-->Orthodox Responses to Communism; Rabbis and Laymen
By: Joel W. Davidi
The noted author Marc Shapiro wrote a short sketch on Rabbis and Communism on the Seforim blog. In that excellent article, Shapiro brings up some excellent points and observations regarding the initial reaction of the Orthodox clergy toward the Communist movement. He discusses the varying Jewish reactions to this important movement, which greatly affected the Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike during the better part of the 20th century. Shapiro informs us of an important assembly that took place in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution where leading Rabbis of Eastern Europe formulated a plan on how to respond to the new realities. What I found fascinating though were the individuals mentioned as supporting Communism. When most of us think of Communism, we think of the infamous Yesvektzia (more on them in a future issue) a unit of the dreaded KGB composed entirely of Jews dedicated to eradicating any remnant of Jewish religious life in the Soviet Union. It comes as a shock to most of us when we are introduced to Rabbis; ostensibly religious figures who
expressed their enthusiastic support for the ideals of Communism.
Now, to be fair the campaign against Judaism (and against religion in general) in the Soviet Union did not begin in earnest until quite a bit after the Revolution. Organized Jewish religious life continued as it did before, with Rabbis in place leading their respective Congregations. Perhaps the aforementioned Rabbis were not aware of the Communists’ true plans and what they had in store for them which brings to mind some Jewish reactions to the ascent of Hitler’s Nazi Party in Germany. Marc Shapiro in his excellent biography of the very interesting Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg mentions that not a few Orthodox Rabbis in Germany expressed their support and commitment to the Nazi Party and to Germany’s new Fuhrer. Weinberg and others went as far as insisting that the ideals of the Nazi party were consistent with that of Orthodoxy! Surely Weinberg was not aware at the time of the Nazis true plans so one is obliged to give him the benefit of the doubt.
It is no secret that many of the movements active in pre-war Europe- vying for the minds and hearts of the youth- succeeded in entering and making its mark even among the most conservative and seemingly sheltered segment of the population, namely the Yeshiva world. Historians still disagree as to what role the imposition of secular studies in the great Yeshiva of Volozhin played in the closing down of that institution. What we do know for certain is that not an insignificant number of Yeshiva students enthusiastically embraced many of the new secularist movements then sweeping Europe, including Communism and Socialism. Some individuals who would later reestablish Orthodox Judaism in America too got swept up in this fervor and actively campaigned on behalf of leftist causes. One such individual was Rabbi Isaac Revel (pictured) who was founder and dean for many years of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York. One cannot blame the Jewish youth of prewar Europe for sympathizing with many of the ideals and goals of the Revolutionaries. The Czars have long been considered the oppressors of the Jews and the revolutionaries promised change, reform and an end to discrimination. It is not difficult to see what temptation these promises held for the average Jewish member of the lower class whether Orthodox or not.
Did the Ancient Essenes Practice a Form of Communism?
Many of the ideas expressed by Marx and Engels as formulated in the former’s Communist Manifesto were ideas that were put into practice long before the word “communism” entered the vernacular. The idea of eliminating the distinction between rich and poor is a theme echoed throughout the ancient literature, both secular and profane
The Essenes were one of the three streams of Judaism in existence during the period of the Second Commonwealth circa 30 CE (the other two were the Pharisees and the Saduccees). They were known for their medicinal knowledge, their resentment against the Jewish nobility in Jerusalem (especially the Priestly Caste) and their strict code of living (which included strict rules about eating and sex).
Pliny the Elder and Josephus, who were contemporaries of the ancient Jewish sect of the Essenes describe the latter as “living in communes and sharing everything they have with each other, so there are neither rich nor poor among them”.
See also the Medieval Karaite community in Jerusalem known who referred to themselves 'The Mourners of Zion also variably as 'Adat Ha-shohanim' literally the community of The Roses)
יש מהחוקרים המוצאים בקרבם הלכי רוח מעין סוציאליסטיים
. דניאל אלקומיסי חוזה שבחברה היהודית שתקום עם הגאולה לא יתקיים מסחר, ואנשיה יתפרנסו מחקלאות.
Communal Living Among Chassidim in Eastern Europe
In some communities across Eastern Europe men voluntarily gave up all their worldly possessions and renounced all ownership of private property for the betterment of the collective. No, I am not talking about Communists or Socialists but rather Chassidim in 19th century Ukraine.
In David Assaf’s fascinating recent book on renegades from within the Hassidic community, Neechaz Basevach. Sender was a charismatic leader of a Breslov Chassidic group in the town of Torgovitsa, Ukraine in the 1860s. He was a very wealthy cloth merchant who decided to join the Breslov Chassidic sect and distribute all his money to charity. With his talent and charisma, he succeeded in gathering about him a group of likeminded individuals who became his most devoted followers. Unlike him, however, most members of the group were impoverished Chasidim who probably found it much easier to live the kind of lifestyle he demanded from them. In a Breslov work we are told that “they would deposit all their money into a communal account” and “they shared a closet full of clothes and if anyone (in the group) was missing an article of clothing they would just go over to the closet and take whatever he needed”.
we are introduced to a Rabbi Sender
Jewish Communists Benign Attitude towards Judaism
I have written about the interesting Jewish communist figure Mosa Pijade and his attitude towards religion here.
A Communist Yiddish author from the Soviet era, Dovid Sfard (1905-?) was born in Trisk, Volhynia (Western Ukraine) and lived in Warsaw before fleeing to Soviet-occupied Biyalistok in 1939. After the war, he returned to Poland, where he became active in the banned Communist Party and retained a prominent position in the Jewish cultural life there, before emigrating to Israel in 1969.
It bears mentioning that Sfard was one of a group of communist Jewish intellectuals who refused to slavicize their names as many other high ranking communists were wont to do. Sfard severely criticized the people who did do so.
In postwar Communist Poland “Jewish Communists were for instance routinely ordered to Polonize their names. Some Jewish communists frowned upon this practice. Hersh Smolar called the practice a “shmad protzedur” (literally, "apostasy procedure"). Old time Jewish Communists frowned upon this practice. An eminent Yiddish language poet, David Sfard spoke on the issue forcefully during a conference organized in August 1945 in Moscow by the Organization Committee of Polish Jews at the ZPP, the Association of Polish Patriots. He described the dropping of Jewish names by party activists as affront to “national dignity” and to the “dignity of being a Communist” as well. It reflected an attitude, he said, that verged on adopting “a racist point of view”. Also, the party should not condone such behavior “because it opens the door to careerists who have the same attitude toward the Party as they do towards their nationality”.
In the introduction to Dovid Sfard’s autobiography Mit Zich un Mit Andere, Eli Shekhtman gives what seems to be an apologetic portrayal of Sfard’s radical socialism. He writes:
Sfard the writer was attuned to needs of the nation. To a Jewish writer, the Jewish people are of paramount importance. This is not the place to focus on the 2 major movements that swept the Jewish people, namely Zionism and socialism, (Zionism also arose as a socialist movement) . Sfard became a radical socialist solely because he believed with his entire being (like his father the Rabbi of Wohlin) in the coming of the Messiah (!) … he believed that this was the only to redeem the world of evil and cruelty ….our nation would be free and able to reconstruct a Jewish national life… he believed but he was hoodwinked….and here we must state unequivocally: Sfard never threw his away his past but rather cherished it…. he didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve but rather cherished it in his heart… when he received the sad news of his father’s passing in Warsaw…. he attended the funeral and Sfard-the communist- recited the Kaddish prayer on the grave of his father the rabbi
Sfard himself attributed his quest for social justice to the lessons he learned at home from his father the Rabbi, "all the towspeople would gather at the Rabbi's house to listen to Chassidic stories. Although he wasn't a hassid himself, he was enamored of these types of stories, eppecially those with the theme of rich vs. poor, weak vs. strong...years later when I would come home from university to visit, we would have long conversations about the injustices in the world...about the toiling simple folk who barely had enough to survive and those who barely worked, yet had plenty and were the toast of the town (דער סולת פון שטעטל)
Sfard is open about his fathers capitalist proclivities (he ran a bank), although he tempers this seemingly damning information by pointing out that he also ran a "gemach bank", basically a bank that gave out interest free loans to those who were destitute. Sfard audaciously attributes this altruistic endeavor as an attempt to "ease his conscience". p. 48
His awareness of political concerns led him to join the Jewish Bund a socialist revolutionary group, retaining his traditionalism all the while. Participation in the bund, however, led to his arrest and imprisonment in 1906. After his arrest he emigrated to the United States.
See Siach Sarfei Kodesh 4, pp.79-81