Sephardim And Ashkenazim
To the Editor:
I read with the greatest interest Professor Heschel’s illuminating and discriminating remarks on “The Two Great Traditions,” that of the Ashkenazim and that of the Sephardim, in his fine article in the May COMMENTARY, and I do not intend now to take issue with his main thesis. But there is a special point of emphasis on which I wish to make a short comment.
Dr. Heschel writes: “In consequence, the modem Ashkenazic Jew, particularly in Central Europe, often came to lose his appreciation of the value of his own original way of life.” It may be worthwhile to quote Leopold Zunz, a prototype of Western Jewry and even a pioneer of moderate Reform, who wrote on this very subject as early as 1845 in his book Zur Geschichte und Literatur: “. . . If that theatre [of Jewish Ashkenazic culture] has been overlooked or treated as a stepchild even by Jewish historians, it was not the brilliance of the Sephardim . . . and not the rareness of certain products of French-Jewish [i.e. Ashkenazic] literature that hindered them from seeing, but it was their reaction against the specifically Jewish character [my italics—E. S.], a reaction which made its impact as a corollary of the Enlightenment. This reaction seemed to me an offensive injustice when I came to issue my Life of Rashi . Later scholars also are beginning to admit this. For it was the German and French Jews who, not having received their original spiritual stimulation from the Arabs, were the chief creators of the national elements of the literature.” (In the phrase “later scholars,” Zunz is referring to Abraham Geiger.)
As to Hermann Cohen’s essay on the Polish Jew, which Professor Heschel quotes as a further testimony for his criticism of later Central European Jewry, two things may be said. Firstly that the general trend of Cohen’s appraisal is a very positive one; he expresses his boundless admiration for the “superhuman power of suffering” of the East European Jew and his sincere regret that the West European Jew did not inherit his full share of the Talmudic dialectics (Juedische Schriften, II, 169, Berlin 1924). And secondly: Franz Rosenzweig, who knew best the personality of the old Cohen, explains his passionate hatred against Spinoza as arising from the difference of temper between “the hot Ashkenazi [Cohen] whose heart was always penetrated by waves of compassion and pity (which affections Spinoza had despised), and the Sephardic late-comer [Spinoza] who had been burned out by the suffering of long generations” (Rosenzweig’s introduction to Cohen’s Juedische Schriften).
It seems to be clear, therefore, that as far as Professor Heschel’s criticism of late Middle European Jewry goes, it was consciously dealt with by prominent spiritual leaders of that Jewry itself, such as Zunz, Geiger, Cohen, and Rosenzweig.
New York City