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by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook


It was in the hot-bed of the most fanatical species of Hasidism that the first blossoms of Haskalah [1] timidly raised their heads. Isaac Baer Levinsohn, from Kremenetz in Podolia (1788-1860), had associated in his younger days with the champions of enlightenment in adjacent Galicia, such as Joseph Perl, [2] Nahman Krochmal, [3] and their followers. When he came back to his native land, it was with the firm resolve to devote his energies to the task of civilizing the secluded masses of Russian Jewry. In lonesome quietude, carefully guarding his designs from the outside world which was exclusively hasidic, he worked at his book _Te'udah, be-Israel_ ("Instruction in Israel"), which after many difficulties he managed to publish in Vilna in 1828. In this book our author endeavored, without trespassing the boundaries of orthodox religious tradition, to demonstrate the following elementary truths by citing examples from Jewish history and sayings of great Jewish authorities:

[Footnote 1: A Hebrew term meaning "enlightenment." It is a translation of the German _Aufklaerung_, and was first applied to the endeavors made in the time of Moses Mendelssohn (died 1886) to introduce European culture among the Jews of the ghetto.]

[Footnote 2: Died 1839. He became famous through his anti-hasidic parody _Megalle Temirin_, "Revealing Hidden Things," written in the form of letters in imitation of the hasidic style. Peri's book has been frequently compared with the medieval _Epistolae obscurorum vivorum_, which are ascribed to Ulrich von Hutten (d. 1523). See P. 127.]

[Footnote 3: Died 1840. Famous as the author of _More Nebuke ha-Zeman_, "Guide of the Perplexed of (Our) Time," a profound treatise, dealing with Jewish theological and historical problems.]

  1. The Jew is obliged to study the Bible as well as Hebrew grammar   and to interpret the biblical text in accordance with the plain   grammatical sense.

  2. The Jewish religion does not condemn the knowledge of foreign   languages and literatures, especially of the language of the   country, such knowledge being required both in the personal interest   of the individual Jew and in the common interest of the Jewish   people.

  3. The study of secular sciences is not attended by any danger for   Judaism, men of the type of Maimonides having remained loyal Jews,   in spite of their extensive general culture.

  4. It is necessary from the economic point of view to strengthen   productive labor, such as handicrafts and agriculture, at the   expense of commerce and brokerage, also to discourage early   marriages between persons who are unprovided for and have no   definite occupation.

These commonplaces sounded to that generation like epoch-making revelations. They were condemned as rank heresies by the all-powerful obscurantists and hailed as a gospel of the approaching renaissance by that handful of progressives who dreamt of a new Jewish life and, cowed by the fear of persecution, hid these thoughts deep down in their breasts.

A similar fear compelled Levinsohn to exercise the utmost reserve and caution in criticizing the existing order of things. The same consideration forced him to shield himself behind a pseudonym in publishing his anti-hasidic satire _Dibre Tzaddikim_, "The Words of the Tzaddiks," [1] (Vienna, 1830), a rather feeble imitation of _Megalle Temirin_, the Hebrew counterpart of the "Epistles of Obscure Men," by Joseph Perl. [2] His principal work, entitled _Bet Yehudah_, "The House of Judah," a semi-philosophic, semi-publicistic review of the history of Judaism, remained for a long time in manuscript. Levinsohn was unable to publish it for the reason that even the printing-press of Vilna, the only one to issue publications of a non-religious character, was afraid of bringing out a book which had failed to receive the approbation of the local rabbis. Several years later, in 1839, the volume finally came out, clothed in the form of a reply to inquiries addressed to the author by a high Russian official.

[Footnote 1: Literally, "The Words of the Righteous," with reference to Ex. 23. 8:]

[Footnote 2: See the preceding page, n. 1.]

From the point of view of Jewish learning, _Bet Yehudah_ can claim but scanty merits. It lacks that depth of philosophic-historic insight which distinguishes so brilliantly the "Guide of the Perplexed of Our Time" of the Galician thinker Krochmal. [1] The writer's principal task is to prove from history his rather trite doctrine that Judaism had at no time shunned secular culture and philosophy.

[Footnote 1: See the preceding page, n. 2.]

For the rest, the author fights shy of the difficult problems of religious philosophy, and is always on the lookout for compromises. Even with reference to the Cabala, with which Levinsohn has but little sympathy, he says timidly: "It is not for us to judge these lofty matters" (Chapter 135). Fear of the orthodox environment compels him to observe almost complete silence with reference to Hasidism, although, in his private correspondence and in his anonymous writings he denounces it severely. Levinsohn concludes his historic review of Judaism with a eulogy upon the Russian Government for its kindness toward the Jews (Ch. 151) and with the following plan of reform suggested to it for execution (Ch. 146):

  To open elementary schools for the teaching of Hebrew and the tenets   of the Jewish religion as well as of Russian and arithmetic, and to   establish institutions of higher rabbinical learning in the larger   cities; to Institute the office of Chief Rabbi, with a supreme   council under him, which should be in charge of Jewish spiritual and   communal affairs in Russia; to allot to a third of the   Russian-Jewish population parcels of land for agricultural purposes;   to prohibit luxury in dress and furniture in which even the   impecunious classes are prone to indulge.

Levinsohn was not satisfied to propagate his ideas by purely literary means. He anticipated meagre results from a literary propaganda among the broad Jewish masses, in which the mere reading of such "licentious" books was considered a criminal offence. He had greater faith in his ability to carry out the regeneration of Jewish life with the powerful help of the Government. As a matter of fact, Levinsohn had long before this begun to knock at the doors of the Russian Government offices. Far back in 1823 he had presented to the heir-apparent Constantine Pavlovich [1] a memorandum concerning Jewish sects and a project looking to the establishment of a system of Jewish schools and seminaries. Moreover, before publishing his first work _Te'udah_, he had submitted the manuscript to Shishkov, the reactionary Minister of Public Instruction, applying for a Government subsidy towards the publication of a work which demonstrates the usefulness of enlightenment and agriculture, "instills love for the Tzar as well as for the people with which we share our life, and recounts the innumerable favors which they have bestowed upon us."

[Footnote 1: Being the eldest brother of Alexander I., Constantine was the legitimate heir to the Russian throne. He resigned in favor of his younger brother Nicholas. See above, p. 13, n. 2.]

These words were penned on December 2, 1827, three months after the promulgation of the baneful conscription ukase ordering the compulsory enlistment of under-aged cantonists! The request was complied with. A year later the humble Volhynian litterateur received by imperial command an "award" of 1000 rubles ($500) "for a work having for its object the moral transformation of the Jews." This "award" came when the volume had already appeared in print, in the terrible year 1828 which was marked by the first conscription of Jewish recruits, the ominous turn in the ritual murder trial of Velizh and the constant tightening of the knot of disabilities.

But these events failed to cure the political _naivete_ of Levinsohn. In 1831 he laid before Lieven, the new Minister of Public Instruction, a memorandum advocating the necessity of modifications in Jewish religious life. Again in 1833 he came forward with the dangerous proposal to close all Jewish printing-presses, except those situated in towns in which there was a censorship. The project was accompanied by a "list of ancient and modern Hebrew books, indicating those that may be considered useful and those that are harmful"--the hasidic works were declared to belong to the latter category. Levinsohn's project was partly instrumental in prompting the grievous law of 1836, which raised a cry of despair in the Pale of Settlement, ordering a revision of the entire Hebrew literature by Russian censors. [1]

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 42 et seq.]

Levinsohn's action would have been ignoble had it not been naive. The recluse of Kremenetz, passionately devoted to his people but wanting in political foresight, was calling Russian officialdom to aid in his fight against the bigotry of the Jewish masses, in the childish conviction that the Russian authorities had the welfare of the Jews truly at heart, and that compulsory measures would do away with the hostility of the Jewish populace toward enlightenment. He failed to perceive, as did also some of his like-minded contemporaries, that the culture which the Russian Government of his time was trying to foist upon the Jews was only apt to accentuate their distrust, that, so long as they were the target of persecution, the Jews could not possibly accept the gift of enlightenment from the hands of those who lured them to the baptismal font, pushed their children on the path of religious treason, and were ruthless in breaking and disfiguring their whole mode of life.

In his literary works Levinsohn was fond of emphasizing his relations with high Government officials. This probably saved him from a great deal of unpleasantness on the part of the fanatic Hasidim, but it also had the effect of increasing his unpopularity among the orthodox. The only merit the latter were willing to concede to Levinsohn was that of an apologist who defended Judaism against the attacks of non-Jews. During the epidemic of ritual murder trials, the rabbis of Lithuania and Volhynia addressed a request to Levinsohn to write a book against this horrid libel. At their suggestion he published his work _Efes Damim_, "No Blood!" (Vilna, 1837), [1] in the form of a dialogue between a Jewish sage and a Greek-Orthodox patriarch in Jerusalem.

[Footnote 1: With a clever allusion to the geographic name Ephes-dammim, I Sam. 17. 1.]

Somewhat later Levinsohn wrote other apologetic treatises, defending the Talmud against the attacks contained in the book _Netibot 'Olam_ [1] published in 1839 by the London missionary M'Caul. Levinsohn's great apologetic work _Zerubbabel_, which appeared several years after his death, was equally dedicated to the defence of the Talmud. It has, moreover, considerable scientific merit, being one of the first research works in the domain of talmudic theology. A number of other publications by Levinsohn deal with Hebrew philology and lexicography. All these efforts support Levinsohn's claim to the title of Founder of a modern Jewish Science in Russia, though his scholarly achievements cannot be classed with those of his German and Galician fellow-writers, such as Rapoport, Zunz, Jost and Geiger.

[Footnote 1: "Old Paths," with reference to Jer. 6. 16.]

Levinsohn stood entirely aloof from the propaganda of bureaucratic enlightenment which was carried on by Lilienthal in the name of Uvarov. The Volhynian hermit was completely overshadowed by the energetic young German. Even when Lilienthal, after realizing that a union between Jewish culture and Russian officialdom was altogether unnatural, had disappeared from the stage, Levinsohn still persisted in cultivating his relations with the Government. But by that time the bureaucrats of St. Petersburg had no more use for the Jewish friends of enlightenment. Broken in health, chained to his bed for half a lifetime, without means of subsistence, lonely amidst a hostile orthodox environment, Levinsohn time and again addressed to St. Petersburg humiliating appeals for monetary assistance, occasionally receiving small pittances, which were booked under the heading "Relief in Distress," accepted subventions from various Jewish Maecenases, and remained a pauper till the end of his life. The pioneer of modern culture among Russian Jews, the founder of Neo-Hebraic literature, spent his life in the midst of a realm of darkness, shunned like an outcast, appreciated by a mere handful of sympathizers. It was only after his death that he was crowned with laurels, when the intellectuals of Russian Jewry were beginning to press forward in close formation.

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