Shadarim in the Colonial Americas: Agents of InterCommunal Connectivity and Rabbinic Authority.

Author:Mirvis, Stanley
Position:Jewish emissaries
 
FREE EXCERPT

The Ottoman Empire rapidly decentralized following its defeat at the gates of Vienna in 1683. During the eighteenth century, local strongmen filled the power vacuum in frontier settings such as Palestine. These Beys, with the power to collect tax revenue, found an easily exploitable population in the small Jewish communities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberius, and Safed. (2) Local Ottoman rulers terrorized these Jewish communities through high taxation and extortion. The instability of the environment itself added additional stresses to communal life in Palestine. Over the course of the eighteenth century, fires and natural disasters, such as the Levantine earthquake of 1759, plagued the region. To alleviate their plight, the Jewish communities of eighteenth-century frontier Palestine looked to the diaspora for support.

Early-modern Ottoman rabbinic authority was centralized in Istanbul through the council known as the pekidei kushta. This rabbinic council responded to the various crises of Ottoman Jewry by resurrecting the late-antique tradition of dispatching emissaries from the Holy Land to the diaspora in search of financial support. (3) These emissaries are known by their Talmudic acronym sh"dr (sheluhah derabanan), or the plural form shadarim. Shadarim traveled to diasporic communities as living embodiments of the Holy Land itself. They journeyed with a certain expectation of respect knowing that the success of their mission depended on their ability to represent the dignity and mystique of the Holy Land. During the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, shadarim traveled to the Jewish communities of Persia, the Near East, North Africa, Europe, and the Americas. (4)

While there are certainly fruitful comparisons to be made between missions to the East and to the West, this article will focus exclusively on the impact of shadarim on the colonial Americas. In examining several case studies it reveals how their missions helped to define and strengthen the interconnectivity, communication, and the power dynamics between metropole and colonial Jewish communities. It also argues, through discussion of the career of the emissary Hayim Yizhak Carigal, that while shadarim in Europe and North Africa were largely outsiders in both internal and inter-communal affairs, in the colonial Americas, the possibility existed for shadarim to transcend their outsider's status and take on established communal roles. Though this article focuses only on the missions of eighteenth-century shadarim, these emissaries continued to travel to the Americas into the nineteenth century and beyond. (5) Indeed missions to the Diaspora representing Israeli academies continue to this very day.

The Shadarim as Agents of Modernity

Shadarim have been a subject of considerable interest to scholars of early modern Jewish history. As perpetually peripatetic border crossers, "perennial outsiders," and champions of traditional rabbinic authority, they played a central role in many of the most transformative historical developments of the early modern period in Jewish history. In many ways, the shadarim were the living embodiments of what it means to be "early modern." They were agents of rabbinic tradition and the guardians of an imagined centrality of the Holy Land. At the same time, as travelers, they fully experienced and frequently embraced the changing world they visited. Travel is itself a type of "neutral society." (6) It brought Jews and non-Jews into close contact, with shared fates, on long sea voyages, overland carriage journeys, and during months spent in quarantine. (7)

A case in point is perhaps the most famous and articulate of all shadarim, Hayim Yosef David Azulai, who traveled throughout North Africa, Italy, as well as Central and Western Europe on two separate missions on behalf of the Jewish community in Hebron. (8) During his second journey to Europe (1773-1778), Azulai was just as focused on secular pursuits--cabinets of curiosity, menageries, libraries, and garden sculptures--as he was on discovering Hebrew manuscripts, interceding in communal disputes, or giving approbations to Hebrew books. There is a strong case to be made that Azulai's flirtation with secular culture in his travelogue Ma'agal Tov (The Good Circuit) should place him among those agents of the "early haskalah" who preceded Moses Mendelssohn in engaging with the outside world within traditionally Jewish constructs. (9)

The best known shaliah to the Americas, Hayim Yizhak Carigal, similarly embodied this encounter with early modernity. His famous relationship with Ezra Stiles in Newport is illustrative of the characteristic phenomenon of collaboration between Philosemitic Christian Hebraists with rabbinic figures. (10) While Carigal came of age in a land distant from the currents of the "early haskalah," he was no less at the cutting edge of eighteenth-century proto-Jewish modernity. Shadarim provided an important point of contact and impetus for accelerated connection between Christians and Jews in the Americas beyond their partnerships with one curious theologian. In 1788, upon the arrival of two shadarim in Philadelphia, The Pennsylvania Packet described to its Christian readers the terrible circumstances of the Jews in the Holy Land and called upon them to also support the mission of the emissaries. (11)

Avraham Ya'ari's magisterial shluhei Eretz Yisrael remains the most encyclopedic resource for the life and travels of individual shadarim. In his introduction, Ya'ari declares his intention to understand the interaction of the shadarim with the communities they visited. But, in effect, the book is more of a polemic against critics of Zionism seeking to undermine the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. (12) He uses the experiences of shadarim to argue that Jews always lived in Eretz Yisrael before the establishment of the State of Israel and that there had always been a continuity of rabbinic influence from the Holy Land on the communities of the Diaspora, uninterrupted since late antiquity. His deep commitment to a Zionist narrative casts a long shadow over the book's content.

Historical research in the generation following Avraham Ya'ari, the founding father of the study of shlihut (the dispatching of emissaries), has universally cast the shadarim as catalysts of modernity. One study argues that the Jerusalem-born heresy-hunter and emissary, Moshe Hagiz (1671-1750), by virtue of his independence from communal boards, articulated a dynamic reactionary response to Sabbatianism that helped to lay the foundations for modern Orthodoxy. (13) In another study, sbadarim are depicted as transcending inter-ethnic Jewish divisions, thereby enabling the birth of modern pan-Jewish identity. (14)

What these studies all have in common, beyond their attributions of modern characteristics to early modern characters, is the attempt to divorce the shadarim from Ya'ari's "palestinocentric" narrative. (15) It is essential to separate the ideological, liturgical--or even imagined--influence of the Holy Land, constructed largely by the shadarim themselves, from the actual authority it wielded in the diaspora. It is easy to be misled by shadarim themselves. Moshe Hagiz, for example, made it his mission in sefat emet (Language of Truth, Amsterdam, 1697) to promote the theological centrality of the Holy Land, and thereby strengthening the legitimacy of his mission. In exploring the influence of shadarim in the colonial Americas, this article furthers these efforts to discern the true degree of influence of the Holy Land on diaspora communities.

Furthermore, the missions of shadarim were not exclusively devoted to supporting Holy Land communities. The pekidei kushta dispatched shadarim to raise funds for communities throughout the Ottoman Empire. (16) In 1775, for instance, the London community sent a letter to the Jews of New York requesting support for the mission of a shaliah raising funds for the Jews of Smyrna. (17) The missions of eighteenth-century shadarim, backed by Istanbul, not Jerusalem, were in reality, a pan-Ottoman rather than exclusively Holy Land project.

Agents of Inter-Communal Connectivity: Metropole and Colony

The influence of the shadarim was felt most profoundly in the diaspora, not the Holy Land. Through what has been called the "shadar-host economy," shadarim provided outsider rabbinic expertise--intervened in communal and inter-communal conflicts, offered halakhic rulings, gave approbations, and delivered sermons--in return for local support of their missions. (18) They further helped to define, strengthen, and expand the relationships among diasporic communities. Before a community could support a mission, the identity and the credentials of the shaliah had to be verified. This was not an easy task in the eighteenth century, particularly since the emissaries were perennial itinerates, once one community deemed a shaliah valid that information had to be communicated to others within its sphere of influence. This process helped to accelerate ties between the metropole and its colonies.

Beyond the missions of shadarim, support for the Holy Land, even in the nascent Jewish communities of the New World, was an integral part of Jewish communal practice. Following European precedents, Recife, Brazil, the earliest Jewish community of the Americas, elected a...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP