Rav Tzair and an American Sanhedrin

Someone sent me an interesting old JTA posting about the attempt in 1926 to create an American Sanhedrin by Rabbi Chaim Tchernowitz, the Religious Zionist thinker. (RZ is one of my 14 types of MO and it existed in 3 continents). The speech was also covered in much less detail by the NYT. Prof. Tchernowitz, was the maggid shiur at Rav Reines’ Yeshiva in Odessa and then sought refuge by teaching at JIR in NY. He wrote many interesting works such as Toldot Haposkim and a very interesting autobiography. Just reading this speech you can get a sense of the 1910’s and 1920’s hock that he provides.

Between WWI and 1951, most Religious Zionist leadership was in NY because it was too hard to make a living in the yishuv. Rav Tzair wanted one rabbinic body to unite the three American religious movements in order to return everyone to Torah.

This speech was given at Chavrutha, the Jewish intellectuals club, lead Peter Wiernik, who sought to create an Yiddishist anti-Zionist modern Orthodoxy. (It is not one of my 14 types because Yiddishist Dubnov modern Orthodoxy never caught on.) However, Weirnik’s papers are in the YU archives waiting for MA thesis and he has an autobiography.

JTA October 26, 1926
Rabbinic Council to Revise Religious Laws on Basis of Tradition Proposed for U. S.

The creation in the United States of a rabbinical council which would be endowed with authority to interpret, in accordance with the spirit of Jewish traditions, the Biblical and Talmudic laws in accordance with the requirements of the time, was the suggestion put forward by Professor Chaim Tchernowitz, at the last meeting of the Chavrutha, a Jewish intellectuals club, held at the Broadway Central Hotel. Peter Wiernik, editor of the “Jewish Morning Journal” and president of the Club, was in the chair.

The suggestion of Dr. Tchernowitz, who is known in Hebrew literature under the nom de plume of “Rav Zair” and is professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Institute of Religion, stirred the audience.

Professor Tchernowitz presented his conclusions as a summary of his observations of Jewish life in the United States during the past three years. All three parties of American Jewry, the Orthodox, the Reform
and the Conservative according to the speaker have embarked on a road which is not in accordance with the development of the essence of Jewish law. The most important place in Jewish life in the United States is now occupied by the prayer book and the synagogue, which are, viewed from the angle of historic development and judged by the place these were accorded in olden times, rather less significant and at any rate non-essential in the general scheme of things Jewish, he declared.

Reviewing the history of the development of the Halakah and citing a number of instances in the Halakah in which the Sages have interpreted and amended the original Biblical law in accordance with the spirit of this law, rendered necessary by changing conditions, Dr. Tchernowitz pointed to the fact that Jewish Orthodoxy in the United States is developing into a party instead of maintaining the position of the original reservoir of Jewish thought and leadership. When the prayer book and the synagogue building are the center of interest and when Orthodoxy is becoming stagnant and is being transformed into a party, it is not surprising that it is not led by the rabbis, the leaders of thought, but by the congregational presidents, or the political leaders, he stated.

“Traditional Judaism,” he continued, “had this quality that while it maintained the essence of the revealed tradition, it nevertheless allowed development. Laws, as they are known in human history, are of a two-fold origin: one is of revealed religion or divine inspiration,
the other of human legislation. The first, revealed religion, cannot be changed, except by the same process; the other can be changed by the legislators. The Torah from its very beginning had the religion
and legislation. This found expression in the principle that while the basic foundation is of divine origin, its application was left in the hands of the scholars. ‘Everything which any devoted scholar is destined to introduce was handed down to Moses.’ This is one of the
determining outlooks of Jewish law. The Biblical commandment of ‘According to the Torah which they will instruct thee’ embodies the combination of the two channels of legislation. Orthodoxy, in ignoring this circumstance, has placed itself in the difficult position in which it is now. The fact of the matter is, all the inventions based on modern science, such as electricity, the telephone, the telegraph, rapid transportation and the radio, greatly affecting the life of modern man, have been introduced after the close of the ‘Schulchan Aruch.’ A revision of the Sabbath law, for instance, toward these inventions, is a matter of imperative necessity.

“There is also great need for a revision of the law with regard to marriage, divorce and in matters of Agunoth (women who have lost track of their husbands) and Chalitzah (the ancient rite practiced when the husband dies without progeny).”

The Jewish reform movement in the United States was also discussed by the speaker. “In all history of religion,” he said, “the reform movements were motivated by strong faith and the urge to greater piety. The Karaites insisted that the rabbis were too liberal in the interpretation of the Bible and renouncing the Talmud urged a return to the source, which meant the strict enforcement of the letter of the law. Also the Chassidic movement which has laid emphasis on religious enthusiasm could be regarded as a reform movement which rebelled against the stagnation of the religious laws among the rabbinic ‘Mithnagdim.'”

“In the history of Christianity, the reform movements were brought about through similar motives. The only exception is the Jewish reform movement. It did not spring out of faith, but out of a desire for adaptation. The reform movement is not based on faith nor on any
particular philosophy. The reform movement, contending, on one hand, that Judaism is a religion but not a nationality and, on the other hand, basing its theory on the idea of “a Jewish mission, created a situation of contradictio in objecto and is wrangling with irreconcilable theological contradictions. The present day advocates of reform have entirely deviated from the path outlined by the founders like Geiger and his contemporaries, who wanted to establish reform Judaism on the basis of historic Judaism. The sermons of the reform preachers and rabbis in the United States are mainly of a secular and political character and are not permeated with Jewish religious thoughts. Some of these sermons even go into regions totally outside of Judaism.

“To add to its troubles, there is no leading thought which is binding for all rabbis. The reform movement in the United States apparently adheres to the other half of the previously quoted sentence. They leave out ‘according to the Torah,’ but they practice ‘as they will instruct thee.’ Each reform rabbi chooses what he finds expedient and ‘instructs’ as he sees fit.

“The Conservatives are,” Dr. Tchernowitz said, “a fifty-fifty proposition. The Conservative congregations have neither the contents of the Orthodox nor the freedom of the Reform. Emphasis is laid by them on the Siddur (prayer book) which is indeed a non-essential in Jewish life. When the sources are consulted, it appears that the Siddur and the synagogue ritual are the latest and the least significant parts of Judaism,” he stated.

“The great temples were converted by the cantors into a sort of cheap opera, where the music, which is mostly non-Jewish and an imitation of secular melodies lacking in proper taste and religious feeling, occupies the central place to which prayer is merely of secondary importance. These temples are becoming more and more empty, they are not frequented by the youth, who do not find there any religious inspiration. Historic Judaism centered more around the Beth Ha’midrash, the house of learning, around learning and not around the prayer.”

Dr. Tchernowitz concluded his discourse by expressing his opinion that in previous periods, although the law was considered “closed” there was a “silent consent” on the choice of one or several rabbinic authorities with whom rested the power of decision. But this type of
the Gaon has disappeared never to return. In these times of modern democracy the only way to insure the continuity of Jewish law and Jewish tradition and to fuse the three sections which sail without direction is to create a “Beth Din Ha’Gadol” to revise Jewish religious laws in accordance with the spirit of historical Judaism.
Such a council would thus be given the authority and all sections would adhere to its opinions, he stated.

Mr. Moses Stoll, well known New York Talmudist, in a learned discourse opposed the views of Dr. Tchernowitz, arguing that no matter what innovations the Jewish religious law experienced in the course of its development and no matter what other innovations might be necessary, they were accomplished and can be accomplished only “within the circle.”

5 responses to “Rav Tzair and an American Sanhedrin

  1. This strikes me a poignant piece that brings out to the knee jerk sociologists of the other day the elegiac tone that some of us got from your analysis of Modern Orthodoxy. In the end the class was about what was not and could have been and you sketched this history of missed connections and opportunities that almost ended up as a melancholy meditation on the modernity we never had, almost had, had and lost. Looking at R Tzair’s words and his interlocutors, it is hard to imagine that this is anything but a sort of dead letter which was never picked up. In that case the modern orthodoxy project can be recast as a profoundly ethical one– to recapture the lost idiosyncratic voices who wanted an American Sanhedrin to supplant cantorial music.

  2. Do you have a list of the 14 types posted somewhere?

  3. Lawrence Kaplan

    Anyone know who Moses Stoll was?

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