A Case Study in the Formation of a Super-Rabbi: The Early Years of Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, 1713-1754

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The eighteenth century is usually thought of as the dawn of modernity in Jewish history. While this is true, it was also a time when pre-modern Jewish culture flourished and dominated Jewish life throughout Central and Eastern Europe. This culture was religious in nature, deriving its self-image, institutions, and norms primarily from Talmudic and post-talmudic teachings and literature.

The most important group in this culture was the intellectual class, the rabbinic scholars. Any student of rabbinic literature, particularly one who mastered important Talmudic and post-talmudic texts, was a rabbinic scholar, even if he did not occupy a pulpit or hold official office. However, by the seventeenth century, an official and professional rabbinate had come into being throughout Ashkenazic Jewry. This rabbinate consisted of rabbinic scholars contractually employed by kehilot, official autonomous Jewish communities, in various offices. The highest office was that of communal rabbi or chief rabbi. The communal rabbi was the official religious leader, the guide and legal authority, of the community. Although lay elites held significant and often predominant power, the communal rabbinate was a position of much power and influence, particularly when it was held by a man of scholarly eminence and strong personality. Communal rabbis who gained reputation as men of preeminent scholarship and piety attained a unique authority that transcended the bounds of their communities and made them the unofficial but real highest religious figures in the Ashkenazic world. These "super-rabbis" were called Gedolim, great ones."

In spite of its importance in pre-modern Jewish history, the rabbinate as a group, particularly the communal rabbinate and the Gedolim, has not received adequate scholarly attention. The rabbinate had an intellectual, professional, and social world of its own. Historians cannot afford to ignore this phenomenon.

My study of the early career of Ezekiel Landau (1713-1793), addresses these issues. Landau was one of the greatest communal rabbis and Gedolim of the premodern era, A preeminent public figure of the eighteenth century, Landau spent his life within the world of the rabbinate and reached the highest rungs of fame and achievement. His was a model rabbinic career. A study of his life reveals how one became a scholar, a communal rabbi, and finally a Gadol.

Towards the end of his life, Landau had to respond to the unprecedented challenges of incipient modernity, which threatened his world. His success and lack of success in meeting these challenges reveals the power as well as the limitations of the premodern communal rabbinate.