Thursday, April 8, 2021

Heroes of Learning


Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
October 2000


In the September 2000 column I talked about knowledge and a definition of learning. This month I want to share some personal thoughts on heroes of Jewish learning.

Heroes of Learning

Rabbis of the Talmud -- Collectively the rabbis and the teachers recorded in the Talmud bridged the gap between the written Torah and everyday life. They mastered both the physical sciences and the social sciences of their day. They understood that law was more than a written commandment. Understanding the law involved an understanding of the physical world and the social, political and economic conditions of the people. The Talmud contains more than one opinion on many topics. Sometimes we choose one opinion as better; sometimes both or all three answers are right. Because of the scope of Talmudic knowledge, we learn that no one has a monopoly on truth, justice, or understanding of the neshama (soul).

Saadia ben Yosef Gaon (882-942) was born in Egypt and served as the leader of the Babylonian Jewish community. In His time Babylonia was the most important Jewish community in the world. In 921 Saadia disputed Aaron Ben-Meir was to the starting day for Pesah. Ben-Meir, head of the Jerusalem academy, said Pesah would start on Tuesday that year. Saadia and his followers said, Thursday, and his dismissed the halakhic arguments of Ben-Meir. Saadia eventually won as he  established both his interpretation of the calendar and the importance of the Babylonian academies. Saadia translated the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) into Arabic, both for the Arabic speaking Jews and the Arabs. He used Arabic characters for the Bible though most of his Arabic works and the works of other scholars of his time were in Arabic with Hebrew characters. His polemics against the Karaites further enhanced Rabbinic Jewry. No fewer than 49 works were written by Karaites against Saadia. In his Emunot ve-De'ot Saadia writes the first comprehensive work on the fundamental problems in Jewish philosophy. This work deeply influenced all later Jewish philosophers.

The editing of the Siddur is his most important influence on our lives because it affects us every single time we pray. His Siddur was not the first and he did not author the prayers. He codified the customs of his time, used his judgment in selecting between various texts and explained what he did. He comments on and explains both the prayers and the selection process. His Siddur had only one preserved manuscript and was published in 1941. In the preparation of the Siddur for publication the editor consulted fragments found in the Cairo Genizah. In my study of prayer, I have frequently consulted this work.(1) Saadia's work and influence are of monumental importance in establishing the Jewish people as "People of the book"

Solomon Schechter (probably in December 1850-1915) was born in Focsani, Romania. He received his early education from his father, a Habad Hasid from Russia, who was a shohet. Schechter was named in Hebrew Shneur Zalman after the Lubavitcher rebbe. The unusually

gifted boy learned to read Hebrew by age three and by five mastered Humash. He went to a yeshiva in Piatra at age ten and at age thirteen studied with one the greatest Talmudic authorities, Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathanson of Lemberg. He acquired his life-long devotion to the scientific study of Judaism and its sources while learning at the University of Berlin and the Hochschuler für des Wissenschaft des Judenthums. In 1879 he went to England and eventually became professor of Hebrew at University College, London. In 1887 he published an edition of Abot de-Rabbi Nathan, an important Talmudic book, included in most Talmud editions, but its text had suffered from non-learned copyists. Schechter read through many manuscripts and compared the texts with Greek translations and quotations found in other books. This volume put Schechter in the front ranks of Jewish scholars.

His fame was established when he made possible the scholarly study of the manuscripts in the Cairo Genizah. This discovery started a series of events in Jewish learning that continue until this day. Among them is the rediscovery of the Hebrew texts of books previously known only in translation. For example, the Hebrew original of Ben Sira was published in 1899. His Saadyana changed our understanding of Saadia ben Joseph and his period of history.

Dr. Schechter's contributions to positive-historical Judaism led directly to the study of Judaism at the university level. The founding of Yeshiva University more than ten years after Dr. Schechter's death and the departments of Judaica on college campuses are directly related to Schechter's learning, belief in the universality of the message of Judaism (an early Lubavitch missionary?), leadership and personal charisma.(2)

Alexander Dushkin (1890-1976) was born in Suwalki, Poland and came to the United States in 1901. In 1910 he was part of a program of the New York Kehillah to provide planning and

direction to the great chaos to the growing mass of New York Jewry. He started a training program at Teacher's College in New York City that led to his earning the first American Ph.D. on a Jewish education theme. This thesis was published as, Jewish education in New York City, New York, Bureau of Jewish Education, 1918. One idea he advocated was for bright children to be sent to Jewish day schools and trained for Jewish leadership.

Dushkin's most important idea was the Jewish summer camp. This was a new venture in Jewish education. He was associated with Camp Modin from 1921 to 1942. Albert Schoolman had already started Cejwin Camps as community summer camps for children of the Jewish "masses." Upper-middle class Jewish parents were sending their children to private summer camps as a "proper" vacation for their children. The first summer, 1922, had 45 boys. The second year had 110 boys and ten girls. Some of the early campers went on to start camps of their own. All the current Zionist and Jewish educational camps can find their roots in the work that Dushkin did at Camp Modin.

Space limits what I can say about his time serving the Board of Jewish Education of Chicago, the Jewish Education Committee of New York and the Hebrew University. He was important as a leader and philosopher. One of his major goals was to make sure that Jewish education is a communal responsibility. He believed in pluralism and stressed the need to find common goals and values. While I was a student in Jerusalem, I heard him speak once in 1970 and he immediately became one of my heroes of learning.(3)


1. For more on Saadia ben Joseph see: Essays in Jewish Biography, by Alexander Marx. Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1947; Encyclopedia Judaica "Saadia Gaon" vol. 14, col. 543-555; and Saadia Gaon, his life and works / by Henry Malter. Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1921.

2. For more information see: Giants of faith: great American rabbis / by Alex J. Goldman. New York, Citadel Press, 1964; Essays in Jewish Biography, by Alexander Marx. Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1947; Solomon Schechter / by Norman Bentwich. Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1938.

3. For more information see: Living bridges: memoirs of an educator, by Alexander Dushkin, Jerusalem, Keter Publishing House, 1975.

©2004  by  Daniel D. Stuhlman. All rights reserved.
Last revised April 8, 2021    CRC35

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