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The Zemach Zedek and the Haskalah Movement

Chapter 2
The Program to "Reform" Jewish Education

The movement to introduce western culture to Jewry, known as Haskalah (the Enlightenment), was spreading from its birthplace in Germany to Eastern Europe. The Maskilim of Vilna were impressed with the Rabbi's influence and the scope of his activities for the welfare of Jews, regardless of differences between Chassidim and Misnagdim, that resulted in the esteem in which he was held by Misnagdic leaders. Well aware of his determined opposition to the Haskalah movement, they delegated Mordecai Aaron Gunsburg to debate with the Rabbi on the necessity of Haskalah for the existence of Jews in the Diaspora.

Gunsburg spent three weeks in Lubavitch. A great number of visitors were there at the time, many waiting a week and more for an audience with the Rabbi. For that reason Gunsburg was received only twice during his stay, once for an hour and once for an hour and a half. Gunsburg, a litterateur and linguist, submitted arguments in writing supporting Haskalah and its value in the Diaspora, and received conclusive replies which Gunsburg could not dispute.

The Rabbi spoke publicly on both Sabbaths1 that Gunsburg was there, astonishing him with the content of the two discourses.2 During his stay, Gunsburg learned the extent of the Rabbi's influence on all Jews, from scholarly Rabbis with complex Torah problems, to simple folk with their own personal affairs.

1 Both maamorim (discourses) published in Rabbi Menachem Mendel's Derech Emunah, 2nd ed., N. Y., 1955, p. 107 and p. 168.

2 According to R. Elia Shmuel, a leading Vilna Chassid, Gunsburg told his colleagues there that "compared to his haskalah (intellect) our haskalah is foolishness."

For some twelve years (1827-1839 ) the Rabbi was energetic in public affairs: economic matters, protecting Jewish children from being kidnapped, and arranging secure refuge for them, spiritual assistance for Cantonists and servicemen, assistance for indigent scholars -- all without interference from opponents or Russian Maskilim.

In 1838 Dr. M. Lilienthal came to Riga to assume leadership of the school founded there by local Maskilim. At that time it was learned that two years previously (1836) the German Maskilim had organized a committee of four of their first-rank: Philipsohn1, Hamburg, Mannheimer, and Auerbach. Their function was to maintain regular contact with their confreres in Russia -- Vohlyn, Poland, and Lithuania. They were charged with constant observation of Rabbi Menachem Mendel's public work, particularly in his strengthening of tradition and religion, and counteracting Haskalah.

1 Philipsohn was the editor of the organ of the German reformers and assimilationists. Mannheimer, while in Denmark, advocated. changing the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. Hamburg's name will recur further especially the final footnote.

Lilienthal, a native of Munich, grew up among irreligious Jews, assimilationists.1 He was a graduate of the University of Munich and an intimate of the sons of the nobility.

1 His grandfather, known in Vilna by an assumed name -- Shimon Zamuter, had renounced traditional Judaism and had become an atheist. Shimon was supervisor and head instructor in the Vilna Talmud Torah, 1792-1797.

When the Riga assimilationists invited Lilienthal to be their preacher and spiritual leader and to establish a school of the German order for their children, he arrived with a letter of introduction from the King of Bavaria to his brother Prince Lichtenberg, son-in-law of Czar Nicholas I.1

1 Prince Lichtenberg was born Catholic, but, having been reared in an irreligious atmosphere, he was a free-thinker. While still at home he consorted with "heretics" until, several times, the Vatican censured the King of Bavaria for not concerning himself with his younger brother's conduct.

At the start of Alexander I's reign (1801-1825) relations between France and Russia were more cordial than previously. All higher officialdom and royalty engaged French tutors and governesses for their children. The language most current in Government circles, next to Russian itself, was French. Etiquette was modeled on the French vogue. Conversely, since relations between France and the German states were strained, the German language was in disfavor in Russia.

With the outbreak of Franco-Russian hostilities, the French tutors were instantly discharged, and most of them left or were expelled from Russia. By the Czar's edict German tutors replaced the French. The German spirit prevailed. Under this political influence Czar Nicholas, Alexander's brother and successor, became related to the King of Bavaria through the marriage of Lichtenberg to the Czar's daughter.

Nicholas was a tyrant, an uncontrolled despot. All decisions, official or personal trivia, were made by him exclusively. No one dared express his own opinion. Extremely devout in his own faith, Nicholas tolerated no other religion. His consuming ambition was converting others to Christianity.

Lichtenberg was an independent spirit, unlike the other princes who were mere lackeys to the autocratic Czar, and eventually the Czar's fondness for his son-in-law faded. Nicholas was particularly embittered by Lichtenberg's atheism. He gave strict orders to the head of the Third Section, Secret Police, Count Bidlov, to observe all the prince's activities. Dr. Lilienthal's visits to Lichtenberg were sufficient to place him, too, under suspicion. General Freigang, the assistant chief, assigned a special detail to follow Lilienthal.

After settling comfortably in Riga, he began a frequent correspondence with the Russian Maskilim. As they proposed, and the committee of four approved, Lilienthal was assigned the tasks of closing the Jewish publishing houses, effecting a prohibition on the publication of Jewish literature, using Humburg's list as the standard, and compulsory examination of all existing published works, as expressed in the letter of request -- or rather denunciation -- of 1833.

In 1823, the Maskil Isaac Ber Levinsohn had submitted a report to the Crown Prince, describing the various groupings within the Jewish community, and suggested means to improve the schools and seminaries, to eradicate the "inveterate religious ignorance." For a period of four years he constantly wrote letters to the palace and sundry officials, lavishly praising "the benign (!) Czar who seeks only the welfare of his Jewish subjects, desires their improvement by extricating them from the quagmire of superstitious faiths, and introducing, them to the radiance of enlightenment and true faith." His craven toadying having gained him access to the palace and officials, he then sent a manuscript of his book, Teuda b'Yisroel, to Prince Shishkov, Minister of Culture, with a request for a subsidy to publish this work demonstrating the worth of Haskalah.

Levinsohn acted again a short three months after the issuance of the edict to conscript Jewish children for military service (1827). Jewry was plunged into bitter mourning. Ashen-faced men prayed and fasted for children who would be torn from family and faith. Women wailed and pleaded tearfully at their parents' gravesides that Heaven be merciful with their children, that they do not become estranged from their faith because of the impossibility of keeping mitzvos, Shabbos, Kashrus, and Jewish family lives. Many officials, aware of the situation, sympathized with the Jewish desperation over the violation of their religion. This was the moment Levinsohn chose to describe himself to the Minister of Culture as one of those Jews who feel abiding affection for the Government and the people "among whom we dwell," and proceeded to enumerate at length the many kindnesses bestowed upon the people of Israel!

Levinsohn was duly rewarded for his fawning. The Czar granted a subsidy of 1,000 rubles for his book "designed for the moral correction of the Jewish people." Apparently Levinsohn's perception was dimmed by the glitter of the bribe, for he never realized the cutting insinuation in the brief statement: "Here is 1,000 rubles as payment for slandering your brethren as being devoid of morals!"

In 1831 Levinsohn submitted a detailed report to the new Minister of Culture, Lieven, recommending the improvement of Jewish religious life. In addition to his contrived explanations and reasons concerning the origin of many mitzvos, attempting to show the lack of logic, wisdom, and aesthetic worth in them, he also vilified Jewish customs of marriage, garb, etc. He mocked the words of the Sages regarding sorcery, evil eye, and demons, and declared that only by means of naked force could the Enlightenment spread. He proposed severe punishments for Rabbis, especially Chassidic leaders, whose followers constitute three-fourths of the Jewish population, who persist in misleading their flocks with superstitious beliefs that inhibit the mind from assimilating any logic or wisdom.

For two years Levinsohn maintained a ceaseless barrage of suggestions for improving the Jewish religion, adding occasionally to his original report. In 1833 he wrote accusations against observant Jews, especially the Chassidim of Vohlyn, Poland, and Lithuania, urging the prohibition of publishing houses in localities not blessed with censorship. He appended to this proposal Humburg's list of classic and recent books, variously described as beneficial and "harmful." The "harmful" books included Chassidus and mussar.

After several years of continuous effort by Levinsohn and his group (Mapu, A. Gottlober, A. B. Ginsburg, M. A. Lebenson, Grunbaum, A. D. Schonfeld,1 et al) who consistently supported his demands, a decree was passed in 1836 requiring the investigation of all Jewish literature. The Government declined to close the publishing houses2 and had not yet expressed an opinion on the book list submitted by Levinsohn. Dr. Lilienthal was therefore assigned the three-fold duty:

1) closing printing establishments where no censorship exists,
2) distribution of beneficial books and destruction of harmful ones as proposed by Levinsohn, and
3) establishing schools for Jewish children.

1 Schonfeld was dean and teacher in the first school in Russia, in Odessa. Grunbaum apostatized in 1843, changed his name to Feodorov, and became a teacher in the Gymnasium ( Secondary School), and censor of Hebrew books in Kiev.

2 In 1831, Wolf Tugenhold, a Vilna Maskil and local censor of Hebrew books, reported on Chassidim and their literature to the Minister of Culture. Not surprisingly, he was vehemently opposed to both.

In 1833, two Vohlynian Maskilim, Leib Merkel and Jacob Bernstein, informed the Minister of the Interior that the philosophy of the Chassidim was contrary to the Jewish Torah and to the principles of humanity. Since it constituted a menace to Jews and country they proposed: 

  1. censor all Jewish books and burn all Chassidic literature;
  2. close all Hebrew printing-houses except those in Zhitomer, Brisk, and Shklov;
  3. assign competent censors to these three presses to prevent the publication of any Chassidic books.

The Minister of the Interior instituted the investigation of Jewish, particularly Chassidic, books. For three years he carried on a correspondence with the Minister of Culture and the governors of the Pale of Settlement. On October 27, 1836, he announced the Royal decree:

  1. all Jewish books found anywhere in Russia had to be censored, and all suspicious books burned;
  2. all Hebrew printing houses shall be closed, excepting in Vilna and Zhitomer.

Within two months all presses were stopped, except in Vilna . . . (Later) the press in Zhitomer was also sanctioned.

Lilienthal presented himself to Prince Lichtenberg upon his arrival and offered his credentials, the warm letter of introduction given him by the King of Bavaria. The Prince then recommended Lilienthal to the attention of Count Uvarov, the Minister of Culture. Aware of Czar Nicholas' consuming hatred of Jews and Judaism, and his longing to convert the Jews to Christianity, Lichtenberg described Lilienthal to his father-in-law Nicholas in glowing terms. This is the man to carry out the Royal wish.

Czar Nicholas summoned Uvarov and instructed him to cultivate the friendship of this Lilienthal, to ascertain his character, and to learn whether he and his companions who had abandoned Judaism would be the proper medium for bringing the Jews into the Christian fold. The report was to be completed within a month.

Uvarov introduced Lilienthal to his assistants and officials of his Ministry. He spoke highly of Lilienthal and his erudition, remarking that despite his Jewish descent Lilienthal was among the highest ranking scholars in the university in Munich, a school renowned in intellectual circles.

Lilienthal was delighted by Uvarov's flattering introduction and, in a burst of enthusiasm, spoke with candor to the Count. He described the relentless persecutions of the Russian Maskilim at the hands of the pious Jews, who not only drown in a swamp of superstition, but influence their Christian neighbors to believe in witchcraft. Most objectionable are the Chassidim who inveigle Jews into regarding their Rabbis as wonder-workers, and persuade the Gentiles to believe in these Rabbis' miracles. Instead of attending their own churches and hearing the priest's worship, the Gentiles visited the Rabbis to witness miracles. And when intelligent Jews, Maskilim, expose the deception of the Chassidim and their Zaddikim, they are ruthlessly persecuted by the Rabbis.

He explained that the elder Maskilim of Russia, led by Levinsohn who had been honored by the Czar with a subsidy for his excellent book, deliberated with their enlightened comrades in Germany on means of rescuing their brother-Jews from their blind obedience to these backward Rabbis. These Rabbis, they claimed, condone all sorts of iniquitous business dealings with Gentiles, including usury and misrepresentation. In addition, Lilienthal continued, the Rabbis preach a policy of separatism from the good Gentile neighbors, and demean them so in Jewish eyes that the very word goy1 has become an insult. The most notorious offender, Dr. Lilienthal charged, is the Rabbi of Lubavitch, a fitting heir to his father-in-law and grandfather in the policy of opposing Governmental decrees pertaining to the Jewish religion.

1 "Goy" means nation, and is applied to Israel, in Scripture and liturgy, goy echad ba'aretz, "one nation on earth" (Samuel 11, 7:23; colloquially used for "gentile."

Dr. Lilienthal asserted that the Rabbi, through his wide influence, persecutes the Maskilim relentlessly; he sends special emissaries to prevent Jewish youths from fulfilling their duties as citizens of serving in the military; he publishes and distributes Chassidic books that are rife with his teachings of separatism and opposition to Haskalah.

He then concluded, "The Maskilim of Germany have authorized me to submit to His Excellency the Minister these tested and effective solutions to the problem:

  1. close those publishing houses that print harmful literature,
  2. destroy all existing harmful literature, and
  3. establish schools to teach the Russian language, and make attendance mandatory for Jews.

Count Uvarov thanked Dr. Lilienthal for having accepted this time-consuming mission and troubling himself to come to the capital to ease the task of the Government which is so concerned with the welfare of its Jewish citizens. He asked Dr. Lilienthal to convey the gratitude of the benevolent Russian Government to the German Maskilim for their excellent suggestions for the implementation of the Government's desire to benefit its citizens. The Count appointed his assistant, the scholar Pavlov, to maintain regular contact with Dr. Lilienthal, and promised that a board would study the proposal of destroying harmful literature. Regarding the machinations of the Rabbis and the Chassidic leaders, Uvarov gave assurances that, he would notify the Third Section1 for investigation and correction. He stated that his Ministry was already studying the matter of establishing schools for Jewish children, and that the question of the publishing houses was properly within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior, whom he would inform.

1 Nicholas established the dread Third Section of the Secret Police and assigned it three functions: to protect the Government from insidious internal or foreign influences; to insure that Ministers, assistants, prefects, and governors fulfill their duties as prescribed by the Czar; to protect the Czar and post agents wherever necessary, even in the palace and homes of the princes. Bidlov (see fn. 19), a resolute and courageous individual, was charged 'with the last duty.

Max Lilienthal's letter explaining his agenda for Russian Jewry

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