Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Diaspora and its other

For the past few weeks, my subway commute reading has been (a photocopy of) Avigdor (Victor) Aptowitzer's last book, Mehkarim be-sifrut ha-Geonim, Jerusalem 1941. In the introduction, the author thanks Yehoshua Horowitz, may he live many long and happy years, who is probably one of Aptowitzer's last students still writing.

Though it is not explicit in the title, the main focus of the book is the question of "Torat Erets Yisrael". Was the land of Israel, in the post-Talmudic era, a viable alternative to the vibrant Jewish civilization in Babylonia, or was it a poor and pathetic remnant of its former glory, hopelessly superseded by the Diaspora?

This is an interesting question. But in the 1930s, it was a question with some urgency for several scholars. People like Jacob Nahum Epstein and Benjamin Menashe Lewin, who had emigrated to Palestine and were attempting to build up a reputation for the fledgling academic community there as a serious contender in the field of critical Jewish studies, saw this question as crucial. For them, proving that rabbinic creativity existed in the land of Israel in the seventh century would also prove its viability in the twentieth century.

This need, combined with the as-yet largely untapped expanses of the Cairo Genizah, created a heady atmosphere of discovery. Whenever a fragment was found that was not clearly identifiable as being from a Babylonian Gaon, from an extant midrash, from a published work, the possibility of it being an unknown book from Erets Yisrael was raised.

In the very first issue of Tarbits, the scholarly organ of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Hebrew University (which it actually predated), BM Lewin published a Geniza fragment he had found, and identified it as the first known specimen of the Ma'asim li-Vnei Erets Yisrael. This name, as he made clear at the outset, was all that was known of this book. Rav Hayya Gaon (in a responsum preserved in R. Isaiah of Trani's book, the Makhria) was asked about a certain halakhah, which the questioner had seen somewhere. The Gaon responded that he had never seen anything like it, but perhaps the source was the Ma'asim - perhaps, because he had never seen such a book either.

The halakhah quoted in the question was to be found in the fragment that Lewin published. Therefore, he deduced, this was indeed the book Rav Hayya had heard about. Lewin went on to show that other laws in his fragment were to be found in the Pardes and in Ma'ase ha-Geonim, two early medieval books written in Europe, but believed to contain much unidentified Geonic material. The Ma'asim, according to his reconstruction, was a full-fledged Halakhic code, compiled in the Land of Israel somewhere around the Arab conquest, in the seventh century. It had a special vocabulary, with a high proportion of Greek loanwords, and its halakhic sources were exclusively Palestinian, with no trace of the Babylonian Talmud.

Lewin's discovery started a trend, and the subsequent issues of Tarbits carried several more articles with revelations of the Ma'asim. After a while, these petered out, though several more fragments have been found and published in the decades since. But none of the subsequent finds was as satisfying an example, as pristine in its ignorance of Babylonian sources or as closely linked to our independent knowledge about the Ma'asim, as that first fragment.

Aptowitzer arrived in Palestine in 1938, a refugee from Nazi Austria. His arrival was arranged by his colleagues at Hebrew University. His book was published, with the help of E. E. Urbach and Yehoshua Horowitz, in 1941, and he died in 1943.

It is striking how focused Aptowitzer's book is. He had expressed his reservations about the significance of the Ma'asim in an earlier article (published in Tarbits 4). So it was not a surprise to find a chapter demonstrating that the fragments published as Ma'asim were in fact a later compilation, incorporating different sources, some Palestinian, some Babylonian. But in the first chapters of the book, he sets his sights on any and every suggestion of halakhic activity in the land of Israel after the Talmud. Responsa long known and discussed, found in the Geonic collection Sha'are Tsedek under the title "Teshuvot Erets Yisrael" were, according to Aptowitzer, letters sent from Babylonia to the land of Israel. Other sources cited as being from Israel were simply corrupted, mistaken, unsubstantiated. Some works (Baraita de-masekhet Niddah) were even forged! Even the notion that fines were awarded in Palestine in the post-Talmudic period - a seemingly innocuous idea that rests upon the assumption that Palestine retained special legal status and authority at the time - needed to be rejected. So to for aggadic works that are normally believed to have all been composed in Palestine.

This tendency was, of course, unmistakeable, and Prof. Simcha Assaf, in reviewing the book (Kiryat Sefer 18, 1941-1942) called him on it. But he ended with wishing Aptowitzer all the best and much productive time in his new home in the Holy Land.

[For more on this, see Jacob Sussman's astute appreciation of Aptowitzer in Jewish Studies 35 (1995), p. 90]

So I have to assume that this lashing out was Aptowitzer's attempt to find his place in this new environment. He was a latecomer, with his roots and his students on a different continent. And his true love lay there as well - his gravestone titles him "publisher of the Ra'avya", R Eliezer ben Yoel Halevi of Bonne.

[As another aside, a similar exchange seems to have taken place between Haym Soloveitchik and Israeli scholars - Avraham Grossman and Israel Ta-Shema z"l - over the role of Palestinian sources and traditions in Ashkenazic halakhah]

An unsettling thought for me, a newcomer, an (Englishman) [Australian-Israeli] in New York.