamburger is a Haredi scholar from Israel who specializes in the culture of Ashkenazic (Germanic) Jews. This is part of a personal crusade of his to support the practice of Ashkenazic Judaism. Rabbi Hamburger has also written a book on Jewish false messiahs and their opponents. Rabbi Hamburger maintains the same sorts of biases that one usually finds in Haredi history writers. For example, his work on messianism is a rabbinic apology. The rabbis protected by their knowledge and faithfulness to Jewish tradition are capable of withstanding the siren's song of false messiahs. That being said, Rabbi Hamburger is capable of dealing with academic literature so he, while dangerous, can be interesting and worthwhile to listen to. Here are my notes from the lecture; as usual all mistakes are mine.
It is difficult to talk about Ashkenaz. German Jewry is the kernel of the vast majority of Jews in the world. Ponevezher Rav was once going to a non religious community to speak. He wanted to talk about Shabbos, Kosher, but was told that he could not speak about these things because many in the community were not religious. So he asked what he could speak about. He was told to speak about Judaism. We can start with the origins of Ashkenaz. We know that the two centers were Israel and Babylon. Babylonian Jews went to Spain and Israel Jews went to Italy. The two main cities were Bari and Trento. "Ki miBari tetzei Torah udevar Hashem me'Otranto" was what they said then. From there they went to Lucca. Here is where we get R. Moshe b. Kolonymous, who was brought by Charlemagne to Mainz. There were very few Jews during the early Middle Ages maybe 10,000-20,000. We consider Germany to be the biggest anti-Semites. In truth we never see a complete expulsion from Germany. Pockets of French Jewry had some influence on Eastern Europe and Central Europe, not the Rhineland.
R. Moshe Isserles, living in sixteenth century Poland, in general goes with Ashkenazic customs, though at times he has more recent Polish customs. An example of the difference between Old Ashkenaz and New Ashkenaz is Shofar. Saadiah Gaon had a wavering tikiah. We have a straight tikiah, this comes from Spain. Old Ashkenaz has a circular shevarim. New Ashkenaz was influenced by other countries. There were pockets that held on to the Old Ashkenaz. Skver Hasidim still go with the Old Ashkenazic way. There was a major controversy over prayer in the eighteenth century. Hasidim brought in their own text based on Lurianic thought. Rabbi Ezekiel Landau attacked such changes. Many Hasidim, today, claim that they come from Spain. This is absurd. R. Judah the Pious claimed that people can die because they change a hymn even to change one hymn for another. There is a story among Vishnitz Hasidim that they yhey stopped saying piyyutim for a while. A plague broke out and they sought spiritual causes and decided to bring back piyyutim, based on the teachings about dangers of stopping/altering piyyutim. This was in the time of the 'Ahavas Yisroel' of Vizhnitz (past Rebbe). Worms had a custom not to eat dried fruit. They were concerned about worms. (No pun intended.)
Why is it important? There is a strong claim of tradition defended by rabbis from one generation to another. Even Maimonides, from Sephard, sticks up for Ashkenaz. He attacked the order of calling people up to the Torah. He notes that one would expect Sephardim to be messed up, but Ashkenazim should know better. Rabbeinu Ashur (Rosh) became a rabbi in Toledo after fleeing from Germany and influenced Sephardic Jewry. He attacked the traditions of Sephard and only trusted the tradition from Germany. Rabbi Yitzchak b. Moshe Or Zaruah was a leading sage in Central Europe. He was questioned as to why one should make Kiddush in shul Friday night. He defended this custom by appealing to Ashkenazic tradition of the Rhineland and attacking his opponent for daring to question that tradition.
The custom of cutting the hair of three year old boys comes from Arabs. It does not come to even the Hasidim until the twentieth century. We have evidence from the Middle Ages of cutting the hair after just a few weeks. Ashkenazim were never into beards but were very careful with peiyos. This is the exact opposite of Chabad. They were not so concerned about beards for people who were out in the world (as opposed to religious functionaries within the Jewish community). But they did have something with peiyos, see e.g. depictions of Wolf Heidenheim.
I asked Rabbi Hamburger about the debate between Dr. Avraham Grossman and Dr. Haym Soloveitchik about the origins of Ashkenaz. Dr. Soloveitchik argues that Ashkenaz from the beginning was Babylonian based. Rabbi Hamburger responded that Dr. Soloveitchik is a genius and that he has not seen his evidence. Perhaps if he saw this evidence he might be convinced. That being said everyone seems to assume that Ashkenaz comes from Israel. Dr. Soloveitchik might be a genius but the Rosh was pretty big too.