Letters from my grandfather, Louis Finkelstein

These are excerpts of general interest in letters that I received from my grandfather, Louis Finkelstein. I have omitted purely personal material. Expressions in square brackets are editorial.
-- Ernie Davis

September 17, 1972

... Within a short time, as Time goes, you will ... have to make one of the two choices which one has to make in one's youth, and which, next to one's parentage, one's environment, and one's companions (who may be included in environment) are determining factors not only in one's life, but even in the development of one's personality. And they are the only two, which are really choices. The rest are given, or almost so.

... [W]ell may all of us, in this generation celebrate. Not only do we live in a period, which is not an ice age (what would we do, if it were), but as Americans we are among the privileged 200,000,000 of the three billion people who fill and replenish the earth; and as Jews, we have a tradition, which turns us to creative, intellectual pursuits which after all are the mark of Man. "In this world, there is nothing great but man. In man, there is nothing great but Mind."

On this Eve of Yom Kippur, I do not know how to be sufficiently thankful for the blessings which have come to me in my forebears, including my parents, who dared brave adventure into an unknown world, coming to America from Lithuania, without knowledge of the English language, or any idea of what they were going to do ... So my prayers on Yom Kippur will be for the welfare and wisdom of my descendants (as of everyone else; but one may pray for one's kindred with especial intensity).

March 7, 1974

I am sending you separately a copy of Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages, where you will find a number of references to the custom of stopping the services by one who felt aggrieved and could obtain no relief from the established authorities. Apparently, the custom was so well established that some limitations had to be put on it. There are more references to it, if I remember correctly, in Israel Abrahams Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. The custom is referred to in Jewish Self-Government on pp. 15ff.; and elsewhere as indicated in the Index under Interrupting the Prayers. The custom was still followed in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the century; and I know of at least one occasion when someone resorted to it in this country. I will tell you about it when we meet.

[My uncle Ezra says that my grandfather's mother threatened to interrupt the service at his father's shul to complain that his father's salary had not been paid; she came into the men's section and threatened to mount the Bimah. The officers were sufficiently alarmed that they assured her that they would take care of it as soon as Shabbas was over.]

April 17, 1974

[The article discussed in this letter is my grandfather's article ``The Oldest Midrash: Pre-Rabbinic Ideals and Teaching in the Passover Haggadah'' included in his collection Pharisaism in the Making.]

The word ``Egyptophile'' in the article you mention was an error. The high priests had no choice but to side with the Egyptians, who were their overlords. When in 242 B.C.E. the high priest, Onias II (the father and predecessor of Simeon the Just) did not show sufficient enthusiasm for the Egyptians and failed to pay his tribute in time, much of his civil authority was taken away from him, and given to a man called Joseph b. Tobish. But that part of the Haggadah seems to be definitely slanted toward appeasement of the Egyptians. This was, of course, particularly necessary, because Passover was a celebration of the emancipation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.

On the other hand, it was not necessary for the Jews in Egypt to become assimilated either with the natives or with the Greeks. The Greek rules did not particularly care about admitting the Jews into their ranks; and during the early Ptolemaic period, the status of Jews in Egypt was above that of the native Egyptians. Nor could the Egyptian overlords object to the high priest trying to discourage Jews from emigrating and settling in Egypt. The Ptolemies did, I believe, force some Jews to enter their armies, and in that way brought them to Egypt. Noting in the Midrash was intended to discourage that practice. Such people were emigrating ``under compulsion'' precisely as Jacob had.

Writing in the 1940's, I may have read into the Midrash more than what is there, when I thought that the author's complaint against Pharaoh could be a disguised complaint agains the contemporary Egyptian king. On the other hand, during the Nazi period, Jewish preachers in Germany used to give sermons denouncing the Babylonians and the Assyrians, when the whole congregation knew they meant the Nazis; but the Nazi spy could not find anything tangible to report to the Gestapo. Something like that was done by the amoraim when they denounced Esau, meaning Rome; and by preachers in Tsarist Russia, when they used Esau as a symbol for the Tsars.

While a nascent nationalist movement existed among the Jews, in all probability, even under the Egyptian rule, I now believe that the interpretation of ``the sword'' as referring to it was an error. However, if that is the correct interpretation, it may have been added when the nationalist movement flowered under the Hasmoneans.

September 15, 1974

I hope that the New Year ... will usher in years of peace and happiness for the world; perhaps one should say an era of peace and happiness for the world. That will include Israel, of course. The prayer on Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur for the coming of the Divine Kingdom, when all men will be one society, seems to me one of the most moving in the whole prayer book. When, oh when, will this happen?

When one sees how hard the few forward looking European statesmen are finding it to unite even Western Europe, one begins to perceive the magnitude and scope of the real task and aspiration. But I hope it will happen in your day.

September 9, 1975

The other day, Prof. Moshe Ettenberg, the husband of Sylvia Ettenberg, who is dean of our education department at the Seminary, tried to give me the gist of a lecture by a Professor Wheeler of Princeton, who is apparently a famous physicist, and an authority on the theory of Relativity. At a meeting of scientists and philosophers, Prof. Wheeler asked the question, ``Why was man created?'' and he replied in a long speech, proving that man is the necessary reason for the Universe's existence, and proving the point with a lot of physics which was way above my head ...

However, the fact that a distinguished scientist raised the question at all and everybody (according to Moshe Ettenberg) was interested may be a straw in the wind, and the paper or speech may have an importance beyond its contents which seem to me important enough.

May 22, 1977

Now for the problem of עושה השלום . That was the regular ending of the blessing according to the Palestinian ritual in the amidah of every day. It was taken over by many communities of the Diaspora for ראש השנה and יום כיפור for a peculiar reason.

The standard prayers came to Babylonia (and from it to the whole Diaspora) from ancient Palestine, of course. When they were introduced in Babylonia, while the texts of the various paragraphs of the amidah were sometimes changed, for there was no absolute rule about them, the benedictions at the end of each paragraph were retained (with some slight deviations in a few instances). All this must have happened about the time of the Hasmoneans or even earlier.

However, in Palestine the hazzan was permitted to substitute his own compositions (or piyyutim) for the standard prayers, in accordance with the view of R. Joshua in Mishna Berakot 4.3 that one need only recite prayers along the general lines of the prescribed amidah; or according to R. Eliezer ibid 4.4 that there was no standard form at all. So for Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur (and afterward for intervening days), instead of the regular texts of the amidah there were often said the prayers which we now insert into the blessing, i.e. זכרנו , מי כמוך , וכתוב , and בספר but which originally in Palestine replaced them.

Whenever a benediction followed such insertions, the people of the Diaspora added the Palestinian form of the benediction. Since בספר חיים וכו came from Palestine (about the third century C.E.) and it had always ended with עושה השלום the people of the Diaspora said עושה השלום after it.

In the same way, in the first blessing after the Shema both morning and evening when piyyutim were said, the Palestinian form of the benediction (which was not גאל ישראל but צור ישראל וגאלו ) came to be used in the Diaspora on those days and on the three festivals, as can be seen in any מחזור

When the priestly blessing was introduced in Babylonia for the festivals*, they also substituted the Palestinian prayer for abodah for their own and ended with the benediction שאותך לבדך ביראה נעבוד instead of המחזיר שכינתו לציון as can be seen from any mahzor and is customary. The form שאותך לבדך ביראה נעבוד is a variant of שאותך ביראה נעבוד used in Palestine every day.

All this we know from the Yerushalmi and the Palestinian midrashim as well as from the Genizah mss. of the Palestinian service, which have now come to light.

I hope I have managed to make it all clear. It seems complicated, but really is not.

* They had been saying the whole amidah but apparently until the second or third centuries C.E., did not pronounce [? hard to read] priestly blessings outside the Land of Israel. R. Elijah Gaon objected to the use of עושה השלום on ראש השנה etc.; and his custom is now followed in Israel, I believe, where they say המברך את עמו ישראל even in the Ten Days of Repentance.

September 10, 1978

When I awoke this morning, I recalled the explanation of the end of the Mishna [2:5] in Aboda Zara. R. Joshua had asked R. Ishmael היאך אתה קורא i.e. how do you punctuate this sentence [Song of Songs, 1:2]. Is it with a מרכא on דודיך or a טפחא i.e. do you stop after דודיך or after טובים ? R. Ishmael said that he read it that is, your caresses are good if they come from the wine --- the wine of the Torah. R. Joshua explained that one stops after דודיך because the words of the Sages are better than the wine of the Torah. And the proof is that in the next verse the טפחא or stop is on שמניך . As one reads so one must read The explanation of לריח שמניך טובים is not made explicit; but doubtless it is in turn illuminated by the preceding כי טובים דודיך מיין . The odor of the perfume represents the teachings of the Sages; and it is good.

[My grandfather wrote mercha on l'reach, tipcha on shmanecha, as above, but that is not correct; the actual trop in the Masoretic text is

It has been suggested to me that the interpretation of the Mishna presented in this letter is originally that of the Vilna Gaon. However, I have not been able to locate the passage in the writings of the Gaon, and I no longer remember the conversation of the previous day with my grandfather, where that would have been explained.]

June 16, 1981

[These are emendations to my first draft of the story of the Chofetz Chaim and Shabbas together with some more information about R. Kalmanowitz.]

On p. 2, the name of the rabbi was Rabbi Abraham Kalmanovitz. He was the representative of the yeshiva of Mir in this country in the twenties. He was a brilliant orator, and it was he who persuaded the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, to convince President Roosevelt to get the Russians to give transit visas first to the students of the yeshiva at Mir and then to thousands of others, enabling them to pass through Russia and on to Japan.[*] The Japanese had never had a consul in Kovno. Suddenly during the war one appeared [this was Chiune Sugihara] , and just in time to enable the yeshiva students to take advantage of it. He was really a spy sent by the Japanese, who did not trust the Germans to watch their military movements. However, the yeshiva students considered his coming a miracle, for he gave them the transit visas to Japan, on the theory that they could go on to Curacao, which did not require visas from immigrants. The rule in Curacao was that the government issued an admission certificate. However, the issue never arose, because the refugees were stranded in Japan for lack of funds to go to Curacao. They were ultimately moved to Shanghai, and I will tell you the rest when we meet.

On. p. 3 "don't kill yourself" is too strong an expression. What the man said was "I didn't know it was a matter of life and death".

On . 4, obviously the Chofetz Chaim had been in the company of many people who had observed the Sabbath meticulously. What he said was that "almost anybody will find himself unwittingly transgressing some detail of the Sabbath law some time". On the same page, I suppose you might as well call the woman Sarah Leah. Her name was Shana Malka. Also on the same page, the yeshiva which the man was to see was not Vilna but Mir. On p. 5, I think you have to be very careful in your reference to the disputes of the rabbis about the laws of purity. It will not do for any reader to think that because of the disagreement which I described to you, the laws of purity are not to be taken as seriously as possible.

The rest is excellent.

*[My grandfather's letter is somewhat confused here, perhaps because it was dictated. The true story, from The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy, Jewish Professional Institute, is as follows:

The yeshivah's president, Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz (1891-1965) had found his way to America and devised means to channel financial support to his institution in the Far East [Shanghai] This was no easy task after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Shapiro has written that the American people were bitter against the Japanese, as thousands of Americans were dying in battle against them. It was in this "negative climate of opinion" that the elderly Rabbi Kalmanowitz searched for avenues to send large sume of money to his yeshivah surrounded by Japanese controlled terrain. He arranged to see Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. and a curious dilemma presented itself. How could an old rabbi with a limited English vocabulary explain to an assimilated Jew that he too suffered a "Pearl Harbor", that his "children," the Torah scholars of Mir, were starving and endangered in Japanese captivity? While presenting his case, Rabbi Kalmanowitz fainted. That "broke the ice", a rapport was established, and eventually Morgenthau found the means to allow the funds out of America.

I remember my grandfather telling me this story. He added that someone he knew had overheard Kalmanovitz speaking to an associate on the way out of this meeting, and asking, ``Ich hab' gut gechalasht?" (Did I faint well?)]