By Naomi Ragen
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1989 Naomi Ragen
All rights reserved.
Founded in 1780 by Israel Ha-Levi, the most distinguished student of the Baal Shem-Tov himself, the Ha-Levis lived lives of incredible luxury and opulence in Hassidic courts that mirrored those of real royalty. Until that time, such ease had been considered scandalous, tantamount to apostasy. Jews who wished to reach spiritual heights felt they needed to punish themselves into spiritual fitness by denying the needs of their bodies altogether. The more one tortures the body, they reasoned, the higher the soul soars.
And so they slept on hard benches and rested their heads upon rocks. They put stones in their shoes, disrobed and rolled in the snow, then immersed themselves in ice-cold ritual baths.
For some, even this was too soft — they knocked a hole in the ice of a lake. Some fasted all week and ate only on the Sabbath. The body was the lowly, fleshly casement of the soul that was to be given no quarter.
But Israel Ha-Levi, an intense and sensitive young boy, heard a different message. If man is made in the image of God, he reasoned, one must honor that image by exalting every aspect of existence, living each moment as befits the servant of the King of Kings. And he had blazed the way, being the first and only Hassid to live in splendor. Supported by his faithful, he had traveled in a silver carriage and had sat on a gold throne as he dispensed advice to the thousands who flocked to his rabbinic court. When rival Hassidic groups complained that he had given in to his Evil Inclination, his reply was cryptic and unrepentant: "Satan is in everything the Hassidim do," he admonished, "but he does not know that beneath this opulence lies a holy kernel." From then on, despite their own bitter poverty, his disciples had seen to it that their rebbes, all direct male descendants of Israel Ha-Levi, had lived in unmatched riches as a way of serving God.
The Rolls, large and ostentatious, was almost impossible to navigate through the narrow streets of Meah Shearim, where even people walked single file. The chauffeur/bodyguard (for the Ha-Levis still had their violent detractors among rival Hassidic groups) cursed the traffic and the unwieldy vehicle, and wondered at the insanity of shipping such a thing halfway around the world for only a week's use.
But looking slyly in the mirror at his employer, he could not help being filled with a grudging respect and envy for the man, who exuded elegance and wealth. He studied the man's large, inscrutable eyes, the craftiness of his thin, hard lips. Yet his forehead was high and intelligent, almost brooding, giving him a look of sadness. This, of course, did not interest the driver, who feasted his eyes on the beautiful dark cloth of Ha-Levi's immaculately cut suit. But it was beyond his narrow experience to have guessed that the garment was made from wool grown on Ha-Levi's own large sheep farms in California, flown to London for processing, and finally custom cut on Savile Row by a tailor whose full-time job was to do nothing else but create dark, perfect suits for Abraham Ha-Levi.
Suddenly, he caught the slight, authoritative movement of his employer's hand motioning him to pull over, although they were nowhere near their destination. Understanding instinctively that this was not a man one questioned, he did so, despite the cars behind him that honked frantically, their way completely blocked.
Unhurried, Ha-Levi got out of the car and walked through the doors of a large, noisy yeshivah. He closed his eyes for a moment, breathing in the dust and worn paper of the massive Talmudical texts and listened to the singsong of young voices filled with the excited sense of discovery as they delved into the meaning of the text, source of all Jewish learning.
For a frightening half second he thought he was going to cry.
The face of his dead father, the voices of his dead brothers, flashed through his mind. He knew, and had always known, that the genes of genius that had made the halls of the yeshivah their victorious battleground had skipped him. Instead, he was heir to a perverse talent for something his family would not only have deemed unnecessary, but scorned: a talent for making money.
Of all the Ha-Levis that had ever lived, he was the only one who had financed his opulent life-style through the honest work of his own hands. In a way it was a cruel irony. God had blessed him with riches, cursing him. Because of his success, the scholarship of his family would be forgotten forever. Only the memory of the money would remain. Surely the fact that only he, the least scholarly and most rebellious of all, had been the only Ha-Levi to survive, was a divine message that the faithful service of the Ha-Levi family was no longer pleasing to Him.
He had never wanted his part in that service. He did not want people flocking to him for decisions about how to find God, how to heal the sick, who to marry or divorce. He was not the type, as his father and brothers had been, to get involved in people's lives. He sighed, thinking sadly what little difference it made what he wanted.
He returned to his car and was driven without further detours to his final destination, the greatest yeshivah in Jerusalem: Ohel Moshe, the Tent of Moses. On the wide steps hundreds of Hassidim waited to see him, to touch the corner of his garment. Pushing through the crowds, he was shown into the study hall and then taken up the stairs to a small office. Behind the desk sat a small, wrinkled man, almost shrunken looking, with a dark suit and a white beard and sidecurls. He was the great scholar and recognized leader of Jerusalem's great rabbinic council, chief judge of the rabbinic beit din. He was a man who at the age of three had already memorized long tracts of the Talmud, and by the age of five had posed questions of such breathtaking precision and insight to the chief rabbi of the community that the sage had stood up before him and proclaimed him a "Light of the Generation." Rabbi Magnes was silent, barely looking up from the large, open volume of Talmud on his desk. He waved his hand slightly, indicating he was waiting for Ha-Levi to begin speaking.
"Kavod harav," Ha-Levi began, so unnerved by the offhand reception he rushed headlong into the reason for his visit, with no softening words of introduction. "I am looking for a son-in-law. A man who will be the greatest scholar of the next generation, who can receive the mantle of the Ha-Levi dynasty. I am a man of wealth and influence. I can offer a life of every material convenience. And, of course, no amount of charity would be too much for me to give in my gratitude for your help. Perhaps a new study hall?" He hesitated. The old man had not reacted. What could he say to impress the quiet, penetrating eyes that peered out at him beneath those heavy brows of white hair?
The rabbi looked up with an ironic smile and slowly, painfully, pulled himself up from his chair and walked to the window. Ha-Levi cracked his knuckles impatiently, unaccustomed to the slow pace of men who live for the next world. He saw the rabbi staring at the huge car that had attracted the attention of dozens of yeshivah students in the street below. Finally, Rabbi Magnes turned to him sharply: "You have come to the wrong place, your car has made a wrong turn." He sat down again and dismissed him with a wave. "The shuk is down the street. Go there if you want to make a purchase."
Ha-Levi's face went white with the insult, but his business sense soon asserted itself; anger had no place in negotiations. "If kavod harav can find me such a one," he repeated patiently, respectful but just a tiny bit patronizing, the way one spoke to an aging parent bordering on senility, "one in whom he sees the seeds of greatness, an illui who will light the world with his understanding and his scholarship, I promise he will have every material need satisfied so that he may spend all of his life concentrating on his studies with no thought to a livelihood. He will have a wife whose piety and brilliance will match his own. And," he added, most delicately, "my daughter, Batsheva, is a girl of great beauty. California is such a dangerous place for such a girl. She must marry now, so that she may leave America forever before she is tainted by it. There is only so much I can do to protect her."
"You speak only of what you want," Rabbi Magnes said probingly, his dark eyes — piercing in their clarity and vision — examining the man before him. "You know that the Torah forbids one to force a child to marry against her will. The choice must be hers."
Abraham Ha-Levi took the rebuff with unaccustomed humility, noting with satisfaction that at least Rabbi Magnes had sat down again. Good. This was the right approach then. "She is a dutiful child who understands her responsibilities."
"Her responsibilities? Ah," the sage said with deceptive mildness, cocking his head to one side with a look of studied confusion. And then with stunning suddenness, he brought his fist crashing down upon his desk. "And what of your responsibilities? Where have you been for the last forty years?"
Ha-Levi went limp, crumpling in his chair like a puppet suddenly gone loose and ragged, bereft of the solid, guiding hand inside it. He fumbled, searching for his handkerchief, and wiped the heavy sweat from his brow. It was not only the day's journey that had finally caught up with him, he realized, draining him of all strength, all pretense. It was life itself. Today was a day of judgment and the prosecutor sat before him much as his father had so many years ago. He felt again like that frightened, guilty child. "Please, please. Forgive me," he said in a hoarse whisper, unable to meet the stern, judging eyes. "I am a tormented soul who has come to you for kindness. They are all gone, you see. Every one of worth — my father and brothers, brilliant scholars, all dead, murdered. I am the only one left."
He lifted haunted, tortured eyes and faced the man before him. "The most ignorant and least worthy of them all. How could I stand in their place? So I hid, I ran away, hoping no one would find me." He straightened his shoulders. "But even a criminal may repent. I have come then, to fulfill my responsibilities. My daughter, my Batsheva, I have watched over her so carefully. She is so innocent and good. Please, try to understand. My father's sainted name must be rebuilt through her. She is the only one who can bring from the ashes a new generation of worthy namesakes." For the first time he saw a gleam of pity and understanding in the stern eyes that bored into him so deeply.
"Does your daughter wish to leave America, her family? Has she ever been to Jerusalem?"
Ha-Levi flushed. The truth was she didn't know anything about this at all. But what did it matter, he thought impatiently. She will do her duty as I must do mine. She will rejoice in her responsibilities because she is the remnant, she is the Ha-Levis' new beginning, the repository of genes of generations of scholars and tzaddikim and she knows it. To the rabbi he answered: "She understands the Fifth Commandment well. But of course the boy must be an unquestioned genius and very pious. He must be worthy of her and of my name."
"Genius. Oy!" The sage slapped his desk with an impatient hand. "And what other qualities do you seek?" he asked evenly. Was there a spark of amusement in those razor-sharp eyes?
"I seek strict adherence to the Law, a trembling fear of God, and extreme diligence in studies."
"That is all?" the rabbi asked, raising his brows slightly. Ha-Levi shrank. What had he left out? "Ah, yes of course. Kindness, gentleness."
Rabbi Magnes nodded, his heavy brows contracted as if in pain. "I can do no more for you than Eliezer, Abraham's servant, did for him in seeking a bride for Isaac. I will seek a bridegroom, but God must provide him." Then the great sage sighed and looked toward heaven. The Fifth Commandment was honor thy father and mother.
"Let's talk a little bit about midos," Rabbi Silverman said mildly, stroking his white beard. A collective groan went up around the room, rising deep from the throats of all twenty girls.
"It's too hot to improve our characters!"
"It's too late, we'll be graduating next week!"
"Anything but that!"
Rabbi Silverman looked with dismay at the listless group of young women fidgeting behind outgrown wooden desks. The future hope of the Jewish people. He shook his head. It was hot and through the open windows the muted sounds of bustling traffic, children's laughter, and the collective footsteps of busy, working people on the dry, dusty pavement invaded the classroom. They would soon be, if they had not already been, taken in hand by maiden aunts or professional matchmakers. Their minds were already out of the classroom, out of Brooklyn, far away into the summer of their eighteenth year. Yet there was still so much to teach them, so much they needed to know.
Only a few would continue their studies to become teachers, while a few others might learn shorthand and typing and work for a religious businessman until the right man came along. They were being trained mostly to be good Jewish women, wives and mothers. Obedient, chaste, charitable, and pious. Only once in a while did he come across one that made it worthwhile to be a teacher; someone bright and curious, who had not yet been browbeaten into total unquestioning acceptance. He sought her in the back of the classroom, but she was one of the dreamers, looking out of the window.
"We will start with humility and pride," he said with determination. "According to Mesillat Yesharim, why can't a person regard himself as superior to others?"
The girls who had no idea slumped low in their seats while those with no interest continued to look at their long hair, pulling off the split ends. They were all from strict Hassidic or Orthodox homes, yet they were not a homogeneous group. Some were the plump, dark daughters of butchers and rabbis, dressed in homemade blouses with wrist-length sleeves in dull, opaque colors and mid-calf skirts with sensible low-heeled shoes. Then there were the daughters of accountants and doctors, with lipstick and cheeks redder than God-given, dressed in the latest colorful styles Abraham & Straus department store could supply, their sleeves barely touching their elbows, their skirts barely covering their knees. Even the strictest girls had pushed their sleeves up to their elbows and fanned their faces with their notebooks.
A few hands were raised dutifully. There were always some whose virtue remained intact, no matter the temptation.
"A person shouldn't pride himself on his natural qualities because they are all God-given. Should a bird pride itself on flying?" she said in a prissy singsong, her round, smug face flushed with pleasure.
"Correct, correct. If only you didn't take so much pride in giving the right answer," he said dryly. The class sat up and laughed. Better.
"If a person considers himself in relation to others, then he might feel superior. He has to look at himself subjectively, in terms of how much more he has to accomplish."
"Very true. When the great sage Yochanon Ben Zakkai was dying, he quaked with fear. 'There are two paths before me,' he told his students, 'one to heaven and one to hell, and I don't know which one I'll travel on.' Now, why did he feel this way, this great man? He felt that perhaps he had not made the most of his God-given potential. God created this world as a test so that we might enjoy His goodness in the World to Come —" A hand raised urgently, waving, insistent. He nodded, pleased to have drawn her attention away from the window. He wiped beads of sweat from his forehead. "Go on, Batsheva." She never let anything pass without a fight. She was a hard student, but a rewarding one, unlike any girl he had ever taught. If there was a hierarchy in the class, she was certainly on top.
Luminously beautiful (he was not blind after all!), incredibly wealthy, bright. Her problem was that she knew this gave her a certain invulnerability toward criticism. Even her clothes. Such bright colors, such different cuts. Always modest, technically. But they made her stand out, which her unusual height did anyway. She was five-foot-eight in a class where the tallest girl was five-foot-four. Girls were not supposed to stand out, but to fade away with maidenly modesty into the background. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Jephte's Daughter by Naomi Ragen. Copyright © 1989 Naomi Ragen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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