Hebrew University, Jerusalem
Happy communities are all alike, every unhappy community is unhappy in its own way
Rabbi Jacob Gesundheit was the last rabbi of Warsaw. He was fired in 1873 and died five years later. There were then – and later – many rabbis in Warsaw but none could claim to speak in the name of the entire Jewish community on the basis of having been elected by representatives of the community. Warsaw was not unique in lacking a communal rabbi at the end of the nineteenth century. This was the case in most of the large Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. However, the circumstances were unique to Warsaw. In most cases, this happened because communities were unable to pick a successor after a rabbi died. In Warsaw, the rabbi was fired. In most cases, communal rabbis were brought in from another community – in the case of Rabbi Gesundheit, he was a locally born and bred product. Finally, the timing of the vacancy in the Warsaw rabbinate was a bit earlier than most other communities.
It is well known that the Warsaw Jewish community was very heterogeneous. The elite was largely integrationist, the largest group was hassidic but there was also a substantial group of mitnagdim from whose ranks Rabbi Gesundheit came. The opposition to him is not difficult to understand. Indeed, he would not have been elected to his position had it not been for the intervention of the Russian governor – itself a rather exceptional phenomenon. However, what is not clear is why an agreed-upon hassidic candidate was not found. This is an indication of the depth of the internal split but apparently also of difficulties within the hassidic camp.