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Lichtenstein, Hillel

(1814–1891), rabbi; pioneer of ultra-Orthodoxy; Yiddishist. Hillel Lichtenstein was born in the small community of Vécs, not far from Pressburg in what today is Slovakia (hence his alternate appellation as Hillel Vécs; he was also known as Hillel Lesh, an abbreviated form of his family name, and later as Hillel Kolomea). His father, Barukh Bendit (d. 1839), served as the town’s dayan. Lichtenstein gloried in his distinguished rabbinic lineage: he was a descendant of both Mordekhai Yafeh and Yesha‘yahu Horowitz (known as Shlah). That the latter was one of only a handful of rabbis ever to be called kadosh (saint) had a decisive impact on young Hillel, who in time himself came to be regarded as a holy man.

Even in his youth, Lichtenstein was known for his extreme piety and ascetic temperament, appearing in public with downcast eyes and a cultivated stoop. He was uncompromisingly stringent and outspoken, harshly reproving the rabbi of Pressburg for betraying the legacy of his father, Mosheh Sofer (known as Ḥatam Sofer), and reprimanding even such venerable rabbis as Yehudah Aszód or the Hasidic rebbe Ḥayim Halberstam of Sandz, for perceived minor infractions. But while he sorely tried the patience of many an Orthodox rabbi, he nevertheless enjoyed their grudging respect for his undeniable integrity. In his own self-perception and in the views of those near him, he was a reincarnation of the prophet Jeremiah.

Lichtenstein studied a year with Aszód at Dunaszerdahely and then spent his formative years at the yeshiva of Mosheh Sofer in Pressburg, becoming one of the master’s favorites. Lichtenstein imbibed the enormous scholarship and the unyielding traditionalism of his mentor and created close ties with the future cadre of Orthodox leadership in Hungary. As was customary, Lichtenstein was ordained morenu by Sofer on the day of his wedding in 1837. He married Rezi Kolman, the daughter of a wealthy man in nearby Galanta. Supported by his in-laws for five years, he opened a yeshiva in Galanta that became famous for the piety of its students. He also taught householders and poor workers, anticipating his future publications geared toward the lay public. Typical of the learned class, he shunned the yoke of the rabbinate, but a failed business compelled him to seek out a communal position.

In 1850, he was invited to become rabbi of Margareten (Margita), a small community in the east, near Transylvania. Here he revealed himself to be an extraordinary preacher, and overcame his childhood stutter. He would travel about the countryside, his fire-and-brimstone jeremiads arousing great religious passion among the common people, especially attracting female audiences. In Margareten, he also encountered Hasidism at close quarters and came to view it with great sympathy. As his own reputation as a holy man grew, Lichtenstein adopted some of the trappings of a Hasidic rebbe. In time, his amulets were sought from as far away as Baghdad.

Lichtenstein was then summoned to serve in Klausenburg (Kolozsvár, Cluj), but in 1854 the Transylvanian chief rabbi, Avraham Friedmann, a man with Reform tendencies, succeeded in having him expelled by the authorities for being an agitator. Lichtenstein was invited to return to his post in Margareten, where he served until 1862; at that point, he was summoned to Szikszó, a town not far from Miskolc.

The controversy that soon erupted around the building of a new synagogue in Miskolc and the conciliatory attitude of its rabbi led Lichtenstein to formulate a militant, uncompromising form of Orthodoxy. Not only did he condemn deviations from the accepted synagogue rituals, but he also scorned secular schooling and even the slightest forms of acculturation expressed in the adoption of non-Jewish names and of speaking languages other than Yiddish. He insisted that Jews not be tempted by emancipation, but rather retain their status as tolerated aliens. Their fatherland was not Hungary, he claimed, but Palestine.

Lichtenstein was the architect of the ultra-Orthodox manifesto, the famous nine-point pesak din of Michalowitz (Michalovce, Nagymihály) issued by 24 rabbis from northeastern Hungarian communities in the autumn of 1865. The document addressed the indecisiveness of many Orthodox rabbis when confronted with synagogue innovations that were halakhicly not strictly forbidden. The pesak din sought to impose a uniform, determined stance that would reject not only such ritual changes as celebrating the marriage ceremony in the synagogue or shifting the bimah away from the center, but also delivering sermons in languages other than Yiddish. He called such synagogues “temples of idol worship” (he later moderated the formulation to “houses of heresy”). Not only neo-Orthodox rabbis, but almost all the leading mainstream Orthodox authorities in Hungary as well were scandalized by what they viewed as the pesak din’s distortion of halakhah, and refused to join the signatories.

Also during the 1860s, Lichtenstein traveled about Hungary preaching his message to numerous communities. In Makó, he was even arrested at the behest of communal leaders, who charged that he was a dangerous agitator. When Shomrey ha-Das was founded by Orthodox laymen, he quickly condemned the society for its dishonest and dissimulating stance favoring the Magyar language. Lichtenstein was aided in his campaign by the close collaboration of Ḥayim Sofer, the rabbi of the neighboring community of Sajószentpéter (and later Munkács and Budapest), and his own son-in-law, Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, who had married his daughter Liba in 1860. After the death of Lichtenstein’s first wife, he married Schlesinger’s younger sister, Fradel (Mili).

The dynamic between Schlesinger and Lichtenstein proved most fruitful, and it is difficult to determine the vectors of influence or to unravel their individual contributions to the development of ultra-Orthodoxy. Indeed, when Schlesinger’s anonymous publications began to appear in the early 1860s, their authorship was almost unanimously attributed to Lichtenstein. Spurred on by his son-in-law, he published, in rapid succession, four volumes in Hebrew titled Maskil el dal (1867–1871). And in the effort to mobilize the broad mass of untutored men and especially women, Lichtenstein and his son-in-law pioneered in addressing this audience in Jüdisch-Deutsch.

Lichtenstein’s two volumes of ‘Et la-‘asot (1870–1872) followed closely on the heels of his Hebrew books. Both sets were arranged systematically into broad chapters and subchapters, and were couched in a question-and-answer format that laid out Lichtenstein’s conservative, unbending worldview. They enjoyed enormous success and went through numerous editions; indeed, they are in print to this day. Lichtenstein considered ‘Et la-‘asot to be his most important work, and he dictated that the unadorned inscription of his tombstone should simply read, “Rabbi Hillel the son of Liba, the author of the holy book ‘Et la-‘asot.” It is because of his Jüdisch-Deutsch publications, as well as his unbending stance against linguistic assimilation that elevated Yiddish to a supreme religious value, that he has come to be seen as an early Yiddishist.

By this time, Lichtenstein had left Hungary for Galicia. In 1867, he was elected rabbi of Kolomea, where he serve for the remaining 24 years of his life despite occasional temptations to submit his candidacy for the rabbinate of the Orthodox community in Budapest and even Pressburg (Lichtenstein briefly returned to Hungary during the General Jewish Congress of Hungary in 1868–1869 to advise and remonstrate). Soon after his arrival in Kolomea, he intervened in the appointment of a shoḥet (kosher slaughterer). The swift and harsh retribution by the Zhidachov Hasidim taught him a quick lesson about the limits of rabbinic authority in Galicia, where unlike in Hungary, the Hasidic courts exercised feudal rights over ritual slaughter. He became involved in the establishment of the Makhzikey ha-Das society that sought to introduce to Galicia the Hungarian model of Orthodox secession, and his son-in-law drew him into cultural conflicts in Jerusalem, where his old archenemy Esriel Hildesheimer attempted to set up a secular school.

Lichtenstein’s reputation was such that even after he left for Galicia, his name continued to be evoked in the Hungarian parliament by liberals and antisemites alike as the very embodiment of all that was backward, benighted, and fanatical in Hungarian Orthodoxy. He is probably the only Hungarian rabbi to have had several passages of his work (in Jüdisch-Deutsch!) read into the parliamentary minutes. One member of parliament interpolated with sarcasm that Lichtenstein’s views denying that Hungary could be a Jew’s fatherland and his denunciation of assimilation seemed to be in full accord with the antisemite Gyözö Istóczy’s plan to have Hungary’s Jews immigrate to Palestine.

As late as 1863, Lichtenstein wrote that he preferred militant activism in the Diaspora to a life of learning in the Holy Land, but he later came to espouse the active messianism preached by Tsevi Hirsh Kalischer. Lichtenstein also disseminated his son-in-law Schlesinger’s 1873 utopian tract calling for agricultural colonies in Palestine, and in 1876 he wrote a letter endorsing the Society for the Settlement of the Holy Land (behind which stood his son-in-law), wherein he expressed the view that such activities marked the first stage of the messianic era. He was induced by Schlesinger to raise money (mainly from the Frankfurt Rothschilds) to buy land in Palestine. The purchase of Petaḥ Tikvah, the first Jewish agricultural settlement in modern times, was funded substantially by Lichtenstein in 1878. However, he soon came under enormous pressure and was threatened with blackmail by the Hungarian kolel in Jerusalem, which viewed the entire project askance as siphoning off funds that by rights belonged to them. He was compelled to yield his shares to the kolel, which promptly sold them off.

In the years that followed, Lichtenstein published several other books, but none enjoyed the success of his earlier works. An important source for his biography and the history of Orthodoxy is a selection of his correspondence published posthumously (1908) and recently augmented as Sefer teshuvot bet Hilel he-ḥadash (2005). A valuable collection of eulogies of Lichtenstein is Kuntres tif’eret Hilel: Mile de-hespeda (1991).

Suggested Reading

Zvi Hirsh Heller, Bet Hilel ha-shalem (1893; rpt., Brooklyn, N.Y., 1983/84); Jacob Katz, A House Divided (Hanover, N.H., 1998); Avraham Ḥayim Levinzohn, Kodesh hilulim la-shem: Zeh sefer toldot . . . Hilel Likhtenshten (Jerusalem, 1990/91); Ḥayim Ya‘akov ben Barukh Bendit Likhtenshtein, Toldot ve-zikhronot (Satu Mare, Hun., 1931); Michael K. Silber, “The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition,” in The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era, ed. Jack Wertheimer, pp. 23–84 (New York and Cambridge, Mass., 1992).