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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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In 1751 the Va’ad became involved in the famous Emden-Eybeschutz affair. A Polish student of Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz, Rabbi (Ya’akov) Haim the rabbi of Lublin, and his son Avraham Haims (a well-known “politician” in the Polish Jewish communities and a candidate for a position as parnas [elder] on the Va’ad) issued a ban against Rabbi Ya’akov Emden and his supporters. This elicited a storm of protest letters addressed to the Va’ad from many Ashkenazi rabbis opposed to Eybeschutz (including Emden himself). These clamored for nullification of the ban and punishment of Rabbi Haim of Lublin by the Va’ad. They also demanded that the Va’ad join the offensive against Eybeschutz, writer of the suspect amulet inscriptions. As Emden urged

Unite with us to protect the Torah! One will declare, ‘I am for God’; one will be called by the name Jacob; one will dedicate his pen to the great and awesome God. Call to the lands both near and far: Lithuania and its region, Ruthenia, Prussia, Wallachia, and the lands of the East; to the place where your word, the word of the King, the Lord of Hosts, reaches; that they take up arms, hitch up the chariot and make war against the enemies of God.”

Emden was asking the Va’ad to join the attack against Eybeschutz. He presumed that with the controversy having spread beyond the bounds of Ashkenaz proper, the Va’ad, who ruled in Poland and influenced certain communities outside of Poland, would be a valuable ally in the battle.

For his part, Eybeschutz thought that the Va’ad could help save him from his enemies. He informed the Danish king that he intended to make his case before the Va’ad. In the introduction to his book Luhot Edut (Altona 1755) he wrote:

And I said to my persecutors here: “Behold in a few days the sages of the generation, the scholars, will meet and gather at the time of the congregating of all at the Jaroslaw meeting [i.e., the semi-annual meeting of the Va’ad]. Let us bring our case before them because they are the most and the greatest in wisdom and numbers.”

Eybeschutz fully expected the Va’ad to judge in his affair and vindicate him, hoping that their verdict would force his attackers to finally leave him alone.

It seems that the men of the Va’ad were not very eager to have to choose between the Emden and Eybeschutz camps. In their responses to the urgings of both sides they tried to refrain from insulting either party and apparently hoped that the matter would conclude without the Va’ad having to render an official and unequivocal determination. In its 1751 meeting in Konstantynow the Va’ad decided not to decide. As the treasurer of the Va’ad, Yissakhar Berish Segal, wrote to one of the prominent figures in the anti-Eybeschutz camp, Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Amsterdam,

It was agreed and the leader, the elder of the month of the Va’ad, was empowered to write with reason and good sense a reply to all of the missives. And we will see how things develop, if the Gaon, our teacher Yehonatan, will feel remorse and repair what he has ruined, so much the better. But if not, then there will certainly be a great convocation of the Va’ad this year and then we will see, God willing, about being in contact on a war footing.

In other words, the Va’ad decided only that the elder Avraham ben Yoska from Lissa would formulate diplomatic replies to the advocates of both camps. In the meantime it was waiting, in the hope that Eybeschutz would mollify his opponents. If the tensions were to persist, then the Va’ad would have to reconsider its policy.

Avraham from Lissa’s letters were in fact intended to keep good relations with both sides. Already in June 1751 (4 Tammuz 5511) he wrote to Shmuel Hilman, one of those insisting on the nullification of the ban against Emden issued by Rabbi Haim of Lublin, that this ban was not declared by the Va’ad and thus “was not a ban, nor an excommunication, but only fantasy.” However, he also expressed the Va’ad’s hesitation at taking a clear-cut position:

For great turmoil is passing over all the inhabitants of the land, trampled by these rabbinic kings. Who will throw his garment between the lion and lioness when they are in heat?

In September 1751 (8 Tishrei 5512), Avraham wrote to Rabbi Emden himself (who was an in-law of one of his children). He expressed his dismay at Rabbi Haim’s ban but politely explained that the members of the Va’ad had always hoped that the conflict would end before they would have to take sides:

And we being in consultations daily, expecting to hear the voice of good tidings proclaiming, “Peace, peace”; but instead bitterness. For many send letters to us asking for ploys and strategems. But we said let neither shield nor spear be seen in Israel; our silence is better than our speech.

The next day, Yom Kippur eve, Avraham wrote to Rabbi Eybeschutz. This letter is now lost, but Eybeschutz included a summary of it among the documents he submitted to the Danish authorities. Albeit written by a partisan, it clearly indicates that Avraham tried to placate Eybeschutz and promised to protect his honor.

Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz
Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschütz. (Wikimedia Commons)

The primary reason the Va’ad hesitated to stake a definite position in this controversy was, apparently, that the rabbis and lay leaders could not reach consensus. Both of the warring camps organized support in Poland, with each side attempting to gain leverage for its hero. Eybeschutz’s faction won when Avraham from Lublin (Haim’s son) was appointed elder of the Va’ad. At the end of the Va’ad meeting held in autumn 1753 he raised the issue and succeeded in forging a majority of 19 vs. 11 voting to proclaim Rabbi Eybeschutz “innocent” and condemning all pamphlets published against him to the fire.

While both camps coveted a ban from the Va’ad that favored their side, the practical value of such a ban was limited. Certainly, Eybeschutz’s hope that the Va’ad’s ban would muzzle Emden and his supporters was vain. The conflict was resolved only after the Danish king’s intervention, which led to the renewed choice of Eybeschutz as rabbi of Altona and the effective end of the controversy.

***

These and related cases allow for a few generalizations concerning the authority of the Va’ad outside of Poland, and can be divided into two clear categories: disputes between two different communities or between two factions within the same community (Group A) or interpersonal theological-ideological-commercial conflicts, in which rabbis and leaders from a number of communities were involved (Group B).

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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?