One hundred and fifty years ago, a traveling maggid sparked an explosion in America that was heard all the way in Europe.
Benjamin the Second
Israel Joseph Benjamin II was born in 5568/1818 in the state of Moldavia, nowadays part of modern Romania. His lumber business collapsed when he was 25 years old, and to preserve his economic footing and self respect he hit upon the idea of following the example of his namesake, Benjamin of Tudela, who had toured almost the entire known world towards the end of the twelfth century in search of the Lost Tribes.
After touring Asia and Africa and publishing his experiences in his book, Eight Years in Asia and Africa, Benjamin II set off for the New World. His Three Years in America is the only lengthy Jewish account of America’s 200,000-strong Jewish community prior to the year 5630/1870.
Among his astute observations was that the Jewish population there concentrated too much on outward show to the neglect of their inner life. Because of this, despite the existence of large Orthodox kehillos in every major city, despite the fact that there were 200 Orthodox kehillos versus only eight Reform congregations, he felt there was no guarantee that Orthodoxy would prevail.
“The Reform movement is powerfully felt in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Albany, Chicago, and San Francisco,” he warned, “and there is no doubt that in the next generation Reform will gain the other hand and that Judaism will be transformed much faster than people in Europe imagine.”
After mentioning how the Orthodox Jews were trying to avert the threatening danger by erecting splendid shuls and thus hold onto their vacillating members, he writes a paragraph later, “Religious instruction in Jewish schools does not yet flourish as desired,” and then describes the immense resources devoted to charitable institutions. New York’s two benevolent societies distributed more than $20,000 annually. In ad
dition, he mentions the dire lack of talmidei chachomim.
“The learned Orthodox rabbis are very poorly represented in all of America,” he writes. “I have already mentioned Dr. Raphall in New York, and if he stands in the first rank, next to him we find Dr. Hayyim Hochheimer of Baltimore… and Dr. Illo- way of Baltimore. a good Hebraist and Talmudist. With this ends the list of learned rabbis in a land that numbers more than two hundred Orthodox congregations.”
This disparity between the inner and outer worlds of American Judaism was perhaps symbolized by the controversy Benjamin sparked regarding a proposed Touro monument.
Since his only livelihood was traveling, Benjamin’s modus operandi to finance himself was to organize meetings and urge Jews to dig deep for his cause. He reached New Orleans where an audience unanimously decided to organize a “Benjamin Society” whose members would donate him five dollars a year for three years.
“Thirty-five members were accepted immediately and paid their dues at once,” Benjamin records. “The money was handed over to a member of the executive board and, for all I know, he may still have it. Not only was the money not received by me, but I have the loss of about eighteen dollars to complain of in this affair. I was billed for the announcements and for the hall in which the meeting was held.”
Benjamin suspects that he never got the money because of the ruckus that began after Mr. S. Friedlander, president of the local shul Shaare Chesed, took the floor to make an important announcement. The Portuguese congregation wanted to erect a memorial to the famous philanthropist, Judah Touro, one of the greatest Jewish philanthropists of his age, who gave $20,000 to found what is now Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and left $500,000 (worth $9 million today) for charity at his passing, and it was hoped that all American kehillos would join in creating this historical monument.
Benjamin asked for more details about the proposed memorial, what it would be like, where it would be set up, and so on. Informed that the statue of the deceased was to be cast in bronze and set up in the outer court of the Portuguese shul, he was flabbergasted and asked permission to speak.
“Gentleman!” he declaimed. “Although I am only passing through the city and therefore have no right to take the floor in community affairs, I see myself forced to express my views in this matter because this concerns our religion, and in such a case every Jew has the right to speak. When I was young I spent much time in Jewish studies and have recently seen four continents and have learnt something at firsthand about millions of our fellow Jews. Nowhere did I see or find the statue of a Jew, because this is clearly against the principles of our holy religion.”
The very next day, Benjamin went to the chazzan and preacher of the Portuguese shul and asked him what he, as a rabbi, had to say about the memorial. In reply, the preacher declared that he was wholly in favor of the scheme. At Benjamin’s protest that this was against the Jewish religion, the preacher dryly replied, “I don’t see that at all.” To Benjamin’s clear proofs that it was apparent from books of religious law that setting up a statue was clearly forbidden, he answered, “That was in ancient times. Now, however, we live in the Nineteenth Century.”
“If the world were twice as old as it is,” Benjamin retorted, “our Torah would still be the same!”
In response to Benjamin’s printed complaints against the venture, the Portuguese Community withdrew its pledge of $900 for his travels over the next three years. Nonetheless, Benjamin achieved his purpose as the controversy spread throughout the US, forcing the New Orleans statue committee to consult with European rabbis regarding the permissibility of the project. Letters were sent to Rav Adler of London, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch of Frankfort-on- the-Main, and others.
Their replies, unanimously opposing the statue, were published in Isaac Leeser’s Occident newspaper of 5621/1861.
“Nothing like this has been seen since the day the (Chashmonaim overpowered the wicked of our nation who were proud of Greek gods and honoring their idols,” Rav Shlomo Yehuda Leib Rapoport of Prague wrote. “This evil inclination was regarded as nullified in Yisroel, yet now they are trying to raise it from the dust in the guise of honoring a philanthropist.”
Rav Hirsh sent the following response:
“The erection of a statue, i.e., of a human figure, of bronze, stone, or other material, is, according to Jewish law, prohibited for any place and for any object. In like manner does the Jewish law distinctly prohibit the erection of a monument, utterly devoid of any image, of a pillar, a stone, and suchlike, for purposes of Divine worship, and be it even to gather around it for the worship of the Holy One (see Rambam, Avodah Zarah 6:6).”
Although less certain about the erection of monuments not for the purpose of worship, Rav Hirsch nonetheless felt that since the question sent to him was whether the monument would conflict with the “laws and usages of Israel,” it was certainly never Jewish custom to raise monuments for the dead, since the only person recorded as doing so was the vain Avshalom. The translator of Rav Hirsh’s teshuvah adds that the wicked King Herod, too, erected statues of his daughters.
Rav Hirsch concludes with the Yerush- almi (Shekalim end chapter 5) that records how someone once passed a magnificent shul and boasted, “How much money my fathers sunk here.” In reply he was told, “How many souls they have sunk here! Were there no people who were toiling in Torah!” From this we see, concludes Rav Hirsch, that rather than investing money in monuments, it is better to perpetuate someone’s memory by providing spiritual or physical benefit to a living human being.
In the end, the Touro project was pushed aside by one of the most momentous struggles in US history.
“At this time, the Civil War in America broke out and ‘the L-rd annulled their decision and made their purposes in vain,’” Benjamin notes. “Although, because of this affair, I suffered much and had great losses, nevertheless I had the satisfaction of having acted according to my convictions and of having opposed not without success, a memorial so public so enduring, and – so unJewish.”
Either because of the Touro monument fight or the eruption of the Civil War, Benjamin was unable to continue his world tour and died two years later in London in abject poverty.
The question of raising monuments to the dead came up once again after World War II when Orthodox Jews of Grosswarden asked Rav Yitzchok Weiss (Minchos Yitzchok 1:29) whether it was permitted to raise monuments in memory of the martyrs of the Holocaust. In reply, he cited the same Rambam mentioned by Rav Hirsch, that “a matzeivah that the Torah forbids is a building [i.e., a column] where all gather even to serve Hashem, because so was the way of the nations.” Like Rav Hirsch, he too finds reason why this might not apply to monuments to the dead.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Yoreh Dei’ah 4:57) addresses the question whether there is any obligation upon children to erect memorials for parents murdered in the Holocaust whose burial places are unknown. He concludes that “such a thing is not found not in the Gemara and not in the Poskim, and not mentioned in seforim that I know of. It has also not been heard of any gaon who ruled to do so.” Like Rav Hirsch, he says that no proof can be brought from Yad Avsha- lom, “because it was only to boast that no one in the world was as fitting to be king as he was.”
If so, how should such niftarim be memorialized? Rav Moshe concludes that any memorial not sited at a person’s grave must be more than a mere slab of rock, it must be chashuv, significant. “And because the structure one builds in honor of a deceased must be a chashuv building,” he writes, “it is certainly not chashuv to have an empty building, but only if it serves a good purpose such as Torah study, or tzedakah and chesed..” Most people cannot afford such an outlay, he concludes, and that is why this idea is never mentioned. Instead, the prevalent custom is to donate money to an institution and memorialize one’s parents with a plaque.
Thus, in life as well as in death, the Torah way is to lay more emphasis on spiritual content than on impressive piles of brick and stone.
(Source: Benjamin, Israel Joseph. Three Years in America. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1956.)