Sunday 13 January 2019


R. Yehoshua Mondshine 1947- 2014

Jewish scholarship is generally divided into two very distinct categories: Religious scholarship and secular academic scholarship. The two are poles apart and often conflict with each other even when dealing with the exact same subject.
Take the history of Chassidism, for example: Religious Chassidic scholarship will rely on traditions and carefully selected text material which have been well scrutinised and endorsed by the establishment – whereas secular academic scholarship will consult archives and a wider choice of other historical source material. Sometimes the conclusions correlate with each other but oftentimes they do not. 
Surprisingly, there is a huge interest in the Chassidic movement from academic scholars and it is possible that their literature may now be just as vast as that of their religious counterparts.
Yet today, we appear to be witnessing a new phenomenon where the line differentiating between religious and academic scholarship is beginning to blur with more and more traditionally trained scholars supplementing their knowledge with that of the academic literature.
One such scholar, who managed to straddle both worlds very professionally, was Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshine (1947-2014).


Yehoshua Mondshine was born in Tel Aviv in 1947, and studied in Kfar Chabad under R. Shlomo Chaim Kesselman. As a young 14-year-old teenager, he had noticed some textual variants in the Chabad prayer book, which differed from earlier references. He corresponded with the Lubavitcher Rebbe who suggested some sources where he could research the matter further for himself.
When he was older, he went to Brooklyn and worked as a lead editor on a publication of the Tanya.
Although he was offered a position by the Rebbe to run the famous Chabad Library, he chose instead to be a librarian at the National Library of Israel which is at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The National Library has the world's largest collection of Judaica as well as a repository of rare manuscripts and books - making it a researcher’s delight.


During his work, he discovered some original manuscripts relating to Chabad history which he was prepared to make use of, and he boldly began to differentiate between what he openly referred to as fact and legend.
R. Mondshine's authoritative two-volume work on the Customs of Chabad.
He authored over twenty books, including Sipurim u’Gilguleihem (Stories and their Evolution) which consists of over seventy online articles which challenge many conventional Chassidic stories. Considering the role that Chassidic stories play in that community, he was rather daring.
R. Mondshine had crossed an invisible threshold when he merged Chassidic tradition with critical academic scholarship.
This he did most successfully and he managed to achieve something few had done in the past. And he won the respect of his own Chassidic community as well as that from the academic world (and the Rebbe encouraged him to continue with this trajectory).


Israeli historian Tom Segev refers to R. Mondshine as “Chabad’s critic from within.” He writes: "He is a reserved man; every word he says seems first to be filtered through seven stages of investigation, none of them superfluous. But on the Internet he massacres the unfounded ultra-Orthodox tales with razor-sharp ridicule that combines extraordinary scholarship and secular slang." 
Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert of University College London and expert in Chassidic history wrote that R. Mondshine was “an admirable scholar and a brave man of remarkable intellectual integrity,” and termed his passing “a great loss to Chassidic scholarship.”
Professor Shaul Stampfer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem added that another admirable facet of his personality should not be forgotten, namely, his talent for mischievous satire.
Eli Rubin writes: “In more recent years, he became renowned—some might say notorious—for his sharp and often satirical critique of newly popular beliefs[1], behaviors and attitudes that he saw as utterly antithetical to the true spirit of Chabad teachings.”
According to his childhood friend and long-time colleague, R. David Meir Drukman, “he was a man of truth, both in the sense that he loved truth and in the sense that he hated falsehood.
On the other hand - in fairness - it should also be pointed out that some, like Immanuel Etkes, believe that on the contrary, his close association with Chabad was a limiting factor restricting the critical viewpoint necessary for such research.
Furthermore, I spoke to a Chabad colleague who was associated with him and he expressed the belief of some within the community, that he overstepped the mark in his critical thinking.


R. Mondshine was not afraid to go against conventional thinking either, especially when it came to the well-known Chassidim-Mitnagdim controversy.
According to Mondshine’s research, the Vilna Gaon was not the one who spearheaded the attack against the early Chassidim. Instead, it was the leadership body of Vilna - known as the Kahal - that presented false evidence to the Vilna Gaon and thus managed to get him to speak out against the Chassidim.
The Kahal “...viewed Hasidism as a movement that threatened the old order, and their economic and social standing... Mondshine does not deny the Vilna Gaon’s opposition, but it is important to him to depict the Gaon as not having been a partner in practice to the persecutions, which occurred, for the most part, after his death.”[2] 
R. Mondshine based this controversial view on his research on Russian archival documents.
This is an interesting take on the matter because it suggests another component in the great controversy: Chassidism threatened the 'old order' and their 'economic and social standing'.
Accordingly, it was not just a difference in theology that bothered the establishment (as we are usually led to believe) - but rather (or also) the threat to the Jew's social standing which apparently was relatively acceptable and was now under threat by the poorer and less sophisticated element of Jewish society which was initially attracted to the movement.



Anyone who has ever been to a Chabad synagogue will be familiar with the universal melody to which Hu Elokeinu is sung during the Shabbat Musaf Kedusha.


R. Mondshine points out[3] that the popular version of the story behind the tune, which has become part of the oral and even the printed Chabad tradition[4], is as follows:
A certain yeshiva student was familiar with an elderly woman who had arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union during the early nineteen nineties. She had been persecuted by the Soviets and had spent twelve years in a Russian prison.
One day, the student heard her humming the melody of Hu Elokeinu and asked her where she had heard it from, as the melody was only popularised relatively recently. She replied that while still in the Soviet Union, she had heard that it was composed by a chazzan to the Rebbe Rashab (1860-1920) who was known as the meshumad or apostate (someone who had converted out of Judaism).
And she proceeded to expound on the origins of the melody:
During a pogrom, an entire Jewish village was wiped out and the only survivor was a little boy who the governor noticed while passing through the ruins. He took pity on the child and brought him to his home and decided to adopt him. The boy was not told of his Jewish origins.
As he grew up, it became apparent that he was gifted at music and he was sent to St. Petersburg to further his musical career.
Although unaware of his Jewish roots, he was discriminated against because his fellow students called him ‘Zhid’.
[In another version of the story, he became a soldier and after swimming in a river with his fellow officers it was discovered that he was circumcised and thereafter he was referred to as ‘Zhid’.]
Eventually, the father had to admit to the truth, that his ‘son’ was really a Jew.
The young man later returned to St. Petersburg where after much wandering, he found himself in a Lubavitcher synagogue where he was welcomed and was given the name Yechiel.
Gradually he immersed himself in his new-found Judaism until he journeyed to the Rebbe Rashab who, when he heard his beautiful voice, appointed the ‘meshumad’ as his chazzan (cantor).
This story was recounted at one of the Chassidic gatherings at Chabad Headquarters at 770, in intricate detail by the student who first heard it from the old Russian lady. And, apparently, the narration thereof lasted until the early morning hours.
This, as one can imagine, got the attention of everyone and soon the story of the unusual evolution of this famous melody became widespread. It was printed, published and became part of the popular culture.


R. Mondshine completely rejects this popular version of the story. He raises such issues as to why a person adopted as a child in circumstances beyond his control, would be called a meshumad or apostate - which implies a willful conversion out of the faith?
He also raises issues of the timeline - as the Rebbe taught this melody on Simchat Torah 1963 and the lady arrived in Israel thirty years later in the early nineties. During those thirty years she could have picked up the tune or even heard is whilst in Israel.
Furthermore, the Rebbe Rashab apparently had a special aversion to apostates and even risked not allowing the flagship work of the Tanya to be printed in his day, as he would have had to go through a Jewish apostate who worked on the Russian censor board. Would he then allow an alleged apostate chazzan to lead his prayer services?
Rather, according to Mondshine, the real story is far more benign:
The Rebbe Rashab did indeed have a chazzan called Yechiel (Heilperin). He was from a Jewish family but was not raised as a religious Jew. He was active in the theatre in Krakow where he did singing performances.
According to correspondence which R. Mondshine discovered, Yechiel himself wrote about his origins: He took his name from an ancestor, also named Yechiel Heilperin (1660-1746), who happened to be the erudite author of the famous Seder haDorot.
[Seder ha Dorot was a pivotal work in terms of Jewish chronology as it dated various events in Jewish history including the dates of the Talmudic Sages, and was partially based on the work of Avraham Zacuto, who was known as the first Jewish historian.]
Yechiel the singer, was then encouraged to get back to his Jewish roots by R. Bere Wolf and taken to the Rebbe Rashab who appointed him as his chazzan.
Interestingly, because of his fame and background, chazzan Yechiel was later to become an official fundraiser for the Chabad movement. Hence he became known as Yechiel ha Meshulach.

It is possible that the term meshulach (fundraiser) later became conflated with meshumad (apostate) and the whole myth of Yechiel haMeshumad developed.
R. Mondshine adds that R. Yechiel did not actually compose the melody, but simply adopted if from what he calls ‘a non-Chassidic source’. According to one account, it was a non-Jewish melody that he adopted.

Either way, it is sung to this day loudly and with great rapture in many synagogues, mine included.

[1] It would be interesting to know just what he meant by ‘newly popular beliefs’.
[2] Article in Haaretz by David Assaf, Sept 26 2013.
[3] In his article; HaChazzan haMeshumud.
[4] In Beis Moshiach Magazine # 252.

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