Super Rabbi

Rabbi Yehezkel Landau (1713-1793) is one of the most fascinating characters in Jewish history and in the history of halakhah. He was involved in a number of major controversies affecting eighteenth-century European Jewry: the Emden-Eybeschutz controversy, attempts to purge Frankist and Sabbatean elements from Jewish communities, the Cleves get controversy and several other high-profile cases of agunot, divorce, and adultery. Mori Ve-Rabi, Rabbi Dr. Dovid Katz (he was my [Elli’s] first Jewish history teacher, in high school, 25+ years ago), demonstrates in his dissertation that it would me more correct to say that he inserted himself into these controversies, even while he was still a young prodigy studying in the Brody kloyz.

The masterful book by Mori Ve-Rabi Dr. Maoz Kahana (my [Elli’s] thesis adviser) analyzes Rabbi Landau’s return to the Talmud, its commentaries, and the classic halakhic codes both as an intellectual movement toward halakhic purism and empiricism – a movement that Kahana traces to the Brody kloyz – purged of the mystical practices and folk traditions that had accreted to the body of halakhah over the centuries (comparable to the movement of his contemporary, the Vilna Gaon), and as a pragmatic matter: by marginalizing the role of mysticism in halakhah, he could be more tolerant of those who studied mystical tracts and espoused mystical notions that were suspected of containing heretical elements, as long as such notions did not bleed into practice. Kahana’s work demonstrates the dynamism of Jewish intellectual currents in the eighteenth century, thus upending the prevailing view, primarily associated with Jacob Katz, that a relatively stable “traditional” Jewish society underwent a “crisis” beginning with the rise of the Berlin Haskalah in the last decades of the eighteenth century. It turns out that the preceding stability was not so stable after all, and elements of crisis emerged well before the Berlin Haskalah did. This implies a call for a revisionist view of modern Jewish history, one that will pay closer attention to the phenomenal Jewish creativity in the early modern period; Rabbi Landau is thus a key figure in this revision.

We should note that there is yet another scholarly treatment of Rabbi Landau’s career to be published recently: Prof. Sharon Flatto’s dissertation and book. We concede that we have yet read her work; however, the fact that Rabbi Landau is the subject of three doctoral dissertations over the past fifteen years or do indicates that he is getting his recognition as a major player in Jewish intellectual history.

Rabbi Landau was a prolific writer. We have his commentaries on the Talmud (Tziyun La-nefesh Hayah) and on Shulhan Arukh (Dagul Me-revava), numerous sermons and homilies, and, of course, his responsa, Noda Bi-Yehudah. The titles he gave to his halakhic works, which translated as “known in Judah” (based on Tehilim 76:2) and “preeminent among ten thousand” (Shir Ha-shirim 5:10) – both of which, incidentally, describe God Himself in their original contexts – exhibit no small amount of self-esteem and support Katz’s thesis that Rabbi Landau actively sought to bolster his reputation across the Jewish world.

The first volume of Noda Bi-Yehuda was published in 1776, during Rabbi Landau’s lifetime. It contains 276 responsa. The second volume was published posthumously by his son Shmuel in 1810. It contains 580 responsa, of which over 60 were written by Shmuel Landau, not his father. Almost all of the responsa in the second volume were written after the publication of the first. That is, volumes 1 and 2 represent distinct parts of his career. So when we mapped Noda Bi-Yehudah, we built in a tool that allows for a comparison between the first and second volumes. To be sure, there is evidence that a number of Rabbi Landau’s responsa were stolen during the course of a fire in 1775 (see p. 21 of Katz’s dissertation, n. 54), so volume 1 might not give an accurate portrayal of his sphere of influence during the early part of his career. Of course, as we have noted, published responsa are always curated and edited, so we must be careful whenever we map. That said, there’s something very counter-intuitive that emerges here:

Volume 1 of Noda Bi-Yehudah is scattered across a wider geographic area than Volume 2, even though it contains only about half the number of responsa and was composed earlier. His sphere of influence seems to shrink! Volume 2 is much more densely concentrated in Bohemia, Moravia, and Hungary, whereas Volume 1 includes more responsa to Germany and Poland. Some of this is not surprising: Volume 1 includes responsa he wrote in Brody, Yampil, and Prague, whereas the responsa included in Volume 2 were almost all written in Prague. This can explain the shift from Poland to Central Europe, but leaves Germany as an open question.

This requires further investigation, but we can tentatively suggest that Rabbi Landau wanted the contents of the book to reflect its title and shape his reputation. Whether he actively sought interlocutors in more dispersed communities or specifically selected for publication his more geographically diverse responsa, he wanted to show that he was “known in Judah”. Katz suggests that he published when he did because he was angling for the newly created post of chief rabbi of Galicia (for which, by dint of his Galician origins and Austrian patriotism, he was an ideal candidate, though he did not get the job).

The implication is that Rabbi Landau had a certain geographic consciousness. He was aware that a greater reach implied greater halakhic authority and had a mental map of his sphere of influence, or at least of the sphere of influence he wished to project to his readers.

One thought on “Super Rabbi”

  1. Perhaps “shrunk.”

    Another possibility is that as his prominence grew he had less time and therefore was more selective with his responses. In other words, we only have evidence of his responses, we know nothing about the sholaim. He could’ve still gotten questions from far-flung places, but perhaps ignored them.

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