Page 194 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 51

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
effectively utilizes the powerful erotic imagery of the text, a
text understood in the rabbinic tradition as a metaphor for
God’s love for Israel, as a literary tool with which he could sharp­
ly criticize American Judaism of his day. The biting edge of
his satire is boldly presented in his commentary’s subtitle: “A
piece of sharp iron from holy writ, in which the
Song of Songs
is used to comment on the state of the Jews in America.”
The literature of learned opposition to modernity, most of
it written in rabbinic Hebrew (with occasional translations or
adaptations into Yiddish) — flourished in nineteenth-century
Europe. There scholars wrote broadsides to counter the influ­
ence of Reform and the Haskalah, and with the advent of po­
litical Zionism at the end of the nineteenth century, many of
these same polemicists turned their “sharp arrows” on the Zi­
onists and what was seen as their attempt to secularize Jewish
life.
Large-scale Jewish emigration to America, and the establish­
ment of new Jewish communities in the large American cities,
brought forth another set of polemical writings. These were
critiques of American Jewish life, and of the sad religious state
of the recent Jewish immigrants to America. They were written
by European rabbis in their attempt to dissuade their co­
religionists from emigrating to the “treifene medina.”3 These
critiques, often embedded in responsa literature or circulated
in the form of open letters to the local Jewish community, were
based on secondhand reports of American life. These often took
the form of letters sent back to Europe by disheartened immi­
grants who were dismayed by the poor state of Jewish knowl­
edge and observance among the immigrant communities of the
large American cities. What struck these observers most force­
fully was that with the move to America, the leadership of Jewish
communities passed from the hands of the rabbinic authorities
into the hands of those financially successful immigrants who
became the new leadership.
3. On the issue o f rabbinic opposition to modernity see A. Hertzberg,
“Treifene Medina: Learned Opposition to Emigration to the United States,”
Proceedings of the Eighth World Congress ofJewish Studies
Panel Sessions/Jewish
History (Jerusalem, 1984).