The Jewish Fatherland and the Death of the Admorit
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Über alles in der Welt, | Above everything in the world,
While preparing this article, it was impossible to ignore these two lines from the German national anthem – the Deutschlandlied. With an unparalleled complex history, this song had been sung by the various German regimes - except East Germany - since it was adopted in 1922. It also provides a very concise and vivid explanation of the term “Fatherland:” “Germany, Germany above everything.” Yet, even this is not good enough for translating the Hebrew (and Arabic) term of “umma.” The English Fatherland and other Indo-European languages parallels must include a land of reference, while the umma refers to the people; the existence of an accompanying land is of low relevance; we are talking about cultures that evolved from nomadic tribes. In the opposite direction the situation is different. Fatherland is parallel to eretz avot, the land of the forefathers. Due to this type of discrepancies between the cultures I have found along the years difficulties in explaining the complexity of the situation in the Middle East. In Bolivia, they would keep nagging me about the whereabouts of Biblical tribes while hearing with disbelief my descriptions of the various Jewish sects in existence today. But Bolivia is a country trapped beyond the boundaries of time, where reality is nothing but a myth.
Indo-European (like English and Spanish) and Semitic (like Hebrew and Arabic) languages use different reference frameworks. Nothing exemplifies that better than the surname of an old guest in this website. Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi – former IDF Chief of General Staff – is not an Ashkenazi Jew by most accounts. Moreover, originally, this is a name given to Spanish Jews. “Spharad” means “Spain” in Hebrew; “Sephardic Jews” are technically related to Jewish settlements in Spain from before 1492. In 1492 the Jews were expelled from there, many moved northwards to the territories of modern days Netherlands and Germany. When things calmed down by the sunny Mediterranean beaches their descendants moved back southwards and earned a geographic surname: “Ashkenazi.” In Hebrew, that means “from Ashkenaz,” i.e. “from Germany.” They scattered in all of the countries where Sephardic Jews settled down, their name still reminding the loop they drew on Europe’s map. It makes perfect sense in the tribal reference framework, but it sounds as a bad joke to those living in a humanist-Western-state framework, where a person can be attached for life to the random spot of land where he – or she – where born, while the cultural bonds are meaningless.
In the downloads section of this website, I offer the polemic The Jewish Religion by Elizabeth Dilling. One of its readers asked me: “Is all that horror true?” “About 80% is true, she made several errors, especially while dealing with Hebrew texts, ” was my answer. Yet, she did an extraordinary work. Had she understood the nomadic framework of Hebrew would have lead to a truly exceptional achievement. The problem – in the eyes of Indo-European languages speakers – is that it is almost impossible to formulate a set of rules on the issue. “So - bottom line – is Ashkenazi Sephardic or Ashkenazi?,” I would be asked with anger. There is no such a bottom line in a language like Hebrew. It depends. Every case is unique and checked legufo shel inyan (roughly: “on the body of the event”). Life is complex, even if the birth certificate says: “Hawaii.”
Yet, this complexity has simple origins. While in Asia, I found it very easy to explain these issues to denizens, despite our common language being English. We both used national and tribal terms similarly and very differently from the accustomed by Western cultures. Yet, crossing intercultural boundaries is possible; they do not demand complicated visas. A short introduction is often enough for explaining odd events.
This Saturday (October 15, 2011), we witnessed a superb example of this complexity when the first-ever admorit died from heart failure in her Bnei Brak home at the age of 79. Over fifty thousand of the Haredim in Jerusalem assisted to the funeral of Rabbanit Batsheva Haya Kanievsky. The number of mourners is impressive while taking into account the rivalries among the different Hatzerot (literally backyards, the various schools of thought in the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox world). You may live in Jerusalem and speak a perfect Hebrew, and yet be unable to understand the headlines referring to this case. Since when there is an admorit? What is that? The word doesn’t appear neither in the Hebrew Bible nor the dictionary.
English speakers would get stuck in such an event. Many of the questions I get refer to such situations. A Hebrew speaker – accustomed to find out the vowels without help – would try to solve the riddle, carefully discarding nonsense and continuously searching for linguistic roots. This time the riddle was easy. Admorit is not exactly a word. It was created by adding the Hebrew feminine suffix it to the acronym admor. This last stands for Adoneinu, Moreinu, veRabbenu, meaning Our Master, our Teacher, and our Rabbi. Admor is a title reserved to heads of large Yeshiva colleges affiliated to the Haredim (I keep the definitions not very strict for the obvious reason reviewed in this article: there would be endless exceptions). Thus, for the first time a feminine was created for the title and given to the wife of the Admor. It didn’t imply any knowledge or effort from her side. Here is the crux of the matter; creating the title was imperative in order to give momentum to the shift of power towards the Lithuanians in the Haredi world.
The second time I referred to this deceased woman, I used term rabbanit, the feminine form of rabbi which is applied to the wives of rabbis. She was much more than that. Rabbanit Kanievsky was a member of the religious aristocracy: she was the oldest daughter of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the leading adjudicator of the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) Haredi community, and the granddaughter of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who was known as the "Prisoners' Rabbi" for the succor he offered Jews imprisoned by the British during the British Mandate. She was also the wife of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a leading figure in the Lithuanian community. But, she was part of the actual aristocracy, not of the old one.
When she was young, the Lithuanian Haredim (despite being in Bnei Brak they are referred to as Lithuanians, see the Ashkenazi case above) were far from being considered as aristocracy. Since then, yeshivot (religious colleges) were split and created for the sake of those wanting to become aristocracy. This is the eternal history of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism that seems trapped in Genesis 12:1 Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee. Every generation moves to the next college hoping the flock would follow so that a new aristocracy may be founded. An institutionalized revolution if you wish, that always keeps in power the same families. After all, these titles testify just of the type of achievements and efforts needed in order to be born to the right House: none. No merit, but nepotism, from aleph to tav, from "a" to "z."
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