The Gordz Rabbis
by Avraham Menes
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Chaim Shoys was one of the most significant sages of our generation. He appeared in our literary world over 40 years ago when he published his first scholarly work in Lebn un Wisenschaft [Life and Knowledge] (1910) about Eliyahu haNavi [Elijah the prophet]. Since then Chaim Shoys has gifted us with a large number of basic treatises and general works about Jewish history, Tanakh [the Hebrew bible] research and the Jewish way of life.
Chaim Shoys came from Lithuania. Born in Gordz, Kovno gubernia [administrative division] in 1884. He received a traditional Jewish upbringing
in kheder [religious primary school] and in the house of study. Little by little he became acquainted with the literature of the Enlightenment of that time and began to immerse himself in Tanakh. He then spent some time in Germany where he thoroughly studied scholarly biblical literature and in 1910 Chaim Shoys came to America; he began to work with several Yiddish journals and here fate threw a very different mission upon him.
It is necessary to specially say a few words; truly many of us already have forgotten how our Jewish-radical environment looked 30 to 40 years ago.
The great cultural revolution in our Jewish life, which took on such a stormy form on the threshold of our [the 20th] century, actually created an abyss between the Jewish person of today and the Jewish world of the past. The war of light against darkness took a remarkable form. Everything that had a connection to the Jewish past, from the Shulkhan Arukh [Code of Jewish Law] to the Tanakh, was labeled as reactionary and darkness. True, in our beautiful literature, little by little a little tolerance was permitted. The romanticism of Hasidus arose and our artists also showed much understanding for the heroes of the Tanakh and the Agadah [legends]. Another climate reigned totally in our radical writing on current affairs. Here the war against the traditions had just ended and even those who did not carry on an open war could not unravel the Tanakh. The Tanakh entranced them. The wonderful personalities of the Khumish [the Torah] were dear and close to them. And yet how could a present-day person accept the Tanakh, the main foundation of Jewish tradition, while they continued to carry on such an embittered war with the old Yidishkeit [Jewish practices, customs and traditions]?
There was another reason that actually closed the approach to Tanakh for us. Every age has it own way of understanding and how to translate the past. We always
studied the Tanakh with commentary, with Rashi, with the Enlightenment commentary of [Moses] Mendelssohn and so on. Our mothers had the Khumish, the Tsene uRene [Go Forth and See the woman's bible]. We also cannot learn the Tanakh today without commentary. How do we create commentary for Tanakh for the Jewish person of our time? Chaim Shoys took upon himself this great, historic task.
Chaim Shoys was the only one who published a series of large, very thorough works about the Tanakh in Yiddish. It cannot be said that among us nothing was written about Tanakh. There were a certain number of earnest and original treatises. However, the majority of them dealt with sermons and I say it absolutely, not negatively. Sermons are an important matter. One may, of course, write about Tanakh as a reader, as a thoughtful reader. Chaim Shoys wrote about Tanakh as a teacher and he constantly demanded of his students that they become teachers. In essence, the principle difference between our cultural life of the past and our modern culture consists of this. The Jew of the earlier shtetl in Lithuania and Poland was a student, a scholar; today's Jewish person who is interested in our cultural matters is a reader. Chaim Shoys believed that a return to Tanakh means that we must again become a people of students.
Whoever has paged through the two volumes, Neviim [Prophets], which Chaim Shoys published, will immediately notice how much respect the author shows to the reader. He never requests that the reader rely on him, that he only believe his word, but he leads the reader into hidden rooms of scientific research. In addition to the original text with the Yiddish translation, each chapter has a separate introduction with a series of critical observations, where the more difficult passages of the text are interpreted and explained. There are very few books of this kind in Yiddish and as far as in the area of Tanakh,
Chaim Shoys in any case was the first who elevated the Jewish reader to the level of a student.
His first great work that was published in book form came out in 1916 under the title, Biblishe Gezangen: Di Gezangen fun Khumish un Neviim Rishonim [Biblical Songs: the Songs from the Bible and Early Prophets]. This actually was the first original work (in book-form) about biblical research in Yiddish. Later, the author of the Biblishe Gezangen published a series of other works in the area of Tanakh and Jewish history. To his important studies belong the already mentioned two volume Neviim. Alas, the author was not destined to finish the planned great work.
Chaim Shoys was a follower of modern biblical research and his greatest accomplishment was that he made the better Yiddish readers acquainted with the world of Tanakh and with the problems of Tanakh as they are seen today. Because of this, he also heard many complaints and reproaches. It is my deepest conviction that in this regard his critics are entirely wrong. They simply did not appropriately think through the entire problem. They did not see the simple fact that for today's Yiddish reader, the Tanakh is a closed book if they do not make use of the results of modern biblical knowledge. It is very easy to criticize the so-called biblical criticism if one does not himself read the Tanakh. If one sits down earnestly and tries to absorb oneself in this or that book, then it becomes clear how difficult it is to understand a weekly section of the Torah or a chapter of the Prophets. The most fluent student of Tanakh is therefore thankful for each scholar, each researcher who helps him to understand the spiritual world in which the poets and thinkers of biblical times lived.
Chaim Shoys lived with the Tanakh; he could not rest if he did not understand a verse, if something was not clear to him
he searched for an answer. He searched for it in old Jewish commentaries and he searched for it in modern biblical research. It is very different if one has little interest in the Tanakh, if one is, in the best case, not more than a reader. Then there are no questions and one does not look for an answer.
I could provide more and more such examples. It would be best to send the reader to the two volumes of Neveiim by Shoys. He [the reader] will then feel that it often becomes clearer when one becomes acquainted with the results of modern biblical research.
Not less important and worthwhile is the research by Chaim Shoys in the realm of the Jewish way of life, in addition to a series of articles and treatises in various periodical publications, which deserve particularly to be mentioned here: Dos Yom-Tov Bukh [The Holiday Book] that was also published in English under the title, The Jewish Festivals, and his The Lifetime of a Jew (alas, published only in English), where he dealt with Jewish customs in connection with the most important events in the life of the individual. The great significance of his work about the Jewish way of life is that the author gives us a picture of the historic road of our traditions and customs from ancient times right to the present day. I do not know of a more systematic work of this size in all of scholarly literature.
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Updated 12 Aug 2013 by LA