The Bet of Meir ben Barukh von Rothenburg Against Himself

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Pablo Edronkin

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Meir ben Barukh von Rothenburg was born in 1215 in Germany and died in 1293; he was a rabbi, a poet and a philosopher at a time in which most people were illiterate in Europe. Thanks to the brutes around him he had to bet against himself for the sake and survival of his family and his people.

Meir was a Jew and a German; he was born in the city of Worms and became rabbi and one of the celebrated "Tosafists". They were philosophers who "added" or "commented" Rashi's commentaries on the Talmud for centuries, and hence, he became one of the men who actually shaped the culture and ways of the Ashkhenazi, that is, the Jews from "Ashkhenaz", which is translated as "Germany". While not writing a single treatise or book like other Tosafists, more than 1.500 texts of varying length are attributed to him. In other words, Meir ben Barukh von Rothenburg is one of the individuals that shaped the initial culture of a considerable part of humankind, for his ideas and the achievements of his people go beyond religion and ethnicity. He contributed to form the way of thinking and social rules that defined the lives and works of countless scientists, artist, politicians and thinkers.

One of the peculiarities of the Jewish culture is that along almost all of its history, pogroms and persecutions have been prevalent. Anti - Semitism has been called "the longest hatred" and for a good reason: it is a phenomenon alone in the history of mankind because no other racial or ethnic hatred has been so extensive, regardless of time and place. Also, no other hatred has survived for so long and caused so many victims over time. At countless times and for a variety of apparent or ostensible reasons - which in reality can be traced back to simple envy or resentment - Jews suffered abuse, expropriations and of course death, sometimes at industrial scale. And that happened too at the time in which Meir ben Barukh was busy with his intellectual work: King Rudolph I took away almost all the freedoms and rights of the Jews in the region in 1286, and many had to flee, including Meir ben Baruch and his family. However, he was taken as a hostage in Lombardy and sent to a castle in Alsace. Like in other cases, his tormentors were betting on the fact that followers of Meir ben Barukh as well as his colleagues would gather money to pay a bulky ransom. This was common whenever any persecution against Jews took place: The bottom line was money, and the rabbi knew that.

On every pogrom, every time Jewish houses were attacked, people got expelled, beaten and killed, but attackers took care to steal as much as they could. Pogroms were just an excuse to attempt to get by criminal means what lack of ability and intelligence precluded those people from getting by honest means. And pogroms were also used by local authorities to kill debtors in order to erase debts and as excuses to provide "circus and bread" to the illiterate - rotten teeth slobs that they manipulated in order to relieve pressure that always mounted due to the extreme harshness of living conditions. Of course, heavy taxation was also used as an instrument against them. Resentment against people perceived to have money has been another of the prevalent traits of humanity, and it is almost a cliché that Jews have money.

For rulers and leaders, killing a few Jews and wealthy non-Jews acted as a way to improve their finances and provided a service similar to a lottery: People were actually expecting, longing for a pogrom to take place because they lived with the expectation of getting their hands on the perceived wealth and riches of the Jews and any newly-discovered infidels or heretics. Because of this reason interest rates on loans were so high: the risk of lending money was considerable. So, when the officially-sanctioned mob got him and the local lords began with the circus again, Meir ben Barukh made something that nobody expected: He placed a bet against himself, refusing to accept others to pay any ransom. For that he paid with his life, of course: He died in prison and only several years later his body was returned to his home town, where his burial stone is still in place. Nobody remembers his captors, but he still is.

What he did might seem suicidal but he had one good reason to do it: Had he paid the ransom, others would follow. Once you negotiate with criminals, terrorists and such people, the thing will never stop. To act rationally in such a way is the mark of a leader, not a suicidal mind. So he placed a bet against himself in order to place a bet in favour of everybody else - including Christians, Muslims and Jews living in the area, for sequestering people for such ends was not limited to one religion. His was one of the first documented cases of a policy that several governments now apply: There is no negotiation with terrorists and pirates.

Meir ben Barukh von Rothenburg died but his family went on: the Rothenburgs still exist. They are part of a mega family known by various names, which comprises several rabbinical dynasties such as Alter, Katzenellenbogen, Kalonymus, Soloveitchik, Caro, Adler, Teomim and Luria. Among the more recent descendants and relatives of this family we can find Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy - the composer - a couple of Vasa Polish and Swedish kings, several noble and royal families of Europe, including Princes, Counts and Barons, and prominent families of bankers and industrialists such as Rottschild, Ephrussi, Auerbach, Kronenberg, Skowronek and Natanson, plus many scholars, scientists, artists and even Olympic athletes. Meir ben Baruch Rothenburg's wife's ancestors and ancient relatives include Rashi, generations of scholars and exilarchs and members of the Persian royalty.

At th present time Jews around the world number around 17 million people, which represents about 0,25% of the overall number of humans on planet Earth. Despite these numbers, it is almost common that whenever a sampling group is defined for statistical purposes in which intelligence is one of the main traits, Ashkhenazi Jews tend to appear in otherwise disproportionate numbers. For example, around 25% of all Nobel prizes were granted to people of Jewish origin. This means that Ashkhenazi Jews hare mathematically 100 times more efficient - or vastly more intelligent - that other people. And many of those successful Jews belong to the mega family of Meir ben Baruch.

The members of this family always had a drive for success, and they achieved it repeatedly simply because success breeds yet more success: In the first years of the twentieth century, Count Potocki gave the name "Skowronek" to one of the horses he raised. Skowronek became a legendary Arab stallion, and his pedigree is still sought after. "Skowronek" is the Polish name of a bird, but is also the name of two related families of Poland: that of the Skowronski Counts and that of the Skowronek bankers, also members of the Polish Szlachta or nobilty. The Potocki palace in Warsaw lies almost right in front of the place where the Skowronek family had one of their banks, and right aside of the Kronenberg palace. The Kronenbergs were inter-married into families of the clan too. Count Potocki was doing business with the Skowronek bankers, and trying to get people from his family to marry with the newly-born daughter of one Skowronek. It was a contract marriage being planned years in advance, as it has been customary in those circles. The Potocki family wasn't looking for a namby-pamby wedding. They were looking forward to enhancing their ties with successful people to add to their own success.

A few years later, in World War II, Michael Klepfisz, an engineer by education and a guerrilla fighter during the Warsaw ghetto uprising and also a member of this family, sacrificed himself in front of a Nazi machine gun nest in order to clear the way for his colleagues to save themselves. He was awarded posthumously the Virtuti Militari Cross, which is the highest Polish decoration for combat bravery.

All these names are related under a common denominator: According to several genealogists, they belong to the tree of David ben Yishay HaMelekh. That is, they are descendants of King David of ancient Israel, as Jesus Christ is said to have been, and who also made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of others. This mega family, which had up to present times around 18.000 documented members since the year 1100 BCE includes some of the most successful people in history. There is an ongoing debate about it since while evidence pointing to its origin is accepted as sufficient proof by some historians, others contend that it is suggestive, but not definitive. However, all agree that the family is thousands of years old and it is very possibly the offspring of King David since in addition to ancient documents, recent DNA tests suggest that Ashkhenazi Jews come from no more than four females that lived about two thousand years ago and most certainly, the drive that its members always had has a lot to do with the fact that they have had perceived themselves as something unique. Historically, this has been known as "The unbroken chain" by scholars.

There are many proponents of conspiracy theories about Jews and their success; none of what is stated in those theories is true and frankly, some of those would be downrightly laughable if not for the seriousness of the issue. But those theories are indeed attempts made by uncultivated people to explain a phenomenon that they observe with scarce intellectual tools to understand it: Indeed, many Ashkhenazi Jews have been extremely successful in many fields, and particularly in finances, banking and science. The existence of families such as the HaMelekh dynasty is a fact, and their achievements are perfectly explainable with a little logic: The descendants of kings, who were princes and kings themselves at times, and wealthy and powerful for more than a hundred generations, breed their children in an environment filled with more possibilities and better living and health standards than the common people had. That, in the long run, produces people that are simply more intelligent.

So, while in most families having several suicidal members might indicate some serious mental condition passed from one generation to another, in such a case, in which individuals bet on their own deaths as means of achieving other goals should be seen taking the big picture in context: When you are a member of something like such a succession, it is more important to ensure the survival of the whole than the survival of individuals, and since time and evolution only saves good things, the chain still remains unbroken while the Romans, the feudal lords an the Nazis are history, and probably will go on when humankind reaches the stars and the nations of today become dust.

Understanding what should be the priorities in terms of survival is the mark of leadership, even under the worst kind of circumstances. Ultimately, the ability to think rationally and do whatever is required to do in order to achieve goals of greater importance produces success. That is why sometimes betting against oneself actually works.

The Synagogue of Rashi in Worms, Germany; pencil, 2012, by Pablo Edronkin.
The Synagogue of Rashi in Worms, Germany; pencil, 2012, by Pablo Edronkin.

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