The Yiddish Intellectual Tradition
The Great Jewish Scholars of Eastern Europe
who has read any of the major histories of the Jewish people would
not know anything about the great Jewish scholars of eastern Europe or would
wonder why they are either not mentioned at all or are given no more than a
paragraph here or there. This is an atrocity because the American Jewish
community is the direct descendant and beneficiary of these great men.
Furthermore, the omission of these scholars is similar to a book on American
literature which does not mention Ernest Hemingway.
American Jewish community today is more than ninety percent of eastern European
descent. In the early twentieth century and a few years before, two and one half
million Jews from Poland and the Russian empire came to the United States. These
families spoke Yiddish and were largely not well educated. Nevertheless, the
Jews of the “Lower East Side” of Manhattan and similar places in other
cities viewed scholarship as important and made “culture heroes” of such
great scholars as Yisrael Meir Kagan (1839-1933), who was called “The Chofetz
Chayim,” which was the name of his book by that name. That book
deals with the almost universal habit of verbal “backstabbing” which
consists of speaking “evil’ against others, and maligning and gossiping
about people who cannot defend themselves because they do not know they are the
victims of “the evil tongue.” The book is available in English and ought to
be read by everyone regardless of religion. In America the tradition of
scholarship was continued by the immigrants but it was secularized. This means
that the twentieth century Jews went to school, learned English, and then
attended the City College of New York, which at that time cost no tuition. There
the Jews studied science and the humanities and became the first generation of
Nobel Prize winners. Furthermore, Jews entered the professions such as law and
medicine and became disproportionate members of the educated class of Americans.
Consider that only 29% of Americans have a college degree, while 53% of American
Jews have a college degree. Fourteen percent of American physicians are Jewish,
although we are only 1.7% of the population, as is also true of lawyers, and 10
percent of American academics are Jewish.
reason for this development is by no means that Jews are somehow smarter or more
intelligent than anyone else. It is instead the Jewish culture which drives Jews
to gain a higher education and to value those who have achieved scientific
live in a natural environment as well as in
the man made environment called
culture. Culture has three dimensions. It consists of material culture, such as
a nail, the atomic bomb, and the chair we sit on. Then there is ideological
culture, which consists of that which we believe, and behavioral culture, which
refers to what we do.
three aspects of culture are interdependent. For example, before the invention
of the steam engine in the early nineteenth century, no one could travel at
forty miles an hour. Horses don’t run that fast. When the steam engine was
perfected and trains traveled faster than anyone had moved before, there were
some who said that we were not allowed to go that fast, for if “Shem Yisborach”
wanted us to move at forty miles an hour,
he would have given us legs that could
run that fast. Yet today we can fly ten times faster, but no one believes that
such speed is a sin. We believe we can drive at 60 mph or faster and we do so.
The material culture make speed possible, the ideological culture adjusts its
beliefs to the material culture, and we conduct ourselves accordingly.
is what happened to the American Jews. American materialism led to the opinion
that science is more important than Talmud, and therefore we study physics and
not the Shulchan Aruch.
in human cultures are usually the products of the culture base. The culture base
is the level of culture reached at any time. That
level of culture then produces the next step into
yet more changes. For example, for centuries it was believed that
Euclid’s geometry was final and unchangeable. Yet, Gauss and his student
Riemann developed non-Euclidian geometry, followed by Lobachevsky, the Russian
mathematician who gave non-Euclidian geometry a boost so that Einstein could
develop his insight that light bends and that Armstrong could travel to the
Newton invented calculus in England, even as Leibniz invented calculus at the
same time in Germany. Neither man copied from the other inventor. The evidence
is that if neither Newton or Leibniz had ever lived, calculus would have been
invented by someone else, because Descartes had invented trigonometry
and calculus was the obvious next step in the understanding of the
secrets of nature.
American Jews, inheritors of the great scholarly traditions of the Yiddish
speaking Jews, altered the culture of the intellect to fit American expectations
and became the most successful ethnic group in America.
we thank not only Rabbi Kagan but Moshe Isserles (1520-1572), Joseph Karo
(1488-1575), the author
of the Shulchan Aruch, the great Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
(1789-1866), the Rebbe of Lubavitch and his descendant by the same name
(1902-1994). We remember Chaim Soloveitchick (1853 -1918) and Rabbi
Dov Soloveichck (1820-1892)
who founded a Chasidic Dynasty. Akiva Eger (1761-1837), a great Talmudist
and leader of the Jewish people, is remembered for his great contributions, and
Jehuda Loew ben Bezalel of Prague
was so famous for his immense intellect that he was consulted by non-Jews,
who built him a monument. Loew was the ancestor of Senator John Kerry of
were many more Jewish scholars among the Jews of eastern Europe who fled from
the Nazi killers or were murdered. Some came to this country and founded
Yeshivahs here. Others inspired American Jews to follow their
tradition. All of them are role models for us who are mere students who stand on
the shoulders of those great men who preserved Judaism against all odds.
their memory be a blessing and an inspiration
for all of Israel, Bimhayro v’yomaynew