The Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, was an ideological and social movement that developed in Eastern Europe in the early nineteenth century and was active until the rise of the Jewish national movement in the early 1880s. Its partisans were known as maskilim. In certain senses, Haskalah was an extension of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, but it was centrally concerned with Jews’ political status and their relationship to European culture. Essentially, Haskalah sought to exploit the new possibilities of economic, social, and cultural integration that appeared to become available to Jews in the late eighteenth century with the removal of legal discrimination.
We must distinguish between processes of acculturation—the adoption of the language and cultural models of the surrounding society—and Haskalah. Although Haskalah advocated a certain degree of acculturation, it favored the continued existence of Jewish society as a distinct entity and sought to promote the spiritual and cultural renewal of Jewish society. Two phenomena preceded the advent of Haskalah in Eastern Europe and influenced it: Early Haskalah and Berlin Haskalah.
During the eighteenth century, especially in the second half, there were signs of change in the spiritual life of a thin stratum of European Jews. These individuals, most of whom belonged to the learned elite, began to show interest in subjects beyond the scope of the rabbinic canon. Some of them explored medieval Jewish philosophical literature; others studied medieval and Renaissance scholarly works—that is to say, books written in Hebrew by Jewish scholars in areas such as mathematics, astronomy, and Hebrew grammar. Still others learned European languages and read scientific works in them. The readers were of rationalist temperament, under the influence of philosophical and scientific literature and the discovery of aesthetic values in language, literature, and nature. Among the most prominent of these maskilim were men such as Yisra’el Zamość, Barukh Schick of Shklov, and Menaḥem Mendel Lefin.
Postcard with cartoon satirizing the rise of Jewish secularism, by B. M. Rozenfeld, Warsaw, ca. 1910. A derogatory portrait (left) of the world of maskilim: intellectuals wasting their time with bicycle riding and other sports, men playing pool and chess on Yom Kippur, a scale of morality tipped heavily in favor of sin, and a boisterous party involving drink and inappropriate intimacy between men and women: “What? Us wait for the messiah? Feh! Long live freedom!” A pious family (right) celebrating the Sabbath at a dinner table. Overhead is a scale of morality tipped heavily in the direction of “truth and justice” as well as various religious symbols, such as a shofar, a matzo, and an etrog. (YIVO)
Along with desiring to expand into new areas of research and creativity, the early maskil sought to introduce reforms in the methods of studying Jewish literature. Among other things, they sought to base Talmud study on the quest for the literal meaning of the text. Similarly, they placed increased emphasis on the study of Bible, basing it on a deep study of Hebrew grammar. An important example of this trend can be found in the commentaries of Shelomoh Dubno (1738–1813), who collaborated in writing the Bi’ur (Explanation; 1783) that was appended to Moses Mendelssohn’s German translation of the Pentateuch.
The “Early Haskalah” was a phenomenon in its own right, with respect to both the geographical extent and the self-awareness of its proponents. We are speaking of some dozens, if not hundreds, of individuals, who were dispersed throughout Europe but who often maintained contact with each other. Their self-awareness was expressed, for example, in the constant tension between the values of the Jewish scholarly elite, to which they continued to belong, and the attractions of philosophy and science. Hence, a definite apologetic tone marks their departures from traditional intellectual activity, which they felt the need to rationalize and justify. They were also inspired by a sense of mission and destiny.
The early Haskalah was nourished by medieval Jewish philosophical and scientific literature and eighteenth-century European Enlightenment literature. It in turn influenced the Haskalah itself in two respects. The initial maskilim were, first, a source of both inspiration and legitimacy for their successors. And the Early Haskalah created an alternative Hebrew bookshelf, with works on philosophy, science, Hebrew grammar, and ethics.
The Early Haskalah prepared the ideological foundation and social infrastructure for the German, or Berlin, Haskalah, which emerged in the last decades of the eighteenth century. A systematic and detailed expression of the Berlin Haskalah ideology can be found in Divre shalom ve-emet (Words of Peace and Truth; 1782) by Naftali Herts Wessely.
The principal innovation in Wessely’s book is the distinction between the Torah of God and the Torah of Man, and the meaning he attributed to each of these terms. In Wessely’s explanation, the Torah of God denotes divine revelation: it includes the commandments of the Torah and is intended solely for Jews. The Torah of Man, by contrast, is derived from human reason; it is universal and includes all of philosophy and science. Wessely declared that Jews, too, must inquire into the Torah of Man and be partners in developing it. Moreover, a Jew who ignores or denies the Torah of Man is unfulfilled as a human being. Maskilim thus grounded the demand that Jews become active participants in the culture of their surrounding society on the assumption that human culture is universal, neutral with respect to religion and nationality.
Despite the revolutionary character of these ideas, Wessely was convinced that the Torah of Man had always been an integral part of the Jewish tradition. He explained that Jews of his time had been cut off from worldly knowledge due to discrimination, segregation, and persecution. For Wessely and his colleagues, the Edict of Tolerance issued by Joseph II in 1781 showed that a momentous change was taking place in the status of the Jews—and it was incumbent upon Jews to prove their willingness to integrate into the cultural, social, and economic life of their surroundings. To that end, an extensive reform of Jewish education was essential.
Among the curricular innovations proposed by Wessely were emphasizing the teaching of Bible over the Talmud; systematic study of the German language and suppression of Yiddish; inclusion of general subjects in the curriculum; alternate courses of study in accordance with students’ talents and propensities; and restriction of specialization in halakhic literature to a small number of students preparing for religious leadership. The last-mentioned proposal conflicted strongly with the traditional ideal of Torah li-shemah (Torah study for its own sake).
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Moses Mendelssohn in the Berlin Haskalah. Netivot ha-shalom (The Paths of Peace) was Mendelssohn’s translation of the Pentateuch into German; the Hebrew text and the German translation (in Hebrew letters) were printed side by side. There was also a commentary on the text, the Bi’ur, written by Mendelssohn, Wessely, Dubno, and others.
One of Mendelssohn’s most important contributions was his formulation of Judaism as a religion consistent with reason: Judaism had no tenets of faith that could not be arrived at through human reason. The practical commandments, revealed at Sinai, were given to the Jewish people so that they would offer the nations a living example of the pure consciousness of God. Hence, Jewish separatism and the Jews’ endeavor to retain their collective identity were intended to fulfill their universal mission. Mendelssohn also argued that religious affiliation ought to be based on free intellectual persuasion without coercion. Accordingly, the Jewish community must relinquish the means of enforcement and punishment at its disposal with respect to individuals’ religious way of life. Legal discrimination against Jews is likewise an effort at religious coercion; hence, it should cease.
Above all, Mendelssohn contributed to Haskalah by embodying the perfect fulfillment of its ideals: he was a Jew who was learned in Jewish sources, scrupulous in his observance of the commandments, and active on behalf of his people while at the same time being widely recognized as a German philosopher and author and praised by prominent figures in the European Enlightenment. Mendelssohn was therefore a living symbol of the cultural and social ambitions of the Haskalah and conclusive proof that they could be achieved.
Berlin Haskalah actually came to organizational fruition in Königsberg (Kaliningrad), following the initiatives of Yitsḥak Euchel. In 1782, Euchel and a few other young maskilim established Dorshe Leshon ‘Ever (Proponents of the Hebrew Language), a society formed chiefly to publish a Hebrew periodical to serve as a platform for the Haskalah movement in Germany. In 1784, Ha-Me’asef (The Harvester) was in fact founded, and it was published for about two decades. It nurtured among its readers the formation of a new cultural sphere and the establishment of a kind of republic of letters in the spirit of Haskalah ideology. The society’s printing house, Ḥinukh Ne‘arim (The Education of Young Men), established in Berlin in 1784, also published textbooks in the spirit of the Haskalah and other books by maskilim.
Toward the end of the century, a crisis occurred in the German Haskalah movement. The wealthy merchant patrons turned their attention to advancing their own political status and lost interest in efforts to change the Jewish community. At the same time, as acculturation continued, many young Jews, often the children of maskilim, drifted away from Jewish tradition and culture. Consequently, the organized institutions of Haskalah became progressively weaker.
Haskalah in Galicia
Although the Berlin Haskalah declined, the movement began to grow in Eastern Europe, beginning in Galicia (a Polish region annexed to the Austrian Empire in 1772) in the second decade of the nineteenth century. The Galician Haskalah was centered mainly in Brody, Lemberg (Lwów), and Tarnopol, where a Jewish economic and social elite lived, including mercantile and banking families who supported the movement. The beneficiaries of this patronage and the leaders of Haskalah activity in Galicia were young intellectuals and authors, most of them in their twenties and thirties. They were joined by professionals, such as teachers and physicians, and clerks who worked in the service of major merchants.
Yosef Perl. Engraving, artist unknown. The medals were awarded to Perl for his educational activities by Tsar Alexander I in 1816, when Tarnopol was under Russian rule, and by Austrian Emperor Francis I in 1820. (YIVO)
Regular meetings held in private homes—including those of Naḥman Krochmal in Zhovkva (Pol., Żółkiew; Yid., Zholkva) and Dov Ber Gintsburg in Brody—reinforced the social cohesion of the Galician maskilim. The schools of the maskilim in Tarnopol and Brody also served as focuses of social consolidation. Galician maskilim joined forces as well around the journals Ha-Tsefirah (1824) and Kerem ḥemed (1833–1856). The many letters that Galician maskilim exchanged, some of which are truly works of literature or scholarship, provided another important mode of communication.
From the beginning, a prominent characteristic of the Haskalah in Galicia was an uncompromising struggle against Hasidism. In the early nineteenth century, Hasidism was expanding in Galicia, attracting many young people to its ranks. Maskilim saw this as a major obstacle in the path of reform. In their assault on Hasidism, they not only composed literary works but also attempted to enlist the support of state authorities. On both of these fronts, their leader was Yosef Perl. In his satirical works, which were parodies of Hasidic books, Perl endeavored to present Hasidim and their ways as grotesque and ridiculous. Yet, from between the lines of these anti-Hasidic satires, the power and vitality of Hasidism are manifest. Knowing that the influence of his literary attacks was limited, Perl sought the intervention of the Austrian authorities, repeatedly but vainly sending letters to officials condemning the Hasidic leaders of Galicia. The maskilim of Galicia failed, but the struggle against Hasidism was a vital component in the Haskalah of Galicia—and, to a large degree, its raison d’être.
Haskalah in Russia
Jewish merchants from Galicia spread the ideas of Haskalah and its literature in their travels throughout the Pale of Settlement. Another channel of influence was the migration of Jews from Galicia to the tsarist empire—especially people from Brody who settled in Odessa. Young Russian Jews interested in Haskalah also visited Galician centers of the movement. One of the most prominent of these was Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon, who came to be regarded as the father of the Haskalah movement in Russia.
The history of Haskalah in Russia can be divided into three periods: from the early nineteenth century until the 1840s; from the 1840s until 1855; and from 1855 until the advent of the Jewish nationalist movement in the early 1880s.
Emergence of Haskalah to 1840.
The consolidation of the Haskalah movement in the decades before the 1840s was a slow, gradual process. While the two most important Haskalah centers were in Vilna
, there were individual maskilim
who lived and worked in as many as 30 localities throughout the Pale of Settlement. Many of them were young Torah scholars who were not content within the confines of the traditional rabbinic canon. They took their first steps toward Haskalah by reading medieval and Renaissance works of philosophy, science, and history in Hebrew; in addition, they had available to them books composed by earlier maskilim
of Germany and Galicia. Reading this literature was an exceptional and thrilling experience for these young men.
Inscription mentioning the discovery of America “by the great genius Columbus” from Tsofnas paneakh (Revelation of the Hidden), translated by Khayim Khaykl Hurwitz (Berdychiv, 1817). This Yiddish rendition of a book about the discovery of America by German author Joachim Heinrich Campe was the work of a pioneer of the Haskalah in Russia. It was one of the first books published in modern Yiddish and the first in Yiddish about America. (YIVO)
The Haskalah also attracted wealthy merchants and people of status within the Jewish community. They were exposed to the movement through their commercial ties with urban centers in Central Europe. Some of them also maintained connections with the authorities and served as patrons of young maskilim.
It is estimated that during the first half of the nineteenth century, there were perhaps a few dozen producers of Haskalah literature—though the larger circles of readers and sympathizers numbered several hundred, perhaps even a few thousand. In any event, the Haskalah movement during this period represented a tiny minority of Jews in Russia. This may easily be understood if one notes that the influence of the Enlightenment itself—both in government circles and among the urban classes—which contributed to the growth of Haskalah elsewhere in Europe, was severely limited in Russia.
In Russia, as in Eastern Europe in general, the Haskalah was characterized by a complex of attitudes and beliefs regarding Jewish tradition, the Hebrew language, and acculturation into European society. Theologically, maskilim sought to develop a rational conception of Jewish beliefs in the spirit of the philosophy of the time; and they proposed reinterpretations of classic sources. In particular, they took a critical attitude toward the antiquity and authority of Kabbalah. Awareness of the historical character of the development of halakhah (Jewish law) became sharper, and there was criticism, if not of the actual corpus of halakhah, at least of the validity of minhagim (customs) that were viewed as later accretions and the result of unnecessary severity.
The traditional centrality of Torah study was set aside in favor of a functional conception that confined specialization in halakhic literature to those who were planning to become professional rabbis. Emphasis was instead placed on the Bible, which was viewed as expressing universal human values. Maskilim also envisioned a change in the methodology of study, which would now seek the literal meaning of texts. In the study of Bible, for example, this would sharpen awareness of the distinction between homiletical and literal interpretations—and the latter was to be given preference. Study of the literal meaning of the text was to be aided by knowledge in the fields of history, geography, and, especially, philology.
A new, romantic attitude regarded the Hebrew language as the sole, most valued remnant of a glorious past, and thus of great and elevated importance as an object of study and research. For example, much enthusiasm and excitement attended the efforts to create modern Hebrew poetry, which took biblical poetry as a source of inspiration and an aesthetic model.
Of great importance was the emphasis placed by maskilim on the common humanity of Jews and others. They saw European culture as a common possession, and participation in that culture as not only permissible but vital; moreover, they believed that this humanistic outlook now guided the leading circles of European society. They expected, therefore, that relations between Jews and their neighbors would be fundamentally reordered. The political, cultural, and social integration of Jews into the surrounding culture was now viewed as an attainable goal. The accomplishment of this goal depended on the encouragement and persuasion of governing circles and enlightened public opinion, on the one hand, and an effort on the part of Jews to adapt themselves and become worthy of that integration, on the other. To that end, programs for reform were formulated in the areas of education, economic activity, and community organization. These programs conveyed a critical evaluation of traditional Jewish life. From the point of view of those who absorbed and internalized standards and attitudes derived from the European Enlightenment, Jewish life appeared to be deeply flawed. Correcting these flaws was an urgent necessity, for they isolated Jews from their environment and hindered integration into it.
Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon, 1895. The Hebrew inscription reads, “Born on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 1788, died on 17 February 1860 in the city of Kremenets.” Lithograph, copy of a portrait from the gallery of Count L. N. Tolstoi, 1895. (YIVO)
Despite its novel, even revolutionary, elements, it is still appropriate to term the Haskalah in Eastern Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century as “moderate.” For one thing, maskilim continued to accept the principle of divinely revealed Torah and followed the requirement to observe the commandments. Indeed, many maskilim had a traditional education and continued to study rabbinical literature in their own way. Like Wessely and Mendelssohn, the maskilim of Eastern Europe did not regard themselves as uprooting Jewish tradition. On the contrary, they believed wholeheartedly that their conception of Judaism represented the tradition in its purest form. This attitude is conspicuous in Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon’s Te‘udah be-Yisra’el (A Warning to Israel), published in Vilna in 1828, regarded as the first literary expression of the Haskalah in Russia. Although Levinzon’s book was profoundly influenced by Wessely’s Divre shalom ve-emet, it differs in its unrelenting effort to justify the Haskalah program with respect to Jewish tradition. In fact, most of the book is dedicated to the presentation of many hundreds of proofs and arguments supporting the conclusion that the Haskalah program did not contradict the values of the tradition, but in fact was derived from them.
In accord with the maskilim of Galicia, those of Russia regarded Hasidism and the Hasidim as the embodiment of everything that was faulty and in need of reform in traditional Jewish society. Like Yosef Perl, some maskilim in Russia composed satirical works in which they sought to mock Hasidim and their way of life. But although the maskilim of Russia also sought assistance from the authorities, their correspondence was not as extreme in its contents as that of Perl. From the point of view of the Hasidim, though, there was no doubt that maskilim were deviants and heretics who should be pursued and suppressed. Indeed, anyone who was revealed to be a maskil in areas of Hasidic influence was doomed to social persecution and ostracism.
Relations between the maskilim and the Misnagdim (traditional religious forces opposed to Hasidism) were more complex. Although the maskilim were also critical of the traditional society of the Misnagdim, the two groups shared the struggle against Hasidism. Furthermore, many maskilim respected Torah study and those learned in Torah. The Misnagdim were open, to a degree, to the ideas of Haskalah—as long as the concepts appeared moderate. The traditional scholarly elite considered the study of science as not only permissible but also desirable, in that science could be a helpful tool for clarifying halakhic issues. Furthermore, the rationalistic style of thought that characterized the spiritual world of the scholars encouraged them to take a more flexible attitude with respect to the intellectual challenges of the period. Nevertheless, tension and animosity arose as the tendency toward secularization, which was inherent in Haskalah, took on more open and pronounced expression. Opposition between these two camps broke out in full force in the 1840s, against the background of the episode known as Haskalah mi-Ta‘am (government-sponsored Haskalah).
In addition to engaging in literary activity, Russian maskilim
addressed the authorities and called upon them to institute reform in Jewish life. Although a precedent of sorts had been established by Galician maskilim,
the effort to involve authorities in the internal affairs of the Jewish community represented a sharp deviation from the norm that had prevailed in traditional Jewish society for generations. The maskilim
of Russia, however, were convinced of the correctness of their program, and because they were a small minority, they could bring it into being only with the assistance of the government. Moreover, the maskilim
believed that the authorities identified with the values of the European Enlightenment, and that they themselves were interested in improving the situation of the Jews in the spirit of those values.
In 1840, in an initiative that could be interpreted as a response to the appeal of the maskilim, the Russian minister of the interior ordered the establishment of six district commissions in the Pale of Settlement, composed of representatives of the authorities and of Jewish communities, to discuss reforms in education and culture. The man behind this initiative was Serge Uvarov, who had served as minister of education in the government of Nicholas I. Inspired by the policy of the Habsburg Empire, which forced Jews to have modern educations, and under the influence of maskilim in Germany and Russia, Uvarov proposed that modern Jewish schools be established in Russia. Uvarov wished to “reform” Jews by bringing them more in harmony with their surrounding society; at the same time, he sought to free Jews from “the damaging influence of the Talmud”—a usage common in Russian government circles.
Uvarov’s initiative aroused a storm among the Jews of Russia. Traditionalists sought to forestall the changes he proposed, while maskilim developed elaborate plans for far-reaching reform. Among other things, they proposed the establishment of government-sponsored rabbinical seminaries to develop a type of maskil rabbi who would replace the traditional rabbi. In addition, the local community organization would be replaced by a central administrative organization, supervised by the government and headed by maskilim from Western countries and Russia.
When the commissions proved ineffectual, Uvarov summoned Max Lilienthal, a young maskil from Germany who was then principal of a modern Jewish school in Riga, and assigned him to prepare a detailed plan for the reform of Jewish education and to compile a list of candidates for teaching positions in the proposed educational system. Lilienthal took on the assignment with enthusiasm. Although he received no explicit promises, he believed that if the Jews of Russia responded positively to the government’s initiative, they would benefit from a significant improvement in their legal status.
Lilienthal visited the Pale of Settlement, notably Vilna and Minsk, beginning in late 1841 to test the level of support for Uvarov’s plans. But he was virtually driven out of Minsk; and in Vilna, where maskilim were more numerous, he was nevertheless unable to gain an official decision from the community in support of the program. When he returned some months later, now with the status of an official government representative, his purpose was to locate rabbis willing to participate in a council of Russian rabbis to be held in Saint Petersburg. This time, the response was more courteous, probably because traditionalists feared the repercussions of failing to cooperate.
The change in attitude of the traditional camp toward Lilienthal took place following his meeting with Yitsḥak of Volozhin, head of the Volozhin yeshiva and regarded as the leader of the Lithuanian community. While Lilienthal described Yitsḥak as identifying wholeheartedly with the planned reform in education, other sources reveal that he decided to take part in the rabbinical council primarily because he feared the response of authorities if the initiative were rejected; he also hoped that his participation would enable him to influence the character of the reform. Menaḥem Mendel Shneerson, the leader of Lubavitch Hasidism, also cooperated with Lilienthal, apparently for the same reasons.
The rabbinical council took place in Saint Petersburg in 1843. The participants were Yitsḥak of Volozhin; Menaḥem Mendel Shneerson; the wealthy merchant Yisra’el Halperin, a traditionalist; and Betsal’el Stern, the principal of the maskilim’s school in Odessa. During the council, detailed plans to establish new schools and a rabbinical seminary, including curriculum and textbooks, were discussed. The main plans were formulated by Uvarov and his assistants, and the influence of the rabbis was limited. Their function was to provide a seal of approval for the government’s program.
The law regarding the establishment of government schools was promulgated in November 1844. In addition to primary schools, several secondary schools and two rabbinical seminaries were created; and the law placed all traditional institutions of Jewish education under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. Nevertheless, only a small minority of Jewish children attended the new schools; most came from the poor and noninfluential strata of the population. Government supervision of traditional Jewish elementary schools and yeshivas proved ineffective, and they continued to operate as before. Still, although the numbers were relatively very small, for the first time hundreds of Jewish children were exposed to modern schooling.
The episode of government-sponsored Haskalah had far-reaching consequences for the status of the Haskalah in Russia. For one thing, the support of the authorities encouraged people to express their identification with that movement publicly. While maskilim remained a small minority, their self-confidence grew and they became more daring and aggressive, knowing that the government would defend them when necessary. Moreover, as many maskilim took up teaching positions in the government schools, their dependence on the majority diminished.
The image of Haskalah and of the maskilim in the eyes of traditional Jewish society was also affected. Maskilim had previously been perceived as a marginal minority, devoid of influence. Now, however, having become government allies and agents, they appeared dangerous and threatening. The struggle between maskilim and traditionalists left a powerful emotional residue in both camps: the social gap between them grew deeper, and the collective identity of each camp grew sharper. The separate synagogues established by the maskilim were a pronounced expression of this development. Thus, though this episode did not revolutionize Jewish education, it represented a turning point in the history of the Haskalah movement in Russia.
One other important characteristic of the Russian Haskalah in the first half of the nineteenth century was its connection to German language and culture. This connection had its roots, of course, in the deep influence of Berlin Haskalah on the maskilim of Russia. Beyond that, the German language served the maskilim of Russia as a bridge to general European culture, to such an extent that Russian maskilim were often called “Berliners”—an epithet that the maskilim regarded as praise, though their opponents intended it pejoratively.
Haskalah in the Period of Alexander II.
With the coronation of the reform-minded Alexander II in 1856, a new era began in the history of the Haskalah movement. The liberal character of the new regime contrasted strongly with the reactionary policies of Nicholas I. Some discriminatory legislation was rescinded; and a series of laws that were passed in the late 1850s and early 1860s freed Jews whom the authorities regarded as “useful”—that is to say, wealthy merchants, skilled craftsmen, and graduates of universities and technical colleges, as well as physicians, pharmacists, and midwives—of the obligation to live within the Pale of Settlement. From the point of view of the maskilim,
these laws were of primary importance: for the first time in the history of the Jews of Russia, the government offered a true recompense to those with general education and those who had chosen “productive” occupations.
In 1863, Poles rebelled against the Russian Empire. Following the suppression of the revolt, government-imposed Russification of various ethnic groups, including Jews, intensified. Criticism was leveled both within government circles and among Russian public opinion against the preference of maskilim for the German language and culture. Some maskilim, too, called strongly for the adoption of “the language of the state.” It was mainly the far-reaching changes that were taking place in the economic life of Russia, however, that influenced the spread of the Russian language among Jews. Progressive industrialization and modernization dealt severe blows to traditional Jewish occupations and simultaneously opened up new opportunities. In an effort to stimulate development, the government began to promote initiatives in the infrastructure—for the first time, for example, railroads were built across the expanses of the empire—and to encourage the growth of industry, mining, and international commerce. Jews with capital, talent, and initiative were invited to take part in the development of the Russian economy—and to do so, they needed a good knowledge of Russian.
Against the background of these developments, a Jewish intelligentsia began to arise in Russia, characterized by their mastery of the Russian language, close acquaintance with Russian literature, and identification, to one degree or another, with the Russian people and its culture. Unlike maskilim of the previous generation, who were largely self-taught, members of the Russian Jewish intelligentsia were graduates of secondary schools and universities. Although some among them severed their Jewish affiliations, one group not only continued to identify as Jews but also regarded themselves as obligated to promote the modernization of the Jewish community. This group established Jewish newspapers in Russian that became platforms for discussing the agenda of the country’s Jews. Members of this group also established the Ḥevrat Marbe Haskalah be-Yisra’el (Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia; OPE) to promote Haskalah goals within the Jewish community.
Postcard celebrating Hebrew authors Perets Smolenskin (center) and (clockwise from top left) Shelomoh Mandelkern, Mordekhai Tsevi Mane, Avraham Ber Gottlober, and Avraham Shalom Friedberg. Publisher unknown, Russian Empire. (YIVO)
The most prominent expression of the change in the character of Haskalah during the 1860s and 1870s was the emergence of a radical form. Its proponents typically had had traditional educations and were mainly from Lithuania and Belorussia; they included such authors as Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim), Yehudah Leib Gordon, Mosheh Leib Lilienblum, Perets Smolenskin, and Avraham Uri Kovner. The revolution in their worldview took place following their exposure to ideological trends that were then central to the discourse of the Russian intelligentsia—among which were positivism, utilitarianism, and materialism. As was the case with moderate maskilim, radical maskilim continued to foster literary creativity in Hebrew; but the material distress of the masses of Russian Jews was central to their concerns. From this point of view, they harshly criticized the didactic literature of the maskilim of the previous generation, whose preoccupation with such matters as Hebrew philological research, biblical interpretation, and reinterpretation of rabbinical teachings they regarded as lacking any connection with the vital problems of the Jews of Russia and, hence, of no value.
In their effort to put their literary works in the service of the Jews of Russia, these authors concentrated on the real circumstances, describing what they regarded as negative aspects of Jewish life in particularly vivid hues. Among other things, they criticized traditional education, patterns of marriage in the community, economic behavior, and the actions of communal leaders. The literary genre frequently used by Haskalah authors to express social criticism was the novel. Their novels were represented as reflecting the entire gamut of Jewish life in Russia; but in fact they were didactic, with stereotypical characters. The melamed (traditional schoolteacher) was always described as an ignorant and coarse man; the community functionary was aggressive and violent; and the rabbi a fanatic who tended to issue inappropriately severe rulings. In contrast to these negative figures, the novels presented a series of positive figures: the brilliant young man whose soul yearned for Haskalah; the delicate and diligent young woman whose parents had married her off, against her will, to an ignorant, unsuccessful man; and, of course, the maskil, who successfully integrates into Russian society and the new economic activity.
A special place in Haskalah literature, both imaginative and journalistic, was reserved for rabbis—the more so because they still enjoyed high status in the general community. Authors of the Haskalah repeatedly accused rabbis of not doing their jobs properly. Since they lacked general education, rabbis were unable to represent the community before the authorities; and their isolation from the real life of the masses of the people kept them from alleviating Jews’ distress. Not only were rabbis unable to lighten the burden resting on the shoulders of the community, but they also actually made it heavier with their severe halakhic rulings.
Portrait and summary biography of Mosheh Leib Lilienblum on a postcard, part of a series on Hebrew writers and intellectuals (Stanisławów: Verlag Hatchijah, 1910). (YIVO)
The view that there was an unbridgeable gap between religion and life (Ha-Dat veha-ḥayim [Religion and Life] was the title of a novel by Re’uven Braudes)—that is to say, between the vital needs of Jews in Russia and the burdensome demands of the Jewish religion as rabbis interpreted it—lay behind the initiative of Mosheh Leib Lilienblum to reform the religion. In 1868, Lilienblum published a series of articles in Ha-Melits in which he called upon rabbis to reform halakhah. Lilienblum argued that Talmudic sages had interpreted and developed halakhah with utmost consideration for the vital needs of their contemporaries; this was also the tendency of the halakhic authorities of subsequent generations until the Shulḥan ‘arukh was adopted, with all of its severities. The prevailing pattern of halakhic rulings, Lilienblum argued, which forced the community to shoulder one severe restriction after another, kept many young people away from a Jewish way of life and from identifying with the Jewish community. If this trend continued, he maintained, there was a danger that the Jewish people would disintegrate. Therefore, the rabbis were advised to convene a council, a kind of Sanhedrin, to reform halakhah in order to adapt it to the needs of life.
Most rabbis ignored Lilienblum’s appeal. The few who did respond rejected it with the argument that halakhah was based on divine revelation and could not be changed arbitrarily by mortal men. Lilienblum himself lost interest in the topic when it became clear to him that many young maskilim had distanced themselves so far from Judaism that no reform in halakhah could reclaim them. In sum, in Russia, the issue of religious reform seldom went beyond a literary confrontation on the pages of newspapers. The vast majority of the Jewish community was still loyal to the traditional way of life, while the few who had reservations increasingly tended to adopt secular ways.
But if public discussion of religious reform was short-lived, the question of the role of rabbis and the rabbinate remained a significant issue for decades. In the background of the discussion was the failure of the rabbinical seminaries founded in the late 1840s. The government had expected that the new rabbis would weaken the manifestations of Jewish separateness and bring Jews closer to their surrounding culture and society. Maskilim hoped to lead the Jews of Russia in the spirit of Haskalah ideals. The results were disappointing to both. The achievements of the seminaries’ graduates in the field of rabbinical literature were meager; it is no wonder that the public seldom recognized these graduates as being worthy of serving communities. Some of them occupied the post of “official” rabbis; these were government appointments in charge of registering marriages, births, and deaths in the Jewish community.
In the 1860s and 1870s, there was discussion in the Jewish press of whether and how it was possible to produce rabbis who would answer to the expectations of both the traditional community and the maskilim. Ever since the government had required communities to appoint official rabbis, it had ceased to acknowledge the authority of traditional ones. As a result, communities were not permitted to pay salaries to traditional rabbis, and they were forced to circumvent that prohibition by means of various subterfuges. Under such circumstances, the status of traditional rabbis was seriously impaired, and many of them were poverty-stricken. Meanwhile, Haskalah proponents and authors were waging a battle against these same rabbis.
In the course of the public discussion, maskilim repeatedly demanded that young men who were preparing themselves for service as rabbis should acquire at least a modicum of general education. Those taking part in the debate on behalf of the traditional camp, most of them rabbis, were of two minds. Some argued that it was sufficient to have rabbis who were great in their knowledge of Torah; these men could acquire the small amount of required general knowledge on their own. Others supported the inclusion of general education in the process of training rabbis. No solution agreeable to everyone was reached. Meanwhile, OPE supported young men who wished to study in the rabbinical seminary in Breslau that advocated “positive historical Judaism.”
In the early 1880s, OPE launched a new initiative for the training of rabbis, with the help of Baron David Gintsburg. Its goal was to establish a rabbinical seminary under the supervision of the greatest rabbis of Russia. Gintsburg tried to enlist the support of rabbis but encountered a wall of resolute resistance led by Yisra’el Salanter (Lipkin), one of the prominent figures among the rabbinical elite of Russia and the founder of the Musar Movement. Salanter believed that rabbinical seminaries were incapable of producing Torah scholars worthy of serving as rabbis. Moreover, from his acquaintance with Orthodox rabbis from Germany, he was afraid that rabbis trained in seminaries would be likely to issue lenient halakhic judgments. Lacking major rabbinical support, Gintsburg’s initiative was doomed to failure.
In the second half of the 1870s, it became clear that radical Haskalah had reached a dead end. The vehement criticism voiced by its proponents against both moderate Haskalah and the traditional way of life was incapable of offering solutions to improve the life of the masses of Russian Jews. When all was said and done, the distress of Russian Jews was a consequence of discriminatory legislation and the economic restrictions imposed on them. Without any real change in the government’s policies toward its Jewish subjects, there was no chance for change. And despite the expectations of Jews of Russia in general and especially of the maskilim, the Russian government once again declared at the end of the 1870s that it had no intention of granting Jews equal rights. At the same time, a rising wave of antisemitism swept across the pages of the Russian press. Whereas previously Jews had been accused of self-segregation and of lacking education, now educated Jews were accused of “pushing their way” into key posts and positions in the Russian economy.
Within the Jewish community, the polemics of radical Haskalah gave rise to contempt for literary writings in Hebrew. If the sole criterion for judging Haskalah was to be the benefit it yielded for the Jewish masses, what benefit could there be in Hebrew literature? True, that literature had influenced many young people to adopt the path of Haskalah, but after it had fulfilled its mission, there was thought to be no further need for it. Indeed, many young people who had been exposed to Russian language and Russian literature during their studies in secondary schools and universities turned their back on Hebrew. A dramatic expression of apprehension that Hebrew literature had come to the end of its road can be found in the well-known poem by Yehudah Leib Gordon titled “Le-mi ani ‘amel” (For Whom Do I Toil?): “Alas, who will probe the future, who will tell me, whether I am the last of the poets of Zion, whether you are not the last readers?”
Haskalah and Jewish Nationalism
The Haskalah in Eastern Europe was a principal expression of the processes of modernization undergone by Jews during the nineteenth century. The movement simultaneously increased the receptivity of many Jews to European civilization and led the process of Jewish cultural renewal, whose main expressions were modern literature in Hebrew and Yiddish. And after the hopes of the maskilim for integration into the surrounding society were dashed, it turned out that, imperceptibly and without meaning to do so, they had prepared the cultural infrastructure for the growth of modern Jewish nationalism.
The transition from Haskalah to nationalism, which took place in the early 1880s, was a decidedly dialectical process. A symbolic expression of this can be found in the title of Leon Pinsker’s pamphlet: Autoemancipation. Their deeply disappointed hopes for emancipation led several of the chief maskilim to become the main leaders of the Ḥibat Tsiyon (Love of Zion) movement. Moreover, the ethos of the Haskalah served as a vital basis for the very existence of modern Jewish nationalism. Thus it is no wonder that several of the cultural tendencies of Haskalah found their way into the national movement and continued to be influential in that framework for a long time.