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Jewish Self-Government in Europe Was Not Just a Dream—It Was a Failure

The Council of Four Lands was the central body of Jewish autonomy in Poland for nearly two centuries. What went wrong?

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Seventeenth-century woodcut showing various members of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth society, inclduding, top left, the Jew. (Wikimedia Commons)
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The Va’ad sent a letter to Amsterdam asking the Sephardim to come to “the aid of the Polish congregation, may God protect them.” Their help took the form of interceding with the authorities on behalf of the Poles. The Va’ad declared the Sephardi elders should be the arbitrators between the Poles and the Ashkenazim. The Ashkenazim continued attacking the independence of the Poles and also cast aspersions on the ability of the Sephardim to serve as an authority in these affairs. Around 1671 the Va’ad withdrew its endorsement of arbitration by the Sephardim and came out in favor of the amalgamation of the two communities. The dispute ended in late 1672 or early 1673 when the Polish community protested to the Amsterdam municipal authorities against the refusal of the Ashkenazi community to split the revenue from the Ashkenazi slaughterhouse. The municipality appointed a commission of inquiry, and on July 26, 1673, after the commission concluded its investigation, the municipality prohibited the Polish community from gathering separately and “permitted” it to merge with the Ashkenazi community.

Our main sources for this episode are two letters sent to the Va’ad by representatives of the Sephardi community protesting the Va’ad’s change of heart. The tone of these letters implies that all parties involved related to the Va’ad’s decisions with respect: the Poles who sought support; the Ashkenazim who tried to change the policy of the Va’ad; and the Sephardim who were angered by the change. That said, however, there still is no evidence that the Va’ad’s word decided the issue. The uniting of the two communities resulted from the order of the municipal authorities in the wake of the Poles’ appeal and not because of the parties’ observance of the Va’ad’s order.

Conflict was renewed with the appointment of Rabbi David Lida as rabbi of the Amsterdam Ashkenazi community in 1681. The rabbi quickly became the target for the anger of important members of the community who accused him of Sabbatianism and plagiarism in his book Migdal David (Amsterdam 1680). His opponents embarrassed and cursed him in public, libeled him in print, and succeeded in deposing him from the rabbinate in 1684. Close upon the commencement of the attacks against him, Rabbi Lida tried to defend himself by appealing to the Va’ad in the summer of 1681. The Va’ad did not disappoint, and its involvement is reflected in no fewer than seven documents—dated between the fall of 1681 and the late summer of 1684. We know of five letters (the first from the autumn of 1681, or 11 Tishrei 5442) that the Va’ad sent to the communities of Amsterdam, a ban against the opponents of the rabbi promulgated throughout Poland and an approbation to Rabbi Lida’s Be’er Esek, his defense and attack on his detractors. All of these reflect the Va’ad’s attempts to repel the rabbi’s nemeses and secure his position.

The Va’ad justified its intervention on behalf of Rabbi Lida, a Polish Jew, on the basis of the principle that it is forbidden to stand idly by when the honor of a sage is injured thereby injuring the honor of the Torah as well:

We have heard the sound of depravity, the sound of imprecations and curses that torture the soul of the listener. Our stomach and loins were upset, really agitated, on account of the terrible deed that was done against the honor of the great Rabbi …

In line with our Divine obligation to defend his honor, [...] we have stood up and awoken and said: how can our soul not take vengeance on these evildoers? Would that they fall into our hands we would never be sated with their flesh.

As with the first two cases we described, here too the Va’ad was aware that the primary authority and responsibility in this matter lay with the local Amsterdam Jewish institutions and authorities. It was in fact preferable that they deal with it:

For now, however, we have checked our power in favor of Your Honors [the Ashkenazi community in Amsterdam] for Your Honors have the power to make a clear-cut judgement and we support Your Honors in whatever you will do in this case.

Despite these words, the Va’ad in fact could not restrain itself and decided to declare a ban on the rabbi’s attackers. The ban was to remain in force until three conditions were fulfilled. The attackers were to retract their accusations against Rabbi Lida; mollify him; and appear personally before the Va’ad to request nullification of the ban.

This ban against the slanderers and inventers of lies should be declared to the madding crowd with trumpets and shofar blast, naming the names (known to Your Honors) of those not worthy of blessing. As the evildoers are found, you have the authority to issue judgement against their persons and to confiscate their property. We here have no power but that of our mouth, with God’s counsel declaring the ban.

In other words, it was up to the Jewish leaders of Amsterdam to identify to whom precisely the ban should apply—and then to apply it.

Later, in 1684, when a compromise was reached and Rabbi Lida briefly resumed his position, the Va’ad threatened:

And if, God forbid, this rabbi will endure any slight in word or deed—whether aimed at his property or, God forbid, his person—then know well that we will come out against you with sharp condemnation.

The Rabbi Lida affair ended in 1684 with his final removal from the Amsterdam Ashkenazi rabbinate. He remained in Amsterdam, however, until 1687 when he reached a compromise with his opponents, received compensation in the amount of 250 florins and left Amsterdam for good. In this case, too, it is impossible to claim that the orders of the Va’ad led to the resolution of the conflict. The rabbi’s opponents evidently regarded the Va’ad’s bans as no more than a nuisance. No one from Amsterdam appeared either before the Va’ad or the rabbinic tribunal as it had demanded. As against the position of the Va’ad, the affair ended in the victory of the rabbi’s attackers and his exit from the city.

***

The immigation to Jerusalem of Rabbi Judah Hasid’s group in 1700 fomented unrest among the Ashkenazim of the city. The “Hasidim,” headed by Haim Malakh, became the dominant camp in the community. Their Sabbatian tendencies elicited strong opposition from Jerusalem’s Ashkenazi rabbis who, in 1705, turned to the Va’ad (as well as to some important Ashkenazi rabbis elsewhere) requesting support in their attempt to expel the Sabbatian sect from the holy city. They wrote:

Without the cooperation of the greats abroad, we do not have enough power, here in the holy city, to harass them or to condemn them to expulsion. Therefore it is incumbent upon you [i.e., the foreign rabbis and the Va’ad] to understand and be wise enough to fix what they have perverted and ruined, to proclaim and announce everywhere there is a viable Jewish community or to publicize beautiful sayings with metal pen and lead. And God forbid, God forbid, to mention the names of the signatories to this petition.

The Ashkenazi rabbis of Jerusalem were in a weak and defensive position—so much so that they were afraid to publish the names of those opposed to the Sabbatians. They believed that their only chance to prevail was to receive support from important leaders in Europe. They asked the Va’ad to declare a ban on Haim Malakh and his circle and to publicize it throughout the Diaspora. The Va’ad’s response has not survived. Once these Hasidim’s Sabbatianism became known, as early as 1701 (less than a year after their arrival in Jerusalem), the European communities had stopped sending money to the Jerusalem community. In 1704, Rabbi David Oppenheim of Prague attacked the Sabbatian group in writing, and by 1706 most had either converted to Islam or Christianity or had left the city. This was apparently somewhat due to the pressure from the Ashkenazi rabbis and their foreign supporters but resulted more so from the relentlessness of the Muslim creditors of the Jerusalem community in the city itself.

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Jewish Self-Government in Europe Was Not Just a Dream—It Was a Failure

The Council of Four Lands was the central body of Jewish autonomy in Poland for nearly two centuries. What went wrong?