What’s wrong with trusting Rav Ya’akov Emden?

I was discussing a topic at Shule concerning why I wasn’t a regular purchaser of Hamodia. He asked me what I didn’t like. I suggested that I always felt like I was reading Disneyland when I read Hamodia’s description of any living or departed “Gadol” from yesteryear. Sure, I’m known to be a cynic. That’s different from being cycnical per se and is probably the wrong word in context. Being a cynic is probably a precursor or post effect from being a scientist of sorts. I have found that I see or notice things some do not. That’s unlikely to be a brain thing, but rather a training thing. I’ve been taught for so many years to dissect each word and scrutinise what’s written it’s invaded by mode of processing information. It’s a good invasion.

Consequently, when I read all the incredible stories about Great Rabonim and the occasional Rebbetzin? I am left with a feeling that “between the lines” there is much missing. What is missing? For me, it is the struggles, the emotions, the human side: the good and triumphant verses the struggles which weren’t always triumphant. I feel cheated. I know, as we all do, that there isn’t a family with a closet hidden and where some skeleton hangs proverbially.  With Hamodia I am being treated with a menu of  historiography and/or not well researched history. This extends way beyond Hamodia itself. Why, the (not so Holy) Artscroll translation decided they had jursidiction over the words of Rashi’s eynikel, the great Rishon, the Rashbam of the early 1000’s and chose to omit various things he “said wrong” or “should be hidden today”. No doubt, that was with permission of a “Choshuve” Rov or three, but I still don’t buy it. To me this consititites Olam HaSheker, the world of lies. Lies by commission and sometimes commission.  He, a Gerrer Chossid, opined that he could see nothing wrong with positivity as motivating force. I took his point, but countered that unlike former times, one simple can no longer escape the “real world”. If a child/talmid is imbued with brains and if they are also pursuers of truth and rigor, I think that the “world would come down” on such and they may cease to believe or start to doubt. They then separate into two types:

  • those that go through all the motions even with all the chumros, but deep down because they have felt they have been lied to, no longer believe anything . Social, Economic and other pressures make it too hard  for them to break away
  • those who have either experienced a bad incident or whose mind is too fertile to ignore the truth when they eventually discover it, either through interaction with a library, the internet, work and plain life and choose to leave the world of their parents and are banished and shamed as a result.

I’m reminded of a story which Mr Sperling of Elwood Shule used to tell me every Yom Kippur (in the days when Elwood had characters). In Yiddish he would relay how his father was very frum but his sons ranged in their frumkeit. One brother was completely not religious and was a card carrying member of the Communist party. This was not as uncommon as many people would have you believe. Yet, on Kol Nidrei night he had respect for his father and stood with all his brothers alongside their father. When the Chazan genuinely started saying (no choirs, organs, guitars and all the shticks people use today) Or Zarua LaTzadik אור זרוע לצדיק the communist boy’s leg went into an incontrollable shake. Mr Sperling used to rib him in the elbow each year and say “Nu, so you discovered God one night each year and you tzittered (trembled with awe) because your let always gives it away”.

To be sure, choosing what to expose one’s kids to it’s a delicate balancing act. It is one each parent and School considers. There are extremes and middle grounds and hilly grounds. There are a number of Schools that censure text books or story books or censor these in part. Do they think that the kids don’t notice glued pages or redacted texta? They do, and in many cases it makes them want to see the original so they know. People have a thirst for knowledge. The key is to quench the thirst in a meaningful way. Does anyone believe all the non Jewish books in the famous Lubavitch library fell in by carrier pigeon?

Defining what a “meaningful way” is complex. To give a comparison: It isn’t meaningful for anyone to give lower precedence to Tzniyis, be it for a male or female. At the same time, when one introduces laws (especially for women) that make them uncomfortably hot on a summer’s day, one really is using up מסירות נפש for the secondary, and not the primary. I’m not of course suggesting they prance barefoot in the gardens in white on Tu B’Av (would any Rav allow that today?) watched on by potential suitors. Yes, males and females should keep the עיקרים of Tzniyus. In terms of חומרות however, it is a very brave person who can pretend that their entire Kehilla are בעלי נפש people who are quietly and surreptitiously מחמיר on themselves across the gamut of Torah.

ָAnother example: we’ve over focussed on the claim that there can be nothing can be good in secular studies (unless you make a quick buck thereafter). This is simply untrue. Many of the greatest Rishonim and Acharonim disagreed. So you will say, yes, but that’s because they were on a Madrega, and we are not. I will counter that aside from the study of philosophy, where one would really need to be a learned בעל מדריגה if they were to cope with it, most University studies actually perform the side effect which allows one to see just how much צלם אלוקים they own. It is almost a פרוזדור to the real world, but one where you are learning as opposed to being bossed and working for someone else. You aren’t about to encounter כפירה if you study accountancy, computer science, law, medicine, architecture, mathematics, and much more. And if your bent is biology and those sciences, you would do well to be well acquainted with Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s books, as well as his interlocutor Rav Moshe Meisselman,  beforehand. You will be equipped. I’ve seen kids grow in their Yiddishkeit בדווקה because they are exposed to the חושך and are much more able to discern the אור and radiate within it and grow.

I remember the days when just about every Adass graduate who didn’t join their father’s business, went to Prahran Tech (as it was then known). It was normal. They used a short series of English names: George and Peter made up over 50% of them. (I will never understand how Hungarian Adassniks of yesteryear and today chose Peter of all names!). I think that was the Adass of the Germans and Oberlanders. Today it’s the world of Chassidim.

It is with this that I come to Rav Ya’akov Emden who is universally acclaimed as an outstanding Talmid Chacham. The son of the famed Chacham Tzvi, he didn’t need to even come second to his father. His entire mantra was truth which is why a healthy dose of skepticism had him at loggerheads with R’ Yonasan Eybesheutz. Most will never be told that he wrote an auto-biography. That of itself tells you lots about the man and that he did what he thought was right; not what others were doing “as right”. That Sefer is known as Megilas Sefer. I believe there have been three editions. Why so many editions? Of course, the answer is that people “greater and holier” than Rav Ya’akov Emden censored the Ya’avetz (as he is known) because “it was the right thing to do” and never allowed the whole thing to be printed.

I mentioned it a while ago in a learning hall and one צורבא דרבנן contacted me privately and asked if he could borrow my new english translation. I left it for him to pick up, and I assume he will read it and eventually give it back. Alas, many of my Seforim go walk about because I rely on a faulty memory and end up blaming myself for misplacing.

I got so much out of that Sefer as well as the banned (shock horror) “Making of a Gadol” by the Rosh Yeshivah Harav Noson Kaminestsky as relayed to him by his own father the famed R’ Ya’akov Kaminetzky. (By the way R’ Ya’akov was actually related to very well-known Chassidim from Chabad, and there is a famous picture I had which I can’t put my finger on, with him an Rav Mendel Futerfass and I forget the third)

Why do I write on this topic? Well, we have the “going off the Derech phenomenon”. I’ve read at least one wonderful book on that topic. I don’t believe that the problem is with the kids. The problem is with us. How much אמת do we exude, and when we do, how much אמת do we hide when we don’t allow them to also see חכמה בגויים תאמין. There isn’t one answer. There is a multifaceted approach, and its starts with every kid. They see our faults and they see what’s important to us. Their respect for us and יהדות stems largely from this.

I’m reminded of a story, when then Prime Minister Begin used to come to the USA he visited the Rav,  HaRav Yosef Dov Halevi Soltoveitchik (warning: anyone who calls him JB (especially Lubavitchers) don’t say it near me because I will give you a severe tongue lashing) because Begin’s father was R’ Chaim Brisker’s Shamash (some will try to change this fact, of course). Once Begin felt he wanted to discuss world politics and bounce his views off the Rav. He emerged from his meeting of an hour shaking his head. They asked him “how was the meeting” and he said “this man deeply knows as much if not more about Israeli and American politics than I did”. The Talmidim asked the Rav how he knew such things. He answered  that the prime lesson he learned from his Zayda, R’ Chaim Brisker, and his father R’ Moshe, was: reading the lines of anything be it a Rambam or a mere newspaper, was only half the work. One had to work out the line that was missing that wasn’t written. Consequently, when he read the paper, the Rav used to intuit that which was purposeful elided by reporters and editors and then work out why, and based on this and his genius, develop a view on what the Emes really was.

And here we are today: we have picture books for kids with Moshe Rabenu dressed like someone from B’Nei Brak. What narishkeit is that? Do you think Moshe Rabenu wore boots? I’d say he didn’t. Do you think he wore a turban like hat. I’d say he did. How many people (aside from poosteh Mizrachi) do you see in B’Nei Brak wearing sandals? No, it’s strictly  forbidden. It’s an almost יהרג ואל יעבור

That reminds me of another story. In the days I went to Bombay, Rav Gavriel Holtzberg הי’’ד had one of those questions. None of the remaining Iraqi Jews were Cohanim, and the Bene Yisrael had no Cohanim (especially if you believe they came from another lost tribe). In fact there were no Leviim either. One day, there was an Israeli guy, frum, who was a Cohen (I often had to Duchen on Shabbos and learned the Baghdadi chant by imitating the B’aal Tefilla). The Israeli took of his sandals and the oldest Baghdadi Jew took offence, saying how can one Duchen in bare feet. There was a back and forth, and this Baghdadi Jew who was normally very quiet (he has passed on now, and I have fond memories of his Middos) said they should not have Bircas Cohanim if the Cohen wasn’t wearing socks. Rav Gavriel in a stroke of genius suggested that the Baghdadi Jew give the Israeli Cohen his own socks and the problem would be solved. I will leave the rest to your imagination.

We’ve been taken in by the פרט or purposely erased it.

PA = Patents

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

3 thoughts on “What’s wrong with trusting Rav Ya’akov Emden?”

  1. Rather than “cynic”, I think the work you are looking for is “skeptic” – you are willing to question all but the most basic of assumptions. That there is a God, you do not question. But if someone says, “It’s written in the heilige seforim…”, a red flag goes up, and you ask: “Where?”, “By whom?”, “On what basis”, and so on. You don’t wish to accept things at face value.
    A freilechen Sukkos!


  2. Great post – though I didn’t follow the link between censorship, going off the derech, and ultra-stringent standards. For most people, orthodox censorship, (paraphrasing Rumsfeld), is an “unknown unknown” – they are ignorant of the truth as well as the cover-up thereof, and thus can go on living blissfully.
    *took off his sandals


    1. My point is that ignorance is diminishing. Our world just can’t be hermetic. It’s too technologically advanced and those who think they are hermetically sealed, don’t understand that it’s not if but when. And then, what?


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