My Grandfather, Rav Tsair
I almost never think about him. He died when I was about ten, when other supports of a safe childhood were also falling away. The destiny of a young girl loomed just around the corner, with its built-in other-directedness. So I never had to find out how he would have viewed me then.
As long as I knew him, he was the protective frame of my life when I was a child.
Much later, when I was older and employed as an assistant professor of philosophy – when I was sophisticated – I would refer to him jestingly as “the king of the Jews.” Gentile friends sometimes took this literally, even if they were well-educated philosophers. Maybe it gave credence to a belief, carried over from pre-modern times, that Jews were a secret tribe with underground ceremonies, like (in a short story I once read) the “king of the cats.” The latter had a long, black tail that sometimes protruded from his well-cut suit.
When I was in my teens, Jewish boys of my generation had still heard of him. They would react to the discovery that Rav Tsair was my grandfather in one of two ways: by wanting to marry me or by getting sore about it.
What he was to me in my private heart of hearts was another matter: he was a Biblical character. He was how I knew that the Bible was true – essentially.
He had been the chief rabbi of Odessa, had founded a Yeshiva there where he taught some who became influential figures in Jewish scholarship and culture. He was a leading figure in the Hebraic renaissance and himself wrote an excellent classical Hebrew. He had a German doctorate in Judaica. When I knew him he was Professor of Talmud at New York’s Jewish Institute of Religion. A thousand people attended the celebration of his seventieth birthday. Albert Einstein and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter sent greetings. His work is still studied today.
A few years ago, realizing that some of the marvelous stories about him might die with me, I wrote a memoir essay titled “Tales of Rav Tsair.” It was published in Midstream and continues to find readers on academia.edu.
Recently my Israeli first cousin, who now lives in La Jolla, California, prompted me to look into archiving such things of his as might still be in boxes in our Bucks County home. I’ve found out that the Jewish Institute of Religion has merged with Hebrew Union College and that their archives are presently housed in the one facility in Cincinnati, Ohio. Having contacted the archivists there, I’ve been inventorying whatever we have here, prior to getting it properly packaged and mailed to Cincinnati.
In the process, I’ve read some of what has been translated into English or what he himself wrote in English and have begun to see what he was and why his presence imprinted me so deeply. I’ll restate it in my own terms – obviously broad brush and unencumbered by the relevant scholarship.
When Jews lost their last battles with Rome — and, with that loss, political independence and the right to reside in their ancient homeland — they faced decisions about the future: what to do, what to be in their own eyes, how to live on meaningfully, and whether to live on at all instead of allowing themselves to be absorbed into the surrounding cultures and disappear without leaving any aftertrace.
What they actually did seems to me the best of the available options. Briefly, I’ll try to speak for the opinion-shapers who prevailed.
“First, don’t disappear! You made an agreement with God to stay the course! So you haven’t the right to disappear. You are the footprint left by God in actual history. You are the ones who kept the evidence more or less intact, despite the dust of trampling armies. God was really here, on the timeline you shared with contemporaneous cultures — here in places with an address.
“Second, the political defeats have been so devastating that only a deluded people would try at this point to reverse the outcome. We can’t. The ground where we fought still shakes underfoot. So, let’s devote ourselves to reinterpreting and commenting on the records we’ve kept, of our history and its implications. By now Scripture is fixed. But common law and precedent are still evolving. By keeping that commentary current, we can preserve memory, mind, and passion and stay connected to the original timeline. So far, we’ve done our best to stay on the timeline and, on that line, we can still continue.”
That’s how the Jews stayed the course, through the ensuing centuries of misrepresentation and persecution. Till the late nineteenth century, when European Jews thought they beheld the panoramic prospect of a peaceable assimilation. They would treat the lineage of their long past as a “religion” like other religions, meanwhile blending harmoniously into the European cultures that promised careers open to talents. Indeed, with all the talent Jews had, they could construe their very exile as a Jewish mission. Their dispersion had given them the chance to be a “light onto the nations.” To their grateful neighbors, they would bring the ethics of the prophets!
My grandfather understood that the so-called “mission” of exile would be unimpressive to a world that thought sufficiently well of itself not to seek any supposed “light” from Jews who were vastly outnumbered. My grandfather had walked upright through a pogrom. He knew what that mob looked like.
If political independence was the obvious alternative to exile, fear alone could not furnish motivation sufficient to secure it. Even realistic fears can be discounted — psychologized away – till it is too late to act on them. In the Biblical mindset, thought and action don’t occupy separate domains. Exilic Jews, whether secular or believing, had become disproportionately intellectualized. Were there intellectually sound reasons to try to recover that patch of ground where thought and action could coalesce, as they had naturally done in Biblical times? Within the Jewish system of meaning itself, were there foundations deep and solid enough to undergird the Zionist project?
With his Biblical mindset and mastery of Talmudics, my grandfather found that there were.
Against German Higher Criticism, he argued that the Oral Law was not a latter-day excrescence of a culture whose folk vitality had been lost long ago. Rather, as he was able to show, the beginnings of the Oral Law were contemporaneous with the written Bible, evolving in parallel to it. They presupposed and referred to each other, appearing now in the one form, now in the other, as circumstances warranted.
Against the abstract universalism of an exilic “mission,” he argued that the universalism of the prophets was woven warp and woof into the skein of national renewal. Universalism and particularism were not in conflict then. They harmonized as, in everyday experience, they still do.
Insofar as Rav Tsair’s argument was found persuasive, the Talmudists were no longer authorized to retreat from the world into their traditional self-contained seclusion. Nor were the Hebrew-speaking Zionists forced to become merely secular, just to mark themselves off from the quietism of the rabbis.
He made the Bible
and the people who had lived with God
and wrote about it –