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by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook


An elaborate _expose_ on the question of enlightenment was composed and laid before the Committee by the Minister of Public Instruction, Sergius Uvarov. Having acquired the _bon ton_ of Western Europe, Uvarov prefaces his statement by the remark that the European governments have abandoned the method of "persecution and compulsion" in solving the Jewish question and that "this period has also arrived for us." "Nations," observes Uvarov, "are not exterminated, least of all the nation which stood at the foot of Calvary." From what follows, it seems evident that the Minister is still in hopes that the gentle measures of enlightenment may attract the Jews towards the religion which derives its origin from Calvary.

  The best among the Jews--he states--are conscious of the fact that   one of the principal causes of their humiliation lies in the   perverted interpretation of their religious traditions, that ... the   Talmud demoralized and continues to demoralize their   co-religionists. But nowhere is the influence of the Talmud so   potent as among us (in Russia) and in the Kingdom of Poland. [1]   This influence can be counteracted only by enlightenment, and the   Government can do no better than to act in the spirit that animates   the handful of the best among them.... The re-education of the   learned section among the Jews involves at the same time the   purification of their religious conceptions.

[Footnote 1: See on the meaning of the latter term Vol. I, p. 390, n. 1.]

What "purification" the author of the memorandum has in mind may be gathered from his casual remark that the Jews, who maintain their separatism, are rightly afraid of reforms: "for is not the religion of the Cross the purest symbol of universal citizenship?" This, however, Uvarov cautiously adds, should not be made public, for "it would have no other effect except that of arousing from the very beginning the opposition of the majority of the Jews against the (projected) schools."

Officially the reform must confine itself to the opening in all the cities of the Jewish Pale of elementary and secondary schools in which Jewish children should be taught the Russian language, secular sciences, Hebrew, and "religion, according to the Holy Writ." The instruction should be given in Russian, though, owing to the shortage in teachers familiar with this language, the use of German is to be admitted temporarily. The teachers in the low-grade schools shall provisionally be recruited from among melammeds who "can be depended upon"; those in the higher-grade schools shall be chosen from among the modernized Jews of Russia and Germany.

The Committee endorsed Uvarov's scheme in its principal features, and urgently recommended that, in order to prepare the Jewish masses for the impending reform, a special propagandist be sent into the Pale of Settlement for the purpose of acquainting this obstreperous nation with "the benevolent intentions of the Government." Such a propagandist was soon found in the person of a young German Jew, Dr. Max Lilienthal, a resident of Riga.

Lilienthal; who was a native of Bavaria (he was born in Munich in 1815) and a German university graduate, was a typical representative of the German Jewish intellectuals of that period, a champion of assimilation and of moderate religious reform. Lilienthal had scarcely completed his university course, when he was offered by a group of educated Jews in Riga the post of preacher and director of the new local Jewish school, one of the three modern Jewish schools then in existence in Russia.[1] In a short time Lilienthal managed to raise the instruction in secular and Jewish subjects to such a high standard of modernity that he elicited a glowing tribute from Uvarov. The Minister was struck by the idea that the Riga school might serve as a model for the net of schools with which he was about to cover the whole Pale of Settlement, and Lilienthal seemed the logical man for carrying out the planned reforms.

[Footnote 1: The other two schools were located in Odessa and in Kishinev.]

In February, 1841, Lilienthal was summoned to St. Petersburg, where he had a prolonged conversation with Uvarov. According to the testimony of the official Russian sources, he tried to persuade the Minister to abolish all "private schools," the heders, and to forbid all private teachers, the melammeds, to teach even temporarily in the projected new schools, and to import, instead, the whole teaching staff from Germany. Lilienthal himself tells us in his Memoirs that he made bold to remind the Minister that all obstacles in the path of the desired re-education of the Russian Jews would disappear, were the Tzar to grant them complete emancipation. To this the Minister retorted that the initiative must come from the Jews themselves who first must try to "deserve the favor of the Sovereign." At any rate, Lilienthal accepted the proffered task. He was commissioned to tour the Pale of Settlement, to organize there the few isolated progressive Jews, "the lovers of enlightenment," or Maskilim, as they styled themselves, and to propagate the idea of a school-reform among the orthodox Jewish masses.

While setting out on his journey, Lilienthal himself did not fully realize the difficulties of the task he had undertaken. He was to instill confidence in the "benevolent intentions of the Government" into the hearts of a people which by an uninterrupted series of persecutions and cruel restrictions had been reduced to the level of pariahs. He was to make them believe that the Government was a well-wisher of Jewish children, those same children, who at that very time were hunted like wild beasts by the "captors" in the streets of the Pale, who were turned by the thousands into soldiers, deported into outlying provinces, and belabored in such a manner that scarcely half of them remained alive and barely a tenth remained within the Jewish fold. Guided by an infallible instinct, the plain Jewish people formulated their own simplified theory to account for the step taken by the Government: up to the present their children had been baptized through the barracks, in the future they would be baptized through the additional medium of the school.

Lilienthal arrived in Vilna in the beginning of 1842, and, calling a meeting of the Jewish Community, explained the plan conceived by the Government and by Uvarov, "the friend of the Jews." He was listened to with unveiled distrust.

  The elders--Lilienthal tells us in his Memoirs [1]--sat there   absorbed in deep contemplation. Some of them, leaning on their   silver-adorned staffs or smoothing their long beards, seemed as if   agitated by earnest thoughts and justifiable suspicions; others were   engaging in a lively but quiet discussion on the principles   involved; such put to me the ominous question: "Doctor, are you   fully acquainted with the leading principles of our government? You   are a stranger; do you know what you are undertaking? The course   pursued against all denominations but the Greek proves clearly that   the Government intends to have but one Church in the whole Empire;   that it has in view only its own future strength and greatness and   not our own future prosperity. We are sorry to state that we put no   confidence in the new measures proposed by the ministerial council,   and that we look with gloomy foreboding into the future."

[Footnote 1: I quote from _Max Lilienthal, American Rabbi, Life and Writings_, by David Philipson, New York, 1915, p, 264.]

In his reply Lilienthal advanced an impressive array of arguments:

  What will you gain by your resistance to the new measures? It will   only irritate the Government, and will determine it to pursue its   system of repression, while at present you are offered an   opportunity to prove that the Jews are not enemies of culture and   deserve a better lot.

When questioned as to whether the Jewish community had any guarantee that the Government plan was not a veiled attempt to undermine the Jewish religion, Lilienthal, by way of reply, solemnly pledged himself to throw up his mission the moment he would find that the Government associated with it secret intentions against Judaism. [1] The circle of "enlightened" Jews in Vilna pledged its support to Lilienthal, and he left full of faith in the success of his enterprise.

[Footnote 1: Op. Cit. p. 266.]

A cruel disappointment awaited him in Minsk. Here the arguments which the opponents advanced in a passionate debate at a public meeting were of a utilitarian rather than of an idealistic nature.

  So long as the Government does not accord equal rights to the Jew,   general culture will only he his misfortune. The plain uneducated   Jew does not balk at the low occupation of factor [1] or peddler,   for, drawing comfort and joy from his religion, he is reconciled to   his miserable lot. But the Jew who is educated and enlightened, and   yet has no means of occupying an honorable position in the country,   will be moved by a feeling of discontent to renounce his religion,   and no honest father will think of giving an education to his   children which may lead to such an issue. [2]

[Footnote 1: The Polish name for agent. See Vol. I, p. 170, n. 1.]

[Footnote 2: Quoted from Lilienthal's own account in _Die Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums_, 1842, No. 41, p. 605b.]

The opponents of official enlightenment in Minsk were not content with advancing arguments that appealed to reason. Both at the meeting and in the street, Lilienthal was the target of insulting remarks from the crowd.

On his return to St. Petersburg, Lilienthal presented Uvarov with a report which convinced the Minister that the execution of the school-reform was a difficult but not a hopeless task.

On June 22, 1842, an imperial rescript was issued, placing all Jewish schools, including the heders and yeshibahs, under the supervision of the Ministry of Public Instruction. Simultaneously it was announced that the Government had summoned a Commission of four Rabbis to meet in St. Petersburg for the purpose of "supporting the efforts of the Government" in the realization of the school-reform. This Committee was to serve Russian Jewry as a security that the school-reforms would not be directed against the Jewish religion.

At the same time Lilienthal was ordered to proceed again to the Pale of Settlement. He was directed to tour principally through the South-western and New-Russian governments and exert his influence upon the Jewish masses in accordance with the instructions received from the ministry. Before setting out on his journey, Lilienthal published a Hebrew pamphlet under the title _Maggid Yeshu'ah_ ("Herald of Salvation") which called upon the Jewish communities to comply readily with the wishes of the Government. In his private letters, addressed to prominent Jews, Lilienthal expressed the assurance that the school ukase was merely the forerunner of a series of measures for the betterment of the civic status of the Jews.

This time Lilienthal met with a greater measure of success than on his first journey. In several large centers, such as Berdychev, Odessa, Kishinev, he was accorded, a friendly welcome and assured of the co-operation of the communities in making the new school system a success. Filled with fresh hopes, Lilienthal returned in 1843 to St. Petersburg to participate in the work of the "Rabbinical Commission" which had been convoked by the Government and was now holding its sessions in the capital from May till August.

The make-up of the Rabbinical Commission did not fully justify its appellation. Only two "ecclesiastics" were on it, the president of the Talmudic Academy of Volozhin, [1] Rabbi Itzhok (Isaac) Itzhaki, and the leader of the White Russian Hasidim, Rabbi Mendel Shneorsohn, [2] while the South-western region and New Russia had sent two laymen: the banker Halperin of Berdychev, and the director of the Jewish school in Odessa, Bezalel Stern. The two representatives of the "clergy" put up a warm defence for the traditional Jewish school, the heder, endeavoring to save it from the ministerial "supervision," which aimed at its annihilation. Finally a compromise was effected: the traditional heder was to be left intact for the time being, but the proposed Crown school was to be given full scope in competing with it. The Commission even went so far as to work out a program of Jewish studies for the new type of school.

[Footnote 1: In the government of Vilna. See Vol I, p. 380, et seq.]

[Footnote 2: The grandson of Rabbi Shneor Zalman, the founder of that faction. See Vol. I, p. 372.]

The labors of the Rabbinical Commission were submitted to the Jewish Committee, under the chairmanship of Kiselev, and discussed by it in connection with the general plan of a Russian school-reform. It was necessary to find the resultant between two opposing forces: between the desire of the Government to substitute the Russian Crown school for the old-fashioned Jewish school and the determination of Russian Jewry to preserve its own school as a bulwark against the official institutions foisted upon it. The Government was bent on carrying out its policy, and found itself compelled to resort to diplomatic contrivances.

On November 13, 1844, Nicholas signed two enactments, the one a public ukase relating to "the Education of the Jewish Youth." the other a confidential rescript addressed to the Minister of Public Instruction. The public enactment called for the establishment of Jewish schools of two grades, corresponding to the courses of instruction in the parochial and county schools, and ordered the opening of two rabbinical institutes for the training of rabbis and teachers. The teaching staff in the Jewish Crown schools was to consist both of Jews and Christians. The graduates of these schools were granted a reduction in the term of military service. The execution of the school reforms in the respective localities was placed in the hands of "School Boards," composed of Jews and Christians, which were to be appointed provisionally for that purpose.

In the secret rescript the tone was altogether different. There it was stated that "the aim pursued, in the training of the Jews is that of bringing them nearer to the Christian population and eradicating the prejudices fostered in them by the study of the Talmud"; that with the opening of the new schools the old ones were to be gradually closed or reorganized, and that as soon as the Crown schools have been established in sufficient numbers, attendance at them would become obligatory; that the superintendents of the new schools should only be chosen from among Christians; that every possible effort should be made "to put obstacles in the way of granting teaching licenses" to the melammeds who lacked a secular education; that after the lapse of twenty years no one should hold the position of teacher or rabbi without having obtained his degree from one of the official rabbinical schools.

It was not long, however, before the secret came out. The Russian Jews were terror-stricken at the thought of being robbed of their ancient school autonomy, and decided to adopt the well-tried tactics of passive resistance to all Government measures. The school-reform was making slow progress. The opening of the elementary schools and of the two rabbinical institutes in Vilna and Zhitomir did not begin until 1847, and for the first few years they dragged on a miserable existence. Lilienthal himself disappeared from the scene, without waiting for the consummation of the reform plan. In 1845 he suddenly abandoned his post at the Ministry of Public Instruction, and left Russia for ever. A more intimate acquaintance with the intentions of the leading Government circles had made Lilienthal realize that the apprehensions voiced in his presence by the old men of the Vilna community were well-founded, and he thought it his duty to fulfill the pledge given by him publicly. From the land of serfdom, where, to use Lilienthal's own words, the only way for the Jew to make peace with the Government was "by bowing down before the Greek cross," he went to the land of freedom, the United States of America. There he occupied important pulpits in New York and Cincinnati where he died in 1882.

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