The Maggid of Melbourne: Speaking, writing, publishing

Rayatz was an avid collector of books and he added a postscript to his letter noting that – despite his critique of Alfes – he had yet to receive two other works Alfes has written.

The Maggid of Melbourne: Speaking, writing, publishing (photo credit: PIXNIO)
The Maggid of Melbourne: Speaking, writing, publishing
(photo credit: PIXNIO)
In 1931, the Yiddish and Hebrew writer, Ben-Zion Alfes (1850–1940), published his autobiographical Hadar Zekeinim – which was dedicated to the old age home where he lived briefly with his second wife until her death. Alfes sent the work to Riga for Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch (Rayatz, 1880-1950). At the time, Rayatz had been in Poland and he received the book in Autumn 1931 when he returned to Riga. A few months later, he wrote to Alfes acknowledging receipt of the work.
In his letter to Alfes, Rayatz castigated the author for his decision to include a critique of Hasidism from his youth which, Rayatz wrote, “hurt me greatly to hear such things.” Harsh words are unbecoming of even hot-headed youth – opined Rayatz – and they are certainly inappropriate for venerable people.
Rayatz did not claim that what Alfes had written was false; his stance was that Alfes should not have recorded such details! To bolster his position, Rayatz cited a heretofore unknown tradition from his great-grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1789-1866) – more commonly known by the title of his famed scholarly works, Tzemach Tzedek.
According to Rayatz, Tzemach Tzedek had once said “that when a Jewish person speaks he must know that a word spoken – is public; and a word in writing – is [placed] before the world; and a word in print – is for generations after generations.”
We do not know the original context of Tzemach Tzedek’s words, but Rayatz was citing the maxim as he chastised Alfes for recounting disputes of yesteryear that would be better to sideline now. Rayatz explained that it is so difficult to find the correct words to express critical ideas, that it is better to leave them unsaid, unwritten, and certainly unprinted. Rayatz recommended that Alfes correct his account in an addendum to a subsequent work.
Rayatz was an avid collector of books and he added a postscript to his letter noting that – despite his critique of Alfes – he had yet to receive two other works Alfes has written.
“And it would be nice for all of [Alfes’] books to be in my library.”

RAYATZ WAS succeeded at the helm of Lubavitch by his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Ramash, 1902-1994). In November 1960, Ramash wrote a letter to Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin (1888-1978) in Israel. R. Zevin had written to Ramash with the idea of compiling a new commentary to the Bible. The proposed commentary would be based on traditional sources, but it would be phrased in language that young people could easily access. R. Zevin had asked Ramash not only to participate in the venture, but to give his imprimatur to the project.
Ramash declined, explaining that such an enterprise was a minefield, for one false move would invalidate the entire effort. The head of the project, therefore, needed to be a person who had the time to fully dedicate himself to the venture. That person would need to meticulously comb through every word of the commentary to ensure that there was no departure whatsoever from tradition. The person taking responsibility could not appoint an agent or emissary; he needed to do this himself. Ramash therefore decided not only to decline the offer of stewardship, but he disassociated himself from the project entirely.
In order to explain how hesitant one should be when undertaking such a publication, Ramash cited the maxim of Tzemach Tzedek – his illustrious great-great-great grandfather, after whom he had been named.
In a public talk just over a year later, in January 1961, Ramash used the same idea in the opposite direction. Citing a vignette recounted by his predecessor, Ramash noted that the story must be of great import, if we consider Tzemach Tzedek’s maxim: Rayatz chose to retell the tale, transcribe it, and publish the story. The significance was patent. Ramash then set about considering the tale and explain its meaning.

NOWADAYS, SO many issues are discussed online. This medium is fleeting. Directives posted online or sent out via electronic media today, are quickly superseded with new sets of instructions. Only avid collectors of ephemera might try to preserve yesterday’s directives, as the conversation quickly moves to the next issue or the new reality and new orders are posted and debated. From this angle it would seem that we have stepped back from the eternity of the printed word.
Yet from a different vantage, the online word is even further-reaching than the printed word. Not only does it reach a further audience, but it is often stored in online repositories and then locatable with good search engines. From this perspective, we could add to the adage of the Tzemach Tzedek: The spoken word has indeed entered the public sphere, and the written word has in fact been placed before the world, and to be sure the printed word is bequeathed for generations to come. Yet it is the online word whose reach goes further than other communication media that we are used to using. As such, we need to be even more careful before sending a word out into cyberspace. ■

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Zur Hadassa.