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




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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

CHAPTER XVI



THE INNER LIFE OF RUSSIAN JEWRY DURING THE PERIOD OF MILITARY DESPOTISM

1. THE UNCOMPROMISING ATTITUDE OF RABBINISM

The Russian Government had left nothing undone to shatter the old Jewish mode of life. Despotic Tzardom, whose ignorance of Jewish life was only equalled by its hostility to it, lifted its hand to strike not merely at the obsolete forms but also at the sound historic foundations of Judaism. The system of conscription which annually wrenched thousands of youths and lads from the bosom of their families, the barracks which served as mission houses, the method of stimulating and even forcing the conversion of recruits, the establishment of Crown schools for the same covert purpose, the abolition of communal autonomy, civil disfranchisement, persecution and oppression, all were set in motion against the citadel of Judaism. And the ancient citadel, which had held out for thousands of years, stood firm again, while the defenders within her walls, in their endeavor to ward off the enemies' blows, had not only succeeded in covering up the breaches, but also in barring the entrance of fresh air from without. If it be true that, in pursuing its system of tutelage and oppression, the Russian Government was genuinely actuated by the desire to graft the modicum of European culture, to which the Russia of Nicholas I. could lay claim, upon the Jews, it certainly achieved the reverse of what it aimed at. The hand which dealt out blows could not disseminate enlightenment; the hammer which was lifted to shatter Jewish separatism had only the effect of hardening it. The persecuted Jews clutched eagerly at their old mode of life, the target of their enemies' attacks; they clung not only to its permanent foundations but also to its obsolete superstructure. The despotism of extermination from without was counterbalanced by a despotism of conservation from within, by that rigid discipline of conduct to which the masses submitted without a murmur, though its yoke must have weighed heavily upon the few, the stray harbingers of a new order of things.

The Government had managed to disrupt the Jewish communal organization and rob the Kahal of all its authority by degrading it to a kind of posse for the capture of recruits and extortion of taxes. But while the Jewish masses hated the Kahal elders, they retained their faith in their spiritual leaders, the rabbis and Tzaddiks. [1] Heeding the command of these leaders, they closed their ranks, and offered stubborn resistance to the dangerous cultural influences threatening them from without. Life was dominated by rigidly conservative principles. The old scheme of family life, with all its patriarchal survivals, remained in force. In spite of the law, embodied in the Statute of 1835, which fixed the minimum age of the bridegroom at eighteen (and that of the bride at sixteen), the practice of early marriages continued as theretofore. Parents arranged marriages between children of thirteen and fifteen. Boys of school age often became husbands and fathers, and continued to attend heder or yeshibah after their marriage, weighed down by the triple tutelage of father, father-in-law, and teacher. The growing generation knew not the sweetness of being young. Their youth withered under the weight of family chains, the pressure of want or material dependence. The spirit of protest, the striving for rejuvenation, which asserted itself in some youthful souls, was crushed in the vise of a time-honored discipline, the product of long ages. The slightest deviation from a custom, a rite, or old habits of thought met with severe punishment. A short jacket or a trimmed beard was looked upon as a token of dangerous free-thinking. The reading of books written in foreign languages, or even written in Hebrew, when treating of secular subjects, brought upon the culprit untold hardships. The scholastic education resulted in producing men entirely unfit for the battle of life, so that in many families energetic women took charge of the business and became the wage earners, [2] while their husbands were losing themselves in the mazes of speculation, somewhere in the recesses of the rabbinic _Betha-Midrash_ or the hasidic _Klaus_.

[Footnote 1: See on the latter term, Vol. I, p. 227.]

[Footnote 2: This type of Jewish woman, current in Russia until recent times, was called _Eshet Hayil_, "a woman of valour," with allusion to Prov. 31.10.]

In Lithuania the whole mental energy of the Jewish youth was absorbed by Talmudism. The synagogue served as a "house of study" outside the hours fixed for prayers. There the local rabbi or a private scholar gave lectures on the Talmud which were listened to by hosts of _yeshibah bahurs_. [1] The great yeshibahs of Volozhin, Mir, [2] and other towns sent forth thousands of rabbis and Talmudists. Mentality, erudition, dialectic subtlety were valued here above all else. Yet, as soon as the mind, whetted by talmudic dialectics, would point its edge against the existing order of things, or turn in the direction of living knowledge, of "extraneous sciences," [3] it was checked by threats of excommunication and persecution. Many were the victims of this petrified milieu, whose protests against the old order of things and whose strivings for a newer life were nipped in the bud.

[Footnote 1: On the _bahur_ or Talmud student see Vol. I, p. 116 et seq.]

[Footnote 2: On the yeshibah in Volozhin, in the government of Vilna, see Vol. I, p. 380 et seq. Mir is a townlet in the government of Minsk.]

[Footnote 3: An old Hebrew expression for secular learning.]

Instructive in this respect is the fate of one of the most remarkable Talmudists of his time, Rabbi Menashe Ilyer. Ilyer spent most of his life in the townlets of Smorgoni and Ilya (whence his surname), in the government of Vilna, and died of the cholera, in 1831. While keeping strictly within the bounds of rabbinical orthodoxy, whose adepts respected him for his enormous erudition and strict piety, Menashe assiduously endeavored to widen their range of thought and render them more amenable to moderate freedom of research and a more sober outlook on life. But his path was strewn with thorns. When on one occasion he expounded before his pupils the conclusion, which he had reached after a profound scientific investigation, that the text of the Mishnah had in many cases been wrongly interpreted by the Gemara,[1] he was taken to task by a conference of Lithuanian rabbis and barely escaped excommunication.

[Footnote 1: The Mishnah is a code of laws edited about 200 C.E. by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi. The Gemara consists largely of the comments of the talmudic authorities, who lived after that date, on the text of this code.]

Having conceived a liking for mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, Menashe decided to go to Berlin to devote himself to these studies, but on his way to the German capital, while temporarily sojourning in Koenigsberg, he was halted by his countrymen, who visited Prussia on business, and was cowed by all kinds of threats into returning home. By persistent private study, this native of a Russian out-of-the-way townlet managed to acquire a fair amount of general culture, which, with all its limitations, yielded a rich literary harvest. In 1807 he made his _debut_ with the treatise _Pesher Dabar_ ("The Solution of the Problem"), [1] in which he gave vent to his grief over the fact that the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people kept aloof from concrete reality and living knowledge. While the book was passing through the press in Vilna, Lithuanian fanatics threatened the author with severe reprisals. Their threats failed to intimidate him. When the book appeared, many rabbis threw it into the flames, and made every possible effort to arrest its circulation, with the result that the voice of the "heretic" was stifled.

[Footnote 1: Literally, "The Interpretation of a Thing," from Eccl. 8.1.]

Ten years later, while residing temporarily in Volhynia, the hot-bed of hasidism, Menashe began to print his religio-philosophic treatise _Alfe Menassheh_ ("The Teachings of Manasseh"). [1] But the first proof-sheets sufficed to impress the printer with the "heretical" character of the book, and he threw them together with the whole manuscript into the fire. The hapless author managed with difficulty to restore the text of his "executed" work, and published it at Vilna in 1822. Here the rabbinical censorship pounced upon him. The book had not yet left the press, when the rabbi of Vilna, Saul Katzenellenbogen, learned that in one passage the writer deduced from a verse in Deuteronomy (17.9) the right of the "judges" or spiritual leaders of each generation to modify many religious laws and customs in accordance with the requirements of the time. The rabbi gave our author fair warning that, unless this heretical argument was withdrawn, he would have the book burned publicly in the synagogue yard. Menashe was forced to submit, and, contrary to his conviction, weakened his heterodox argument by a number of circumlocutions.

[Footnote 1: With a clever allusion to the Hebrew text of Deut. 33.17.]

These persecutions, however, did not smother the fire of protest in the breast of the excommunicated rural philosopher. In the last years of his life he published two pamphlets, [1] in which he severely lashed the shortcomings of Jewish life, the early marriages, the one-sided school training, the repugnance to living knowledge and physical labor. However, the champions of orthodoxy took good care to prevent these books from reaching the masses. Exhausted by his fruitless struggle, Menashe died, unappreciated and almost unnoticed by his contemporaries.

[Footnote 1: One of these, entitled _Samme de-Hayye_ ("Elixir of Life"), was written in Yiddish, being designed by the author for the lower classes.]



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