Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Fifty Shades of Greatness: The Archive of Rabbi Chaim Bloch (1881-1973) and his colorful personality

One of the most enigmatic figures of 20th century Rabbinic literature is that of Rabbi Chaim Bloch (1881-1973). Born in Galicia, after his ordination, he moved to Vienna where he served as chaplain in the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI. He started his career in writing by translating several Jewish works and authoring a book on the legendary Prague Golem, a book of Eastern European Jewish Humor and much else. He emigrated to the United States via Great Britain in 1939. Bloch continued his literary work in the United States, and died in New York City on January 23, 1973.

Much of his writing in later years focused on his extreme Anti-Zionism and his fights with other Rabbis of his day. He devoted a book attacking Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and several against Rav Henkin. At least 3 of his books were determined by scholars to be forgeries. The Lubavitcher Rebbe in his Iggerot (באגרות קודש, חלק י"ט איגרת ז'קעא) wrote that letters that Bloch ascribed to the Rogotchover were forgeries . In 1981 Shmuel Weingarten penned a book titled מכתבים מזויפים נגד הציונות proving that Bloch forged numerous Anti-Zionist letters by prominent rabbis to bolster his opinions.

I recently acquired a large collection of letters from his archive, containing approx. 300 documents. Aside from much interesting content, the letters as a whole aid in the understanding of what appears to be a broken, confused man, rather than the self-righteous man which his books sought to present him as. In addition to the collection I acquired, another part of his archive is currently housed in the Leo Baeck institute and can be viewed online here.

Amongst the letters, we find Bloch fighting with Rabbi Dr, Shimon Federbush, forging a strange friendship with Rabbi Dr. Stephen S. Wise, debating his anti-Zionism and complaining about life in general. We also come across an audacious request from Dr. Samuel Belkin for an honorary degree, and correspondence with the likes of R. David Zvi Hoffman, Prof. Alexander Marx, R. Reuven Margolies and Prof. Ezekiel Kaufmann. Of note is the request he received for evidence of letters of the Sfas Emes he quotes, which the family of the Sfas Emes had no other knowledge of.

Below are a few sample letters from the collection of interest:

A letter written to Bloch by grandchildren of the Sfas Emes. The grandchildren state that they saw Bloch referencing letters of the Sfas Emes of which they have no other knowledge of. They requested copies of the letters and other relevant information that they can publish in the forthcoming book of the collected letters of the Sfas Emes. 

Bloch? writing to Samuel Belkin, telling him that he studied under great scholars in Europe, Buber, Rosenzweig etc and wrote a book on Hasidism and Philosophy. Bloch? requests if he can receive a degree from Yeshiva University in light of his previous work, stating that receiving a degree would help him in his projects. 

Letter to Bloch by Alexander Marx

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, responding to a birthday greeting sent by Bloch. Wise was a Reform rabbi, and Zionist leader, a very unusual "friendship" for Bloch

This letter and the following one document the attempts of the fierce Anti-Zionist Bloch requesting assistance in making Aliyah

A letter addressed to Bloch by the Israel Broadcasting Authority in reference to Bloch's lost manuscripts of his writings. Notice was made of  his lost manuscripts in all the daily papers and no response was received.

Letter by R. David Zvi Hoffman to Bloch

An acquaintance of Bloch, N. Mandel apologizing that he could not make a visit to Bloch's home, as this summer, him and his wife were too weak to go leave the home and their air condition served as their vacation.

Letter by Rabbi Yaakov Avigdor of Mexico City

Lengthy letter sent to Bloch by Mossad Harav Kook in reference to Bloch's bitter fight with Dr Shimon Federbush. Bloch later published an entire book devoted to his fight with Federbush titled משא פדרבוש. Bloch claimed to have edited and put together the entire work and prepared it for printing, and gave it over to Federbush. When it was printed, Federbush's name appeared on the title page, while Bloch received no recognition at all.

Letter by Reuven Margolies to Bloch

Rabbi Yoel Beer of Sao Paulo, Brazil, comforting Bloch telling him that all his troubles with Federbush etc. will clearly atone for his sins..

Letter by Alexander Marx to Bloch

In response to Bloch's request in finding a copy of Federbush's work, Eliyahu Sternbuch of Bnei Brak denounces Bloch for having anything to do with Federbush, who apparently "abandoned his Judaism"..

An acquaintance from Israel requesting help in contacting his brother in New York who refuses to respond to his letters and apparently abandoned his faith

Response from Prof. Yehezkel Kaufmann to Bloch

In response to Bloch's criticism, the author of this letter gives Bloch a response to his critique of Zionism and his assertion that it is forbidden to live in the holy land

Letter with Divre Torah written by Rabbi Yaakov Meskin

The letter to Bloch in אגרות קודש discussing the authenticity of the Rogotchover Letters that Bloch published in his דובב שפתי ישנים

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