Few rabbis have been willing to open up their inner, personal worlds like the exceptional character of Rabbi Yaakov Emdan, one of the most important rabbis of the 18th century. On the one hand, he staunchly defended the tradition and hounded those he considered to be steering away from it. On the other, he is considered to bone of the forerunners of the Jewish Enlightenment. Dr. Eli Freiman writes about Emdan and his unique autobiography in which he exposes his personal life and his motives for public activity.
Although we can assume that he would vigorously oppose this characterization, Rabbi Yaakov Emdan (1698-1775) is considered by many to be the first figure to bring about the 18 century Enlightenment. Emdan was born and died in Altona, Germany. His father, the Hacham Tzvi, was one of the most important Ashkenazi rabbis of his time. Emdan received a very well-rounded secular education (including mastery of several languages), which finds expression in all of his writings. He is known to many for his uncompromising opposition to Sabbateanism and to people he suspected of being Sabbateans – in effect, anything he perceived as a deviation from accepted Jewish tradition.
Considered unusual in his generation, it is clear today that he lived differently than rabbis and rabbinic leaders of his generation. We learn about his unusual personality from his many writings, including essays on philosophy, halakha, and polemics, commentaries on ancient writings, responsa, and personal essays. Emdan wrote on a wide variety of topics, from a deep critical perspective uncharacteristic to people in his era. His strong sense of history and keen critical analysis can be seen in all of his writings.
Thus, for example, he cast doubt on the traditional relationship between the Zohar and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (at least for a large part of the book). Emdan also dealt with the relationship between Jews and Christians, in particular the status of Jesus and Paul – issues that are unique in Jewish writings of that time. His unusual approach to Christianity also finds expression in the fact that he had no compunction directly reprimanding, praising, or requesting help from Christian thinkers in his struggle against deviant sects. His attitude towards Jewish concubines is also exceptional; in a long and detailed responsum based on an astute understanding, in his opinion, of male nature, Emdan opens the possibility for a man to live with a concubine.
In parallel, Emdan wrote his autobiography, including bold revelations. His, Megilat Sefer, is unique in that it was written by a first-rate 18th century scholar thatdoes not shy away from exposing intimate personal details– or, as one researcher commented, “Rabbi Yaakov Emdan was the only one in generations of Jewish scholars to write his life story. In his Megilat Sefer he lays out intimate details of his life in a way that had never seen in a Jewish rabbi.” (Benzion Katz, Rabbis, Hassidism and Enlightenment)
Emdan began to write his life story at around the age of 50 and finished the book 12 years later. His book deals with a wide range of topics that surrounded his life: bitter struggles with community rabbis and trustees (the parnas), his attempts at financial survival following his decision not to make a living being a rabbi, long theories about the gemstone trade and other areas of business in which Jews worked at the time, and even fantasies and desires regarding women. In addition to this rare glimpse into his personal world, the story is also an important resource for understanding historical events that occurred during his lifetime.
Among the motivations for writing his life story, Emdan mentions the desire to leave a spiritual legacy for his descendants. He also notes that there is a more significant reason for his writing, connected to the many fights he had during his life. His book is meant to offer systematic justification for his activities and polemics and to preempt his critics, foes, and all those who wish to spread evil gossip about him.
I believe that the central topic of the autobiography, which should serve as a key to understanding the many facets of Emdan’s personality, is his troubled relationship with his father. The centrality of this relationship is incredible and particularly unusual in light of the fact that Emdan left home at the age of 16 ½ and never returned to see his father. Nevertheless, throughout his entire adult life, Emdan yearned to share his father’s destiny, a yearning that directed his life. Thus, he constantly equates events from his own life with those that occurred in his father’s life, such as the biting exchange that he had with Rabbi Yonatan Eivshitz: “….And to let you know that just as in the case of my master, my father, the Rav, may his memory be blessed, so too happened to me in the incident with Eivshitz, exactly like that one. What happens to the father happens to the son…. It’s unbelievable that the exact same thing happened…” (Megilat Sefer, p. 53).
Actually, a significant portion of the autobiography deals with the image of the father, not for the purpose of exploring Emdan’s origins and childhood but to lay the groundwork for a spiritual interpretation that sees the events of his life as exactly parallel to those of his father’s life. Emdan believed with all his heart that “what happens to the father happens to the son” in two senses: on one hand, he saw himself as continuing his father’s educational path; but beyond continuing his father’s heritage and cultural enterprise, Emdan recognized that his father’s actions were a powerful force giving his work deeper meaning. His spiritual connection to his father is based on his belief that God placed him and his father on earth to save Judaism from dangerous situations. Emdan believed that his father instilled in him the ability and the obligation to struggle for tikkun olam. Since reality obligates him to continue these struggles, it is not a personal choice.
An example of his sense of spiritual mission is found in the following passage from his book She’ilat Ya’avetz (2; 15): “Thank God many were merited bodies of Torah and were keeping Torah thanks to my writing. My whole purpose is to merit Israel and bring about peace between them and their fathers in heaven. I have dedicated my soul, my spirit, and my money to them, their correction, and their true work in this. Had it not been for God who was with us and who appointed me to watch over nations and put restraints on their lives, they would have lost their faith.”
As it emerges from Megilat Sefer, Emdan believes that his mission in this world started with his father and his father’s father. Rabbi Yaakov Emdan felt that his family, unlike other families, was a select branch, and that he was meant to play a determining role in the education of Jews scattered around the world.
Dr. Eli Freiman is the CEO and owner of Shuki Freiman, Ltd. His academic work studies popular elements of ritual in Jewish culture.