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HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA AND POLAND - S.M. Dubnow




jewish genealogy in Argentina

HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA AND POLAND

FROM THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER I UNTIL THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER III

by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook

3. ASSIMILATIONIST TENDENCIES AMONG THE JEWS OF POLAND

In the beginning of the third decade of the nineteenth century the noise caused by the Jewish question had begun to subside both in Polish political circles and in Polish literature. Instead, the agitation within the Jewish ranks became more vigorous. That group of Jews already assimilated or thirsting for assimilation, which on an earlier occasion, during the existence of the Varsovian duchy, had segregated itself from the rest of Jewry, assuming the label of "Old Testament believers," [1] occupied a very influential position within the Jewish community of the Polish capital. It was made up of wealthy bankers and merchants and boasted of a few men with a European education. The members of this group were hankering after German models and were anxious to renounce the national separatism of the Jews which was a standing rebuke in the mouths of their enemies. To these "Old Testament believers" the abolition of the Kahal and the limitation of communal self-government to the narrow range of synagogue interests appeared the surest remedy against anti-Semitism. Behind the abrogation of communal autonomy they saw the smiling vision of a Jewish school-reform, leading to the Polonization of Jewish education, while in the far-off distance they could discern the promised land of equal citizenship.

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 96, n. 1.]

The efforts of the Jewish reformers of Warsaw were now systematically directed towards this goal. In 1820 there appeared an anonymous pamphlet under the title "The Petition, or Self-defence, of the Members of the Old Testament Persuasion in the Kingdom of Poland." The main purpose of this publication is to show that the root of the evil lies in the Kahal organization, in the elders, rabbis, and burial societies, who expend enormous sums of taxation money without any control--i.e., without the control of the Polish municipality--who oppress the people by their _herems_ (excommunications), and altogether abuse their power. It is, therefore, necessary to abolish this power of the Kahals and transfer it to the Polish municipalities, or even, police authorities; only then will order be established in the Jewish communities, and the Jews will be transformed into "useful citizens."

The Government spheres of Poland were greatly pleased by these utterances of the "Old Testament believers" of Warsaw. They had long contemplated the curtailment of the autonomy of the Kahals, and now "the very Jews" clamored for it. In consequence, there appeared in 1821 a series of edicts by the viceroy and various rescripts by the Commission of Public Instruction and Religious Denominations, resulting in the demolition of the ancient communal scheme, in which certain forms of self-government, but by no means its underlying fundamental principles, had become obsolete.

These measures were sanctioned by an imperial ukase dated December 20, 1821, [1] decreeing the abolition of the Kahals and their substitution by "Congregational Boards," whose scope of activity was strictly limited to religious matters, while all civil and fiscal affairs were placed under the jurisdiction of the local Polish administration. The Congregational Boards were to consist of the rabbi, his assistant or substitute, and three trustees or supervisors.

[Footnote 1: Corresponding to January 1, 1822, of the West-European calendar.]

At first, the majority of Jewish communities in Poland were indignant at this curtailment of their autonomy, and adopted a hostile attitude towards the new communal organization. The "supervisors" elected on the Congregational Boards often refused to serve, and the authorities were compelled to appoint them. But in the course of time the communities became reconciled to the new scheme of congregations, or _Gminas,_[1] whose range of activity was gradually widened. In 1830 the suffrage of the Polish Jews within the Jewish communities was restricted by a new law to persons possessed of a certain amount of property. The result was particularly noticeable in Warsaw where the new state of things helped to strengthen the influence of the group of the "Old Testament believers" and enabled them to gain control of the affairs of the metropolitan community. The leaders of Warsaw Jewry managed soon to establish intimate relations with the Polish Government, and co-operated with it in bringing about the "cultural reforms" of the Jews of Poland.

[Footnote 1: _Gmina_ is the Polish word for community, derived from the German _Gemeinde_.]

In 1825 the Polish Government appointed a special body to deal with Jewish affairs. It was called "Committee of Old Testament Believers," though composed in the main of Polish officials. It was supplemented by an advisory council consisting of five public-spirited Jews and their alternates. Among the members of the Committee, which included several prominent Jewish merchants of Warsaw, such as Jacob Bergson, M. Kavski, Solomon Posner, T. Teplitz, was also the well-known mathematician Abraham Stern, one of the few cultured Jews of that period who remained a steadfast upholder of Jewish tradition. The "Committee of Old Testament Believers" embarked upon the huge task of civilizing the Jews of Poland and purging the Jewish religion of its superstitious excrescences.

The first step taken by the Committee was the establishment of a Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw for the training of modernized rabbis, teachers, and communal workers. The program of the school was arranged with a view to the Polonization of its pupils. The language of instruction was Polish, and the teachers of many secular subjects were Christians. No wonder then that when the Seminary was opened in 1826, Stern refused to accept the post of director which had been offered to him, and yielded his place to Anton Eisenbaum, a radical assimilator. The tendency of the school may be gauged from the fact that the department of Hebrew and Bible was entrusted to Abraham Buchner, who had gained notoriety by a German pamphlet entitled _Die Nicktigkeit des Talmuds_, "The Worthlessness of the Talmud." [1]

[Footnote 1: He was also the author of a Jewish catechism in Hebrew, entitled _Yesode ha-Dat_, "The Fundamental Principles of the Jewish Religion."]

Characteristically enough, Buchner had been recommended by the ferocious Jew-baitor Abbe Chiarini, a member of the "Committee of Old Testament Believers," which, one might almost suspect, was charged with the supervision of Jewish education for no other reason, than that to spite the Jews. Chiarini was professor of Oriental Languages at the University of Warsaw. As such he considered himself an expert in Hebrew literature, and cherished the plan of translating the Talmud into French to unveil the secrets of Judaism before the Christian world. In 1828 Chiarini suggested to the "Committee of Old Testament Believers" to arrange a course in Hebrew Archaeology at the Warsaw University for the purpose of acquainting Christian students with rabbinic literature and thus equipping prospective Polish officials with a knowledge of things Jewish. The plan having been approved by the Government, Chiarini began to deliver a course of lectures on Judaism. The fruit of these lectures was a French publication, issued in 1829 under the title _Theorie du Judaisme_. It was an ignorant libel upon the Talmud and rabbinism, a worthy counterpart of Eisenmenger's "Judaism Exposed." [1] Chiarini did not even shrink from repeating the hideous lie about the use of Christian blood by the Jews. He was taken to task by Jacob Tugenhold in Warsaw and by Jost and Zunz in Germany. Yet the evil seed had sunk into the soil. Polish society, which had long harbored unfriendly sentiments against the Jews, became more and more permeated with anti-Semitic bias, and this bias found tangible expression during the insurrection of 1830-1831.

[Footnote 1: The book of a famous anti-Semitic writer who lived in Germany in the seventeenth century. _Entdecktes Judentum_, the book referred to in the text, appeared in 1700.]



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