#76 Revelation & Revolution: Jewish History of the 18th Century (3)

In this podcast episode, David examines a phase in 18th century Jewish history that he calls the ‘zenith of rabbinics’ for its extraordinary collection of learned rabbis. Among this ensemble of remarkable figures, one man towered over the rest – Elijah, the Vilna Gaon.

The Gra, as the Gaon of Vilna was also known, was an unparalleled prodigy in Jewish textual study and methodology, with an almost incomprehensible knowledge of Torah. David explores the life and contribution of the Gra and why he is one of the most revered Torah scholars of the past millennium. He also discusses the life and work of the Gra’s greatest student, Rabbi Chayim of Volozhim.

The 18th century also saw the rise of a new phenomenon in Jewish history, known as the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. Two enormously important figures to launch this seismic shift in Jewish life were the philosophers:

  • Moses Mendelssohn, often called the father of the Haskalah, and
  • Salomon Maimon.

Other intellectuals of note in the early days of the Haskalah that David mentions were:

  • David Friedlander
  • Solomon Dubno
  • Naphtali Herz Wessely.

Through the story of these impressive intellectual figures, David paints a picture of the historical circumstances, rights, challenges, and emerging opportunities for 18th century European Jews.

Providing background to this discussion, he also explores the legal and political reforms of:

  • Frederick the Great
  • Joseph II.

David concludes with a discussion of another important figure from the 18th century, Meyer Amschel Rothschild, founder of an unprecedented banking dynasty. As a result of its tremendous business success, the Rothschild family pioneered a new type of Jewish participation and influence in broader society, stretching to the highest echelons of the European establishment.

Mendelssohn, Lavater and Lessing, in an imaginary portrait by the Jewish artist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1856). Collection of the Judah L. Magnes Museum

#75 Revelation & Revolution: Jewish History of the 18th Century (2)

This week David examines the beginnings of Chassidism, one of the most influential Jewish spiritual movements to emerge in the modern Jewish world. He discusses key individuals who launched – and developed – this extraordinary revolution and explores the central ideas and contributions of Chassidism to Jewish history, practice, religion, and life. As part of this fascinating Jewish history lecture, David focuses on the lives and ideas of:

 

  • The Baal Shem Tov – Shivchei HaBesht
  • Avraham Gershon of Kitov
  • Maggid of Mezeritch
  • Yaakov Yosef of Polnoyye
  • Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev
  • Shneur Zalman of Liadi
  • Nachman of Breslov.

He examines remarkable concepts developed by early Chassidic leaders, including:

  • the sparks of love
  • the light of the intellect
  • conversations with G-d.

as well ideas like:

  • devekut
  • hashgachah pratit
  • exile of the soul and raising the sparks
  • prayer over study
  • the ecstatic service of the heart
  • the spiritual importance of joy
  • love of every Jew
  • the idea of the tzaddiq.
Hasidic couple in New York, painting by Roger David, 150 cm x 201 cm, oil on canvas, 2016. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hasidic_couple_in_New_York,_painting_by_Roger_David.jpg

David also maps out the historical context of this remarkable phenomenon. He discusses opposition that emerged in large parts of the Jewish world to Chassidic ideas and practice and the destructive nature of some of these conflicts. He also considers a number of interesting developments that resulted in Jewish history in the wake of Chassidism.