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by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook


The artistic portrayer of life was, however, a rare exception in the literature of the Haskalah. Riven by social and cultural strife, the period of enlightenment called rather for theories than for art, and the novelist no less than the publicist was called upon to supply the want. This theoretic element was paramount in the novels of Perez Smolenskin. (1842-1885), the editor of the popular Hebrew magazine _ha-Shahar_. [1] The pupil of a White Russian yeshibah, he afterwards drifted into frivolous Odessa and still later to Vienna, suffering painfully from the shock of the contrast. Personally he had emerged unscathed from this conflict of ideas. But round about him he witnessed "the dead bodies of enlightenment, which are just as numerous as the victims of ignorance." He saw the Jewish youth fleeing from its people and forgetting its national language. He saw Reform Judaism of Western Europe which had retained nothing of Jewish culture except the modernized superficialities of the synagogue. Repelled by this spectacle, Smolenskin decided from the very beginning to fight on two fronts: against the fanatics of orthodoxy in the name of European progress, and against the champions of assimilation in the name of national Jewish culture, and more particularly of the Hebrew language. "You say," Smolenskin exclaims, addressing himself to the assimilators, "let us be like the other nations. Well and good. Let us, indeed, be like the other nations: cultured men and women, free from superstition, loyal citizens of the country. But let us also remember, as the other nations do, that we have no right to be ashamed of our origin, that it is our duty to hold dear our national language and our national dignity."

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 218.]

In his first great novel "A Rover on Life's Paths" (_Ha-to-'eh bedarke ha-hayyim_, 1869-1876), Smolenskin carries his hero through all the stages of cultural development, leading from an obscure White Russian hamlet to the centers of European civilization in London and Paris. But at the end of his "rovings" the hero ultimately attains to a synthesis of Jewish nationalism and European progress, and ends by sacrificing his life while defending his brethren during the Odessa pogrom of 1871. The other _Tendenz_-novels of Smolenskin reflect the same double-fronted struggle: against the stagnation of the orthodox, particularly the Hasidim, and against the disloyalty of the "enlightened."

Smolenskin's theory of Judaism is formulated in two publicistic works: "The Eternal People" (_'Am 'olam_, [1] 1872) and "There is a Time to Plant" (_'Et la-ta'at_ [2], 1875-1877). As a counterbalance to the artificial religious reforms of the West, he sets up the far-reaching principle of Jewish evolution, of a gradual amalgamation of the national and humanitarian element within Judaism. The Messianic dogma, which the Jews of the West had completely abandoned because of its alleged incompatibility with Jewish citizenship in the Diaspora, is warmly defended by Smolenskin as one of the symbols of national unity. In the very center of his system stands the cult of Hebrew as a national language, "without which there is no Judaism." In order the more successfully to demolish the idea of assimilation, Smolenskin bombards its substructure, the theory of enlightenment as formulated by Moses Mendelssohn, with its definition of the Jews as a religious community, and not as a nation, though in his polemical ardor he often goes too far, and does occasional violence to historic truth.

[Footnote 1: From Isa. 44. 7.]

[Footnote 2: From Eccles. 3. 2.]

In both works one may discern, though in vague outlines only, the theory of a "spiritual nation." [1] However, Smolenskin did not succeed in developing and consolidating his theory. The pogroms of 1881 and the beginning of the Jewish exodus from Russia upset his equilibrium once more. He laid aside the question of the national development of Jewry in the Diaspora, and became an enthusiastic preacher of the restoration of the Jewish people in Palestine. In the midst of this propaganda the life of the talented publicist was cut short by a premature death.

[Footnote 1: The conception of a "spiritual nation" as applied to Judaism has been formulated and expounded by the author of the present volume in a number of works. See his "Jewish History" (Jewish Publication Society, 1903) p. 29 et seq., and the translator's essay "Dubnow's Theory of Jewish Nationalism" (reprinted from the Maccabaean, 1905). More about this theory will be found in Vol. III.]

The same conviction was finally reached, after a prolonged inner struggle, by Moses Leib Lilienblum (1843-1910), who might well be called a "martyr of enlightenment." However, during the period under consideration he moved entirely within the boundaries of the Haskalah, of which he was a most radical exponent. Persecuted for his harmless liberalism by the fanatics of his native town of Vilkomir, [1] Lilienblum began to ponder over the question of Jewish religious reforms. In advocating the reform of Judaism, he was not actuated, as were so many in Western Europe, by the desire of adapting Judaism to the non-Jewish environment, but rather by the profound and painful conviction that dominant Rabbinism in its medieval phase did not represent the true essence of Judaism. Reform of Judaism, as interpreted by Lilienblum, does not mean a revolution, but an evolution of Judaism. Just as the Talmud had once reformed Judaism in accordance with the requirements of its time, so must Judaism be reformed by us in accordance with the demands of our own times. When the youthful writer embodied these views in a series of articles, published in the _ha-Melitz_ under the title _Orhot ha-Talmud_ ("The Ways of the Talmud," 1868-1869), his orthodox townsmen were so thoroughly aroused that his further stay in Vilkomir was not free from danger, and he was compelled to remove to Odessa. Here he published in 1870 his rhymed satire _Kehal refa'im_, [2] in which the dark shadows of a Jewish town, the Kahal elders, the rabbis, the Tzaddiks, and other worthies, move weirdly about in the gloom of the nether-world.

[Footnote 1: In the government of Kovno.]

[Footnote 2: "The Congregation of the Dead," with allusion to Prov. 21.16.]

In Odessa Lilienblum joined the ranks of the Russified college youth, and became imbued with the radical ideas of Chernyshevski and Pisaryev, gaining the reputation of a "nihilist." His theory of Jewish reform, superannuated by his new materialistic world view, was thrown aside, and a gaping void opened in the soul of the writer. This frame of mind is reflected in Lilienblum's self-revelation, "The Sins of Youth" (_Hattot ne'urim_, 1876), this agonizing cry of one of the many victims of the mental cataclysm of the sixties. The book made a tremendous impression, for the mental tortures depicted in it were typical of the whole age of transition. However, the final note of the confession, the shriek of a wasted soul, which, having overthrown the old idols, has failed to find a new God, did not express the general trend of that period, which was far from despair.

As for our author, his tempestuous soul was soon set at rest. The events which filled the minds of progressive Jewry with agitation, the horrors of the pogroms and the political oppression of the beginning of the eighties, brought peace to the aching heart of Lilienblum. He found the solution of the Jewish problems in the "Love of Zion," of which he became the philosophic exponent. At a later stage he became an ardent champion of political Zionism.

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