Friday, November 25, 2011

Hungarian Responsa Studies (book review)

תשובות ושאלות
Studies in Responsa Literature, ed. Viktoria Banyai and Szonja Rahel Komoroczy, Budapest 2011

It is rare to hear of a new scholarly volume entirely devoted to Halakhic responsa (or, indeed, to any aspect of post-Talmudic Halakhah). So I was fascinated by the very existence of 'Studies in Responsa Literature'. It is a collection of studies by scholars affiliated (at present or in the past) with the Center of Jewish Studies at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. According to the introduction, the volume reflects the sustained interest in responsa that the students and teachers at the Center have maintained over the past several years. That institutional focus on responsa is also noteworthy. Responsa literature is so rich and multivalent that a concerted approach by different scholars with different interests makes a lot of sense. It also makes for a rewarding reading experience, going through a volume with multiple authors but with a fairly unified topic.

The first article in the volume is by Tamas (Sinai) Turan, who has made his mark in Budapest and in Jerusalem. The title is 'Terse Analogical Reasoning in Responsa Literature: Four Medieval Examples', but despite all that detail, it doesn't really explain the point of this deeply learned article. Taking examples from early medieval responsa (Geonim, Rashi, Maimonides, Tosafists), Turan shows how declarative statements by the rabbinic respondents often mask a more complicated Halakhic reality. He suggests that the text of the responsum often serves a rhetorical purpose, and that the actual Halakhic rationale employed by the rabbi may be hidden from view.

Dora Zsom has recently several articles recently (in the Hispania Judaica Bulletin) on rabbinic attitudes towards Jewish converts to Christianity in late medieval Spain and its diaspora. Here she discusses the central role that these converts played in the kosher wine trade in Spain, Majorca and North Africa, and the changing attitudes taken by the rabbis of the Duran family.

That's it for the medieval responsa. Geza Komoroczy discusses a responsum by Hakham Zvi about events in Budapest during the 1686 siege. His contention is that the person discussed in the responsum - whose wife and daughter were killed by a "bomba" during the siege - is actually Hakham Zvi himself, and draws grim conclusions from this about the rabbi's integrity. But, as far as I can see, the only basis for this identification is that, in describing his own flight from the city in 1686, Hakham Zvi mentioned losing 'my books and my dearest beloved', which is how Komoroczy translates the Hebrew and inteprets the 'dearest beloved' as being his wife and daughter. But the Hebrew term he translated is מחמדי הטובים, which can refer to prized possessions, maybe nice clothes like those of Esau, but I can't imagine a man referring that way to his dead wife and child. Without that, the whole identification falls apart.

Viktoria Banyai points to the potential use of Rabbi Yehezkel Landau's responsa (including some recently published manuscripts) for the study of Jewish history in Hungary. It's a short article and quite focused. But a lot of significant research has been done on the Noda bi-Yehudah recently (by Sharon Flatto and Maoz Kahana - others too?). Hopefully, these different scholarly strands will come together.

Szonja Rahel Komoroczy writes a fascinating analysis of R Hillel Lichtenstein's belief in the importance of Yiddish as a Jewish language, as the only language that Jews should speak. Besides studying several of his responsa and sermons, she points to the impact that this attitude had on the print history of Hungarian Jewry.

The last three articles in the book discuss Holocaust-era responsa and Halakhic discussions. Because the Nazis reached Hungary at a late stage in World War II, the communities there had the opportunity to consider the Halakhic ramifications of the tragedy enveloping them, and many of those responsa have been published over the past few decades.

I hope that the Center in Budapest continues to study responsa, and to publish its findings in English.