RYBL: His Life and Personality
A. Ben-Or (Orinovski)
From the book Chapters in the History of New Hebrew Literature
English Translation by David Dubin
In his personality and his civic and literary activities, the RYBL symbolized the cultural movement that began among the Jews of southern Russia during his lifetime. He devoted his life to fulfilling the demands of the time and essential public needs and duties while abandoning his personal affairs and needs. For 40 years (18201860), he lived a life of loneliness, poverty, and poor health in his native city Kremenets, in Vohlin, his house standing at the edge of town. The poet A. B. Gotlover describes him as follows:
The house is small and narrow, consisting of only one room built of wood and reeds and plastered with mud inside and out. The furniture consists of a rickety table, a small simple chair, and a bed like that of the poorest of poor in Israel, and upon it lies the man I was seeking the great, wise rabbi, RYBL, the one after whom we start counting the new era in the Jewish annals in Russia.
In this house, RYBL was bedridden, his nerves weak and his body emaciated and weak, unable to take even a few steps. He lived like a hermit secluded from the world around him, but from his poor dwelling removed from life's noises and in spite of his weakness, he sent his messages to his people and the Russian government, courageously and tirelessly battling on two fronts the inner and the outer and scored victories. In this house, he wrote many books and penned memoranda to the government. He never veered from his self-assigned life duties. In this house, Jewish intellectuals and gentile government officials often visited him. One of them was the Russian government minister Graf D. A. Tolstoy, who described him as a monk and a holy man.
RYBL was the first Hebrew intellectual in Russia who was well versed in Russian and advanced Russian culture and not German. His father, R' Yehuda Levin, a wealthy Kremenets merchant and Jewish scholar and intellectual, taught him Jewish studies and Russian and instilled patriotic feelings toward Russia in him. From this came his belief that what the government wants for us is peace and our best. This brought the turning point in the intellectual movement from German to the country's native language. He also wrote the first Russian grammar book in Hebrew, called The Basics of the Russian Language. During the Napoleonic wars, the young RYBL and his wife lived in the border town of Radzivilov (1812), and he worked in the Russian army as an official translator and garnered distinctions. When the war was over, he composed a poem, Sounds of Heroism, to honor the victorious Russia.
The defense minister sent the poem to the government as a proof of the love of the motherland in the hearts of the Russian Jews. From then on, RYBL was honored by the government, received with prizes for his books, and was listened to attentively for his advice on regulations for the Jews. Legends circulated among the Jews about his great influence in government minister circles. Thanks to this influence, he succeeded to some degree in achieving his ideas in education. What were his ideas?
First, reform the educational system: Establish schools to teach Jewish children Torah, religion, and the commandments; ethics and integrity toward the sovereignty and the nation in which they live; learn their language, arithmetic, and the sciences. Teach young girls and boys a profession or skill, because idleness and unemployment are the roots of sin; it is not necessary for all to be rabbis, all smart, all proficient in a few languages, all physicians, philosophers, poets.
Second, reform the rabbinical organization and community leaders: A national head rabbi should be elected, an eminent scholar, judicious and wise, with a large assembly of wise and scientific-minded scholars to serve as his law court. Wise, honored wealthy citizens should be elected to oversee and tend to community members' needs. Also, there should be magidim who do not talk of hints and Kabbalah but of the duties of the heart and such.
Third, correct economic conditions: The government should give land for farming and raising cattle and sheep to at least a third of the people, as was done by our ancestors And all the people of the Jewish nation should be forbidden by order of the rabbis to wear expensive and silken clothes, silver, gold, and precious stones, use silver and gold vessels and utensils, or ride in fancy carriages. In principle: they should not live in luxury, as it is the custom of today, when even the poorest of the poor dresses his sons and daughters as one of the wealthy. The truth is that all those luxuries are at the root of all the corruption resulting from our sins. The people of Israel, and particularly our brothers, the children of Israel, who dedicate themselves to working the land, should make every effort to distance themselves from any luxury to live a simple life, to wear inexpensive, plain, but clean clothes.
These ideals came from the general Enlightenment movement, and the RYBL's ideas were in a practical formulation: he was the first of our scholars to draft a clear, definite, detailed plan for all the needed reforms in our lives for the Hebrew population. His belief and trust in the Russian government and in the importance of instilling a patriotic foundation in the nation was another of his new ideas. In the early 19th century, the RYBL was able to proclaim proudly that the Russians never lifted a hand against a Jewish soul, as opposed to the Poles and the Ukrainians and all the other Western nations Obviously he did not see the future, as the Enlightenment blinded his vision, but at least some of his ideas came into fruition: under his influence, special schools were opened for Jewish children, rabbinical colleges opened in Vilna and Zhitomir, a review board for Hebrew books was formed, and settlements for Jewish farmers were established in southern Russia.
Although on the outside he saw reforms begin for the benefit of the Jews, on the inside things were not good. Jewish life in Vohlin was deeply mired in ignorance and extreme fanaticism, and his goal was to open blind eyes Spiritually, he was close to the enlightened scholars of Galicia, and he maintained friendly ties with them and followed their path. When he was young, he lived in Galicia for about 12 years (18131824) and was inspired by the satirists Perl and Arter. He wrote the satire Words of the Righteous, which is a sort of an epilogue to the book Revealer of Secrets, and Valley of the Giants, as in lower hell, where souls of the righteous and all the sinners of Israel were taken. (The valley of the giants preceded the transmigration of souls and is where the soul told its troubles.) But RYBL's grandeur came not by way of satire but from his work as a writer on current scientific affairs. From the Galician School, he inherited the notion of the importance of history as a basic principle for understanding Judaism and its needs. He was not a philosopher like RNK or a scholarly researcher like ShYR. For that reason, there is no scientific value to his many books, which contain long articles dealing with current problems that he solves from a so-called scientific-historical perspective. RYBL was expert in all the secrets of our ancient literature and highly knowledgeable in languages and sciences. He was diligent in his studies even when ill. In faraway Kremenets, he found the historian Chatski's large library and studied scientific books day and night. He acquired basic knowledge in Arabic, Syrian, Aramaic, Greek, and Roman (Latin) as well as in the new philosophy and other sciences. All his scholarly learning was his means to achieve his life's goal: to reform the life of the Jews, to rejuvenate and establish it on solid ground, and to blend Judaism with Humanism and the laws of Israel with the culture of the nations. Having great talent as an author, he knew how to use his knowledge for basic, theoretical, convincing propaganda.
[Translation Editor's Notes: In Hebrew, Words of the Righteous is Divrei Tsadikim, and Uncovering the Hidden is Megilah Temirin. RNK stands for R' Nachman Krochmal, and ShYR stands for Shlome Yehuda Rapaport.]
In his scientific-current affairs books, there is no stormy war on religion but peaceful words of explanation. RYBL was a pious, Orthodox Jew, follower of all the religious laws and Jewish customs. He did not change the way he dressed, always wore a hat, and was as careful with all the light as he was with the serious commandments. His behavior gave the Hasidim no room to find fault in him, a fact that irked them a great deal, because the young generation, who saw in him living proof that general education does not negate the validity of religion, looked up to him In truth, in his many books he continually emphasized that observance of the Torah's laws is vital to the existence of the nation, because only those laws link all Jews as one, friends all. If not for them, our people would have been lost, assimilated, absorbed by the other nations. Anyone not following the Torah's laws is betraying the people. Jewish customs should be dear to any Jew who wants his people to continue its existence, unless he is an abhorrent offshoot, planted among us from without in all our laws is logic and mystery unknown to us, and it behooves us to follow them according to God's edict without reason or argument. He was extremely angry to read of the Bible's critics, who write openly and through innuendo against prophesies, denying the truth of the miracles told within and God's protection of His people Israel, etc. In his will, he is revealed as a highly moral and ethical person; the will includes 13 cautionary notes:
You must trust God in every place and time; refrain from anger, hostility, and holding a grudge; speak truthfully; have your words reflect what is in your heart; not slander others; not have sinful thoughts; speak gently with all people; admit the truth; consider people to be innocent; prefer to be insulted than to insult others; refrain from chasing after honors; not swear even on the truth or ask God to be brought to the test, because you do not know if you will be able to resist.
The RYBL was a religious, ethical person, devoted to his people and looking out for its betterment as he saw it. Because he was well received by government officials and was an interceder for his people, even those who envied him did not harm him. He worked with tremendous diligence and wrote many great books.
As mentioned, he began his literary work with words of satire, but sometimes he showed weakness and composed poems and rhetoric, epigrams and riddles. Those were published in his pamphlets RYBL's Pouch and The Writer's Scholarly Collection; nevertheless, their writer cautioned that these are not worthy to be called 'poems.' He also published linguistic research papers: Lebanon's Roots, Shem's Tents, and others. Being shallow, these are not valuable, for the author lacked knowledge of modern linguistic research methods. More important were his books Zrubavel, Bloodless, and Achiya the Shilonite. In those he defended Judaism in general and the Talmud in particular against accusers and hate-mongerers among allies and adversaries who attacked them with insults and defamations. He fought fiercely against all vicious false charges, particularly the blood libel that our enemies accused us of. Those books show us his deep love of the people and his bravery in talking openly with anti-Semites, declaring his favor for Judaism over Christianity The Talmud was hated by the Russian government and by the extreme enlightened among us, but RYBL was an adoring admirer of Judaism and all its holiness, and especially of the people who wove their lifestyle in accordance with Talmudic Judaism. Defending Judaism and its values against the anti-Semites who ruled ruthlessly in Russia and the heretics who defile and degrade all that is holy to us is how the people fights for its culture and existence among the other nations. This was the goal of RYBL, and he dedicated himself to this more than to preaching for scholarly enlightenment, for craftsmanship, and for farming the land.
[Translation Editor's Note: In Hebrew, the book titles are as follows: RYBL's Pouch Yalkut RYBL; The Author's Scholarly Collection Eshkol HaSofer; Lebanon's Roots Shorshey Levanon; Shem's Tents Ohaley Shem; Bloodless Efes Damim; and Achiya the Shilonite Achiya HaShiloni.]
With all those, his main greatness is in his Enlightenment propaganda books: Testimony in Israel and House of Judah.
[Translator's Note: In Hebrew, House of Judah is Bet Yehuda.]
Testimony in Israel
In his preface to this book, RYBL says that pastors and friends, despisers of falsehood and lies asked him to explain to them what the studies are necessary for the perfection of humanity in general and Jewish perfection in particular besides the Talmud and the commentaries. From their words, five main questions stood out: (a) Is it a duty for the Jew to study the holy tongue according to the rules of grammar, or is the translation of the words that are in the holy writings and the Talmud to the spoken language sufficient, as is customary in cheder? (b) Is he permitted to study foreign languages? (c) Is he permitted to study the sciences and literature of other nations? (d) What is the usefulness of learning languages and sciences? (e) Would not their usefulness end up causing a loss of religion and faith?
RYBL answers those questions in the four chapters of his book. In the first he brings evidence from the Talmud, commentaries, and rabbinical literature for the knowledge of the Hebrew language and an understanding the holy books first by understanding the words based on their grammatical construction. With this, he also emphasizes the national rationale: Nations are recognized and distinct from each other by their tongues. Not in vain does our ancient literature identify the concepts of people and tongue. All the nations and tongues, so how can a man be called a Hebrew when he does not know Hebrew? Besides that, the Hebrew language became the religion's link to the existence of the people; the central pillar to latch together all our exiled brothers who are spread among different nations, from one corner of the universe to the other. How would they express their ideas to each other in distant lands if not by using the holy tongue that is common to all Jews?
In the second chapter, he gives proof that the Jews always knew and spoke Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, etc. and that there is no holiness or defilement in writing and speaking different languages, a book in Hebrew is not kosher and pure, and a book in a foreign language is not unfit and profane. He talks bitterly about Jews who speak not in their holy tongue and not in a pure and clear tongue of the local language like German or Russian As a practical man, he points to the economic benefits for the Jews of knowing the country's language, which will afford them business contacts with local inhabitants and government officials.
In essence, his third chapter's main idea is this: Know, dear reader, that any and all knowledge, small or large, is very essential for a person; therefore, he has to study and know it, as there is no wisdom and knowledge that will not benefit us and only simpletons whose intelligence God has destroyed and contaminated fools will undermine this wisdom.
To strengthen this opinion, the RYBL cites a long, chronological list of Jewish sages, from ancient times to the Vilna Gaon, who were outstanding in knowledge and erudite in all fields of wisdom. But all the knowledge and sciences in their time, compared to those of our time, were lacking. So when we say that our ancients were eminent scholars, the meaning is as far as knowledge was available in those days.
The RYBL knew, though, that the salvation of Israel does not lie in education alone, and he dedicates the final chapters of his book to the idea that the duty of a Jewish man is to learn a profession or a craft so that he can support himself. Again he relies on Talmudic scholars, citing as an example their writings that praise labor and condemn idleness, as in Anyone who does not teach his son a craft, it is as if he teaches him thievery, and he lists a long line of teachers and sages who were shoemakers, tinsmiths, woodcutters, porters, tanners, etc. After much deliberation, he comes to the conclusion that (a) Jews lived in their country and in other countries as an agrarian people for long periods; (b) the Jewish religion admires all forms of work, especially agriculture; (c) the Jewish people is capable even now of revolutionizing its way of life and turning from commerce to become an agrarian nation; (d) the time when Jews had to grasp business as a way of life was during the Middle Ages, when Jews were restricted and dispossessed of all economic positions but commerce and money lending; and (e) now, when the sun of general education and love of one's fellow man is shining in the world, it behooves us to follow the Russian government's advice to abandon the life of business, which is full of lying and cheating, and start working in agriculture, which brings true happiness to men. And in this we will gain respect in the eyes of His Majesty the King, who wants us to be happy and successful
A few months after the book's publication (1828), the RYBL received 1,000 rubles from Czar Nikolas I for a book in the Hebrew language whose purpose is the correction of the morals of the Jewish people. The book made a great impression on Enlightenment scholars but caused great anger among the Hasidim.
House of Judah
This is RYBL's most scientific book. It is a kind of historiography on the history of Judaism, the aim of which is to prove that study of Hebrew scholasticism is not a new heretical one but stems from historical Judaism. The book closes with a lecture on the practical reforms that are necessary in Jews' lives. This book, too, has left a great impression on our world.
Dictated by L. Rozental
(Presented for publication by M. D.-N.
From My World, a Newspaper for Young People)
English Translation by Thia Persoff
In the days of RYBL, Jewish children were educated in cheders and in yeshivas, which taught only holy studies and Jewish religion; the children did not receive a general education there. What is more, in those days Orthodox Hasidim prohibited their children from reading history books or mathematics, etc. Anyone who wanted to read such books was forced to do it in secret.
One summer, the government issued a command to open special schools throughout the country where the Jewish children would be taught general learning and knowledge.
The Orthodox Jews were sorry, as it seemed to them as if their children were being led into apostasy.
Y. B. Levinzon was the single Jewish person in Kremenets who liked this edict. He lived on Gorna Street, which was named Tyrants' Street by the locals. Because of his grave illness, he could not live in his house on the heavily trafficked, noisy Sheroka Street. He stayed in his house Alone on quiet Tyrants' Street, and each day he was carried outside to enjoy the sun's healing warmth and light. Once, while sitting on his bed wrapped in a heavy robe and smoking his long pipe, he was disturbed from his rest by a Jewish man running and screaming that his son had been registered for school by the authorities. He raised his arms to the heavens, howling that his son was being taken to apostasy . Many children followed him, perplexed and frightened. The RYBL called the children to him and softly explained to them that the government had done them a favor by opening schools for them where they would learn Torah and knowledge, the country's tongue, and the history of nations; then they would not be ignorant as before. The children, who had liked him for a long time, accepted his words with affection and lost their fear.
A day will come predicted old RYBL when fathers will feel sorry when their children are secondary in school. One of those children was my mother, who remembers the words of RYBL to this day.
(A Collection of Ideas from the Writings of RYBL)
English Translation by Thia Persoff
We have already been ordered to teach our children crafts, as our sages said: the father is obligated to teach his son a craft. R' Yehuda said, Anyone who does not teach his son a craft, it is as if he is teaching him thievery.
And R' Nehorai's words, I disregard all the crafts in the world and teach my son the Torah only, were explained by the MHRShA, of blessed memory. He does not mean for a person not to teach any craft altogether but to teach it to him casually, because the teaching of a craft is a firm charge on every father.
[Translator's Note: MHRShA stands for moreinu harav (our teacher the rabbi) R' Shmuel Eydels.]
And it was written in Avot: Any knowledge without a craft is bound to end in idleness followed by sin. The Rambam, of blessed memory, said, Anyone who deliberately occupies himself with studying the Torah and does not work but lives on charity profanes the Lord, shames the Torah, puts out the light of religion, brings evil on himself, and forfeits the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive any temporal advantage from the words of the Torah.
[Translation Editor's Notes: Avot refers to Pirkey Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a compilation of ethical teachings. Rambam is an abbreviation for the name of the philosopher R' Moshe Ben Maimon.]
From now on, I will not keep my lips sealed but will alert my brethren and my people to another ill that has taken deep root among us, and this is it: Why have we men and women, small and big, rich and poor made commerce our goal? Why do we not follow in the steps of our ancient forefathers and work the land, too? Why did we despise it, distance ourselves from it; and today none of us is a farmer or rancher. The people loathed this work, but it is unjustified; unfairly, they held it in contempt; this occupation was never contemptible or degrading but the opposite: since days gone by, it has been considered honorable and glorified and has received top praise, for out of it comes life, and not only the poor but also nobles and the gentry did this. Princes and kings also plowed their land and harrowed their fields.
And in fact, we will see when we explain that supreme wisdom lies in teaching the people of Israel to be a realm of only farmers, not businessmen. First: each person in Israel received as his property a plot of land to cultivate so he could provide food and all the necessities, for himself and his family. Second: in all the promises for the future that are written in the Torah, the blessings and the curses, for riches and for privation, you will not find anything but mentions of field, vineyard, and livestock.
Out of all these we conclude that (a) the main occupation of the Israeli man in making a living in ancient days was working the land, which was desirable and honorable in his eyes, (b) that the law of our holy Torah not only is not against working the land but commands it, (c) that a Jewish man is as capable of doing this kind of work today as any other person from another faith, which is in opposition to what our antagonists say: that the law of our Torah is against it and that it is not in the Jew's nature to be able to do this kind of work, and (d) that commerce was foreign to the ancient Israeli man, and he did not know of it or its name. Their sons who came after them and intermingled with the gentiles slowly learned from them. As was explained, a few hundred years ago we acquired a higher opinion of the occupation of commerce, and we became so accustomed to it that today it has become second nature to the Jew.
(A Chapter from the Book The Virgin from Ludmir)
English Translation by Thia Persoff
Mountains surround Kremenets; mountains related to the Carpathians, drawn and extended from them, make it seem as if it is sitting in hiding. The distance nearly nullifies the mountains into a suspension of blue that is caught at first glance and is barely perceptible. Mount Bona rises up and overlooks the whole town, the center of the region.
Do you see the castle over there, on the mountain? says the cantor from Zaslav, who travels for his earnings and is eager to find listeners for his tales.
For a moment, Binyamin concentrates on the tall, strong buildings; on the cannons lying in wait, taking aim at the valley; on a tower on whose top you can stand and see everything going on in the area.
And there, my dear people, at the top of the mountain, is a deep pit called the Pit of the Condemned to Death. The story is told that soldiers who have done wrong to the King are punished and then lowered and concealed in it. Yes, that hollow, they say, is full of bones.
The horses are raising dust; an incline drags a wagon down to the town. In the mountains and the outskirts of Kremenets are speckles of Ukrainians, Russians, and Poles; gardens and orchards surround their houses. Only the Jews live in the town and its two suburbs.
Binyamin descends, rummaging in his money pouch and paying the wagoner. Suddenly a feeling of complete freedom assails him, as always happens in a foreign place. He enters an inn in the Dubna suburb. In the room sit a few merchants who came to the fair and some passengers who happened to stop by. The landlady places bowls of food in front of them.
I heard, says one of the guests, while slicing bread on the table, that some of your townspeople have petitioned the government for land!
Yes, fifty-two families! answers the landlady.
Give me some good brandy, from the best! The man moves the edges of his coat a bit to prevent wrinkling. In truth, how odd that Jewish people would take it upon themselves, willingly, to be gentiles . farmers working the land!
Is this the influence of the Testimony by the upcoming rising leader?
[Translator's Note: This refers to RYBL's book, Testimony in Israel.]
Binyamin exits the room.
On the small veranda stands a young woman, the sun gilding her yellow eyelashes. She rubs and buffs a large samovar while humming a song to herself, pronouncing the words in a Vohlin dialect: A soldier's bride is not worth a quarter/like a calf he'll be lead to the slaughter!
Excuse me, could you be so good as to tell me where Yitschak Ber Levinzon lives?
Her face took on a blush. Who?
Yitschak Ber Levinzon, the famous sage.
Oh, you probably mean Itsik-Berl Yidel's! she says, happy that she realizes whom he means, and starts rubbing and shining the copper again, ambidextrously. He is not liked in our town.
No? Why? He is a great man and a wonderful scholar.
A seducer and an instigator, it's been said.
And he is eloquent. He always has assertions and arguments. And he is very close to the 'movers and shakers' in the government.
No, everyone seeks his company because he is one of our people's scholars.
The young woman realizes now that disreputable words about the old man are somehow insulting to the young man. She does not want to upset him. After all, he is not speaking to her as to a servant, the way all the others do. But why does he champion the man? She raises her head.
Are you two related? Are you an actual relative of his?
Yes, in spirit.
The young woman unrolls her sleeves. The samovar is ready, buffed all over, and its copper shines like a mirror, but she stays. It is clear that she is happy to continue conversing with the tall, open-faced young man, even though she is puzzled by his words.
And they say more in town. You should know, here in Kremenets they can drown a man in a spoon of water. He always cries that he is in dire poverty and he has a servant at home. She is waiting, they say, for him to leave her an inheritance of his money. But what nasty tongues and scoundrels say here in Kremenets should befall the trees and stones! But he is sick this is true. Did you come to visit him?
Yes. Didn't you know? And you said that you are related to him. He hated his wife, and before they were divorced, she put a little poison, deadly poison, in his soup. She was a bad-tempered one. Since then he has been sick with some sort of a fever.
Are those words true? Binyamin asks himself, or are they imaginary suppositions of his enemies?
And where does he live?
From behind the door the voice of the fat landlady, thin and sharp, is heard:
Shifre?! What happened to you there? Where is the samovar?
The young woman lowers her voice, At the edge of the town go straight from here, then turn left.
Binyamin turns, walking through the long stretching town. Here is the school for priests, called the seminary; crosses covering the domes, inner and outer buildings, front and back yards connected to each other its grove thick with trees, climbing up to Mount Vidomka. The street is named Broad Street, probably in jest, as it is narrow and tight. Pathways twist and turn toward the Bona
At the edge of town, far from its tumult and noise, Binyamin stops in front of a small house. People who go to the homes of the famous, in their own town or in others, come to this clay cottage. There is power in him, the writer of the Testimony, to debate with the world's scholars!
Binyamin's heart is beating hard and fast. After a cautious knock, an old woman who is all bones and tendons appears. The servant? Following her, he enters, eyes taking in the room and its contents.
By the square, crisscrossed single window stands a rickety table, tottering from old age. Across from the entrance is a bed with raised sides, haphazardly made. As in every sickroom, it seems, the center is the sick person among the few pieces of furniture. And in the center of the center: him.
His head is crowned with long, wispy, messy hair, thickening near his earlobes, maybe side locks, maybe curls. This is the head of a man whose correct age is hard to tell his rounded beard looks youthful here and snowy there.
Binyamin wants to rush to his master and teacher and shake his hand, but realizes that the other is not at all aware of his existence.
Well, did you go to him? Levinzon asks the woman in a meek voice, as if she is the lady of the house.
I certainly did, she answers.
And he sent you back empty-handed?
No. He sent you a different book. Here! He said, 'What is the difference? The essence is learning!'
Yitschak Ber Levinzon's face turned greenish white. There is no such sorrow as when you request something that you want and receive a thing that you do not want. And this from a man who is an important member of the community, supposedly intelligent.
And did you send the letters that I gave you? Levinzon continued.
I sent. What do you think, I did not send? But what good is it? You write and write and nothing!
Levinzon, focused on their talk, does not see the stranger. However, his presence in the room makes him feel self-conscious, embarrassed, and angry. Because of that, he boasts,
Nothing, you said? His Majesty the Czar awarded me his support. His Honor, the Czar himself! And the Deputy Minister of Enlightenment in Lodov wrote that the prize given to me is 'for a book in the Hebrew language, about moral reform for the people of Israel.' No, I do not waste my time! You will see. All the philanthropists in the world will answer and grant my request.
The old woman exits quietly. Now Levinzon focuses his attention on the stranger. Was it not, really, to him that he directed his last words? But now he looks at him with distrust, as if searching him inside and out. He feels that the young man's looks, which radiate health, have a calming influence on his nerves. There are times when a person has a strong need for the closeness of strangers, as they are helpful in calming his spirit.
Enter, please! he says softly, as if contrite for his previous suspicion. Why are you standing by the door? Please remove the papers and sit down!
Binyamin removes the sheets of paper from the small chair made of white wood, which stands by the bed and is used, apparently, as a sort of table.
Forgive me, my young friend, for receiving you while lying down. For many years now I have been in pain, but any man that I find truly singular and good is like having grapes in the desert.
For a moment Levinzon gets lost in memories of his years of residences and roamings in Galicia. Maybe it is not a good idea for a writer always to associate with his colleagues if he wants to avoid competition and jealousy. But also, that is where he met wonderful people, and at the top of the list is R' Nachman Krochmal, the unique superior one, a person of powerful new achievements. Each day at sundown, the two of them would walk up and down the hills and mountains surrounding Zholkov, each conversation an exchange of ideas and influences.
Here, my young friend, I sit alone outside the encampment. Yes, in my native town I am in exile: there is no writer, no book. No one tells the news, and there are no new pages to be seen. And those who scorn knowledge are so many.
Only now does Binyamin notice that the shelves attached to the wall behind the bed are empty. So where does he collect the large amounts of material for his writing? He probably copies all the material he needs from the books that happen to come his way by chance. Mainly, his memory must be excellent.
But, sir, are not even a few of the town's citizens supporters of the Enlightenment movement?
Yes. The old man's voice enlivens and his face lights up: I thank the Lord for the gift of a few just and righteous people, who were educated by me.
Beside people passing by from near and far from time to time, Jews and Christians, big and small, visit me. Nevertheless .... He looks again at the young man as if searching his mind. And what brings you to me?
Sir, acquiring knowledge is the joy of my life, but it is very hard for a person to open the road for truth without teachers or friends!
Levinzon gathers strength and sits up in the bed, his knees covered by the blanket. His head is that of a grandfather, and his narrow shoulders are those of a grandson.
My dream, from my youth until old age, has been to form an assembly of intellectuals with the condition that they be honest and righteous men to be named Zion, which would strive for the betterment of scholars and seekers of knowledge and for the development of the sciences.
For how long, his voice takes on some self-pity, will we see the Hasidim holding on to each other tightly, helping each other and winning, while our people totter and decline?
Have you realized your dream, Sir?
Suddenly Levinzon inhales a sharp, hoarse, breath. The schism, my enlightened friend, the schism of the hearts! Not all scholars are truly working for the good of all, to find favor in the eyes of God and men and the nation we live in. Particularly in the eyes of the great King, may his honor increase, and his governors.
But sir, the decrees against us
The clock ticks with his quick, even movements.
My enlightened friend, are you also asking: why all those changes? Don't you understand that those reforms are good and beneficial, that they are the privileges of the country? Yes, our Lord the King, may his honor increase, has done great kindness to us, so Jews will be like the rest of the citizens, wearing army uniforms and civilian clothes. This is a great change!
But sir, the hatred.
Levinzon's face turns chalky, but his eyes, feverish eyes, sparkle, and his breath is hot. Is his fever causing all this nervous excitement?
Yes. It happens that clerks do trample the government's good orders, but even they are not to blame. It is the foolish Hasidim, through their bad and perverse behavior, who cause the country's hatred for no reason! Their rabbis live a life of success, happiness, and the pursuit of luxury. They do not understand that in our time, the time of Enlightenment, the period of restrictive laws is over, and they incite our people against loyalty to our ruler and well-wishing government. Is not she the one who is opening the way for us to enter the garden of knowledge the country's schools?
Now Levinzon's face expresses a mixture of softness and importance.
On October 16, 1836, I set myself to write to His Royal Majesty, our Czar Nikolas I, about reforms for my brethren. God supported me and rewarded me with a reply from His Royal Majesty. And indeed, the government wants to open new ways for earning a living to us, too. Did you hear that many families have already settled in villages and are working their land? With God's help, and the King's, I have caused this!
The room is in stillness now, the silence deepening and strengthening; you can almost hear it. Suddenly, from outside, faint steps on the pebbled, sloping walk are heard. Binyamin wants to get up. How can the one who goes to the head of the nation, carrying the torch of Enlightenment, find even a morsel of goodness in this wicked kingship?
The old servant enters the room.
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