Originally published in JJSO 25:1 (1983), pp. 68-9.
Chaim Raphael, The Springs of Jewish Life, v + 288 pp., Basic Books, New York, 1982, $16.50.
When David Hume asked a man, who was reading philosophy for the first time, how he was getting on with his studies, the man replied: ‘I am persevering but cheerfulness keeps breaking in’. Chaim Raphael, impatient with what Salo Baron calls the lachrymose view of Jewish history, seeks to describe why it has been and still is a joy to be Jewish. He even considered calling his book A Cheerful Look at Jewish History but changed his mind because a deeper question has to asked: What is the source of this Jewish courage and the Jewish will to live forged in antiquity and kept alive today? The answer is explored in this lively interpretation of the whole of Jewish history with the author’s uncanny skill for mining the quarries of scholarship and presenting the gold he finds there for the enjoyment and education of the non-specialist. His aim is to take in Jewish history ‘in a way that can be sad without self-pity, involved without megalomania, proud—that is the hardest part—without vainglory’ (p. 5). He believes that ‘the story is far too long, too full of contradictions, too varied in tone to be summarized as expressing some set purpose either of God or man’.
It would be grossly unfair to fault an impressionistic work for being too categorical in areas where there is controversy or for the occasional generalization. It is precisely to the author’s broad sweep that the book owes its charm. Nevertheless, it is perhaps worth pointing out one or two statements open to question. There is, when dealing with the Rabbinic period, a tendency to relegate odd tales and sayings to the realm of folklore. This is not always the case. When, for instance, the Talmud tells of the rabbi who by the utterance of a magic word filled a whole field with cucumbers, this is not, in the context, a mere fanciful legend (p. 77) but part of an Halakhic discussion on the right of the rabbis to practise magic for the purpose of teaching their disciples the ways of the magicians so that, as judges, they can decide on cases of magic coming before them. We may consider it to be a legend but the rabbis themselves took it as sober fact.
The impression is given (pp. 176-77) that, from the third century, there was a one-way flow of scholars from Palestine to Babylon and that the Babylonian Talmud consists only of the discussions of the Babylonian teachers. In fact, there was a two-way traffic, at least the same number of scholars emigrating from Babylon to Palestine, and the Babylonian Talmud consists of the discussions of the Palestinian teachers as well as the Babylonian—just as the Palestinian Talmud contains the discussions of some of the Babylonians. In other words, how the Talmud came to be is an extremely complicated problem, still awaiting its solution, and Chaim Raphael is right to call it ‘a mysterious work’. It can hardly be said (p. 242) that the opposition of the Vilna Gaon to Hassidism was because he urged the importance of rational study and responsible judgement, foreshadowing the gap in approach between the rational and the mystical. The Vilna Gaon himself was a Kabbalist. Among other reasons, he opposed Hassidism on theological grounds, concerning divine providence and immanence and the respective roles of Torah study and prayer in the religious life. A man who in his early youth thought of creating a golem and who went from his home in voluntary exile in order to share the pain of the Shekhinah cannot fairly be described as a rationalist even in a limited sense.
Other readers will no doubt be stimulated to take up other points with the author but from the tenor of this book and from what one knows of Chaim Raphael, he will be hugely pleased that his work has promoted further debate.