Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Beilis Blood Libel

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The following story is printed in the Sefer Margaliyos HaShas amongst others and the text of the entire story can be found here: shemayisrael.

The Beilis Affair shook the ground under those Jews who had thought that the modern world was a more rational one, a world in which outrageous accusations might be levied but would certainly not gain credence. When Mendel Beilis was brought to trial for a blood libel accusation, it seemed that the progress of a century would be completely wiped away in an instant.

Jews around the world were stirred to action. There was also an outpouring of sympathy from non Jews who recognized the injustice and absurdity of the accusations. A progressive newspaper in Germany reported that libels that echo with the style and content of the darkest medieval times are being hurled against the Jewish minority in Russia. Diplomats, statesmen and other men of prominence urged the Russian government to retreat from this bizarre enterprise. But against this flood of outrage, the anti-Semites of the world only strengthened and increased their own accusations.

The Jewish world was in turmoil. In congregations around the globe, special daily prayers were instituted for the deliverance of Beilis and all the Jewish people. Community leaders, rabbis, chassidic rebbes and influential activists became involved. The Chazon Ish was an active participant in the fight, as were Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the Lubliner Rav, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Chortkover Rebbe. The main thrust of their efforts was ambitious. They sought not only to clear Beilis of the unfounded charges but also to uproot the very idea of the blood libel.

The lawyer that headed the defense team was the legendary Oscar Gruzenberg. He knew that the prosecutions attack was going to be directed against the Talmud and other works of Jewish scholarship and that the expertise in devising a defense would have to be provided by the rabbis. Rabbi Mazeh, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, was chosen to head the rabbinic advisory team for the defense.

On October 8, 1913, right after Yom Kippur, the trial opened. The long-awaited spectacle was now under way. Jew and non-Jew in Russia and around the world awaited the outcome with breathless anticipation.

As the trial began, the indictment accused Menachem Mendel the son of Tuviah Beilis, 39, of having murdered together with other people, not discovered, under duress of mysterious religious obligations and rituals, one Andrei Yustchinsky.

The twelve jurors were carefully chosen; their identities and ideologies had been thoroughly prepared prior to the charade of the trial. The first witnesses testified to such blatant lies that the defense lawyer did not even feel compelled to discredit their testimonies. These preliminary stages were clearly a farce, and the audience, near and far, waited for the real trial to begin. At last, the parade of experts began. And the trial became an examination of the Talmud's view on various issues.

What does the Talmud say about the place from which the soul exits the body? Is it correct that the Talmud states that stealing from a gentile is permissible?

The constant refrain was about the Talmud. There, in the depths of the main courthouse of Kiev, all one could hear was Talmud. The prosecutor was prepared with an avalanche of quotes from the Halachic (legal) and the Aggadic (homiletic) portions of the Talmud. Anti-Semites around the world had done their homework and had rallied to the cause of condemning the Jewish people and the Jewish religion in a court of law.

The crucial question was posed: How dare the Jewish sages claim that [the Jewish people] are called adam, man, while the idol worshippers are not called adam?

The illustrious Rabbi Meir Shapiro was then the Rabbi of Galina. (Later, he would establish and serve as the head of the famous yeshivah of Lublin, and he would also institute the Daf Yomi.) When Rabbi Shapiro heard about attacks against the Talmud, he understood that the Talmud was being accused of inciting Jew against non-Jew. Rabbi Shapiro sent off a very clear letter to Rabbi Mazeh dealing with this accusation. He told him to explain to the court that a very important insight into the nature of the Jewish people is revealed in this Talmudic quote.

The Torah states, he wrote, that kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh, all Jews are responsible for each other. (Shevuos 39) According to this principle, it stands to reason that the fate of Mendel Beilis, for example, which is in essence the fate of one single Jew, nevertheless touches the entire Jewish people. The Jewish people tremble for his welfare and would do everything in their power to remove the prisoner's collar from him. What would have been the reaction of the gentile world if one specific gentile had been accused of a similar crime and was standing trial in a faraway country? Clearly, no more than the people of his own town would show any interest in the libel. Perhaps, at most, people in other parts of his own country would criticize the proceedings. But people in other countries? They certainly wouldn't take a personal interest in him.

This, therefore, is the difference between the Jewish people and all other peoples. The Jews are considered adam, the singular form of the word man, an indication of the extreme solidarity of the Jewish people. For us, when one Mendel Beilis is put on trial, the entire Jewish world stands at his side like one man. Not so the other peoples of the world. They may very well be considered anashim, the plural form of the word man, but they cannot be considered adam, a nation that stands together as a single man.

There is no way of knowing which particular effort of which particular rabbis may have had some impact on the trial. All in all, however, the concerted efforts of the Jews bore out the interpretation of Rabbi Meir Shapiro that you [the Jewish people] are called adam, for the Jews did set aside their internal differences and stood together as one man until the verdict of not guilty was returned.