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[Pages 25-26]

Introduction

by Levi Ginzburg

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The 3,000-year continuity of Lithuanian Jewry that had its roots in Biblical Talmudic Judaism ended with its destruction during the Second World War.

Two basic lines of development of Judaism can be distinguished from ancient times to the blossoming of the Jewish community in Lithuania as a center of Torah. There were eras in which our spiritual world sprang from the depth of the people themselves and there were other eras in which our spiritual ascent was greatly influenced by the surrounding culture and environment.

Talmudic Judaism is not identical to the Biblical, but both are very bound together in kinship, so we must consider the Talmud as a direct development of Tanakh [Torah, Prophets and Writings – the Hebrew Bible].

The close relationship of both kinds of Judaism appears more clearly when one compares them with Alexandrian or Helenistic Judaism. Helenistic-Egyptian Jewry equally with the Eretz-Yisroel Biblical recognized the same authority of Tanakh, its rules of life and its Godly origin, and yet, how great was the difference between Philo and Alexandria and the Tannaim [compilers of the Mishnah [Oral Torah] and Amoraim [compilers of the Gemara – Talmudic commentaries] of Eretz-Yisroel and Babylonia.

While the former had the intention of Helenizing Judaism, the Babylonian and Erezt-Yisroel spiritual leaders strove to make the Helenistic influence more Jewish. We can, therefore, properly say that the development of Judaism in Eretz-Yisroel and Babylonia was the direct continuation of Biblical Judaism, while Alexandrian Yidishkeit [Jewish essence] carries clear signs of foreign influence, although it was based on the Torah.

These two developing phases of Judaism also have a close parallel in post- Talmudic times.

The revived Greek philosophy and knowledge in the 8th and 9th centuries in the Arabic speaking lands did not fail to leave their influence on the Jews in the above-mentioned lands.

The Greek-Arab influence is strongly apparent in the golden epoch of Spanish Jewry. How deeply Jewish they were cannot be understood if one does not take into account the effect on them of the surrounding non-Jewish culture. Both the philosophy of Rambam [Maimonides] and the poetic creations of Yehuda HaLevi are a direct continuing line of Talmudic Judaism. The later generations of Jews in Eastern Europe were dominated by the direct influence of Talmudic Rabbinism.

Post-Tanakh Judaism, which developed in Eretz-Yisroel about 500 years before the present era and continued its development for a thousand years in Eretz-Yisroel in general, was adopted there earlier than it was by the Ashkenazi in French-German lands and then in Bohemia and Moravia, Poland and Lithuania.

When the Torah centers and the mature Jewish community moved to Eastern Europe, the Western European Jews were even more influenced by the surrounding culture and their spiritually creative world, and therefore absorbed even more elements from the surrounding environment.

If we were to delve into the essence of this development we would come to the conclusion that, intellectually, Judaism consisted of Torah research and emotionally it was expressed in piety, based on the principles of Torah, worship and interest-free loans.

[Pages 27-28]

We see the main point in the development of Lithuanian Jewry best in the century of the series of massacres in 1648-1649.1

The ancient rabbinic ideal in the studying of the righteous and the moralists [and their belief in] the power of the Torah united in the personalities of the Vilna Gaon [the most important Lithuanian Jewish religious figure - Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman] and Reb Yisroel Salanter [the founder of the Musar movement of disciplined ethical and spiritual development].

Jewish Lithuania, to our great sorrow and pain, was destroyed by the sword and in the gas ovens by our worst murderers – the Nazis. But however long there are Jews in the world, we will always remember with pride great men of the Torah who Lithuania produced.

Simultaneously with spiritually Jewish Lithuania, we also knew another Lithuania, in which enthusiastically beat the pulse of a colorful, vigorously healthy Jewish community, full of ebullent energy with a true national Jewish life.

During the course of generations, the Jewish people from all classes of the population through effort and toil formed a local cultural, communal way of life that carried the name nusekh Lita [Lithuanian style].

The Jews of Lithuania, through widespread contact with every distant corner of the earth, built new dwellings of Torah and sent deep roots into the surrounding life.

Jewish Lithuania became the connection between eastern and western Europe on this and the other side of the ocean.

Of course, we will write about the Jewry of Lithuania and will research the Jewish past, but the majority of the co-workers on the book, Lita [Lithuania], themselves lived in the Jewish community in Lithuania. Their treatises and memories about Jewish life in Lithuania are more than scholarly achievements; it is the life itself. The notes that are brought to the book about the destruction of Lithuania were written by those who themselves went through the Nazi hell and were on the edge of death for many years.

The comprehensive content of the book, Lita, illuminates the history of the 700 years life, effects and creations of Lithuanian Jewry in all of its phases. The editors devoted years of intense work and they were successful along with dozens of co-working writers and scientists – each an expert in his area – to create a magnificent work about Jewish Lithuania.

The publication of the book, Lita, was drawn out not only because of the rich material that fills its 2,000 columns, but because of the difficult material and technical circumstances with which the book committee and the editors had to work. We hope the reader will receive the book, Lita, with joy and when reading it will have something to think about and to remember. The reader will sing its praise in joy and suffering.

The book, Lita, will very much protect from oblivion what we remember about Lithuania and will serve for future generations as a source of knowledge about the Jewish tribe that remained completely Jewish until the last day of its existence in Lithuania.

The devotedly spun thread of Judaism in Lithuania is a blessing for the Judaism arising in Israel and for all Jewish communities throughout the world.

 

Translator's Footnote

  1. These were the Chmielnicki Massacres carried out by the Ukrainian Hetman Bogdan Chmielnicki and his Cossacks, in which approximately 100,000 Jews were killed and about 300 Jewish settlements were destroyed. Return

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