Commentary Magazine

Litvak vs. Galitzianer

To the Editor:

In these sad times of communal strife in Europe, the Middle East, and even Canada, I suppose it was inevitable that some irresponsible person should revive the ancient feud between the Litvak and the Galitzianer. Make no mistake about it: Chaim Raphael’s piece, “The Litvak Connection and Hasidic Chic” [May], may well have been but an opening salvo. Though masquerading as a celebration of imaginary Litvak virtues, it is in fact a massive onslaught on everything that we, Hasidim and Galitzianer, hold dear. Centuries of melancholy experience have taught us that it is futile to argue with a Litvak, because the Litvak is driven not by his allegedly Cartesian mind, but by burning envy. To put it bluntly: we, Galitzianer and Hasidim, have soul; they don’t.

There was a time, I concede, when some of us simplistically lumped together all Litvaks on the principle that once a Litvak, always a Litvak. We now know that one is not born a Litvak, but rather, as a result of deficient upbringing, stoops to that condition. Mr. Raphael’s “logic” is a case in point: to him, Chaim Weizmann, who, by his own admission, never set foot in a Litvak yeshivah, is said to have embodied for some reason its quintessential values.

That Professor Ben-Sasson is really a Litvak is, conversely, more than obvious, though not for the reason deduced by Mr. Raphael. Church Fathers the Professor quotes, and in Latin yet. There was a time when any Galitzianer (let alone a Hasid) would tell you that the attraction to medieval Catholic scholasticism is indeed a prime attribute of the Litvak tsaylemkop [casuist].

Myself a descendant of Hasidim of Belz and a proud Galitzianer, I gird my loins with a gartl [belt] and stand ready to defend the honor of my heritage. As they used to say in my Hasidic shtibl [prayer-house] on Rue des Rosiers: Ils ne passeront pas.

Maurice Friedberg
University of Illinois
Urbana, Illinois



Chaim Raphael writes:

Happy the Litvak who rouses the Galitzianer from his lair. Doubly so in rousing Maurice Friedberg, who, with his lively wit, demonstrates the point I tried to establish in my article: that there is nothing necessarily or permanently disabling in having been born a Hasid. One can emerge from it, as Bialik and Berdichevski did, trailing clouds of Hasidic soul, but open to the wider influences of intellect, reality, and irony which have made the Litvak tradition the abiding force in Jewish life.

It is precisely because Chaim Weizmann embodied the quintessential Litvak qualities without having set foot in a Litvak yeshivah that I took him as a symbol. The heritage forged at Volozhyn lives on among all Jews whose minds are open equally to the ideas and stimuli of the world around them and the deepening of their consciousness as Jews. The common quality is to be open-minded. As one looks back through history one sees the Litvak as both serious and perplexed. He is fully aware that there are no final answers, but this will never distract him from the search.

Sir Isaiah Berlin, in a notable study, said of Weizmann: “Obsessed and lopsided natures repelled him: he was contemptuous of addiction to doctrine and theory without constant concrete contact with empirical reality.” Aharon Katzir, the scientist-brother of the current President of Israel, depicted Weizmann as a “whole man,” whose scientific approach was an “operational philosophy” of life. Men like Weizmann, he wrote, “forgo the pleasures of children’s dreams and are ready to grapple with reality directly. [He had] an open-minded approach, always capable of change in the light of current critical experience.” One longs for Litvaks like this (wherever they were born) in the seats of power today.

Not that Litvaks are comfortable people to have around. They want to get things done, and are painfully aware that nothing much will happen until everybody gets cracking in the Litvak manner. “Please get up a little Litwische Stimmung,” Weizmann wrote to Harry Sacher, one of his supporters, during the pre-Balfour Declaration struggle. Sacher, in a commemorative essay, said of Weizmann’s famous wit: “It was not without a tinge of acid. He could, on the appropriate occasion, convert a pretension to ridicule by a biting phrase or epithet.”

In these terms, it seems that there might be room among us for Mr. Friedberg. He handles epithets nicely: and one Galitzianer who repents is worth more (in the rabbinic view) than an innocent Litvak who has never been tempted to wear a gartl. As if to prove how wide open the gates are, one need only recall that the man closest to Weizmann’s heart was Shmarya Levin, whose father was a Litvak but whose mother was a Hasid.

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