BERLIN, SAUL (or HIRSCHEL, SAUL, after his father, Ẓebi Hirsch [Hirschel] Levin):
By: Louis Ginzberg
German Talmudist, and one of the most learned Jews of the Mendelssohnian period; born (at Glogau?) 1740; died in London Nov. 16, 1794. He received his general education principally from his father, who was chief rabbi of Berlin, and one of the few rabbis of the time who combined Talmudic learning with secular culture. Saul, the eldest son, was consequently educated along the same lines. In Berlin and Breslau (whither the young man frequently went to visit his father-in-law, R. Joseph Jonas Fränkel) he came into personal contact with the representatives of the movement for progress in Judaism, and became one of its most enthusiastic adherents. His antecedents, education, and calling, as rabbi in Frankfort-on-the-Oder, made it almost impossible for him openly to renounce the old rabbinism; and he consequently endeavored to advance his ideals anonymously or under a pseudonym.
Berlin began his literary career with an anonymous circular letter, "Ketab Yosher" (An Epistle of Justice) (printed in Berlin, 1794, after the death of the author), which Hartwig Wessely warmly defended in his own contention with the rabbis while pleading for German education among the Jews. With delightful humor, and in a florid though racy style, Berlin describes the absurd methods of the Jewish schools, and points out how the rabbinic casuistry—which then constituted the greater part of the curriculum—injures the sound common sense of the pupils and deadens their noblest aspirations. In this work Berlin already betrays a morbid tendency to vilify those whom he dislikes for general or personal reasons, thereby injuring the cause which he desires to further.Ridicules Talmudic Science.
This tendency is still more evident in his pseudonymous work, "Miẓpeh Yoḳtel" (The Watch-Tower of Yoktel) (published by David Friedländer and his brother-in-law Itzig, Berlin, 1789), a polemic against the "Torat Yekutiel" of Raphael ha-Kohen. The latter, one of the most zealous advocates of rabbinic piety, was a rival candidate with Levin for the Berlin rabbinate, a circumstance which induced Levin's son to represent ha-Kohen as a forbidding example of rabbinism. Under the name "Obadiah b. Baruch of Poland," Berlin attempted in this work to ridicule Talmudic science, and to stigmatize one of its foremost exponents not only as ignorant, but also as dishonest. The publishers declared in the preface that they had received the work from a traveling Polish Talmudist, and had considered it their duty to print it and submit it to the judgment of specialists. In order to secure the anonymity more thoroughly, Berlin and his father were named among those who were to pass upon it.
Had Berlin been content to illustrate from Raphael's work the senseless methods then current in Talmudic studies, he would have performed a meritorious task, and one for which he was especially fitted by his very great Talmudic learning and his lucid style of exposition. But the entirely unfounded attack upon the honor and honesty of his opponent, whose incorruptibility and firmness of character were admired even by his enemies, only injured Berlin and his cause. As soon as it reached Altona and Hamburg, where Raphael was chief rabbi, the work as well as its author was placed under the ban. The dispute that thereupon arose concerning the validity of the ban turned entirely upon the question whether a personal element, like the attack upon the rabbi of Altona, justified such a punishment.
With the exception of Ezekiel Landau, chief rabbi of Prague and a near relation of Berlin, only a few Polish rabbis declared the ban to be invalid; and even they censured the action of Berlin, who had been forced to acknowledge the authorship.
Before the excitement over this affair had subsided, Berlin created a new sensation by another work. In 1793 he published at Berlin, under the title "Besamim Rosh" (Incense of Spices), 392 responsa purporting to be by Asher b. Jehiel, with many glosses and comments which he called "Kassa de-Harsna" (Fish Fare). A few examples will illustrate the true character of these responsa. Berlin says, for instance, that (No. 257) an insight into the principles of the Torah and its commands can not be gained directly from it or from tradition, but only by means of the philosophico-logical training derived from non-Jewish sources. This opinion is, coolly ascribed to Asher b. Jehiel, who condemned the study of philosophy and even of the natural sciences as being un-Jewish and pernicious (compare No. 58 of Asher's genuine responsa). Thefollowing edifying opinions are ascribed to the neo-Talmudists of the thirteenth century: "Articles of faith [creed] must be adapted to the times; and at present the most essential article is that we all are utterly worthless and depraved, and that our only duty consists in loving truth and peace and learning to know God and His works" (l.c.). R. Asher is also alleged to be the author of the two responsa concerning the modification of the ceremonial laws, especially of such as were burdensome to the Berlin youth. Thus, for instance, it should be permitted to shave (No. 18), to drink non-kosher wine, "yayin nesek" (No. 36), and to ride on Sabbath. Berlin aroused a storm of indignation by thus fraudulently using the name of one of the most famous rabbis of the Middle Ages to combat rabbinism.
Mordecai Benet first attempted to prevent the printing of the book in Austria, and then mercilessly scourged the deception in a circular letter addressed to Berlin's father, by critically analyzing the responsa and proving them to be spurious. Levin tried in vain to defend his son. Berlin resigned his rabbinate, and, in order to end the dispute which he had aroused, betook himself to London, where he died a few months after his arrival. In a letter found in his pocket he warned everybody against looking into his papers, requesting that they be sent to his father. He expressed the curious wish to be buried not in a cemetery, but in some lonely spot, and in the same garments in which he should happen to die.Berlin's Character.
In order to do justice to this unique personality, it must be borne in mind, as a modern historian remarks, that in Berlin were united as in a focus the rays of a sinking and of a rising period in Jewish history. Being a really great Talmudist, he knew better than any other person the weaknesses of rabbinism, and was filled with a burning desire to lead his people toward intellectual freedom. Mendelssohn's and Wessely's timid attempts to inaugurate a new era did not appeal to him. With his youthful ardor he could not understand that the development of the popular consciousness is a slow process. An open championship of his ideas, however, would have meant a breach with father, wife, and children—in short, with all his associates; it being after all doubtful whether his sacrifices would have helped his cause. His anonymous and pseudonymous authorship was a measure of policy and not of cowardice. He could not, however, escape the consequences of such a mode of warfare. It is debasing and embittering to attack secretly those whom one is forced to praise in public; hence Berlin became personal in his polemics, and nervous and dissatisfied with himself and the world, because he knew himself to be misunderstood through his own fault.
Besides the works mentioned above, Berlin is said to have written a large number of rabbinic works, including notes to the whole Talmud.
- Azulai, Shem ha-Gedolim, ed. Wilna, ii. 20, 21;
- Benet, in Literaturblatt des Orients, v. 53-55, 140-141 (fragment of his above-mentioned letter to Levin);
- Brann, in the Grätz Jubelschrift, 1887, pp. 255-257;
- Carmoly, Ha-'Orebim u-Bene Yonah, pp. 39-41;
- Chajes, Minḥat Kenaot, pp. 14, 21;
- Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, xi. 89, 151-153;
- Horwitz, in Kebod ha-Lebanon, x., part 4, pp. 2-9;
- Jost, Gesch. des Judenthums und Seiner Sekten, iii. 396-400 (curiously enough a defense of the authenticity of the responsa collection Besamim Rosh);
- Landshuth, Toledot Anshe ha-Shem, pp. 84-106, 109;
- M. Straschun, in Fuenn, Kiryah Neemanah, pp. 295-298;
- Zunz, Ritus, pp. 226-228, who thinks that Isaac Satanow had a part in the fabrication of the responsa.