(1815–1888), moderate maskil, Jewish studies researcher, Talmud teacher at the Zhitomir Rabbinical Seminary, and a prolific writer in Hebrew and Yiddish. Born in 1815 in Mogilev, Zweifel’s early marriage was a failure and for many years he wandered from community to community, earning a living alternately as a rabbi, melamed (Talmud teacher), and private tutor to students from wealthy homes. At the same time, he was caught up in a frenzy of reading and studying, particularly Hebrew and German works of intellectuals from Central and Western Europe. During his travels, Zweifel established contact with a variety of maskilim: while in Kremenets he met Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon, a leader of the Russian Haskalah movement in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and in Odessa he met Betsal’el Stern, the principal of one of the first maskilic schools in the Russian Empire.
Adherent of the Haskalah, scholar, and writer Eli‘ezer Zweifel. (YIVO)
It was only after reaching age 38 that Zweifel could afford to end his nomadic and dependent lifestyle and settle down to teach full time at the Zhitomir Rabbinical Seminary. The goal of the rabbinical seminaries that had been set up by the Education Ministry in Vilna and in Zhitomir in 1847 was to create modern rabbis with secular educations who were patriotic to Russia. During his 20 years in Zhitomir, Zweifel published most of his compositions, wrote dozens of articles for Hebrew journals, and corresponded with writers, researchers, and Jewish philosophers from Russia and beyond. Zweifel’s experience at Zhitomir led him to be suspicious of some of the Russian Haskalah’s guiding principles. He distrusted the image of the government seeking to benefit Jews by providing them an education that would balance the values of Jewish tradition with those of European culture. He also questioned the belief in the possibility of creating a modern rabbinical leadership that would preserve Jewish identity and simultaneously be open to the scientific study of Judaism and secular culture.
The closure of the seminary in 1873 led Zweifel to financial distress. Over the next 15 years, he struggled to earn a livelihood and to see his works published. Zweifel resisted attempts made during the 1880s to recruit him to the fledgling Ḥibat Tsiyon movement. He regarded the idea of settling Jews in Palestine as unrealistic, and believed that the nations of the world would not sanction the realization of this goal.
There is no uniform theme or style in Zweifel’s compositions. His books (for example Minim ve-‘ugav [Stringed Instruments and Organ; 1858]; Sefer haskel [The Book of the Instructive Lesson; 1862]; Tushiyah [Advice; 1867]; Ḥeshbono shel ‘olam [The World’s Reckoning; 1878]) and his journalistic writings reflect the perspectives and insights from his experiences as an educator, a preacher of ethics, a sermonizer, a commentator on the Bible and on Talmudic literature, a Hebrew language scholar, a historian, a Hebrew- and Yiddish-language popular fiction writer, and a poet. Most of his compositions are written in an eclectic style; they are interspersed with many and long quotations from the writings of others, and they deal simultaneously with different topics. The last book he published during his lifetime, Sanegor (Defense Counsel; 1885) and one that he regarded as his crowning achievement, provides a good example of his scholarship and writing style. While Sanegor is primarily an apologetic work, packed with quotations from other writers who dispute the claims raised by Alexander McCaul in his anti-Talmudic work, Netivot ‘olam (The Old Paths; 1836), the last chapters are devoted to a defense of the role of women in Judaism, and to a defense of certain biblical and Talmudic sources’ attitude toward gentiles.
Though Zweifel shared unfavorable attitudes about aspects of traditional Judaism with other maskilim, his connection to his national identity was especially strong. He saw the rupture of the relatively strong cultural and social bonds that had cemented European Jewry by modernizing trends as a danger to the unity of the Jewish nation, and he sought a harmonious and pluralistic approach to Judaism, one that could accommodate all of its various denominations. This approach is boldly represented in his work on Hasidism, Shalom ‘al Yisra’el (Peace to Israel), which appeared in Zhitomir in 1868 (parts 2–4 appeared between 1869 and 1873). This text caused a veritable storm among Jewish public opinion, especially among maskilim in Eastern Europe. While in the minds of the overwhelming majority of maskilic writers Hasidism was considered an evil cult that had prevented Judaism’s modernization, Zweifel granted Hasidism legitimacy and demanded that there be “Peace to Israel.” He appealed for a settlement of major disputes that had divided the three feuding parties: the maskilim, the Misnagdim (opponents of Hasidism), and the Hasidim.
Even before the publication of Shalom ‘al Yisra’el, Zweifel had been a target of biting criticism by the young maskilim exemplified by Mendele Moykher-Sforim, who viewed him as a representative of the Haskalah establishment that was divorced from harsh and oppressive realities. But the storm that had erupted among the maskilic circles in Russia in the aftermath of the publication of Shalom ‘al Yisra’el was of a totally different nature: legitimating Hasidism was interpreted as nothing less than a betrayal of the Haskalah. Zweifel’s colleagues urged him to retract his thesis, expressed amazement at his uncompromising position, branded him a hypocrite, and censured his book.
Nevertheless, Zweifel continued to defend his views, regarding them as a loyal expression of the moderate Haskalah of which he was the leading ideologue. His philosophy was based on Naḥman Krochmal’s Moreh nevukhe ha-zeman (Guide of the Perplexed of the Time) especially regarding the “middle path.” Zweifel’s approach to the study of history was dialectical; he stressed the Jew’s deep connection to his historical past; he wrote about his love for the Jewish nation and praised moderation and a balanced approach; and he sought out common factors that would bridge the gaps. In this regard, he pinned his hopes upon the Alliance Israélite Universelle’s efforts to strengthen Jewish solidarity. From a religious perspective, Zweifel, like many other contemporary Russian maskilim, identified with “positive-historical Judaism,” the philosophy propounded by Zacharias Frankel for his mostly German Jewish adherents.
Very few of Zweifel’s colleagues shared his tolerant approach to Hasidism, and yet the moderate Haskalah, of which he was its prime representative, was during the second half of the nineteenth century the backbone of the Russian Haskalah movement.
Shmuel Feiner, “Ha-Mifneh be-ha‘arakhat ha-ḥasidut: Eli‘ezer Tsvefl veha-haskalah ha-matunah be-Rusyah,” in Ha-Dat veha-ḥayim: Tenu‘at ha-haskalah ha-yehudit be-mizraḥ Eropah, ed. Immanuel Etkes, pp. 336–379 (Jerusalem, 1993); Shmuel Feiner, Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness (Oxford and Portland, Ore., 2002), pp. 306–317; Shmuel Feiner and David Sorkin, eds., New Perspectives on the Haskalah (London and Portland, Ore., 2001); Abraham Rubinstein, “Introduction,” in Shalom ‘al Yisra’el, by Eliezer Zweifel, pp. 7–34 (Jerusalem, 1973); Samuel Werses (Shemu’el Verses), “Ha-Ḥasidut be-‘ene sifrut ha-haskalah: Min ha-pulmus shel maskile Galitsyah,” in Ha-Dat veha-ḥayim: Tenu‘at ha-haskalah ha-yehudit be-mizraḥ Eropah, ed. Immanuel Etkes, pp. 45–63 (Jerusalem, 1993); Gloria Widerkehr-Pollack, Eliezer Zweifel and the Intellectual Defence of Hasidism (Hoboken, N.J., 1995).
Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler