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Abraham Ben Naphtali Tang - A Precursor of the Anglo_jewish Haskalah

S. B. Leperer

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Abraham ben Naphtali Tang?A Precursor of the Anglo-Jewish Haskalah* Rabbi S. B. LEPERER The term Haskalah is assigned to the cultural movement which affected European Jewry from about the middle of the eighteenth century until well into the nineteenth century. Essentially, it reflected the desire among certain sections of Jewry to break away from the exclusiveness of ghetto life, to acquire Western culture, and to become like their neighbours in language, dress, and habits. Regarded in terms of general European history the Has? kalah was, in fact, the Jewish aspect of a wider movement which historians have desig? nated the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, and Haskalah can only be fully appreciated if it is viewed from the perspective of the European Enlightenment. Effects in England By the beginning of the nineteenth century Haskalah in Holland and Germany had achieved more than a fair measure of success, as, indeed, had the Maskilim (followers of Haskalah) in Italy and France. Could the same be said of Anglo-Jewry ? To what extent, if any, did Haskalah affect this community during the Mendelssohnian era? In the course of a lecture1 to this esteemed Society in 1899 the late Rev. Simeon Singer made the following observation: 'The Mendelssohnian Revival in Germany during the last quarter of the eighteenth century had no counterpart in England. The smallness of the Jewish population, their comparatively recent settlement in this country, the character of their pursuits, which ran almost exclusively in commercial channels, the low states of education, both secular and religious alike, within and outside the Jewish community, may help to explain the absence among them at that period of men, I will not say like Moses Mendelssohn himself?but men of the type of the Measse phim generally.' Singer's opinion requires qualification, since there were a few individuals in England at this period whose writings and publications indi? cated a tendency towards Haskalah, e.g., Dr. Gompertz Levison, author of Mamar Hatorah Ve'hcfHachmah (London 1771), Jacob Hart (Eliakim ben Abraham), the author of Asarah Mamarim, who also compiled a Hebrew grammar, David Levi, Hebraist and polemist, Dr. Abraham Van Oven, who wrote Derech Ish Ve'Yashar (and who also translated some Indian tales into Hebrew), his son, Joshua Van Oven, and the anonymous author of Sefer Gidul Banim, much of which, as Professor Stein has shown,2 is Haskalah in spirit and content. Contacts with the Continent Moreover, there must have been some cul? tural rapport between certain elements in this community and Haskalah circles on the Continent. We know, for example, that Benjamin Goldsmid was closely associated with David Friedlander, Lazarus ben David, and Israel Jacobson, the leaders of the post Mendelssohn era of Jewish Enlightenment in Germany. Nevertheless, the publications I have mentioned reflect only marginally the range of interests which characterised the contemporary Maskilim on the Continent, nor do the cultural pretensions of a small circle of affluent gentlemen indicate an Anglo-Jewish Haskalah * Paper delivered to the Jewish Historical Society of England, 14 June 1972. i Trans.JHSE, Vol. Ill (1896-1898). 2 '"Sefer Giddul Banim", an anonymous Judaeo German Tract on the Education of Children', Remember the Days?essays in honour of Cecil Roth (ed. J. M. Shaftesley), (J.H.S.E., 1966). 82</page><page sequence="2">Abraham Ben Naphtali Tang 83 movement. Indeed, Simeon Singer's observa? tions have some pertinence if we consider the cultural situation of the metropolis in the second half of the eighteenth century. Solomon Bennett, a Maskil who arrived in England at the end of the eighteenth century, tells us, 'London Jewry are proud of their descent and antiquity, but they have little regard for their ancient literature, or any literature, or even for their Jewish doctrines in general'.3 On several occasions Rabbi Moses of Minsk, friend and mentor of Abraham Tang, refers in his sermons4 to the denigration of religious observ? ance and Rabbinic learning in his day, and this state of affairs is reiterated by an anony? mous author of a contemporary pamphlet entitled The New and Perverse world (Zeh Ha* kontros Nikra Olam Ho-dosh Ve'nikra Olam Hafukh, London, 1789). Again, in the middle of the eighteenth century Rabbi Hart Lyon bitterly complained5 that he could not find a solitary pupil or col? league with whom to pursue his own studies. Such criticisms and reproaches could no doubt be multiplied; nevertheless, this does not mean that the London community of this period lived in a spiritual wilderness. Other evidence suggests there were a number of spiritual oases in the Metropolis at this time. One of these was the Chevrah Shaare Zion, which was established about 1770 by a small group, most of whom were members of the Hambro Synagogue. This Chevrah appointed a certain Rabbi Moses ben Judah of Minsk as its spiritual guide, and some of the Derashot he delivered at the Shaare Zion were published in London (1772) under the title Eben Shoham (which if transposed produces the author's name Mosheh.) According to the author he delivered regular Talmudic discourses to this group. It appears that after a time Rabbi Moses returned to the Continent and was succeeded by Rabbi Pinchas ben Samuel, who published his commentary on some obscure Talmudic Aggadot in London (1795). This work was entitled Midrash Pinchas. In the foreword the learned Rabbi, a native of Lithuania, states that he delivered Talmudic discourses to the group at least three times each week. The Ghevrah Shaare Zion Who were the people who founded the Chev rah Shaare Zion? It is quite possible that some of the names appear among the list of subscribers to both the Eben Shoham and the Midrash Pinchas. The name Reuben Zelig ben David Emden, whose family had close connections with the London Jewish com? munity, appears in both publications. Accord? ing to the late Dr. Cecil Roth,6 he was the treasurer of this Chevrah at one time. Among the remaining twelve listed subscribers to the publication of the Eben Shoham who were members of the Hambro Synagogue was a certain Leib ben Naphtali Tang, who also subscribed to the Midrash Pinchas. Who was this Leib Tang? Tang is the abbreviation for Taussig(k) am Neu or Neuen Greschel, and the latter was a branch of the famous Taussig family of Prague. Leib's paternal grandfather was Rabbi Abraham ben Moshe Taussig Neu or Neuen Greschel, who was a dayan in Prague and who died in 1699. Leib's father, Naphtali, must have settled in London in the first half of the eighteenth century and married a daughter of Rabbi Natan Nata, or Opatow. We know of two sons of this marriage. Leib, whom we have already mentioned, and Abraham, whose name does not appear in the list of subscribers to the Eben Shoham despite his close friendship with the author. Unfortunately, we have few biographical facts about Abraham Tang with the exception of the date of his death and interment in the cemetery of the Hambro Synagogue at Lauriston Road, E. London (Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, 1792). Nevertheless, his writings and sole publication reveal a person who would have found himself at home 3 'Solomon Bennett', by the Rev. Arthur Barnett, Trans JHSE, Vol. XVII. 4 Sefer Eben Shoham (London, 1772). 5 D. Duschinsky, The Rabbinate of the Great Synagogue, London (O.U.P., 1921), pp. 21-22. 6 'The Lesser London Synagogues of the Eighteenth Century', Miscellanies, JHSE., Vol. Ill, pp. 1-7.</page><page sequence="3">84 Rabbi S. B. Leperer among contemporary Maskilim on the Euro? pean continent. List of Tang's Works Adolph Neubauer lists Abraham Tang's works as follows: (1) A Hebrew translation of Congreve's Mourning Bride (1768) (MS. in Jews' College Library). (2) Translation into English of the Pirkei Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers), published in London 1772. (3) Sabei De'bei Atunah?a Hebrew com? mentary on the Rabbinic Aggadah concern? ing Rabbi Joshua ben Chananyah and the scholars of the Academy of Athens, as recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (Bek horot 8b). (4) ?ophnat Paneach?a treatise on pagan mythology (MS. archives of the London Beth Din, 1773). (5) Two commentaries on the first thirteen verses of Ecclesiastes (MS. 7, badly damaged by damp). Tang assumes the mantle of the Measfim, both in his defence of his people and Judaism and in seeking to educate his ignorant brethren. Thus, in the introduction to his Ethics of the Fathers he says, 'the following sentences and proverbs have been advanced at different periods by several of the ancient Rabbis. It will serve to indicate that the learned amongst the Jews preached the most superb system of ethics that could be deduced from reason. Notwithstanding that some learned men pre? tend that BROTHERLY LOVE, HUMILITY, and CHARITY, was not preached amongst the Jews, and that they were obscured in their ceremonial matters.' Tang seems concerned with the denigration of Judaism and the Bible by such eighteenth-century English deists as John Trenchard, the author of The Natural History of Superstition (1709), Anthony Shaftes bury, in his Letter on Tolerance, and Anthony Collins in his Tracts. Tang must have known that all the contemporary English deists, with the exception of John Toland, were unanimous in their vituperation of our faith. Similarly, the motive for his exegesis on Ecclesiastes is to 'impress the world with the wisdom of Judaism'. 'For', he observes, 'three is no doubt that the wisdom displayed by Hesiod, Plato and Aristotle was obtained from the Jews.' In the same vein his inter? pretation of the Rabbinic Aggadah concerning the disputation between the sages of the Athenian academy and Rabbi Joshua ben Chananyah only serves to illustrate 'the superiority of Judaism and the Jewish sages over Greek philosophy and its adherents'. This theme is reiterated in his Ethics of the Fathers, where he states, 'the compiler of the following compendious sentences and proverbs of the ancient Rabbis was Rabbi Judah the Prince who lived contemporary with Marcus Aurelius well known for his great knowledge and remarked for his Ethics, and who was a disciple of the aforesaid Rabbi Judah. Thus, did most, if not all, the knowledge descend from the learned Jews to the Greeks and Romans, and from them to the Gentiles, where? by was accomplished the blessing of God unto Abraham viz. "and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in thy seed".'7 Role as Educator Tang's role as an educator of his ignorant fellow-Jews is illustrated in several of his works. His Hebrew translation of Congreve's Mourning Bride, which, according to Professor J. Schirman,8 is the earliest Hebrew translation of an English drama in the Haskalah period, was motivated by his desire to instil a degree of literary appre? ciation into the Jewish masses. Literary appreciation, he argues, is a characteristic of true intellectual development, but this was often lacking among the Jewish people because of the illiteracy of the nations among whom they were exiled. Tang's translation of this drama antedates similar efforts made by the Measfim, who, like Tang, sought to widen the cultural horizons of contemporary Jews by 7 This view was current among medieval Jewry. Cf. Judah Halevi's Kusari, Pt. 4, 25. See also S. Horovitz, Die Stellung des Aristoteles bei den Juden des Mittelalters (Leipzig, 1911). s Hierosolymitana, Vol. 19, pp. 3-15.</page><page sequence="4">Abraham Ben Naphtali Tang 85 introducing them to the wisdom and literature of the non-Jewish world. The treatise on pagan mythology, ^ophnat Paneach (Revealer of hidden things), was also prompted by didactic motives. In his introduc? tion he observes, 'A knowledge of classical mythology is of paramount importance for the intelligent Jew. Our teacher Moses was fully acquainted with all the deities of the surround? ing nations, as indeed was King Solomon. Maimonides was fully conversant with pagan theology as can be seen from that section in the Guide in which he investigated the reasons for the Divine Precepts.' Tang advances yet another reason for studying Greek mythology: Tt is an acknowledged fact', he says, 'that the greatest of our Sages were experts in the Greek language and literature'9: in particular, Rabbis Joshua ben Chananyah, Gamliel, and Judah the Prince, all of whom were closely associated with the Emperor of their day. Consequently, many of the Aggadic statements made by these scholars were expressed in the style of the Greek moralists, with whom our Sages were in close contact. 'Of course', he hastens to add, 'our scholars were always their superior. It was, therefore, because of their admiration of Greek literature that our Sages expressed Aggadic teachings in either the esoteric or allegorical style, which was then in vogue. Thus, one who is ignorant of Greek literature and phil? osophy cannot comprehend many of the Aggadic statements which appear in the Talmud.' Classical References It is as a keen student of classical history and mythology that Tang emerges as a true product of the cultural climate of his day. It was the fashion of the period that classical literature was the common possession of the educated man. Samuel Johnson defended a thorough education in the classics when he said, 'Classical quotation is the parole of literary men all over the world'. In ?ophnat Paneach, Tang refers to a number of classical authorities, e.g., the Greeks Hesiod, Plato, and Plutarch, the Roman classical authors Cicero, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, and to the early church father Eusebius. There are sixteen excerpts in Latin and a few in Greek. Invariably he supplies both the Hebrew and English translations of these often long quotations. Tang must have been conscious of the grow? ing interest in the origins of religious faith which had already begun in the previous century. Samuel Bochart, whom he quotes on several occasions, was a poly-historian of the seventeenth century whose Phaleg and Chanaan (1646), which treated of all the names con? tained in the tables of nations (Genesis, x), was popular reading in Tang's day. Like other expositions of paganism and its survivals in contemporary Europe, Bochart's researches were both exercises in learning and pious works directed at excising from Christianity the remnants of false patristic traditions about idolatry in order to strengthen the fabric of true religion. 'But', as Professor Frank E. Manuel points out,10 'the routing of pagan spirits proved to be an advanced action preceding the central attack on revealed religion'. Comparative Religion Whether Tang's real motive in ?ophnat Paneach was to disparage Judaism is a moot point. His short excursions into comparative religion with the assistance of Bochart, e.g. the fire in the temple of the Roman goddess Vesta corresponding to the fire on the altar at Jerusalem, may merely be an example of his desire to illustrate his erudition, although his subsequent cautionary note, T must refrain from further comment on this topic lest I turn aside the mind of the masses', is perhaps some indication of where his real sympathy lay. But if one fact certainly emerges from a cursory study of this treatise it is that the author was fully aware of the intense interest which his contemporaries evinced in the wisdom and literature of the ancient classical world, and it is by the identification 9 The extent of this knowledge is discussed by S. Lieberman, 'How much Greek in Jewish Palestine' (Biblical and Other Studies, ed. A. Altmann, Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 123-141). 10 The Eighteenth Century confronts the Gods (Cam? bridge, Massachusetts, 1959), p. 22.</page><page sequence="5">86 Rabbi S. B. Leperer and sympathy with the cultural tendencies of contemporary Europe that the classification of Tang as a 'Maskil' is substantiated. The rationalist temper which permeated much of eighteenth-century thought also affected the Maskilim. Jewish organisations, particularly educational institutions, were subjected to heavy and searching criticism. Jewish emancipation, they argued, could not be effectively extended as an act of grace from above unless the Jew was prepared intellectually and emotionally for entrance to the West. In their view the chief impediment towards the achievement of this end lay in a grossly defective educational system which in many communi? ties had barely changed since the Middle Ages. Much of the blame for this was laid at the feet of the contemporary Rabbis, who, the Maskilim argued, were primarily concerned with preserving Halachic Judaism within the confines of the ghetto. But the criteria which the Maskilim accepted in their evaluation of Judaism were the Bible, Jewish Hellenistic writings, i.e., 'wisdom literature', and the concepts of Jewish mediaeval philosophy. Critic of Rabbinic Authorities Tang is fully aware of the shortcomings of contemporary Rabbis and in particular their inability to adopt a rational approach to the exposition of 'obscure' Talmudic Aggadot. The difficulty of studying and teaching the more esoteric sections of Rabbinic literature was a perennial problem. Gaonim like Saadia and Rav Hai had counselled a more rational approach and Maimonides impatiently dis? missed those who accepted the literal meaning of such teachings. In the eighteenth century Yitzhak Wetzlar,11 a learned Orthodox German Jew, deplored the fact that Judaism was brought into great disrepute because of the acceptance of 'obscure' Aggadot. And the author of the Sefer Giddul Banim reflected the attitude of the European Maskilim when he argued that the teaching of these texts literally should be avoided since the acquisition of such knowledge would retard the intellectual development of the young. Tang attempts to rationalise one of these 'obscure' Aggadot, viz., Sabei De'Bei Atunah, which occurs in B. T. Bekhorot 8b and which records a disputation between the scholars of the Athenian academy and Rabbi Joshua ben Chananyah, a Tannaitic authority of the latter half of the first century c.e. He designates his effort as michtav (a Haskalah term often used in the circle of the Measfim) and planned to send it as a gift to his friend Rabbi Moses of Minsk. In the prologue he contrasts Rabbi Joshua with contemporary Rabbinic authorities. Rabbi Joshua, he says, was an expert in politics and its stratagems and was regarded by both Greeks and Romans as a philosopher who deserved to stand in the presence of the em? peror, unlike the sages of our own generation whose wisdom is seasoned with vanity so that it is rightly said wisdom has persisted from the blind (a pun on Ivrim, Hebrews). It is interesting that more than a generation after Tang had written this exposition, David Friedlander, in a letter12 to a friend in Glogau, described the Rabbis of his day as Ivrim, for they were blind to what was happening in the Jewish world. 'These Rabbis,' continues Tang, 'babble out the deeper meaning of the Talmud like gushing waters, whilst more modern compilations on the meaning of Aggadot are forbidden to them.' 'But', he says, 'one can understand this sorry situation, for how can he who has spent the greater part of his life in studying the laws of Agunah [the deserted wife] appreciate allegory and the figurative speech in which many Aggadic passages are expressed. Woe to you, Rabbis, why don't you gird your loins and study the history and wisdom of other nations ? Do you think that because they are written in a foreign language God will be angry with you?' 'Foolish Masses' On p. 10 of this MS. Tang describes how in ancient times the masses were controlled by a combination of king and priests, particularly in time of war. 'For,' he observes, 'the foolish masses have faith in the priests whose primary concern is to fatten their bellies with bovine ii Liebesbrief (MS.) (1749), p. 22b. i2 Z-G.J.D. (1888), pp. 266-7.</page><page sequence="6">Abraham Ben Naphtali Tang 87 sacrifices.5 Tt is,' he adds, 'one of the great principles of politics that the ruling power must not stir up trouble with the dominant faith unless it be with the consent of the priests.' This passage is reminiscent of the attacks levelled against ecclesiastical institutions by many contemporary English deists and by philosophers like Bayle, Voltaire, and Fonten elle.13 There is also implied a strong criticism of contemporary Rabbis which, in view of Tang's earlier remarks, is in no way surprising. His disparagement of the masses is typical of European intellectuals of the eighteenth century, who, in the main, regarded the lower classes as inferior species. Holbach, the Maecenas of the radical wing of the philo? sophers, once observed, 'when we speak of respectable people, people worth taking an interest in, we mean people whom it is possible to train and educate, but the riff-raff will never be anything but riff-raff.' In similar vein Tang in his exegesis on Ecclesiastes says, 'it is only the intellectual who can com? prehend God, since the ignorant masses cannot attain the light which can be found in the human soul, for the hearts of the masses are covered with fat'. Tang's efforts to illustrate how Judaism conforms with human reason are given full play in Ethics of the Fathers, his sole publication. Moral Duties First To the introductory passage of this Rabbinic treatise Tang appends a translation of Maimon ides' commentary. He regrets the lack of translations of the innumerable moral and philosophical tracts as well as the fallacious translation of the Pentateuch. For the critics of Judaism should realise that the 'omnipotent and omniscient God has given one Law and one Faith to all his rational creatures whereby they may enjoy this state of tranquillity and happiness'. 'The worship of God', he continues, 'is chiefly the moral and inward duty, i.e., the duties of the mind, it is not the outward maxims which shall constitute the good religious man. Moses made this quite clear in the statement?"let the words I am command? ing you this day be impressed "pi1? Vl7 on thine mind." Indeed, Moses taught the people that God desires of His creatures no more than the rectitude of the heart and a rational knowledge ?thus he says, "and now O Israel what doth the Lord require more than to fear".' 'It is therefore obvious', Tang concludes, 'that the moral duties do in rank precede the ceremonial precepts and therefore the knowledge of these moral duties is of greater importance.' From this cursory glance at Tang's preface to his Pirkei Avoth we can see his close affinity to Haskalah. His preoccupation with the efficacy of human reasoning, his denigration of the ceremonial aspects of Judaism, his emphasis on a reasoned code of ethics uniting all peoples are in themselves sufficient evidence of this. The Ethics of the Fathers provides us with a further indication of Tang's leanings towards Haskalah. We have already observed that the Maskilim on the whole rejected Halachic Judaism. Tang illustrates his identification with this attitude by his deliberate rationalisa? tion of the word 'Halakhah' or of any term synonymous with it. For example, in chapter 3 of the Ethics of the Fathers \Om\ p \T\*7 is translated 'to render reason and account,' robriD K*?tP Tang translates 'contrary to reason', and at the conclusion of this chapter the statement niDVn "?11 ]H ]7\ is rendered 'lessons of importance and studies of utility'. In his Tradition and Crisis Professor J. Katz emphasises the main cultural characteristics of the Maskil. In addition to his knowledge of the Torah, he had command of a foreign language, general erudition, and an interest in what was happening in the non-Jewish world. An Intellectual Milieu These criteria are eminently reflected in the literary accomplishments of Abraham ben Naphtali Tang. He was obviously well versed in the Bible, Rabbinics, and mediaeval Jewish philosophy, and certainly possessed a command of English, as is evident from his Ethics of the Fathers and his Hebrew translation of Gon greve's Mourning Bride. We may consider his rationalisation of the 13 The Origin of Fables, and The History of the Oracles, 1707.</page><page sequence="7">88 Rabbi S. B. Leperer Aggadah of Sabei De'Bei Atunah as highly implausible, but his detached approach to the subject, his examination of numerous versions of the text in his attempts to establish the one which best lent itself to his novel interpretation, and his Hebrew translation of an English play are all facets of the intellectual milieu in which he lived. Similarly, his interest in classical history and mythology are very much in the spirit of the European Enlighten? ment. The late Dr. Roth14 described Tang as 'the first Anglo-Jewish scholar of modern times.' In terms of modern academic standards this description requires drastic qualification. But from the perspective of his own day, the scope of his reading, and the almost encyclopaedic capacity to assimilate and record factual knowledge covering a wide range of subjects, Dr. Roth's description is no exaggeration. In assessing the range of Tang's literary efforts we might well compare them with the three MSS. of his father, Rabbi Naphtali (Archives of the London Beth Din). Two of these comprise short notes on the Pentateuch and on Halachic literature and are Talmudic in spirit and content. The third is a voluminous commentary on the Ethics of the Fathers and is replete with Rabbinic casuistry. Rabbi Naphtali Tang belonged to an age in which the Jew was content to cultivate the mysteries of his past glory and future redemption, a period which was fast disappearing. His son Abraham was a product of the era of emancipa? tion in which the Jew was beginning to accept the conditions of secular life before being formally admitted to its precincts. Regrettably, we have few biographical facts of Abraham Tang, but we might legiti? mately conjecture that there were other Maskilim of Tang's calibre in Georgian Eng? land. Perhaps further research will successfully reveal this hitherto unknown facet of Anglo Jewish history. 14 'The Haskalah in England', Essays presented to Israel Brodie, Chief Rabbi (Jews' College Publica? tions, New Series, No. 3).</page></plain_text>