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The Rabbis' Advocate - Chacham David Nieto and The Second Kuzari

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  • The Rabbis' Advocate - Chacham David Nieto and The Second Kuzari
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Matteh Dan, or Kuzari Hasheini, is a defense of the Jewish oral tradition against attacks by Karaites and skeptics. Rabbi David Nieto, Chacham of the Sephardic congregation in London in the early eighteenth century, responded to criticisms of the rabbinic tradition by writing this wide-ranging defense of the Talmud and the Oral Law. Matteh Dan is widely considered a classic of Jewish apologetics in the best sense of the term and is still widely studied and quoted, even into our day. Although the field of heresy has unfortunately undergone much growth and development since R. Nieto’s time, his contribution remains important, and his arguments continue to ring true today.

The nineteenth century was a tumultuous time for the Jewish nation. Never before has traditional Jewish society and its worldview been under such a sustained and destructive attack. New patterns of thought impacted Jewish life with an unparalleled force. The winds of change within and unyielding hostility from the outside began to erode the authority of tradition, culminating over time in the wholesale abandonment of religion by the Jewish masses. Today, we still struggle with the effects of modernity’s impact on traditional Judaism.

The fortress of tradition could not have fallen if its walls were not first breached. Those who attacked Judaism found ready ammunition in the writings of skeptics who came before them. Since they longed to be accepted by the community of nations, the Jews of this time could not attack Scripture outright, for it was still revered and honored among Gentiles. In its place, many Jewish thinkers of the 1800s focused their barbs and arrows against the Oral Law. These attacks did not arise from nothing: feelings of personal rejection often fueled the spiteful arguments of these critics. Some Marranos, even after return to Judaism, remained subliminally influenced by the anti-Jewish diatribes to which they were exposed while living as Christians in Spain. Others found it difficult to re-enter Jewish life as rank beginners. Accomplished physicians, attorneys, and diplomats, they found themselves bereft of the status and standing that they had so laboriously cultivated in Spain. Some were humble and adjusted easily, while others rebelled and set forth their own alternatives. Some, such as Uriel Da Costa, wrote polemical tracts attacking Oral Law and the rabbinic establishment of their day. Other descendents of Marranos, such as the philosopher Spinoza, left Judaism altogether to proclaim new teachings. Deism-the belief that God is exalted far above nature and does not involve Himself in human affairs-slowly gained ground among the thinking classes of society. In this fashion, just as with the Holocaust of our own day, the effects and repercussions of the Spanish Expulsion and Inquisition continued to reverberate far beyond the generations that had personally experienced them.

However, the new skeptics were not content to move past Judaism in order to pursue novel ideologies. They revived the accusations and claims of the Karaites, which sought to demonstrate that the Oral Law was wholly an invention of the Rabbis and therefore did not obligate them at all.

Rabbi David Nieto (1654-1728) was a valiant fighter who stood in the breach at this time. A classically educated Rabbinic scholar, he was at home in all branches of contemporary science; he used his wide ranging erudition and penetrating intellect to respond to the arguments that were beginning to gain currency among educated Jews of his time. His best known work, Matteh Dan, or Kuzari Hasheini, is widely considered a classic of Jewish apologetics and is still widely studied and quoted, even into our day. (translated by Meir Levin)


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