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 prosecution’s 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.
Prior to the trial, the Chortkover Rebbe invited Rabbi Mazeh for a lengthy discussion of the Beilis case. Rabbi Mazeh records his recollections of these momentous talks in great detail in his memoirs.
The Chortkover Rebbe, speaking to Rabbi Mazeh with great deference, posed the following question: “I have heard that Rabbi Mazeh has been summoned to provide expertise in Torah and in Halachah for the Beilis trial. I am aware of his great knowledge and learning, but I cannot help but wonder about his relationship to chassidus. I want to point out that if, Heaven forbid, he won’t defend chassidus with full fervor, they will try to pin the blame on the chassidim. But remember that the accusation will not remain behind the courtroom doors, on the outside they will claim that all Jews are chassidim.”
Rabbi Mazeh responded that he was descended from a chassidic family and that he had begun to learn chassidus at an early age, both from rabbis and from books. He explained that, in preparation for the trial, he now intended to review them in great depth. He also related that he had been assured by people in Kiev that they would provide him with a list of all the Jewish works the prosecution intended to use in its attack. Beyond that, he assured the Rebbe, “whenever I encounter something difficult, I will turn to the chassidic leaders for directions.”
The conversation then turned to the actual case. They discussed various approaches and the true meaning of the various quotations. They also discussed difficult passages in Kabbalah and concepts of chassidus. The Rebbe put his extensive library at the disposal of Rabbi Mazeh; among the books, Rabbi Mazeh found several that he intended to cite as evidence for the defense during the trial. The two men even examined various publications by anti-Semites in order to understand what approach the prosecution would use. The Rebbe then arranged that additional books be provided to Rabbi Mazeh from the library in Vienna. Rabbi Mazeh returned to Moscow via Vienna, confident that the prayers of the Rebbe and his blessings would help him in his important mission.
Mr. Gruzenberg, the chief defense counsel, also turned to the Lubavicher Rebbe for help in preparing his arguments. The Lubavicher Rebbe sent a letter of strong encouragement to Gruzenberg, and Gruzenberg kept this letter in a golden box, evidence of how precious this was to him. The Rebbe also sent Gruzenberg a certificate he had received from Czar Nicholas I designating the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an “honored citizen for all generations.” In addition, the Rebbe assigned his brilliant talmid, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, to assist in the preparation of the defense, especially in the area of Kabbalah. In all of his numerous letters and directives, the Lubavitcher Rebbe attempted to disprove all these allegations conclusively, to eliminate the very idea of the possibility of a blood libel from the non-Jewish world.
Gruzenberg, in his closing argument, following the instructions of the Rebbe, turned to Bielis and said, “Mendel Beilis! Even if the judges should close their ears and their hearts should turn from the truth and convict you in the law, do not despair. Turn your soul over the Lord. Say, Shema Yisrael.”
Much later, at the end of the affair, with Beilis acquitted, the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote a letter expressing his deep fears and sense of foreboding regarding the safety of the Jewish people. He dealt with the issue of the hatred that had been unleashed and the constant incitement of the populace against the Jews. The Beilis affair was over, but the Jewish people were not safe. The era of pogroms and massacres, organized openly or secretly by the government, was not over.
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.”
All the action was not confined to the courtroom. The Chazon Ish became aware that a high official in the government, a close advisor of the Czar, might be willing to listen to an explanation of a Jewish view on shedding blood. The Chazon Ish, who was then still a very young man, wrote an extensive tract, in which he traced the generations from the creation of the world to the time of the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Clearly and beautifully, he explained the nature of man, the nature of the Jew, the relationship of man and God, how man controls his desires, how he fulfills his role in this world, the role of law and the inherent inferiority of man-made law to the law of the Torah, the importance of education and the intellect of man.
Within this context , the Chazon Ish describes the spiritual fulfillment as man develops his potential by joining his intellect with wisdom. The Talmud, he explained, is a treasure trove of deep and challenging thoughts. Each phrase awes the inquiring mind and cannot be grasped with a superficial reading. He described how Torah leaders devote their lives to the study of the Torah and the Talmud and attempt to plumb its depths. He goes on to state that the “soul” of the Talmud is in its hidden meanings, those that require work and effort. And the only ones who can appreciate the Talmud are those who delve into it.
Several more paragraphs dealt with study, the obligation to study, the enormity of the obligation to study and the great benefits enjoyed by those who engage in this pursuit. He then described the role of the king in Jewish law. In delineating the role of guide to the people, the Chazon Ish was conveying a message about the role of every king.
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.
Sora F. Bulka
Marcheshvan, 5753 (1992)
Far Rockaway, New York
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