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)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Lilienblum, Mosheh Leib

(1843–1910), Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian writer; maskil. Mosheh Leib Lilienblum was born in Kaidan (Kedainiai), Lithuania, where he received a Talmudic education. His father married him off at the age of 13 to a girl of 11, and he moved into his father-in-law’s house in Wilkomir (Ukmergė). In addition to his intense Torah studies, Lilienblum began to study medieval Jewish philosophy and was exposed to modern Hebrew literature. He began an association with the moderate Haskalah movement and published articles in the Hebrew press—specifically, Ha-Magid and Ha-Karmel. This change in Lilienblum’s faith and worldview (though he continued to live as an observant Jew) provoked persecution at the hands of the uncompromising religious authorities of Wilkomir.

Details about the harassment of the young Lithuanian maskil were exposed in the Jewish press. Lilienblum was seen as a tormented hero in the eyes of the maskilim—and the entire episode turned into a media event with widespread reverberations. It was, for example, memorialized in a book by the maskil Re’uven Asher Braudes, Ha-Dat veha-ḥayim (Religion and Life; 1876–1878). The maligning of Lilienblum was exacerbated after he published the articles “Orḥot ha-Talmud” (The Ways of the Talmud; 1868) and “Nosafot le-orḥot ha-Talmud” (Supplements to the Ways of the Talmud; 1869). In these pieces, Lilienblum proposed moderate reforms in Jewish law in order to adapt it to the changing conditions of modern life. His pretext for proposing reform was the severe famine striking Lithuania at that time. A serious shortage of grain severely afflicted the poor classes, leading the Jewish press to call for the suspension, at least temporarily, of certain halakhic severities, including the prohibition against eating legumes during Passover. Lilienblum argued that such reforms were consistent with the spirit of the Talmud and the manner of its historical development. Just as the atmosphere of the age and the needs of the time had influenced scholars of earlier generations, so, he argued, they must guide rabbinical authorities in his own day.

Some of the most prominent scholars of the learned elite in Lithuania sharply attacked Lilienblum’s proposals. They rejected his suggestions even though some rabbis did agree that there was room to try to adapt Jewish law to new conditions. The dispute was waged on the pages of the Jewish press for about a year and a half, and was an important landmark in the formation of Orthodox positions among Jews of Eastern Europe. In “Nosafot le-orḥot ha-Talmud,” Lilienblum took a more extreme position and represented the oral law as a human creation that had developed historically and contained “opposing views in matters of faith as in matters of practice.”

In the summer of 1869, Lilienblum took a step that was a kind of rite of passage for maskilim of the Russian Empire in the 1860s and 1870s: he moved to the city, in his case Odessa. There he sought to gain a Western education in a systematic way and to acquire a profession. In that city, however, he experienced alienation, isolation, and economic distress. He had left his wife, whom he did not love, behind in Wilkomir with their three children, and continued to support them with his meager income from tutoring and from working as a clerk in companies owned by Jews. He was also plagued by emotional oppression: the woman he did love, Feyge Nowachowicz, was also still in Wilkomir.

In Odessa, Lilienblum despaired completely of realizing his hopes for effecting a compromise between Jewish law and modern life. Under the influence of the maskil Avraham Krochmal (d. 1888), who had proposed a historical explanation for the composition of the Bible, Lilienblum lost his faith in the divine source of the Torah. He also began to read radical Russian literature and was deeply influenced by the realistic–utilitarian criticism of Dmitrii Pisarev and Nikolai Chernyshevskii, as well as by Chernishevskii’s novel, Chto delat’? (What Is to Be Done?). The influence of radical Russian thought contributed to Lilienblum’s decision to use literary criticism as a vehicle for transmitting social messages—as did the Russian authors whom he emulated—in his article “‘Olam ha-tohu” (The Chaotic World; published in Ha-Shaḥar, 1874) that dealt with ‘Ayit tsavu‘a (The Hypocrite) by Avraham Mapu, the first social novel in Hebrew literature.

From Yehudah Leib Gordon in Telz, Russian Empire (now Telšiai, Lith.) to Mosheh Leib Lilienblum in Odessa (?), 1870, thanking him for defending Gordon against slanderous charges in the press, particularly an article written by Moshe Dovid Wolfson, which Gordon claims is a pseudonym for Zekharye Yosef Shtern, the rabbi of Shavli (Šiauliai). It seems that "Moshe Dovid Wolfson, man of Vilna" is the numerical equivalent of "Zekharye Yosef Shtern," according to gematria. Hebrew. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

Lilienblum was also an editor of Aleksander Zederbaum’s Yiddish newspaper, Kol mevaser, in which he published a series of articles titled Yidishe lebensfragn (Jewish Life Questions). In these pieces he sharply criticized the economic, social, and moral conditions in Jewish society, thereby establishing himself as a pioneer of modern political journalism in Yiddish. Among other topics, he wrote caustically about the separation of Haskalah literature from issues of life, complaining, “All human beings live on the earth, but the Jews live in heaven. Even modern Jewish literature has not yet managed to come down to earth, and most of it hovers in the air.”

In 1873, at age 30, Lilienblum published his autobiography, Ḥat’ot ne‘urim (The Sins of Youth). The work had a major influence, as it reflected the spiritual and social problems of those whose experiences were similar to Lillienblum’s; many readers could relate to being uprooted from traditional society, and others, too, had experienced frustration living in the culture of a great metropolis.

Ḥat’ot ne‘urim was influenced by the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by Salomon Maimon’s autobiography Lebensgeschichte (1792–1793), and by the Hebrew autobiography Avi‘ezer (1863) by the Vilna maskil Mordekhai Aharon Gintsburg. In his book, Lilienblum divided his life into four periods: (1) “Days of Chaos”—from his birth until 1858, when he moved into his father-in-law’s house; (2) “Days of Darkness and the Beginning of the Transition”—when he passed from the exclusive study of religious texts to the critical examination of philosophy and modern literature; (3) “Days of Heresy”—from 1866 until 1869, when he circulated his proposals for reforming religion; and (4) “Days of Crisis and Despair”—the time he lived in Odessa, where he abandoned his views about the necessity of connecting religion and life in the present and adopted Russian radicalism.

In 1878, the radical Hebrew journal Asefat ḥakhamim, along with Ha-Me’asef, began publishing Lilienblum’s essay serially, in the form of a tractate of the Mishnah titled Mishnat Elisha‘ ben Avuyah (The Teaching of Elisha‘ ben Avuyah). In this composition, Lilienblum brought the tradition of parody in Jewish literature to a new height, expressing inventive social, political, and economical messages in literary forms based on Pirke avot (Ethics of the Fathers), and thereby transmitting the essence of views he had absorbed from Russian radical literature to the Hebrew reader familiar with Talmudic discourse. His subversive use of the form of a sacred text conveyed a powerful atheistic message, which might even have surpassed the influence of the contents themselves. The secularization of sacred language and its use for communicating materialist messages and ideas of radical social reform were among the significant innovations of this work. Lilienblum took this radical tendency with him when he embraced the new Jewish nationalism a few years later.

At the end of the 1870s, Lilienblum advocated a solution to the economic distress of Russian Jews: he encouraged the transfer of masses of poor people to agricultural colonies. This idea was not new to the Haskalah, and its supporters invoked the Jewish agricultural colonies in southern Ukraine that had been established during the reign of Tsar Alexander I. Lilienblum added ideas of utilitarian materialism, however, which he drew from Russian radical thought, to maskilic ideas of colonization.

The pogroms in the southern districts of the Russian Empire, which broke out in April 1881, had a powerful influence on Lilienblum, as he states in another autobiographical work, Derekh teshuvah (The Way to Repentance). In this part of the autobiography, which he wrote about 10 years after the pogroms (though the book was not published until 1899), Lilienblum quotes from his diary to document his disillusionment with the Haskalah, a change of heart that he adopted at the time of the pogroms. The more imminent the pogroms, the stronger was Lilienblum’s identification with the Jewish people and its fate. On 20 March 1881, he recorded rumors spread by newspapers in Odessa anticipating pogroms during the coming Easter holiday. On 5 May and on 7 May pogroms did strike in Odessa, and he wrote of the experience of fear and helplessness in the face of the unstoppable violence: “How good that I was tortured. For it has happened to me, at least once in the days of my life, to feel what my ancestors felt every day of their lives . . . how great now is my satisfaction, because I have been able to know and feel the life of my nation during the exile.” In the succeeding pages of Derekh teshuvah, Lilienblum describes how, as his experience of the pogroms deepened and his disappointment with the response of the Russian administration grew, his faith in progress, in the rule of human reason, and in the integration of Jews into their surrounding society steadily diminished.

Lilienblum subsequently began to devote himself to the new national movement that had arisen a few months after the outbreak of the pogroms. His forceful description of his transition from allegiance to radical Haskalah to support of nationalism was read not only by members of his own generation but also by many later critics and scholars, who regarded it as an objective historical document. However, scholars now view Derekh teshuvah as an anachronistic rendering of his experience on a decidedly ideological basis.

When Lilienblum embraced Jewish nationalism, he did not give up all of his views from the period preceding 1881. Many of his diagnoses of social problems continued to derive from a realistic view of the economic and social conditions; he still upheld the maskilic ideal of cultivating the soil as a means to improve the economic and social condition of Russian Jews and raise their moral level. He therefore devoted the bulk of his time to supporting the establishment of agricultural settlements in the Land of Israel.

The significant change in his views concerned the attitude of non-Jews toward the Jewish minority living among them. Lilienblum concluded that the foreignness of Jews in the countries where they lived could not be overcome. This pessimistic view replaced his faith in the possibility of integration within Russian society. In a series of articles published in Hebrew and Russian in the months after the Odessa pogroms, Lilienblum developed the view that antisemitism could not be uprooted in nations where Jews lived. Economic success would not buy the Jews political rights or hasten social integration; on the contrary, the higher Jews rose on the social and economic ladder, the more their security would be threatened in their non-Jewish surroundings. The only way to rectify the situation of Jews was to gather them in a territory where they would form the majority. Lilienblum’s articles on Jewish nationalism were collected in ‘Al teḥiyat Yisra’el ‘al admat erets-avotenu (On the Revival of the Jewish People in the Land of Our Fathers; 1884); their influence was as extensive as the influence his earlier articles had exerted on the path of many maskilim during the period prior to the wave of pogroms.

In 1883, Lilienblum was a founder of the Odessa committee of Ḥoveve Tsiyon (Lovers of Zion), and from 1884 until his death he served as its secretary. He worked alongside Yehudah Leib (Lev) Pinsker in organizing and assisting settlement in the Land of Israel, while continuing his literary activity. In his political articles, he also advocated compromise between the maskilim and the Orthodox. Entirely contradicting his positions of the late 1860s, he vehemently criticized the poet of the Haskalah, Yehudah Leib Gordon (whom he had formerly venerated), and now totally rejected Gordon’s view that reform of the Jewish religion had higher priority than settlement in the Land of Israel. Later he opposed the criticism that Ahad Ha-Am had leveled against settlement in the Land of Israel and dissented from the latter’s “spiritual Zionism.” Lilienblum also promulgated the idea of love of Zion in Yiddish (writing for the newspaper Dos Yudishes folks-blat); and in 1887, along with Yehoshu‘a Ravnitski, he published the literary anthology Der yidisher veker, providing a forum for poems, stories, and articles by prominent Yiddish writers. Appended to the anthology was a Yiddish play by Lilienblum in the nationalist spirit, Zerubavel. Four years later, this work was the first modern play to be produced on the stage in the Land of Israel—performed, in a Hebrew translation by David Yellin, by the students of the Lemel School in Jerusalem.

Lilienblum’s second autobiography, Derekh teshuvah, which describes his abrupt shifts from Lithuanian Torah study to the Haskalah, to Russian radicalism, and afterward to Jewish nationalism, made its mark on the historiography of Jews in the modern period and on the study of modern Hebrew literature. The story of his life, the stages in his education, and the ideological shifts he underwent were central in shaping a dialectical understanding of the history of the Jewish national movement, according to which there were three stages in the transition from traditional religious society to the appearance of modern nationalism: thesis, the corporate religious entity; antithesis, departure from traditional surroundings and rebellion against the religion and culture, while adopting European culture; and synthesis, rejection by the new surroundings, disappointment with the rebellion, and creation of a Jewish identity combining elements from the old world with values and conceptions from the new culture.

In fact, however, the first proponents of the national movement in Eastern Europe did not undergo any great ideological upheaval after the pogroms of 1881–1882. This was especially true of the radicals, who had not been enthusiastic supporters of the policy of the tsar’s government for as long as a decade before the outbreak of the pogroms. Moreover, the proposals of the first advocates of Ḥoveve Tsiyon were largely similar to the solutions they had supported before 1881. In Lilienblum’s political journalism, he continued to resort to conceptual structures that he had absorbed from the utilitarian realism of Russian literature, and his political program concentrated on practical, economic, and social issues. Thus, the model of abrupt shifts depicted in his autobiography is not fully in keeping with the continuity visible in his life as he passed from one stage to the next. Lilienblum’s autobiography and his biography are similar, but not identical.

Lilienblum was one of the most important writers produced by the modern Jewish national culture. He combined deep Jewish learning with the absorption and internalization of the influences of European modernism in his literary work and political journalism, channeling these influences into the new national movement and contributing to the formation of a new Jewish identity without precedent in Jewish traditional society. In Lilienblum’s case, within this identity—despite the frustrating encounter between the Talmudic scholar who had lost his faith and a hostile, alien world—the particular and the universal existed side by side.

Suggested Reading

Israel Bartal, The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772–1881, trans. Chay Naor (Philadelphia, 2005), pp. 112–156; Shelomoh Breiman, “Ha-Mifneh ba-maḥshavah ha-tsiburit ha-yehudit bereshit shenot ha-shemonim,” Shivat tsiyon 2–3 (1951/52): 83–113; Shelomoh Breiman, ed., Mosheh Leb Lilyenblum: Ketavim otobiyografiyim, 3 vols. (Jerusalem, 1970); Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 (Cambridge, 1981); Yehuda Friedlander, Be-Mistere ha-satirah, vol. 3 (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1994); Joseph Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 4, bk. 2, (Jerusalem, 1942), pp. 219–252; Marcus Moseley, Being for Myself Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography (Stanford, Calif., 2005); Michael Stanislawski, Autobiographical Jews: Essays in Jewish Self-Fashioning (Seattle, 2004), pp. 54–68.



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green