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ow e Vilna Gaon prevened R
The Battle of the Lubavitcher Rebbe & Reb Itzeleh with the Maskilim
By Betzalol Naor

Undoubtedly, one of the most fascinating historical studies to emanate from the Lubavitch movement in this country, is Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn's pamphlet, Tzemach Tzedek u-Tnuas ha-Haskala. In 1962 an English version, translated and introduced by Zalman I. Posner, appeared under the title, The Tzemach Tzedek and the Haskala Movement.

Before we launch into a discussion of the actual events described therein, a brief introduction to the historical backdrop of the period is warranted. There had developed in the second half of the eighteenth century, three streams competing for the minds and hearts of East European Jewry: Mitnagdism, Hasidism and Haskalah. The Mitnagdim  ("opponents," on account of their opposition to Hasidism) were the oldest of the factions, who attempted to adhere to rabbinic Judaism as it existed before the inroads made by Hasidism. Today, we generally associate Mitnagdism with Lithuania—after all, the greatest leader of Mitnagdism was the Gaon of Vilna—but at the time, Brody, Galicia might as well have represented the ideal of Mitnagdism. (Whether the Mitnagdim have actually succeeded in preserving the original tradition or whether they too have been transformed by reacting to the other movement, is a moot point.)

Hasidism and Haskalah arose at roughly the same time, although their bases of power and agendas were totally different, if not diametrically opposed. Haskalah (Intellectualism), or as it was known in the West, Aufklarung  (Enlightenment), is viewed as the brainchild of Moses Mendelssohn of Berlin; its thrust was progressive education and adoption of European culture. Hasidism (Pietism), on the other hand, founded by Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov of Mezbizh, Podolia (then a province of Poland), was a spiritual revival  movement. It called for turning to the inwardness and spirituality of Judaism as taught by the Kabbalah.

At times a young man raised in a Lithuanian town and given the typical Talmudic upbringing of the day, would venture out into the wide world to taste of both emerging Hasidism and Haskalah. Thus we have Solomon Maimon of Nesvizh, Lithuania spending time first in the bet-midrash of the Maggid of Mezritch (second generation leader of the Hasidic movement) and later in the Berlin literary salon of Moses Mendelssohn. Both scenes are vividly portrayed in Maimon's autobiography.

Rabbi Menahem Mendel ben Shalom Shakhna (1789-1866), or Tzemach Tzedek  after the title of his book of halakhic responsa, grandson of the founder of HaBaD Hasidism, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, became the third rebbe of the movement on the passing of his father-in-law (and maternal uncle) Rabbi Dov Baer Shneuri of Lubavitch in 1827. By the time the Zemah Zedek assumed leadership of the Lubavitcher hasidim, the most influential group of Russian hasidim, Haskalah had turned extremely aggressive. Native Russian maskilim, together with German proponents of Enlightenment, which by this time had spawned the Reform movement, and conniving Tsarist government officials, formed an alliance threatening the survival of Torah-true Judaism in Russia, then the greatest concentration of world Jewry, both numerically and spiritually.

It is the Tzemah Tzedek's response to this pernicious challenge that serves as the focus of his great-grandson Rabbi Joseph Isaac's memoirs. A book that parallels it as far as Galician Jewry, is Raphael Mahler's Ha-Hasidut ve-ha-Haskalah. (It may be said without exaggeration that Galicia acted as a testing ground for the Maskilim. The earlier successes of Galician maskilim emboldened their Russian counterparts and protégés to adopt similar methods in the Tsarist Empire.) However, the orientation of the two books is totally different. Though Mahler distrusts the motives of the maskilim nearly as much as does Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, the documentation he provides—and he does a good job of ransacking archives!—is purely from the end of Austrian officialdom. Rabbi Schneersohn, while briefly surveying governmental and secularist materials, waxes most eloquent when drawing on family history, oral and written.

It must be pointed out that Haskalah posed a threat not only to the hasidim (whom the maskilim found most loathsome), but also to the tradition-minded talmudists of the Lithuanian yeshivot. And, as Posner remarks in his introduction: "While they had sharp differences, Chassidim and Misnagdim acted in concert to combat any influence that might corrode the Jewish spirit" (p. 3). "These factors posed a threat that coalesced all internal factions of religious Jewry in Russia" (p. 4). In fact, in hindsight, it was probably the common enemy of Haskalah, more than any other factor, that achieved a measure of rapprochement, however tenuous, between the two camps of Hasidim and Mitnagdim. Some go so far as to view as symbolic the meeting of Rabbi Itzeleh Volozhiner and Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Lubavitch at the 1843 Commission convened by the government in St. Petersburg. (Although according to Heilman, a generation earlier, Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner (father of Rabbi Itzeleh) had made Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady's acquaintance, there is no denying that the later encounter was more official and much publicized, thus rightly assuming epic proportions.)

The "Tzemach Tzedek" and the Haskala Movement  is set in the 1840s and pivots on Dr. Max (Menahem) Lilienthal's campaign to modernize (viz. secularize) the Jewish educational system in Russia. Max Lilienthal (1815-1882), a young German Jew, had come to Russia to take up the post of director of a modern school in the Jewish community of Riga. Shortly after his arrival, Count Uvarov, Minister of Education, enlisted his services as liaison to the Jewish community. 

(One of the paradoxes of this tragic chapter in Jewish history is the double standard of Czar Nicholas I (1825-1855). The same autocrat who did everything within his power to prevent innovative German thinking (and especially the German revolutionary sentiment of 1848) from contaminating his Christian subjects, went out of his way to encourage his Jewish subjects to learn the German language and mentality!)

At the instigation of Count Uvarov, Lilienthal was sent out on a public relations campaign to sell the Jews on the idea of government-run schools for Jewish children. During the years 1841-1842 Lilienthal made the rounds of the prominent Vilna and Minsk Jewish communities. This initial tour proved a total fiasco. Lilienthal's overtures were rudely rebuffed and he was much villainized by both the rabbinic leadership and the common folk. It was not until Dr. Lilienthal later met with the Gaon Rabbi Isaac (referred to endearingly as "Itzeleh"), rosh ha-yeshivah  (head of the yeshivah) of Volozhin (b. 1780 - d. 1849), and convinced him to serve as a delegate to a proposed commission in Petersburg, that Lilienthal's fortunes took a sudden turn for the better. The announced participation of the venerable Gaon of Volozhin worked like magic to open hitherto closed doors.

This second time around, after a cordial reception in the famed bet midrash of Minsk, Blume’s Kloiz, on Simhat Torah, Lilienthal received in the Shtibel of the Lubavitcher Chassidim in Minsk the coveted honor of Hatan Torah!

The visit of Dr. Lilienthal to Volozhin is described both in his biography and in memoirs that have come down to us from the entourage of Rabbi Itzeleh. 

It would have been interesting to contrast Lilienthal's impressions of the meeting with the Rebbe of Lubavitch to the Rebbe's own account (as preserved by his great-grandson), the way we are able to compare Lilienthal's record of his mission to Volozhin, to the Volozhiners' account of the exchange between Dr. Lilienthal and Rabbi Itzeleh. One would have hoped for as intimate a sketch of Rabbi Mendel of Lubavitch as Lilienthal provides of Rabbi Itzeleh, with whom the "Datche Rof" was visibly taken.

It is well known, that Rabbi Itzeleh Volozhiner had a worldly bent. Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik of Chicago, a descendant of Rabbi Itzeleh, shared with the author of the present article a tradition whereby it had been Rabbi Itzeleh's goal to study medicine in Italy. When his father, Rabbi Hayyim caught wind of his plans, he took counsel with his mentor the Gaon of Vilna. The Vilna Gaon advised Rabbi Hayyim to open a yeshivah and delegate administration of the institution to his son Itzeleh. He did so, and the medical profession was soon forgotten. This suits the famous tradition that when Rabbi Hayyim laid the cornerstone of the Yeshivah building, he uttered to those present, "Do moyer Ikh ein mein Itzelen" (Here I wall in my Itzeleh). Rabbi Itzeleh's familiarity with the "promotional" aspect of medicine is borne out in his commentary to Gen. 41:12. (See Peh Kadosh , Mikkez , p. 31. Appended to his son-in-law, NeZIV's Ha'amek Davar, Vol. I.)

Unfortunately, the portion of Lilienthal's diary that treats the Hasidim has been irretrievably lost.

Finally in 1843, Lilienthal succeeding in convening in Petersburg, under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, a commission to discuss the future of Russian Jewry. The four delegates were the Gaon Rabbi Isaac (Itzeleh), son of the Gaon Rabbi Hayyim, dean of the great yeshivah of Volozhin, as representative of the Mitnagdim; Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Lubavitch, to represent the Hasidim; and two laymen, Israel Halperin, a Berditchev banker and financier; and Bezalel Stern, principal of a modern school in Odessa, a noted Maskil. Dr. Lilienthal acted as the government representative.

Lilienthal entertained far-reaching plans. Had he succeeded in implementing them, the entire fabric of traditional Jewish life would have come unraveled. Government schools would have replaced hadarim and yeshivot ; the study of Talmud would have been supplanted by readings in Maimonides. Dr. Lilienthal even had thoughts about abridging the text of the Humash (Pentateuch) for instruction on the elementary level, deeming some of the Bible stories too risqué to be taught to children! Rabbi Schneersohn's memoir preserves the specific paragraph and his ancestor's rejoinder:

Proposal II: "Excerpts of the Bible, to include portions suitable for expounding and teaching to youthful pupils, and omitting portions deemed superfluous or inappropriate for instruction for young students. Examples of the latter would be the account of Bilhah and Reuben (Gen. 35:22), and Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38) . . ."

The Tzemah Tzedek's reply, strewn with learned references to the vast array of Jewish scholarship for which he is famous, was as follows:

"How dare we presume to omit portions of the Torah . . . and declare with mortals' understanding that they are not "vital" or are not "proper" for the young?

"He who asserts that even a sentence or word was not from the mouth of God . . . is considered a non-believer in "Torah from Heaven." (There follows a lengthy quotation from Maimonides' Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin, Helek, Thirteen Principles, Principle #8—BN.) RaLBaG (Rabbi Levi ben Gerson, Gersonides) wrote that he frequently derived great lessons even from the stories in the Torah, as he often notes in his comments . . .

"This is not to be compared to the Talmudic edict (Megillah 21a) that certain passages of the Torah are not to be translated, for instance, the episode of Reuben and Bilhah. The Talmud discusses there the translations made during public synagogue reading of the Torah, when illiterates hear the words as a simple story . . . There would be gross misunderstanding under such circumstances. But in a school, the instructor would make necessary explanations according to the commentary of Rashi . . . Onkelos, in his faithful rendition . . translated these passages."

To Proposal IV, calling for "selections from RaMBaM, including laws . . . relevant to the layman in his worship, his relations with his fellowmen, and his relations with monarch and country," came back the following stunning reply:

"It is impossible to understand RaMBaM without the Talmudic background. Rosh's Responsa (Principle 31, article 9), 'Whoever reads (RaMBaM) and imagines he understands, understands nothing' . . . MaHaRSHaL (introduction to his Yam Shel Shelomo on Hullin ) cautions, 'Though RaMBaM's work is superior to those of his predecessors, it cannot be accepted through unassisted logic, since the origin of the law is not evident in the text.'"

The Zemah Zedek makes short shrift of the whole proposal:

"There is no need, therefore, to introduce this novel study of RaMBaM . . . Verdicts are based on Shulhan Arukh , not on RaMBaM . . ."

Mystery surrounds Lilienthal's sudden departure from Russia in 1845. The consensus among historians is that Lilienthal, misguided as he may have been, was in his heart of hearts a loyal Jew. When it became apparent to him that the true intention of the Tsarist government, particularly the Minister of Education, Count Uvarov, was the conversion of the Jews, he fled to America.

The historian Michael Stanislawski rejects this theory for Lilienthal’s “disappearance” from the Russian scene and concludes it was nothing more dramatic then his having wed his fiance’e, Pepi Nettre back  in Germany and the couple’s concern for their financial future.

In this country he became one of the shining lights of the Reform movement.

When Lilienthal left Russia in 1845, he was succeeded by his assistant, a Lithuanian Jew by the name of Dr. Leon (Aryeh Leib) Mandelstamm (1819-1889). Mandelstamm had the distinction of being the first Jew to enroll at a Russian university. In 1844 he graduated from the University of St. Petersburg with a degree in Oriental languages. It was Mandelstamm who finally brought out in 1850, at the press of the Imperial Academy, St. Petersburg, the infamous "Tsarist Mishneh Torah." This was a five-volume abridged version of Maimonides' code of Jewish Law, Yad ha-Hazakah , complete with German translation.

One of the ironies of history is that both Hebrew and German frontispieces of this ignominious edition of RaMBaM, list "Rabbi Menahem of Lubavitch" as one of the sponsors of the volume. The name "Israel Halperin of Berditchev," who together with Rabbis Isaac of Volozhin and Menahem Mendel of Lubavitch, represented the Torah-observant population in the conference of 1843, also appears in the roster. Rabbi Menahem Mendel had fought tooth and nail against the proposed edition of Maimonides, arguing with impeccable logic that the Spanish rabbi's code could never eclipse the study of Talmud. That "Rabbi Menahem of Lubavitch" should be strung together with the arch-maskil "Isaac Baer Levinsohn of Kremenetz" is an outrage!

As to the contents of the "Tsarist Mishneh Torah," a surprise awaits the reader. Besides the inevitable, including "four epistles on the duty to love and obey the Emperor and to respect the Gentiles of the day," "Mandelstamm retained in his text and translated into German Maimonides' frontal attacks on the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith." As the saying goes, "You can never know what is inside a Yiddishe boyekh (stomach)"!

According to Jacob Raisin, "The abridgment and translation of Maimuni's Mishneh Torah , superintended by Leon Mandelstamm, cost the Russian Jews tens of thousands of rubles."

Mandelstamm was dismissed in 1857 as a result of attacks by his opponents among the maskilim and wealthier Jews of Petersburg who accused him of wasting funds and engaging in activities for his own profit. After a sojourn of many years in Germany, he returned to St. Petersburg, where he died forgotten and in poverty. His library was taken to the United States by A.M. Bank and was sold to the New York Public Library. The core of the renowned Jewish Division consists of the hapless Mandelstamm's collection.


Postscript: The effects of Lilienthal and Mandelstamm's policies were still evidenced years after both men had either left or been dismissed from office. As late as 1864, a traditional Humash  (Pentateuch) with Onkelos, RaSHI, Siftei Hakhamim , RaSHBaM and Ba'al ha-Turim , printed in Vilna by Romm, was forced to carry this caveat  opposite the title page ("sha'ar blatt"):

"None is unaware that all the commentators, and especially RaSHI, who spoke at length of marital and sexual affairs . . . had as their intention to explain the verses to adults . . . but it was far from their intention to teach these explanations to young children . . . All the teachers outside of our land skip these explanations when they come to them. For more than a thousand years, Jews studied Bible from these commentaries . . . and no harm came from them . . . But the exalted government has performed a great service by issuing an edition intended solely for Jewish youngsters. Therefore we hereby notify that this edition is only for mature adults . . ."


Posted on August 4, 2005
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