Hasidic-Muslim Relations in Ottoman Palestine
The 18th Century Hasidic Aliyah
The first Hasidic masters settled in Palestine in the eighteenth century, even before the movement developed a consciousness of itself as a new life-form of Jewish piety. R. Avraham Gershon of Kitov (d. 1761) — the brother in law of the founder of Hasidism, R. Israel Baal Shem Tov (ca. 1700-1760)— settled in Hebron in 1747, and by the early 1750s he moved to Jerusalem.
In 1781, a group of three hundred Hasidim led by R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk (1730-1788) and R. Avrahm of Kalisk (1741-1810) established a community in Tiberias (after a failed attempt to settle in Safed). In Palestine, the Hasidim met not only the local Sefaradi Kabbalists but also the local, non-Jewish residents. This latter encounter is particularly intriguing, but a full account of this would take a monograph.
Here I would like to examine two especially striking episodes from this encounter; the first highlights the relationship between Jews and Muslims in the land during this period, while the second shows how a Hasidic master in Europe viewed the non-Jewish natives of Ottoman Palestine.
1 – R. Avraham Gershon of Kitov
After his immigration to Palestine, R. Gershon of Kitov maintained a correspondence with his brother in law. The Besht’s celebrated Letter of Spiritual Ascent [אגרת עליית נשמה], one of the founding documents of early Hasidism, was part of this correspondence. In a letter written during his early tenure in Hebron, R. Gershon expresses astonishment about the nature of the relations between local Jews and gentiles:
בעיה״ק בזאת שיש בראש חצר אחד של יהודים בשבתות יו״ט סוגרין אותו ואין יוצא ואין בא ובכל לילה לא הי׳ שום פחד מגויים כמעט דלתותיו הי׳ פתוחות בלילה…
In this holy city, there is a Jewish courtyard which they [are permitted to] close during the Sabbath and festivals, no one can come in or out all night, and they have virtually no fear of gentiles. Its doors were kept unlocked at night…
וכשיש שמחת מילה או שאר שמחות באים הגדולים וכולם שמיחים
And when there is a celebration, such as circumcision or some other occasion, the Muslim elders come, and all rejoice.
ולא עוד אלא הגויים שבכאן בגדולים שבהם אוהבים את היהודים מאוד, וכשיש שמחת מילה או שאר שמחות באים הגדולים שבהם בלילה ומשמחין את היהודים ומטפחין ומרקדים בי היהודים ממש להבדיל כמו היהודים.
And it is not only this, but the local gentiles, even the greatest ones, love the Jews very much, and whenever there is a celebration, such as circumcision, their leaders come to celebrate with the Jews and dance with the Jews, almost exactly —not to compare—just like Jews.
כשבאתי לכאן בא שר העיר הגדול שבכולם לקבל פני ונתתי לו מתנה ציבוק גדול שהי׳ לי מסטאמבול והם אוהבים אותי ואומרים שמיום שבאתי יש להם מז״ט.
When I came here, the city’s highest officer greeted me, and I gave him a nice zibbuk (pipe?) I had from Istanbul. And they [the Arab officers] love me and say that I brought them great fortune and luck.
כשהייתי חתן תורה בש״ת בליל מוצאי יו״ט באו אלי כל החכמים לשמוח עמי ובאו גם השרים והי׳ מטפחין ומרקדין כאחד היהודים ומזמרים שבחות בלשונן לשון ערבי.
At the evening of the recent festival of Simhat Torah,when I was designated as Hatan Torah, all the [Jewish] sages came to celebrate with me, and the [Muslim] dignitaries [שרים] came too, and they were dancing and singing just like the Jews, and praising God in their language, Arabic.
והולכים בכאן בצבע ירוק והכל מיני צבעונים ואין פוצה פה.
And [the Jews] here wear green and colorful clothes, while no one protests!
The tone of the letter makes it clear that R. Gershon could hardly believe the reality that transpired before his eyes. Having spent most of his life in Eastern Europe, he was not accustomed to gentiles who dance with the Jews in their celebration and treat them as beloved neighbors.
The words of R. Gershon also make it clear that he was not describing one or two incidents of friendly relations among Jews and Arabs, but rather what he took to be the consistent and stable reality of his time. This is how R. Gershon perceived the attitude of the Arab residents of Hebron toward him and his fellow Jews.
2 – R. Aharon of Karlin (II)
This second account, from a different early master, some of whose disciples lived in Palestine, reflects a remarkably positive stance toward the non-Jews who lived in Palestine then, and sheds some light on at least one kind of outlook that took shape in this mostly forgotten history.
The Beis Aharon — R. Aharon the Second of Karlin (1802-1872), was the grandson of R. Aharon ha-Godol [R. Aharon the Senior, 1736-1772] — the founder of Karlin Hasidism. Born on the new moon of the Jewish month of Sivan, 1802, the Beis Aharon ascended to the leadership of the community shortly after the death of his father, R. Asher, in 1826. R. Aharon led the Hasidic community during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century and earned the reputation of a sharp and witty thinker.
Due to a complaint to the Russian authorities by the Mitnagdim (Rabbinic opponents of Hasidism), R. Aharon was forced to move from Karlin (a suburb of Pinsk) to the town of Stolin, which became the center of the community during the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. R. Aharon also nurtured the small branch of the community that resided in Palestine since the late eighteenth century (the old Karliner shul in Tiberias, which still exists, is the second floor of the original home of R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk), and considered these Hasidim the precious gems of the entire Karliner community.
By the mid nineteenth century it became common for the Palestinian Hasidim to travel to Poland before the High Holidays and spend the holidays at the court of R. Aharon. This is the background for the following story about one of these visits in the recollections of one of the Hasidim:
אויף ימים נוראים זיינען אנגעפארן צווישן אנדרע אויך חסידים פון ירושלים. זיי האבן דערציילט מעשיות פון לאנד און אויך פון די בעדואינער, אז זיי זיינען גנבים גרויסע. זאגט ר׳ אהרן: ״דער ייד האט א ניצוץ פון די מרגלים.״ זאגט דער ייד: ״רבי – איך רייד ניט חס ושלום אויף יידן״. זאגט רב אהרן: ״די מרגלים האבן אויך ניט גערעדט אויף קיין יידן. אויף קיינעם פון די ארץ-ישראלדיקע תושבים טאר מאן ניט ריידן.
For the High Holidays a group of Hasidim from Jerusalem, among others, journeyed to the court of R. Aharon. They told various stories about the land, and they also said that the local Bedouins are great thieves. Hearing this, R. Aharon responded: “I see my friend that in your soul there is a spark from the soul of the biblical spies.” The Hasid who told the story about the Bedouins objected: “But Rabbi, I have not, God forbid, spoken ill of any Jew.” To this R. Aharon answered: “The spies didn’t speak ill of any Jew either. We must not speak ill of any resident of the Land of Israel.”
R. Aharon was obviously correct in observing that the biblical spies (Numbers 13-14) spoke no ill words about any Israelite. But the implied message of his rebuke went far beyond that observation. It seems that for R. Aharon the love of the Land of Israel should include the love of all the people of that land, Jews and gentiles alike, and thus he rebuked his follower for speaking badly about the local Bedouins.
Hearkening to Messages from the Past
These two episodes from the encounters between the Hasidim and the local Palestinian people may appear today as figments of a delusive imagination. Regrettably, it is hard to find current Palestinian Islamic leaders dancing in a celebration of Simhat Torah, just as it is hard to find current rabbinic authorities for whom the love of the Land of Israel commands the love of its Palestinian residents.
Nevertheless, these two stories offer important precedents for us to reflect upon, and perhaps emulate. This is, perhaps, one of the major benefits of tracing the longer history of these communities, namely, the ability to comprehend that matters were not always in their current wretched state.
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April 16, 2018
June 20, 2020
Prof. Yitzhak Y. Melamed is the Charlotte Bloomberg Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and Member of the Steering Committee of the Stulman Jewish studies Program. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University and an MA in philosophy and the history of science and logic from Tel Aviv University. Melamed is the author of Spinoza’s Metaphysics: Substance and Thought.
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