From a Jewish to a Hebrew identity

There has recently been an avalanche of events recognizing the personality and thought of Rav Yehouda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou) - the man of a thousand personae.

manitou 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
manitou 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It has been thirteen years since Rav Leon Ashkenazi, also known as "Manitou," passed away, but upon examining the avalanche of commemorative events taking place this month, it seems that his influence has only grown stronger with every passing year. Although one of the pillars of French Jewry, Manitou was unknown to the Israeli public, but in the decade since his death, rabbinical and public figures such as Rav Shlomo Aviner, MK Tzipi Hotovely and others have been promoting his teachings in wider circles. The translation of six of his books from French into Hebrew over the past four years alone has broken the language barrier and with that, says Hotovely, "his Torah has been gaining exposure, and everyone encountering the depth and innovation of his approach is put under its spell." Born in Oran, Algiers in 1922, the son of its last Chief Rabbi, Manitou's life manifested the encounter between Jewish Orthodox tradition and Western culture. In his youth he studied Kabbalah in Marrakech, moving on to study philosophy and anthropology at the University of Algiers and later at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1943 he was recruited to the French army and was wounded in the battle of Strasbourg. After World War II he moved to France, first joining the Jewish Scouts where he picked up the nickname "Manitou" (which in Indian Mythology means 'Great Spirit') and later becoming a prominent educator and leader of the French Jewish community. In 1967, after the Six Day War, he made aliya and settled in Jerusalem, where he founded centers for Jewish studies. According to Historian Dr. Yossef Charvit of Bar-Ilan University, Manitou "served as a source of inspiration for mass immigration of French-speaking Jews to Israel," and was partially responsible for the great immigration waves of French Jewry to Israel during the 1970s and 1980s. It is told that when the Jewish Agency, which financed the Ma'ayanot Center, one of the schools Manitou ran in Israel, realized the school was too 'successful' - instead of creating a reserve of young Jewish leadership for French Jewry most of the young students ended up making aliya and bringing their families along - it stopped financing the Center, forcing it to close down. Rav Aviner described Manitou's ability to bring together opposites in the eulogy he gave in his memory: "Because of the wealth of his spiritual world, his message found a path to everyone's heart, as well as to everyone's mind. It was a wondrous sight to behold such an extremely varied public sitting together, listening avidly to his words: Believers and atheists, religious and secular, intellectuals and innocents, scholars and ignoramuses, communists and reformists, old and young, rabbis and math students… because his Torah was all-encompassing" It was this ability to pacify the opposed and appease the distant that made Manitou a mythological figure in his lifetime. A recent open debate held in Tel Aviv on the eve of Shavuot under the title: "Rejuvenated Jewish Identities", demonstrated this gift of Manitou, and the way his personality and thought attracted what appear to be opposing forces, uniting them in a common objective. The event brought together MKs from opposite poles of the political spectrum (Hotovely of Likud and Uri Orbach of Habayit Hayehudi, along with Meretz's Nitzan Horowitz), as well as renowned educators, in order to discuss the problematics of Israeli identity in view of his thought. Hotovely, previously an acclaimed columnist and a panelist on TV debate shows, stated that "Manitou's Torah is characteristic of the Land of Israel," because it stresses the importance of the transition from a Diasporal, religion-based, Judaism to a national Israeli identity, by getting in touch with the rejuvenated Hebrew identity of the forefathers of the people of Israel. Gabrielle Ben Shmuel, translator of Sod Ha'Ivri - Secret of the Hebrew Identity, claimed that "Manitou's greatness of thought lay in his clear, unapologetic voice, which overcame the mist of two thousand years of Jewish exile, combating the anti-Jewish propaganda affecting both Jews and non-Jews alike." During the 1950sand 1960s, what is now known as the French School of Jewish Thought, considered by many to be unprecedented in its unique language and richness of scope, was founded by Emmanuel Levinas, Manitou, Andre Neher, Elie Wiesel and others. Although coming from a variety of backgrounds, mentalities and orientations, its members succeeded in revitalizing the Jewish sources and combining them with postmodern western thought, holding annual "French Intellectual Jewish Conferences", which no other Jewish community succeeded to imitate. With the growing interest in Levinas and Manitou, "and with the awakening of the secular elite's interest in Judaism, this French School of Thought might encounter its renaissance in Israeli society", said Prof. Shmuel Trigano, a Sociology and Religion Professor at the University of Paris, in an International Conference held at Bar Ilan University to commemorate Manitou's tenth yartzheit three years ago. Ben-Shmuel explains the historiosophical approach which lies at the core of Manitou's Torat Ha'Toladot - teaching of the Engenderments, based on the creed of the National-Zionist stream in Jewish thought. "In the Torah as much as in later Jewish tradition, the word for history is toladot - engenderment, a word which carries the notion of birth, of an effort at creation. Manitou insisted that one can only truly comprehend history by studying the Bible - in its verses are delineated the ever-changing human identity with its trials, moral downfalls and spiritual transformations." A tri-lingual launching event is planned for June 9 at Matan Jerusalem, followed by another at Rosh Yehudi in Tel Aviv on the on June 15, to coincide with Hebrew Book Week.