People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition
By Dr. Henry Abramson
Two hundred years ago, Sefer HaBrit was a fixture in the library of every educated Jewish home. First published anonymously in 1797, this hugely popular 800-page tome appeared in 40 editions, including translations into Ladino and Yiddish. It was widely read by Ashkenazim and Sephardim, western and eastern European Jews, chassidim, mitnagdim, and maskilim with equal enthusiasm.
The author’s initial decision to hide his identity sparked rumors that the book was written by figures as diverse as the Vilna Gaon and Moses Mendelssohn. After a poorly produced pirated edition appeared in 1801, however, the author revealed his identity in an expanded second edition. His name was Pinchas Hurwitz of Vilna, and his unique passion for both Lurianic Kabbalah and modern science ultimately articulated a theological space for Jewish identity in the modern world.
Despite its longevity through the 19th century, Sefer HaBrit has not retained its universal popularity over the last 50 years. This is probably because the first half of the book is dedicated to an exuberant survey of the scientific world as it existed at the end of the 18th century. Modern readers would find this information about subjects like the technology of hot-air balloons quaint, but only specialists in the history of science would read it seriously today. For traditionalist Jews emerging into a rapidly changing industrial society, however, Sefer HaBrit represented an accessible, authoritative, and religiously kosher view of modern science, and its endorsement by leading rabbinic figures guaranteed its widespread adoption by intellectually curious Jewish readers.
A recent study of Sefer HaBrit by distinguished University of Pennsylvania historian David Ruderman explores the larger significance of Hurwitz’s work, arguing that scholars have underestimated the importance of Sefer HaBrit. Ostensibly, Rabbi Hurwitz was inspired by Tsfat thinker Rabbi Chaim Vital’s classic work of Kabbalistic ethics, Shaarei Kedushah (discussed previously in this column: see 5tjt.com/the-gates-of-holiness/). At first glance, the rapid pace of scientific change represented a grave intellectual challenge to religious piety: given the demonstrable successes of the scientific worldview, what hope of survival would traditional Judaism have for the future?
Borrowing from contemporary philosopher Immanuel Kant’s decisive attack on accepted wisdom, Rabbi Hurwitz confidently proposed a theological posture that consisted of two distinct elements. First, the euphoria associated with scientific discovery must be tempered by the realization that later scholars will ultimately refine and even reverse these “laws of nature,” just as Newtonian physics replaced Aristotelian models (and would in turn be superseded by Einstein’s theories). Ultimate truth may only be found in faith, eternally outside the dimensions of empirical measurement.
Second, scientific discovery should be received by Jews with open hearts and open minds, recognizing the advance of secular knowledge as the gradual unfolding of Divine wisdom, “the wonders of the Creator.”
This twofold proposition, a remarkable combination of contemporary science and Lurianic Kabbalah, created an intellectual space suitable for the adaptation of Jews to the modern world without sacrificing religious integrity.
While the first half of Sefer HaBrit is of great value to intellectual historians, the second half remains directly relevant to a much wider audience. Rabbi Hurwitz was deeply concerned with the state of Jewish society, and the second part–significantly expanded after his work was produced in a plagiarized edition in 1801–was a large, substantive discussion of traditional Jewish ethics. Of particular value was the section entitled “Ahavat Rei’im,” in which Rabbi Hurwitz argued that the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” should be understood as a broader directive to respect and hold the dignity of all human beings.
Professor Ruderman points out that Rabbi Hurwitz’s moral cosmopolitanism reached further than most commentators, who tended to interpret this verse more narrowly. Rabbi Hurwitz’s wide experience with diverse populations, undoubtedly a result of his extensive European travels, inspired him to promote a more expansive view of human society. Ahavat Rei’im was published as a standalone work several times after Rabbi Hurwitz passed away in 1821.
Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought, serving as dean at the Avenue J campus of Touro College. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.