By H. Hoykhgelernter (New York)
English translation by Tina Lunson
The Mendelssohn of Russian Jewrythe great fighter for enlightenment among the Russian Jews and for their rightsRYBL, his life, his work, and his lifestylethe works that he wrote and the polemic that he carried out with enemies of the Jews.
Very little has been written about the Mendelssohn of the Russian Jews, as he became designated in Jewish history. Except for the Volhynia Jew Dr. Y. Tsinberg, and partial biographical notes from Levinzon's publisher and relative B. Natanzon, until now we have not singled out the particular persona and creative spirit in its color-rich innovation; the atmosphere of the times in which he was influential, the social aspect of his influence; the colossal driving force that he possessed; his character as an enlightener and pedagogue, and in no way a follower of the musar [ethics] movement or of the prosaic cut of today's propagandist. We also lack biographical material about him. His close friend, A. Gotlober, should have done this, but because of an angry obstruction about an inheritance with his cousin Yakov Yisrael Levinzon of Odessa, he gave it up, as he himself declared.
We do not pretend today to provide such an exhaustive biographical assessment, but we will provide certain dates around which there was a controversy and a list of details that give us a key to his worldview, woven into a Jewish-historical point of view. This will, as we will later see, distinguish him from the Mendelssohnian German Enlightenment approach.
He was born on Rosh Hashanah eve, September 2, 5548, or 1788, in Kremenets, Volhynia. His great-grandfather Yekutiel, a scholarly and well-to-do Jew, who lived there and later moved to Ostrog, left behind a large family in Kremenets and a lot of property. His son Yitschak had two sons, Chayim and Yehuda, both wealthy Jews. Itsik-Beras he was called as a childwas born to Yehuda. Himself a Torah scholar and an Enlightened one, Yehuda in fact knew several languages, and he guided his son Itsik-Ber on that same path. He generously hired the best tutors and mentors for his son. Already in childhood, the boy showed a talent and vision for immersing himself in the material that he studied. It should be related that in his eighth year of study, he is said to have written a kind of mystical composition. When his father showed it to the rabbi, he was amazed and said to keep a sharp eye on the child who spoke such an unintelligible language.
Also, his mother, Rachel, from Kremenets, was a kind of enlightener, as Levinzon himself designated her, in the epitaph on her gravestone.
Levinzon said about his father, On the day he died, he sat down and copied out some precious article from Two Tablets of the Covenant [Shney Luchot HaBrit] and read it. We can see that his father also lived in a higher intellectual/spiritual world.[a]
He died at the age of 80, on the same day he explained the words of Shney Luchot HaBrit.
RYBL explained his father's view of people who were completely taken up with financial riches: About people chasing wealth, he would say: these people resemble a summer bird that hovers relentlessly around a lit candle until it burns up in the candle flame …. In that house of Torah and wisdom, there was still no lack of this world's influence. Their livelihood was plentiful. The child was cared for in great comfort. RYBL himself explained it years later in a letter to Yosef Zeyberling in 1853, where he wrote, among other things, I grew up in ease and comfort, like a princely child. All that my eyes wanted, I received.
Brothers Chayim and Yehuda both experienced deep breaks in their relationships with Polish princes and probably with Poland in general. Yehuda had bones broken by the town prince, when his carriage collided with Yehuda's when he did not yield the right of way to the prince. Chayim, from whom a prince withheld monies owed to him, was accused of ritual murder by that prince. Chayim spent all of 12 years in prison and came out a broken man and, of course completely, ruined materially.
Later, this influenced RYBL's patriotism toward czarist Russia.
As was done among Jews at the time, Itsik Ber was married at a young age, apparently 16. A sign of that is seen in the poem he wrote to his intended in Kremenets in 1804, when he was 16. We present the poem as a curiosity and to show his feel for the rhythm of language at a young age.
A man that crushes one another
shall smite him, and shall be awake;
and you are beautiful! Halfway to my house
will I find you hostile? If it doubles my friendship
then I will add my love to you.
But the match was not successful. Although a child was born, RYBL divorced his wife. He moved to Radzivilov. There, during the Franco-Russian War, he became a secretary to Military Commandant Girs. Encouraged by the victory over Napoleon, in 1812 he penned an enthusiastic poem, Voice of Heroic Response. Commandant Girs sent it to the interior minister. It was very popular in the czar's court.
RYBL was then 24 years old. He thawed toward his wife, who had borne him a child who had died young. There are no reports about how he experienced the tragedy. But we can imagine that he carried the sadness deep in his heart. He brought it into the lines he dedicated to his father in the introduction to House of Judah [Bet Yehuda]. The name itself, Yehuda, designated his father. He wrote this to him:
You refresh my soul; if not for you, I would live a depressed life; when troubles befall me, when bitter illnesses weary me and embitter my life, I set my eyes on your image, and my heart becomes lighter in me. Since my dear, modest, and enlightened mother passed away and death stole my child from me and I am left alone in the world, from then on, for whom is my whole heart's desire if not for you, my father?
When his mother died at the age of 51, RYBL was in Radzivilov. He wrote these words for her gravestone:
In a poor home
under the wave
full of maggots
a similar neighbor
in the shadow of the night
a woman of valor
rests in a wreath of
He revealed his heart this way in 1830, two years after the first edition of House of Judah was published. He was then 42 years old. He lay ill, chained to his bed.
RYBL was very attached to his father, to whom he dedicated the book.
One must surmise that indeed it was House of Judah, not Testimony in Israel [Teuda BeYisrael], that matched his comprehension of his father's life, and did so in an academic work about Jewish cultural history, from the forefathers until the last generations after the Sages.
But RYBL probably considered House of Judah his crowning work. He had to endure a lot before the outside world recognized it. In it, he dealt with the foundations of Jewish faith. Because it was an exhaustive work on the Jewish worldview, it served as an answer to the 35 questions posed by minister Imanuel Liven, as he counted them off at the beginning. He later received a reward of 1,000 rubles from the government. RYBL wrote about the gift from Czar Nikolas I in the introduction. He also wrote a special poem in 1825. We read in the introduction: Tell me, tell me, that you will meet a man with a generous heart who will pass over him in a spirit of envy and show you a defect and a defect; please do not restrain your heart in his words. Know that for a moment he will get angry and complain, and he will assume his maker and his anger and take on this parable.
Thus we see RYBL's intention in dedicating House of Judah to his father while he was still alive.
From Radzivilov, RYBL moved to Brody in 1812. There he worked, to support himself, in a transportation business. In fact, while he was there, he reworked a tariff book to help the Jewish merchants in their trade with other countries. He also put together a Russian grammar book for boys while there. He was drawn to the Enlightenment circle there. He left Brody and went to Tarnopol, where he received a teaching diploma from the teachers' school directed by Yosef Perl. Before that time, he had been involved only with the Enlightenment tendencies of the enlightened intelligentsia in Galicia, but he became an adherent of Rabbi Nachman Krochmal (RNK)'s philosophic school of thought. He spent several months in RNK's circle in Zolkiew.
It was there that he finished his commentary Melim Hamlakhotayim, a dictionary of useful foreign-language words, many of which figured in Talmud, homiletics, and so on.
He showed this work to RNK, who was very pleased with it.[b]
RYBL spent a short time in Brody, where he became a school inspector. From there he traveled to Berdichev, in 1920.[c]
His relative Yeshaye Mendel Landsberg invited him to come to Kremenets, with the prospect of opening a school there like the one in Tarnopol. Landsberg himself was a wealthy Jew and an Enlightened one. RYBL agreed and was there for a short time. The Hasidim and their whole community rose in revolt against this convert when they learned about the plan. RYBL left Kremenets. He wandered among several cities and in 1822 went to Berdichev again, where he taught children privately. He did not stay there long. He went off for a summer in a gut with the prince General Vitenshteyn, where he tutored his children. Prince Vitenshteyn himself spent whole days walking with him and enjoyed their talks on philosophical topics. He spent long hours with him even at night. That same summer, Prince Aleksander Gallitsin also came to visit. RYBL felt a strong intellectual bond with him, and he later warmly recommended him to the czar's court.
Then, it seems, he became ill and in 1837 returned to Kremenets, where he lived out his whole creative life.
He lived in a low attic apartment at the far end of town, separated from his surroundings. Only his close friends visited him. The Orthodox among the Jewish population created an atmosphere of hatred around him. He lived in poverty, on bread with herring and an onion.
To recognize the real intellectual persona of this true guide and pathfinder for the formation of the Jewish persona for Jews in Russia, one must be able to feel out the persona-state of a physically plagued human being, the real broken vessel that he was. And another thing: conceive, today in a world of technology, a typewriter replaced with a handheld pen.
RYBL turned out to be the institutional address for the larger Jewish world. From his attic room there stretched threads to Petersburg, Kiev, Odessa, Vilna, Warsaw, Minsk, Brisk, Vitebsk, Zhitomir, Zaslav, Korets, Dubno, Brody, Tarnopol, Krakow, London, Jerusalem, and even more far-off places thousands of miles away. All were about matters for the good of the community, in various languages.
Let us hear what he himself related in the introduction to House of Judah. He asks the reader's pardon if he finds small or large errors, so that the reader would know that I am physically weak. I have been afflicted by a bitter illness for years now. I do not see the light outdoors, I am locked inside, chained to my bed. In the whole town there is not one person to be found who can help me rewrite anything, although I could pay. It takes me a long time to write; I am cramped up like a worm.
He tells of his immense difficulty in getting the necessary holy and secular books that he needs to have at hand. He has to write away to other towns, even to other lands.
One would be dumbfounded at how the man managed to create so much. Apparently, he could not explain it with his common sense, but only through Providence. Indeed, he cited a verse from Talmud there: It is to my benefit that I answered for the sake of learning your laws so that friends and acquaintances would be reminded not to bother him with too many letters when it was not very important and not to forget to pay the postage, especially after a high tariff was imposed on letters from abroad.
Nature had blessed RYBL with a phenomenal memory. He himself wrote, I cannot hold a book in my hands because of my weakness. It looks to me as though the letters are floating in a cloud before me. However, many entire books, including very large ones, are etched in my memory to this day.
His fame in the larger world, particularly the esteem in which he was held even in the czar's court, after the czar gave him the abovementioned 1,000-ruble gift, turned him into a central figure in Jewish life in the world, to whom people would turn for representation, even in cases having to do with how to honor the royal authorities in another town. It is strange to mention: the town notables of Brest asked him to compose a kind of ode in honor of the wedding of Prince Alexander, Nikolas I's son, to the German Princess of Hesse, Maria. He wrote a long poem that a children's choir thoroughly learned and performed during Shavuot 1841 in the Great Synagogue, attended by all the Jews and Christians and in particular the retinue from the town and high military officials. (The Author's Scholarly Collection [Eshkol HaSofer], p. 30.)
With that, it is probably good to explain that in his old age that same Alexander I designated a lifelong pension for RYBL, but he did not live to enjoy it.
In the same year, a special messenger from Brest, Moshe son of Rabbi Avigdor Rotenshteyn, traveled to RYBL with a lament that he should request the revocation of a harsh decree for Jews: the town rulers had ordered that their homes be demolished and that they should leave town, and they were not permitted to take any of their possessions with them. It seems that RYBL wrote that very poem to effect the revocation, as a salve to heal the plague.
At that time, RYBL was on very familiar terms with those in government spheres in Petersburg. His name there was highly esteemed, after his extensive proposal to the czar's court about transforming Jewish life economically, agriculturally as well as educationally and culturally. More about that later. He included in his memorandum about 56 Kremenets families who wanted to request, through him, to be given land in Novorossiya for agriculture.
RYBL's word was highly valued in the Christian government world. In Kremenets itself, he from time to time had the patriarch Rapalski as a guest. A learned man and also a teacher in the Lyceum, he enjoyed being in RYBL's company and debating religious and philosophical topics with him. When Rapalski was in Kiev, he [RYBL] gave, through Rapalski, his Testimony in Israel to local Yeparkh Yevgeny in 1832. The same Rapalski was later named chief of the Pravoslavic Church in Petersburg. It was through him, moreover, that RYBL saved the Lutsk Jews from a blood libel accusation. Many Jews were spared jail sentences in that way. RYBL wrote about it to Rapalski, who bore the crowned name of Holy Antony; the blood libel was annulled, and the Jews were freed.
RYBL had encountered that same wild plant that had endured through generationsof convincing a Haman that ritual murder was not a commandment among Jewsin his heart even as a child. It was no surprise that when such a blood libel accusation spread in Zaslav at the end of 1832, he devoted all the fever of his soul to present his capital work Bloodless [Efes Damim], which was later translated from Hebrew into Russian, German, and English.
The state of the newly published work Bloodless is particular evidence of that Kremenets Jew's highly intellectual standing, who devoted his whole life, heart and soul, indeed for the sake of heaven, without receiving a breadcrumb, even though he was poor and ill.
This is how publisher B. Natanzon describes the whole chapter on spiritual and cultural resistance against Jewish martyrology: Rabbis and sponsors, esteemed people in Lithuania and Russia and other areas of our land, have beseeched him through letters and special messengers to try to convince the government people to revoke the blood libel. The wealthy ones have undertaken to cover all necessary expenses. Levinzon did not reply but set himself to the task. It was an effort to save lives, and there was no time to lose. The Jews' fate was involved. Saving the many Jewish families from Zaslav who were threatened with death depended on himalthough he was not fond of the idea because of his physical condition, and he was busy finishing up other work. Besides that, it would incur a lot of expenses, such as gathering the various necessary books and holy books, writing to several places to obtain verifications, documents from popes and kings from Poland's past; also interceding with the local authorities and taking pains for the arrestees still in chains and the newly arrested in other towns. Although the wealthy men had earlier ensured that they would cover all the expenses, it later appeared that having some of the rabbis turn to the community councils for assistance did not even help. He was forced to do everything alone, intervening by himself with those in power. He did not rest until he succeeded in reaching his goal of publishing the work in 1833 as Bloodless. It is written in a light, clear language, in the form of a dispute between a Jew and a Christian.
Seventy-four years later, in 1913, a whole world of Jews and non-Jews were involved in a famous blood libelthe Beilis Trial. Rows of cameras were set up. It was not only Beilis who was threatened with death, but whole families. And one single Jew in a far-flung corner of Russia, Kremenets, had furnished everything necessary. And not only for Zaslav, but even for Damascus.
That concept, that he could not only lay all his work aside but also carry the burden of the heavy yoke of assembling all the necessary materials for the new work, and bear the financial expenses himselfwhat explains that which came into his psychic self was his abovementioned Uncle Chayim's bitter fate; he suffered for 12 years in jail for nothing, and the direct stimulus for that was surely his deep experience as a child of such a blood libel, which his uncle Elyakum from Yampol had to deal with.
RYBL himself said with satisfaction that he was destined to perform such an assignment for the Jewish people. He writes in the second part of House of Judah on page 133, that:
In 1757 in Yampol, Volhynia, there was a blood libel. My uncle, R' Elyakum of Yampol, traveled to the pope in Rome with power of attorney from the rabbinic leaders, who had made the decision at a special meeting in Brody. From the pope, he obtained a document for the realm of Poland in Latin, signed by his hand and with his stamp, that they should dispense with the blood accusation, as it did not have the least bit of validity. R' Elyakum printed copies in Latin and in Polish translation. He gave my father one copy when he was staying at our house. I had it in my hands when I was a child, but it has been lost. It is among R' Elyakum's estate in Medzhibozh along with other letters that are connected to that matter. In figuring out R' Elyakum's lineage, he further related that R' Meir of Dubno, son of R' Yoel, an elected member of the Council of Four Lands in 1759 (5519), also had something to do with the matter.
I thank God that I have merited to follow in my elders' footsteps, and I have worked with all my strength to abolish the blood libel, as shown in my book Bloodless. My father left a place for this large service for me.
When the big blood-libel case took place in Damascus in 1840 and was supported by the French general governor, the great intervener and community leader Moshe Montefiore turned to RYBL, through his secretary Dr. Leve. And that work was then translated into English. The blood libel was also abolished in 1841.
And just two years earlier, that same Moshe Montefiore had come to RYBL. At the time in London, an ugly pamphlet named Old Paths [Netivot Olam], written by a Christian, had been published about the Jewish religion. As soon as it was out in English, M. M. turned to RYBL to ask about the various falsehoods in it. The pamphlet's author, McCaul, showed remorse to the elder and became a great lover of Israel.
Bloodless was published originally in four editions. The first was in Vilna, 1837; the second, in Odessa, 1865; and the third and fourth, in Warsaw, in 1879 and 1884. In addition, it was published in other languages: Russian, Polish, English, and Latin. The Jew R' Duvid D'bet Hilel in Jerusalem sent to RYBL for permission to translate the work into Arabic or Turkish. RYBL then answered him on 15 Iyar 5600 (1840). Besides giving permission, he offered to help, if needed, by sending letters and decisions by Polish kings that refuted the entire blood libel concept. It is not known whether a version in either language was ever printed.
It remains literally a puzzle how such a physically broken person manifested such strength, such supernatural energy, with such weakened hands, to stay in contact with various places and countries, to defend Jewish life, Jewish honor, and the esteem of its intellectual culture. Nothing less than the old adage is relevant here, that suffering refines the personapparently RYBL himself felt that he was driven by a mystical force. We can read specifically this very feeling in his work. In the introduction to the book Zrubavel he answered for the reader why he had abridged things in a few places; it was because, he explained, I have been sick for years, locked in a house, chained to a bed. I suffered from it day and night. When the thought whispered to me to stop everything, not read any books, no more writing, give the nerves a rest, they argue back: the body may shrivel up like a worm, yet it must serve Torah and service, for Jacob's childrenthat is why you were created.
RYBL the Guide and Among the Folk
Until now we have demonstrated Yitschak Ber Levinzon's traits and spirit and strong-willed energy: the mind of a genius, of deep perception and comprehension of life's phenomena, and a pragmatic sense of time-related problems; his responses to them by way of cultural-enlightenment methods.
But the distinguishing feature of his character that set him apart from other effective personalities in Jewish life, the specificity that pushed him into Jewish history, requires us to search in a completely different direction.
RYBL is noted as the Mendelssohn of the Russian Jews. That is true not only in with regard to Enlightenment, but in absolute contradiction, in essence, to the character and diversity of his impact, both inside Jewish life itself and with regard to the surrounding, exterior world.
Photo by Berenshteyn, Kremenets
We have seen earlier that in whatever direction the young Levinzon occupied himself in connection to a young Socrates, as indicated by the young Mendelssohn in the work Phaedon, was born from his disputes with the priest [Johann Caspar] Lavater.[d]
RYBL's Achiya the Shilonite [Achiya HaShiloni ] did not have that impact. Phaedon had the reverse effect on German Jews of faster assimilation with and into German culture. Mendelssohn looked up to the talented philistine that was the German Jewish desire. He wrote in German, which hastened the Jew's estrangement from his recent past. RYBL was different. He was literally steeped in the treasures of Jewish culture, collected over many generations. It is no surprise that he was joined with the holy language Hebrew, in which the Jewish view of life was formed: ethics and morality, and all the spiritual-intellectual attributes of the Jewish stubbornness to survive.
Intellectual and cultural emancipation, served by a foreign languageGerman: RYBL dismissed it, because that led to a contrary result, literally to conversion, especially after the pogroms in Bamberg and Wurzburg (1819-1820).
RYBL was the Jew of I am settled among my people. He knew its flavor, why the Jews in Russia were not captured by Alexander I's idea to copy Franz Yosef and grant free schooling for the Jews in the vernacular language. He demanded Jewish schools in which students would learn the vernacular language and culture as they would all other secular subjects. The foundation, however, would be Jewish culture.
In another a vivid moment, we see the basic difference between RYBL and Mendelssohn: his multipronged activity to improve the Jewish disposition, agriculturally and economically. And once again, on the foundation of their own, Jewish-formed thought process from old, old generations ….
Although he was not a politician as we understand the word today, he was, in his various works through vart [word], the great influential force in formulating the idea of the senses with religion, together with artisanry and agriculture. Today we may declare that Pinsker's Auto-Emancipation and the whole Zionist concept of earth and work both came from RYBL.
No, there is a much wider gap between the two worlds of RYBL and Mendelssohn. The first is thoroughly interwoven with Jewishness; the other, a reformer in a foreign language.
The Russian Jew of the time was authentic; they were mostly Polish and Lithuanian Jews by heritage and tradition. The Jew who fell into the lap of Russian territory after the Third Partition of Poland was saturated with other traditions, customs, and lifestyles of the generations-long religious cult. Even in a purely biological sense, that Jew was a different type from the German Jew or even the Austrian Jew, who had kept their eyes open only on the west, after the French Revolution and Napoleon's position on the Jews.
RYBL knew and understood this well. Thus his influence went in two quite different directions: intellectually and culturally, in the trope of Jewish secularization and economic existence based on agriculture and artisanry.
In these two areas, he honed the Jewish thought process, brought it to Jewish society, and presented it to the government authorities.
He formulated his cultural concept on the historic foundation of Jewish cultural treasuresthe Talmud and the sages' commentaries.
These were his two main works: Testimony in Israel and the previously mentioned House of Judah.
Not being completely a politician, he reached deeper and wider into the human psyche. Is it a surprise that the well-known M. Strashun, the great Vilna Jew, wrote enthusiastically after reading the work, that it opened my eyes, literally. From all over the Jewish world, then, he drew to himself the threads of spiritual enthusiasm that filled his readers.
With that, he pushed the second basic motive for the transformation of Jewish life: that motiveeducation in their own Jewish schools, with a concrete program of study.
RYBL's devising is expressed in these few well-turned [Hebrew] words, which he titled Thus to all mankind. To paraphrase in Yiddish: Have God in your heart; illuminate his Name; this is the whole Torah.
This is different from Hillel, who posited Love your neighbors as you love yourself. He understood well that without an idea, a God in the heart, no slogan about justice would help.
And he did not envision the idea as a dry, dogmatic expression; not in the interwoven mirage of faith and religion. Faith, he maintained, is intertwined with knowledge, from which comes self-knowledge.
It is no accident that he opposed the flood of various strange little mystical booklets that grew like mushrooms after a rain. He wanted to bring about an order, a control over the chaos. And here he comes again with his logical cultural values instead of all kinds of denunciations of each Enlightened work to the censors, as though to eradicate the bad material; he chose another path, a respectable, sincere, well-thought-out path, and recommended (in 1833) a list of books to praise and printing shops beyond the ordinary closed ones; and he pointed out a number of large towns where Jewish masters of wisdom and Torah have influence and whose word was worth hearing.
It was with great sarcasm that he tore apart the Galician Enlighteners who only mocked and ridiculed the eastern Jews' ways. He labeled them as defectors of the faith, nobodies. They could not see the forest for the trees. By their rejection of those detrimental customslimbs that had accrued over generations and ghettoized Jewish life from inside outthey had gradually annulled the Jewish faith itself. RYBL fought this fiercely. And again did so through enlightened methods, as was part of his character. He searched with deep earnestness for the reason for the generations of accrual of various customs; getting back to the motive for appending those norms to the foundation of commandments. He explained it this way: so that they, the foundation of commandments, would not evaporate in the new forces of reality in ordinary people's lives. In each generation learned people introduced some improvements, because they were paying attention to life. Their intention was to root out any bad customs. Even when such a new introduction was against the spirit of the Torah, even against common sense, but was necessary to protect the religion itself, as when the times demanded it in the name of God Himself, one was allowed to bend the letters of the words of Torah.[e]
RYBL rejected the German Enlightenment school of thought that led to the denial of all Jewish cultural content from past generations, because he had felt the air around the dried-up rationale of the German philistine. He warned those Enlightened ones against the nonsense of their standard mockery of the Hasidic school of thought. He said:
And the false Enlightened must be refined. It makes use of the name, but unfortunately, those who think that they are elevating it in truth are really shaming it. Exactly as their brothers (the Hasidim) who dance, clap their hands, sing and leap in the streets and shout, Hasidism, Hasidism! And in truth they are their own destroyers of Hasidism because refined Hasidism is, clear as day, a blood sister of Enlightenment. But those who shout, Enlightenment, Enlightenment! are far off the right path. They too have replaced the pure Enlightenment with a false one. Without any control, without thinking it through they are off on a blind path, which they call the zeitgeist.
RYBL calls that kind of Enlightenment a shrew with two mouths. With one mouth she denies any faith, with the second she leads to a new faith, an idolatrous one. Both of these, the ‘over believing’ and the ‘nonbelieving,’ are two sisters from one hell.
RYBL, as we see, did not tread on a hair of the Jewish sources, of faith through understanding, of knowing your Godrecognizing with sense and knowing your own God. We see vividly here his foundational distinction between the carriers of the German Enlightenment movement, which leads to de-Judaizing the human, when the goal of RYBL's system was the Jew's humanization.
He utilized his system in two constructive directions to rebuild Jewish life in the spiritual traditional world of eternal life, by joining the Jewish with the worldly, and in the material world of time on earth through work.
In House of Judah he took the saying it is not in heaven to mean that faith is not heavenly, but it is in us, an entity of life itself, adding color and hue, sense and knowledge, that must flow into all the juices of the human creative spirit, enlightening the Jewish cultural treasures with the zeitgeist.
He retrospectively paved out a further process for living in the spirit of generations-long Jewish creativity that is deeply rooted in the Bible, Talmud, and Midrash, from the whole chain of Jewish genius up to R' Chayim Volozhiner and R' Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, with a broad outlook to revive that knowledge by transforming creative spirit in the wider world.
Torah, national politics, all knowledge and learning, all social initiatives, everything is faith, and everything is bound and interwoven into one. And the interior of everything isserving the human, the community, because the endeavor between human and human is more respectful, is higher than between human and God. Both faith in God, which is reflected in the feeling of the heart and imagination, and the faith of civility, or lifestyle, both spiritual emanations receive a strengthening, a support, in the everyday through the fulfilling of commandments, practical activities. Those areartisanry, agriculture, buying and selling, driving away criminal activities such as stealing, robbery, murder, deceit, and the like; and through good actions like doing good, charity, lending money, acts of lovingkindness, and so on; and for everyone, wisdom, study, learning other languages, natural science, mathematics, medicine, educational methods, pedagogy, jurisprudence, aesthetics, economic science, all of which are occupations.
It is a misleading misconception that RYBL fought Hasidism as a spiritual doctrine. We have already shown that, just as refined Hasidism is a daughter of heaven, it is a sister of refined Enlightenment. On the contrary, he called the Enlightenment of an arbitrary nullification of Jewish culture by the name shrew; he was only pursuing the cleaning up of the bizarre mold that had grown on it, in the pantomimes of wild ecstasy that is the sign of a savage, primitive person.
Just as he zealously fought the subjugation of the rabbis who passively looked past the cruelty that the wealthy committed against the poor, and indeed called his brochure Topsy-Turvy World [Hefker Velt]. For him it was a question of the worth, the dignity, of the human being. He himself offered his definition of the groupings in Jewish society from which one can see his view of the Hasidim.
Although House of Judah was conceived and written as a basic answer to the dozens of questions posed to him by the then-minister Imanuel Levin, in reality the work is a condensed cultural history of the Jews. RYBL had, as mentioned, lived in the deep thicket of the people. He knew that regarding Jewish customs, the rabbis did not know their own intellectual culture and the path of its development in previous generations. They had little understanding of its own formulation in different eras. The entire Jewish past was reflected in the oral traditions. Even the Josippon on the bookshelf in Jewish homes had no place in their views. In House of Judah, he cleared up, in a kind of encyclopedic way, the whole of Jewish cultural possessions from the Fathers and the Tribes up to the end of the 18th century, in two parts comprising 152 chapters in 352 pages.
His whole interpretation is philosophical, historical, and scientific, with a host of lexicographical glosses of words that Jewish scholars did not know the meaning of before, and thus they often arbitrarily inserted them into their invented concepts of reality.
Given the clarity of RYBL's thought, through his word he knocked down many dreamed-up fortresses of those scholars. RYBL's work had to endure a lot of wandering before it saw the light of day. It did not appeal to either the Talmudist rabbi or the Kabbalistic-Hasidic world.
And the printing companies' publishers and proprietors all trembled about it at first. On February 27, 1836, he received the second permission from the censor in Vilna, Volf Tugendraykh, with an accompanying letter that, for him, the work was like a spring flower under a free, clear horizon. But the book was finally published only in 1839. He finished the work in his 40th year, the end of 1827 and the beginning of 1828: he wrote the introduction in Kislev 5588 . In it, he indicates the rebellion against him: I will turn my back to the slanderer even if he brings a sincere question, but I will answer and even concede an error if I have made one to a solid questioner who does not curse me.
The whole work House of Judah is written in an academic style. There is no indication there even of a polemic regarding the Jewish side, as in other work. The Vilna Rabbi R' Abele's comment when someone asked him his own thoughts about the work was not unfounded: It's just a shame that the Vilna Gaon did not write such a book.
In the journal The Morning Light [HaBoker], one F. Ruderman wrote, I have heard myself from the mouth of R' Yisrael Halperin, one of the petitioners to the Petersburg education minister on the founding of an ‘education committee’ in 1842, that during the meeting, Minister Uvarov asked the participants a difficult question, and they were all left perplexed, none able to give a proper answer; then the minister interjected that the answer was provided in House of Judah on page 24.
Zeitgeist for RYBL was not an underlying motive for denying the past, because of changes in today's lifestyle. He could deeply understand the tendencies of past eras, critically use those factors that affected life then, and peel them away to reveal the healthy, essential kernel that can serve as a basis for continuation, by changing the form, the manner, the lifestyle of today. The Jewish life-process was clear to him in Jewish history: eternal movement from land to land, being carried away by the current of the new atmospheres of the peoples with whom fate has joined the Jews. He expressed his comprehension of history in a few words: One must not measure current times, the given place of now, with the measure of another time, another place. That means to say that the measure must be an objective one.
That objectivity can be inferred from that work. Thus it finds favor with intelligent people. RYBL also felt that in House of Judah his orientation toward educating the new generation was well suited. Although in Testimony in Israel, which had been written and printed earlier, he had formulated certain parameters for a Jewish school program, in House of Judah he spelled out the essence of a Jewish school institution in great detail: a Jewish school education, filled with Jewish studies but on a pedagogical foundation, like other secular studies.
It is also mentioned in the beginning that in 1816 the young RYBL, 28 years old, studied philosophy in Radzivilov. It is likely that he took to Platonic ideas about the concept of time and human in the aspect of historical knowledge, which is, in short, formulated thus: the divide between human and animal can be recognized by the fact that the human is always immersed in a present into which the past and the future are always interwoven. For the animal, the past and tomorrow do not exist, but the human remembers yesterday and transforms it into today, and through his desire to predict, tomorrow becomes woven into today. As a matter of fact, it says in Deuteronomy: Remember bygone days, understand every generation.'
In House of Judah, which is a condensed cultural-historical work about the Jewish worldview from the Fathers through R' Chayim Volozhiner and R' Moshe Soyfer, RYBL demonstrates a life path for Jews, and in five points he formulates the bases on which one needs to direct the further development of material and spiritual life for Jews; and at the same time, for Jews across the world, as a dispersed folk, generations of Jewish being, that is the substance of their clue to the Jews.
Like an expert pedagogue and deep-minded historian, he leads the reader out onto the wide road of a humanistic culture. The logical clarity raised in his interpretation of Jewish history also reaches the spheres of Petersburg, as mentioned earlier, through P. Ruderman's testimony.
It was not unjustified that people wanted to see RYBL in Petersburg. RYBL himself wrote about several appeals to him by the government to become a chief rabbi: they had strongly expected him in the capital city of Zhitomir. The seminary director, M. Volfson, had gotten a signal from the governor, recommended by the education minister, to engage RYBL. It first appeared that RYBL had agreed to it. His close friend and constant correspondent Ruven Kulisher had convinced him. On 10 Tamuz 5607 (1847), he answered a letter from Volfson saying he would write a second letter with more details and then answered that he would abstain from traveling because of his poor health.
After that letter about putting off the journey for just a few weeks, he responded to R. K. about his inspiration about [the opportunity]. Because, when they challenged him with the demand Where is he, the man that you promised us? Director Volfson was very angry.
Thus nothing came of it. RYBL could not leave his bed. On 3 Av, he wrote a letter directly to Director Volfson about it, answering for himself. Although he emphasized his will to come, his health had gotten worse. One can read his mood in the letter that he wrote to R. K. five months later. He wrote about being pleased with Graf Aleksander Tolstoy after his visit with RYBL and his drawing a portrait of him. RYBL wanted to know whether the Graf had received a letter to him a year ago. Because, he wrote there, Who knows if I will live to see the response? My strength fades from day to day. God is my witness that I am not strong enough even to write a word. He thanked R. Kulisher for the news that the Graf had gifted the portrait to the prince.
If House of Judah is entirely dedicated to intellectual culture, with some advice on how to improve educational methods to eliminate the crippling effects that had accrued through ignorance of the masses and the strangling effects of religious leaders and the power of the wealthy in the council house, RYBL's first contribution in his first work Testimony in Israel was quickly recognized as a constructive, creative power in all areas of life, as we will see.
Testimony in Israel
No translation into Yiddish except The Way through Life is relevant to this work. Here we encounter RYBL in the persona of a sociopolitical national historian with a perspective on a far-off tomorrow; a constructive thinker and warrior; a guide for the beginning of a renaissance movement for future life, in the realms of economy, agriculture, and Jewish culture.
When one thinks retrospectively today about Jewish life 150 years ago, when one envisions the various ideological currents among Jews for the past 80 years and their effects, one immediately recognizes the genius of the man Rabbi Yitschak Ber LevinzonRYBL.
It was at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century when yesterday's Polish, Lithuanian, and Russian Jewish masses all fell under the rule of a foreign governmentczarist Russia. It was foreign in ways of life, foreign in the cultural backwardness of the peasant masses with whom they would be close neighbors. The authorities themselves did not know anything about the Jews.
On the other side, new winds from the west, especially from France, knocked at the Petersburg palaces. And the name Jew came out into the arena of emancipation with the addition of a Sanhedrin, a pseudo-autonomous national corporation. In such a pregnantin Bialik's expressiontime, it was necessary to keep an open eye, an unclogged ear, and mostly a clear, open mind to receive the chords of the era's symphony.
The Jew in Russia was completely different from the Jew in Germany. At that time, when the German Jew had reoriented himself from the abovementioned pogroms and toward Germanizing himself, other Jews already had behind them the ruins of 1648 [the Khmelnitsky pogroms] and 1649 [the false messiah Shabtay Tsvi], the despair of their Messianism, and quite differently the Baal Shem-Tov's positive movement, which gave back to the simple Jew his belief in himself, the human being. They, those masses, carried inside the customs that the rabbis, the great thinkers over the generations, had planted in them; customs refined under their own autonomous leadership that was the Council of Four Lands.
With the methodology of a cultural historian, he searched out the use of a serious word pedagogically and politically, a calm tone, cold logic, to illuminate the great esteem of culture and work, its value, both for government interests and to bring about a better life and existence for the Jews themselves. Those great evaluations of his were brought forward in Testimony in Israel.
RYBL knew well the various attitudes and sentiments regarding Jews that dominated at the beginning of the 19th century in czarist circles. Even more, he understood the psyche of his own Jews, who yearned with all their hearts for the great power of the future, in the optimism of the Hasidic vision that lived in them. In Testimony in Israel, he analyzed that world, explained the reasons for such an effect, and reformed them into a new perspective on their useful service in ongoing life.
In that detail, his answer to the education minister S. S. Uvarov (March 8, 1848) concerning the position in Petersburg that Jewish elementary teachers should have to pass an exam on their suitability for teaching children, and that Jewish children in religious-sponsored schools should study without beatings, is characteristic. RYBL advised pedagogically that force is a senseless way to break a habit. And then he gave the minister, very kindly, advice on the hats worn by Christian priests while observing ceremonies in monasteries and churches.
RYBL takes good care of Jewish honor when it is treated badly by rulers. True, his tone when answering officials directly is a little shocking. But as a matter of fact, that was everyone's notion in those days. But in essence it had no relevance.
For the internal Jewish world, the work became a renewal of a golden era from the distant past; for the world around it, for the rulers, it appeared that the Jews were far from guilty in their own faterather the opposite. He even showed them that the Jews also earned a lot in trade, in the system of financial politics. So, for example, he demonstrated that the exchange system used in world trade was really a Jewish innovation. In that he cited the well-known author, the historian [Joachim Henrich] Campe, who had proven this historically.
The value of RYBL's handling of this is of great significance to this day.
It could even seem apologetic, based on a couple of lines in which RYBL spoke about the government's desire to see only happiness for the Jews, but its essence is the question, after 25 years under the new Russian rulers, about Jews then being confronted with improving the situation in the czarist environment: RYBL saw before him the set precepts of 1804, when Alexander I confirmed the abovementioned appointments in school and academic education, plus trade, artisanry, and industry.
RYBL interpreted them as norms for citizens' rights, according to the explicit formulation of Western European governments, especially those in France. Through them he clearly and frequently pointed out for the rulers the sin of the Rules of 1804. That was a weighty statement then, when we recall that the winds of freedom were blowing strongly from France, bringing it into the homes of the awakened, noble young generation who were already working underground, undermining the czarist regime, which led to the historic year 1825, the first year of open revolutionary struggle against the czarist crown.
But his first argument was the deeply logical documentation of the reasons that the Jews had brought to their side regarding their situation in their generations-long way of life and their persecution by the Christian world; the basic evidence of economic factors that worked against the Jews, through the resulting competition from the ascendant intelligentsia among the Christians; the surgical operations he carried out on the religious bodies of various enemies in the Christian hierarchy; the tearing down of the respected veil that the church spread over the Jewish religionall his scientific, historically based evidence in Testimony in Israel resounded loudly in the czarist environment. RYBL became the sole authority in their eyes. Nikolas I praised him in his own hand. RYBL guarded that letter closely. But it was lost. Avraham Ber Gotlober tells about this, as an eyewitness, as he saw that very signature.
Avraham Ber Gotlober, who saw Testimony in Israel in 1830, was inspired by it. In 1833 he left Brody, after he had been in Odessa, in the company of Dr. Shtern, the director of the first school founded there. On the way to Brody, Gotlober decided to stop in Kremenets to see personally the person who had so much prestige among the public. Gotlober was 19 years old at the time. On stepping over the threshold of the attic room, he was astonished by the sad scene: in the bed lay a sick body, from whose eyes shone an intellectual power. The young man became attached to RYBL.
Meanwhile, he met his intended in Kremenets. He was married there and lived there for several years, from 1834 to 1845. He spent time with RYBL every day, until late at night.
The same Nikolas apparently related more to RYBL than to his officials. For example, in 1837 he arranged for the aristocracy and all the officials to wear beards according to the Jews' example, or in the French manner. In 1804, Alexander I's government ordered that anyone who took a position in the official institutions (magistrates and the like) must alter one's clothing according to the rules, indicating Jews. The children in the Jewish schools also had to toss off their Jewish clothes. It had been temporarily put in place by Prince Aleksander Gallitsin on July 23, 1818, that one should not force the Jews until a special order was issued, but apparently RYBL was very pleased by his word. We have seen earlier that Minister Uvarov would later question his meaning in introducing such a regimen for schoolchildren.
The main tendency in Testimony in Israel is to restore the crown of Torah to its esteemed place in everyday life. He pushes forward the essential sense of written Torah, as the material world comes first, before the spiritual. Restoring the body in the first instance is by nature restoration of the spirit.
He presents a whole roster of names of Talmudic scholars to show the respectability of life through work. With that reading, as in the Talmud, a line of people along a shoestring, who are busy because of their livelihoodone with tailoring, one with shoemaking, carpentry, and so on, he illustrates for the contemporary heaven Jew that the practical significance of Torah must go hand in hand with physical work, that studying Torah day and night does not mean studying in the sense of the printed word, but the opposite, literally for life, that one can apply the rule that study can be neglected when one must work.
If he revived the cult of work for the Jew by virtue of old Jewish sources, in his memorandum of 1834 to Minister Bludov he proved that to the powers that be that the neglect of work by Jews is not their character but a result of time factors that brought them to think that they must always be in a race and hurry from one place to another. If one is always on the move, he logically showed through an example, one cannot build positions in life. For the Jewish situation and occupations, he responsibly did not argue the alleged and repeated antisemitic truths that Jews are not suited for work, so they should not even be allowed to breathe. And remarkably, this talk had an effect even in the czar's court. It drove from their minds, on one hand, the conviction about Jews and the logical proofs in his memorandum about the double benefit for the Jews and for artisanry and settlement on open parcels of landand on the other hand, it was well accepted both in Peterburg and among the Jews themselves.
Time, place, life circumstances, external atmosphere, and specific conditions that showed [reliance] on the benevolence of the authorities, and even more, on the attitude of feudal rulersRYBL had all this in mind when responding to the problems of Jewish life when he brought them before the distinguished men. Thus, it was a great injustice on the part of certain progressive contemporary critics when they wanted him to add flattering motifs for the authorities. He certainly felt deeply the great Jewish tragedy of Nikolas I's forced conversion of Jewish children, or later the forced destruction of Jewish settlements in the villages from which they were driven. RYBL also knew about something else, namely, the serfdom that enslaves millions of peasants; he turned his method of action and influence on the spheres of power, through the enlightened logical word and healthy motive. And his word in Testimony in Israel was strongly accepted in all circles.
The chief motto in Testimony in Israel is: earth and work, instead of purposeless businessrather learning Torah systematically and worldly knowledge with an order. Like an expert pedagogue who knows his students, so he understood how to transform all the sources of value in Jewish scholarship into a bridle in the general world, to place them back in real-life foundations. To draw in the reader, heas regards livelihood through artisanry and agriculturehighlighted a tremendous amount of thinking from the Talmud and commentaries along with the names of sages who were employed in all kinds of artisanry. The axis of all this was the idea that appealed to mind and feelings that whoever does not teach his child a trade, it is the same as if he had taught him to be a thief. Further, as for knowing and understanding what one learns, one must know proper Hebrew, the language of that study, the proper construction from its roots, and the translation. All this was unacceptable in the world of the very religious. He took as witness the authority of those Jews, the villages of Yair, and showed on page 116 where anyone can be convinced of his basic truth.
Even as RYBL wrote Testimony in Israel, he already had in mind the memorandum to the government about opening Jewish schools and giving land to Jews. His thought process was not fair in the empty space. He had before him the vision of the Edict of 1808, when for the first time the authorities gave Jews the right to be employed in all kinds of work and to study in their own schools. He also knew well Jewish economic distress and oppression by majority populations, and their cultural poverty. In that was rooted his father's inherited character, who used to say about a plagued Jew, Better not to be born than to have such a life. He appealed to the Jews after he demonstrated the respectability of work for them: Why should we not follow in our forefathers' steps, to work the land; why have we neglected that very work, distanced ourselves from it, why today there are there no land-workers among us, no vineyard workers or winemakers? (pp. 157159).
But he was not a scolder. He showed the reader that they had turned away from that work not because of poor intent (op. cit. 165), and he reinforced for them the respectability of work, advising also that the great chiefs of armies and kings in ancient times were farmers and shepherds, as it is also advised in Homer's Iliad (p. 167).
With those words, he presumedly wanted to tear up the purely psychological, implanted, morbid characteristic among Jews, particularly those in the scholarly world, to look upon labor with scorn.
He apparently felt the fiery breath of the coming era for Jews very strongly, and he wanted to quickly realize Testimony in Israel in the living world. At the beginning of 1827, the cantonist decree was introduced, which destroyed Jewish families through the conversion of children by stealing them away for all of 25 years of military service. From the other side, he recognized the possibility of saving the situation by changing over to agriculture. So he wanted his work to be published more quickly. And that year, he did necessarily turn to the government for help in publishing Testimony in Israel. He did not have any success at that time. Just so, the Warsaw Jewish Committee did not properly understand or respond to his request properly. Therefore, he had to have the work printed at his own expense, and it was published in 1828.
RYBL himself wrote that he had conceived the work dedicated to Jewish destiny at a very early age. He used more than 200 books and holy volumes, besides the entire Talmud and other Jewish sources, in creating Testimony in Israel. Already in 1824, he had turned to the Jewish world about preordering the book in advance [of publication]. But a very small number responded, in particular some of his admirers. The list of such subscribers was published in the 1828 issue. Here are the towns and the number of subscribers in each: Brody68; Vilna62; Kremenets32; Tarnopol, through Y. Perl20; Berdichev22; Odessa16; Kurland14; Mogilev (Dnieper)13; Radzivilov10; Kovel6; Zaslav6; Lutsk5; Riga21; Brisk (Brest-Litovsk)10; Khmelnik5; Dubno5; Nemirov5; Poltava4; and Warsaw2. That, apparently, forced him to turn to Vice Education Minister Admiral A. S. Shishkov in 1827. The latter turned over the request, along with the manuscript, to one of his assistantsconvertsZandberg (the other was Podel) for his reaction. Zandberg recommended the work. And later Czar Nikolas scrawled the word agreed on it to allocate 1,000 rubles for RYBL.
Shmuel Yosef Fuenn, in Each Generation and Its Demands [Dor Dor veDorshiv], wrote that every word was a revelation to me.
M. Strashun from Vilna wrote, It opened my eyes; the director of the Kremenets Lyceum, Professor Levitski, wrote to him that after translation into Polish, the work would be read with great interest by everyone in the Lyceum. The work was also accepted with enthusiasm in Petersburg. At that time, Czar Nikolas allocated 1,000 rubles to RYBL and thanked him in his own hand.
RYBL had been known in government spheres earlier. In 1821, he had sent a memorandum to Prince Konstantin Pavlovich about opening schools and a seminary for Jewish children. But this time, his prestige became much greater. Also, Jews from various parts of the country were drawn to him with requests for him to help prevail in getting land. In Kremenets itself, 52 families wrote to him. The sick, broken Jew became transformed into a central institution, the spokesperson for Jews to the authorities. Apparently the saying eyner iz keyner [one is no one] was not valid here. He undertook to prevail on the government to distribute land to Jews. He then wrote, in 1834, a broad memorandum to the government about it and showed with it the free areas of land in the Novorossiya region.
And in 1838, a series of agricultural colonies for Jews was actually founded: Bricevo, Mărculești, Vertiujeni, and Valea lui Vlad, all in Bessarabia. Also in Crimea, in the Karasubazar region, a Jewish agricultural colony was established with the name Rogatluka. But it was destroyed during the Crimean War.
In 1842, at the czar's suggestion, Education Minister Uvarov called representatives of Jews by province to Petersburg with the goal of founding a committee to build a network of schools for Jewish children. RYBL's several memoranda and the concrete plan shown in House of Judah for this very work began to become a reality. The governor recommended RYBL for Volhynia. He was pelted with letters from friends in Petersburg that he should come. Another son of his town, Avraham Raykh, who was then in Petersburg, wrote to him that they were looking forward to seeing him there. Others wrote him with a complaint Who is more qualified than you yourself to take a place on such a committee, since it is work that you created. But RYBL could not physically manage to do it. For that same reason, he was forced, against his strong desire, not even to travel to Zhitomir. Avraham Ber Gotlober and Dr. Yitschak Erter wrote him inspiring letters. And the assigned instructor for building the schools, Dr. M. Lilienthal, wrote to RYBL from Odessa to promise that he would stop in Kremenets on his way to Brody especially to see him.
At the time, however, RYBL was engrossed in the large project Zrubavel and preoccupied with worry about his first two works. He wanted his two signature works to be published in a new, improved edition. In 1847 he turned to the education minister for help. Uvarov then told the Volhynia governor to give him a onetime payment of 50 rubles from the candle-tax monies. Some help came from Avraham Raykh, L. Mandelshtam, and Mordekhay Bernshteyn. He also had a little income, it seems, from lessons with Kremenets children, as he mentioned in his letter to A. S. Shishkov. He had a longer correspondence with the Education Ministry about presenting his two works to the higher schools to study. So he wrote in 1846 to the interior minister that in his 60 years of life, he had for more than 35 years donated his earnings to the community. He turned to him to help him further. After a long negotiation, 700 copies of Testimony in Israel and 800 copies of House of Judah were designated for distribution in Jewish institutions of learning.
He later wrote to R. Kulisher about those two books in 1855 on the first intermediate day of Sukkot. There he explained to him that the name Minister Emanuel Lipin, to whom he would dedicate the House of Judah, was invented. Thereby he advised him that he had made many improvements to the new edition of both works.
RYBL shone a special light on the decree of driving the Jews from their places [near the borders] to 50 viorsts into the interior of the country. His motive was the only one that was completely different from all the literature of that time. It had nothing to do with the conventional attitude that it was because of exploitation of the village peasants. Here is what he wrote in Testimony in Israel on page 177:
Why are they now driving all the Jews who live in villages within 50 viorsts of the borders further inland, while others, non-Jews, who have resided a long time in the country, are not driven away? Why? He emphasizes again, Is it perhaps due to religious hatred? That, he answers, is certainly not it. Is it perhaps plain malice? Heaven forbid, he exclaims, and explains that it is because of the crime people commit of not paying taxes, by which he means nouveau riche, as they were known. He alludes to smuggling across the border, [thus] adding the word hidden behind the word taxes. Yet others, non-Jews, he writes, also do this. So he explains why only the Jews are being thrown out: because, he writes, among the others, merchants are the only well-to-do ones, while the majority lives from labor, while among Jews it is the opposite, so as a result the sin falls only on Jewish heads.
With that he points to his idea that one must leave impure businesses and busy oneself with work; to live a modest mode of life. Although about modesty, he was beside himself in a private letter to Ben Yakov of Vilna, in 1856, who had written about the disputes between teachers and the population. In his answer RYBL wrote, among other things, that the rabbis must restrain the Jews from dressing up in silk clothes and in luxuries by wearing pearls and gold items and traveling in carriages. The greatest pauper dresses his daughter like the richest man.
One must really wonder how the sick man, locked in an attic apartment, cut off from the entire environment, had an eye on every corner of Jewish life and directed everything. And without complaints or excuses, but with the words of an enlightener, a teacher.
We can see here very clearly the direction of RYBL's thought process, as it is based on a Jewish life, on a traditional ethical custom: modesty, which is expressed in the saying for Jews, modesty is preferable in life.
It is an injustice on Y. Tsinberg's part to present RYBL as ostensibly a glorifier of Enlightenment absolutism, even under suspicion of kowtowing to the despot Nikolas I as if he were kind to Jews. Rather, his position, as already mentioned in regard to the honor of the Jewish community, is to give honor even to the rabbi as to no one; according to his explanation, he showed, when he did not reckon with Nikolas, who ordered the printing in Hebrew and Russian of a brochure by a convert, Vitebsk resident Asher Temkin, titled Paved Road [Derekh Selulah]. RYBL tore the brochure apart with acuity in his responding brochure, Righteous Right [Yamin Tsedki]. He would not allow any stain to fall on Jewish honor. His method was no more that of the pedagogical enlightener. One is no more than a humanhis father's position, as RYBL described him, was also in the son's blood.
Paved Road, made official through Nikolas's name, called for conversion. It was distributed free of charge in both languages. It brought Rector Christopher from the Kremenets priests' seminary, who was later an archbishop in Petersburg, to RYBL. When he gave him the brochure, he emphasized that he should read it earnestly and open-heartedly, without expressing his opinion.
On the travesty and call to convert that had found favor with Nikolas, RYBL, in 102 pages of Righteous Right, made the convert turn around. A sea of historical proofs, beginning with Herminius, the first translator of the Bible into Latin, up to the recent scholars of his generation, RYBL smashed all the ostensible arguments of the apostate out of spite, who is open to spreading hatred for Jews among the Christian population.
We see, then, that RYBL was not even afraid of the name of a despot czar, Nikolas, on a malicious brochure.
Russia at that time was flooded with various kinds of missionaries, long since Alexander I's era. Righteous Right was consequently if indirectly a strong barrier to conversion in all forms of expression, as well as against assimilation, which could be carried over from the German Enlighteners to the those then emerging in Russia.
He fought very hard against screaming injustice. One can see this from his Topsy-Turvy World, where he cried out over the acts of deception that Nikolas's recruitment had brought about in the Jewish environment.
Woe, who is strong enough to recount the malice they did to the recruits! A wealthy Jewish house would be divided into several households with one only son, in order to free him from recruitment, and a poor family paired up like one large family with a second, so that as with an only son he would be protected from being taken as a recruit. If a wealthy man had several children, they would sign over a child from a poor family into the wealthy family, and the child would redeem the wealthy child from recruitment.
This was made ‘kosher’ by taking evidence for the decree. They gathered 12 poor boys from elementary cheder teachers who had sworn in synagogue with a Torah scroll in hand that the poor man and the rich man were from the same family, and that the poor boy was really 12 years old, as the decree required. Furthermore, if a poor man's son was older than 24 and thus free from the decree, they made him younger. The ‘snatchers’ were showered with money. Nothing helped, not the crying of little children and not the wailing of their mothers, who were crying out to the heavens. People fainted dead away.
We see how horrified RYBL was by the demoralization around Nikolas's favor for equal rights for the Jews, with which the few Enlighteners were delighted. It was therefore no surprise that the sick, broken Jew proposed saving the Jewish situation with ceaseless memoranda, to arrange for land in the Kherson region. We see it in his specific correspondence with the Kiev ruler of three provinces, General Levashov, on arranging the registration of Kremenets families, and his special memorandum in 1834 directly to the government. And his word had influence there. He had received such an answer, as he writes, from Minister Bludov's secretary.
RYBL's position on coercion to change Jewish dress was mentioned earlier. Here too the enlighteners, including the historian Sh. Y. Fin, held that as a good thing. Fin wrote: Our dress is like a wall between Jews and Christians. It is against the will of powers that be, who love all their citizens with a great love. RYBL, however, took good care of Jewish honor, as is demonstrated in his dignified answer to Uvarov about the matter.
Although his position in the czarist court weakened after his revolt against the government while sharply disputing the mentioned brochure Paved Road, his dignified conduct for his truth likely had a different effect than the Enlighteners' voluntary submissiveness.
Also, the suspicion of some that RYBL had some indirect influence in the painful question of liquidating Jewish printing shops was refuted by his acts. RYBL could not wave away the turmoil about that among the Jews, except for a few fanatical Enlighteners who simply hated the printing of Hasidic mystical stories. That unrest among Jews came to his attention. From Dubno, they appealed with a disturbed tone for him to intervene as their representative with the government. From their wording, one can see that the Jews were afraid even to express their words on paper. They said in the letter that the special messenger would explain everything. Also, the Lutsk community turned to him through Yitschak Lando and Issakher Ber Rezenblum.
He knocked on every door about this question, to the Kiev military chief, the governor of Podolia, and Volhynia General Graf Levatov. One must keep in mind the ill-willed energies rallied against Jews at that time. From one side was conversion through Nikolas's recruitment, and from the other was the tendency of the rising Enlightenment that grasped at the government's supposed love of the Jews. If only the Jews would humanize themselvesthe Enlighteners themselves did not spare any words to the censor Tugendraykhto put an end to the Jewish printing presses that spread such foolishness in Hasidic booklets. Around that time, the Karaite Avraham Firkovich also published a brochure Tribute and Strife, in which he mocked the oral tradition in Torah. RYBL was not silent about that either and, to the belligerent name of that brochure, he responded with the cutting name The Scribe's Razor [Taar Hasofer]. That brochure was translated into Russian by F. Berezki in Odessa.
Thus RYBL's tactics were clear through his reworking of a whole roster of literature circulating in Jewish life. In that way, he rescued the Jewish word by stopping the attacks on Jewish presses.
We have already demonstrated how RYBL had a positive attitude toward the doctrine of Hasidism itself. It could not be otherwise. While he was still a child, he wrote, as mentioned, a kind of Kabbalistic composition, Sheer Piety Is the Daughter of the Waters. He was very prejudiced against the wild growth that debased the doctrine itself and held up the [Hasidic] multitude for ridicule in the eyes of society.
He wrote with sarcasm about those Hasidim. He could not bear the ecstatic expressions of a jungle-like character that marked the new kind of person, the new type of rabbi. It thereby drugged the simple person into blind belief and oppressed him socially. The fate of the multitude pained him: Day in, day out, I hear the sighs of the poor folk who have been oppressed by their provider .… This was the chief motive for his sharp retort to the wild and sovereign cult of Jews against the poor masses. This placed the true path in life before them.
The Galician Enlightener and wealthy Jew Yosef Perl, who was supposed to print RYBL's satire on just that type of Hasidism by the name Secret Revealed [Megilah Sud], wondered in his 5593 [1833-1834] letter to RYBL why the dialog between two Hasidim in a little prayer room was not conducted in Hebrew, because the publisher of a work in the Hasidic language cannot deliver it. The censor did not allow it to go to press because he did not understand the Hasidic language in which the whole flavor of the satire lay.
RYBL's deeper look into all corners and keyholes of Jewish life in his time, as we see, was a very deep look into the development process of Jewish life. He saw current problems under the new tendencies that were already fermenting in the background of the general population, in particular when Alexander II took the throne prepared to take positions in life, demanding a healthy sense, a far-looking eye, and a clear idea of how to steer the wheel of a renewed life.
Russia in general was then off on a side road, between a decrepit primitiveness and a sprouting free capitalism. Western culture was knocking at every corner among the rising intelligentsia. Both German and French culture struck deep roots there, in the general political orientation, and especially in the cultural-intellectual. Then the danger of widespread Jewish assimilation could arise. It therefore demanded a watchful eye, a basic clear word, for the esteem of the Jewish cultural accumulations of the generations.
If House of Judah strengthened Jewish cultural values by transposing them into a broad secular cultural aspect, Testimony in Israel brought into the Jewish sphere an overall orientation for economic correction through the dignity of physical work. Agriculture and handwork would have to take the place of the accustomed tavern-keeping and peddling over the countryside.
Also rooted in Testimony in Israel were, indirectly, concepts of Jewish equal justice. It stimulated the idea of Pinsker's Auto Emancipation at the end of the 19th century. In his memoranda to Petersburg and in his work, RYBL always brought out the liberal political inclination of Western countries. As a robust and expert tactician, he manages to point out, even if only with an allusion, the political movement inside his own country. At least he knew it well. He still knew Prince Gallitsin, who had warmly recommended RYBL to the czarist court. Gallitsin had already thought of general constitutional forms for a new Russia. One may also surmise from his citing the very old saying From Kiev we received the Torah and God's word from Starodov, that he certainly had in mind the liberty movement in Kiev, led by the well-known fighter Pavel Pestel. Indeed, the year 1825 was an epochal challenge for a liberated Russia for the masses.
Thus he operated with concepts from the new spirit, but with caution, for a push to Western Europe. He wrote, There are new governments arising with humanitarian desires. European peoples proceed with love for humanity, without differentiating nationality and religion.
Testimony in Israel can still be a guide for Jewish life today, in synthesizing the guidelines of synagogue and education, in a broadening of oneself that can join Jewish thought with progressive-secular thought, in the detail of cleaning out the cult of trustees and the priestly caste from Jewish life.
This effect is characteristic in the point that he reached in the community activist elements. One, Eliezer Lipman from Vitebsk, who had turned to him about a personal matter, in 5612 (1852) presented it this way: Already at age 25 I was elected to the Jewish community council in my town, and I did not kowtow to the rich people; I helped and supported the poor people as much as I was able.
One of the main virtues of RYBL's creativity is his exhausting of every topic he took up, to its end. In his work, one very often encounters his calling up of the same question he has dealt with in another work. That is because, though he always completed his thoughts relative to a new treatment of the problem, he always looked for the general relationship of the Jewish problematic in its contradiction. This especially comes to expression in the work Zrubavel. After Achiya the Shilonite, The Scribe's Razor, and Bloodlessall three treatises that govern Jewish faith, Jewish Talmudic thought, Jewish lifestylethey required a logical and systematic order, so everything was formulated in Zrubavel.
In the introduction to the second edition of House of Judah, written in 1858, RYBL himself designated Zrubavel as the third part of House of Judah.
When he submitted that particular work, he apparently did not receive an intellectual opinion from his friend Aharon Raykh. This can be seen in RYBL's letter to him. He wrote him that he was probably not familiar with Right Justice. Buthe explains to him thereI do this work with my entire soul. This is the crystal-clear sign of the personality that Jews called rabbi. In the attacks, he literally had a fever through his soul that overshadowed the Jewish faith [dat] that is woven into lucid understanding [data]. He did not want to come up with a short polemical answer, but wanted to crystallize his thought on the basis of a historic-scientific analysis of various sources. That is Zrubavel. It is literally a handbook, even today, and in particular for the new type of Jewish modernist leaders among Jews.
But he reacted that way not only for appearances' sake for the non-Jewish world, but also for Jews of that sort. So we see RYBL in a critical work, RYBL's Pouch [Yalkut RYBL], where he led the author of Torah and Philosophy, Yitschak Shmuel Reggio, by the hand. And here, with regard to these lines, he turns to a tone of justification for coming out with his critical work. But inside, in the text, he shatters Reggio and shows him to be naked of knowledge, a plagiarist, and someone with too small a mind to understand what he reads. If he was known for his sharpness in Topsy-Turvy World, where he looked his own Jewish realm in the face, he was even more sharp when he went after Reggio. Like a surgeon, he cut into every page of his work. He even demonstrated to him that he had not understood the meaning of the words in the commentary he referred to.
Reggio, an Italian, had exhibited his vision of what equal rights for Jews would look like, in the form of an ostensible question: How, Reggio asked, should we conduct ourselves; should we relinquish our observance of the commandments to enjoy material favors, because if not, how can we accept such things (equal rights) from the state, which we cannot carry out? RYBL called his sharp critique Yehoshafat, which is very sympathetic.
By the way, Reggio's orientation was later brought forward by the famous Bruno Bauer, whom Karl Marx questioned in a sharp contribution to the debate (see Tsur Ideologia, vol. 2, Leipzig, 1931). RYBL, incidentally, hinted at Reggio kindly in one of his replies to the mentioned Old Paths by the London-based McCaul (by the way, RYBL wrote that McCaul was a convert born into the Jewish faith). He explained to Reggio that he had already questioned that person's meaning in Zrubavel.
In Zrubavel there is also an indirect indication, even before today, that one cannot buy into the local peoples' heritage just by denying oneself. It also vividly expresses the difference between RYBL's approach and Mendelssohn's, both in his thought process and in the strength of his effect, which can still to this day be applied in Jewish life against assimilation and the self-destruction of one's own culture.
In these three basic worksHouse of Judah, Testimony in Israel, and Zrubaveltake note of a special tendency in the style of his creation, which is to bring the Jewish mind out of its typical Oriental character to think speculatively. He has transported the Jewish mind on rails of investigative thinking. He has shown the Jews that one must investigate the reasons for manifestations to be able to take life's fate into one's own hands. He has explained to the Jews, as to people in general, the planetary sense of work that can relieve a person to be free from outside pressure. As long as God's spirit has floated overhead, there has been no sign from the world. It demanded action that would bring daylight in order to grasp the meaning of matter, of the earth for all of living creation.
The Holy-Language Hebraizer
On the surface, his negative approach to the language that the people spoke might seem paradoxical. Not only the simple but also the scholarly Jew, especially in the Hasidic world, spoke Yiddish. And RYBL had a deep feeling for language, for style and for form. He always called the language not Hebrew but the holy language. He was very fastidious about the accuracy of the language's origins. He drew the whole psychic origin of the spiritual proof of the people from the moral expressed in the language of the Bible, which only the great spirits possess within themselves. Even, he writes, when people spoke that language, they still had to have a commentary on the Bible for the ordinary masses. The thinking life-spirit, the whole life wisdom that bears its own Jewish stampRYBL could feel that in the language of the Bible. As for the fate of the language in its various incarnations after the destruction of the First Temple, it grew entirely foreign with new concepts of the times. One must possess a lot of knowledge, broad learning, great expertise in all the languages of the East; one must fathom the thoughts of each one who wrote the Bible in order for the interpretation to suit the words of the verse. After that it is relevant to say that they, the interpreters, are close to the truth, he wrote.
RYBL's approach to the matter of the holy language was not from a national-political view, but merely from a cultural-historical one, with a drop of the ethical values brought into the world by the language. In no literature, languageno matter which one it isdoes not have any holiness or unworthiness. The point of everything is the essence of that which is brought out in the writing.
As in his whole thematic of the Jewish process in history, he brings in the utility of day-to-day life; so is his view of the holy language. His goal was to clean up the ballast that had grown up around it over generations, which had actually crippled it. Because they had simply not understood the true meaning of the words, they brought into it concepts of the sort that one takes from the countries where one lives.
That led him to publish the work Lebanon's Roots [Shorshei Levanon], and as a continuation of Shem's Tents [Oheli Shem] and Chronology of Shem [Toldot Shem], a collection of words in the lineage that became full of errors in their roots through interpretation.
He wanted thereby to demonstrate that the holy language is the mother of all the Oriental languages: Arabic, Assyrian, Aramaic, Chaldean. The ancient Greeks used to call the Jews Chaldeans because they came from Chaldees. He oriented himself in his collection of words and analyzed them according to the doctrine of the Sages of France, such as Ben Saruq, Rashi, and others (see Chronology of Shem). My wish is to show that the roots of Arabic and Aramaic are located in our holy tongue, which is the firstborn. He collected them in Chronology of Israel [Toldot beYisrael] and methodically treated the development process of the holy language and thereby sets before us the treasures of thought brought out in the language. He thus shows a sense of the aesthetic in the word. He cleans up the crippling of the interpretation. It is from there that he takes his negative attitude toward the new folk language. Not in the way of the Enlightened Ones like Yitschak Erter, who considered the people's spoken language repulsive. That could not be for RYBL, simply because he had for many years earlier, before Lev Tolstoy, felt the heart's and mind's expression in language. Language is the pen of the heart; the light of human wisdom is revealed in its spoken word. No longer could he aesthetically tolerate today's new spoken language, because it was full of all kinds of foreign words. The language we speak today in this land, which grew out of German and which we call Yiddish taytsh [explication] is thoroughly crippled; it is a mix of Hebrew, Russian, French, Polish and others. We see clearly here only the aesthetic sense in his approach to language. By the way, here he uses Hebrew, not holy language, which is usually his expression. Hebrewmeaning dear Yiddish. That is what Jews called the first step to learning Yiddish letters, namely, a splinter of Hebrew.
Like a faithful protector of the sanctity of the word, the holy-language word from the Bible, he himself wrote his works in a certain style, but with a light expression in which someone else followed him, namely Ahad Ha'am. RYBL was the first to Hebraicize the holy language without mixing in new localisms.
Chronology of Shem, the second part of Lebanon's Roots, as Shem's Tents was the third, was published thanks to the material assistance of Sh. Poliakov and A. Varshavski, who gave special sums to the Petersburg Society of Educational Distributors for that aim, right after RYBL's death. While still alive, he had asked his Kiev friend Arye Leyb Mandelshtam to make an effort with his brother Binyamin in Vilna to turn over the manuscriptwhich he had held onto for more than half a year with no result (see RYBL's Letters, 6 Shevat 5612, 1852.)
In that detail, too, we see RYBL as the very opposite of Mendelssohn. He perceived the zest for life in Jewish particularity in language. For that reason, he wanted to see a refined perspective, so he devoted himself to teaching the Jewish scholar, as well as the Enlightener, to comprehend the concept of soul, the heart's pen, within the language and not exchange it for the local language. Just so, inside the Jewish religious world he aimed at a cultural foundation to promote the idea that knowing the language, teaching its grammar, and understanding the true explication and sense of the world meant elevating respect for the holy language and not distracting from it with a crazy, wild notion that it is un-kosher to teach grammar.
RYBL had a very elevated concept of the sound of a word, not like M. Mendelssohn, who wrote that this Yiddish was a crippled, gibberish language.
From time to time, he would put forward a thought in place of aphorisms in the style of a poem with a measured rhythm. He wrote a whole treatise on a word in a poem and says that he had no idea that his written poems would be printed. He was made to understand otherwise by a friend. One in a thousand, two in ten thousand, are blessed with such a gift for poetry. He emphasized that one must know the language in all its vibrations, the logic of its sentence structure. [Page 213]
He invoked Voltaire, who had said that it is enough for a person's whole life to be thoroughly permeated even with his own language, which he had absorbed with his mother's milk. Why do a lot of Jewish people write in the holy language, which is not even a spoken language! By my life, it is foolishness and a great disservice.
That is where the true motive for his opposition to the Yiddish language lies. One must remember the situation of the spoken language at that time, when the mix of foreign words in the people's mouth was crippling.
While one recognizes RYBL's own personality and its effect on the changing Jewish life up to our own times, one must also apply the interior and exterior environments that dominated a 150 years ago. Just then, RYBL shone, like a guide for a historical challenge.
At the time, there was no sign of organization in Jewish life. The community had completely lost any trace of its onetime function. Along with the liquidation of the Council of Four Lands, the promise of moral responsibility for the Jewish fate had vanished, too. Squeezed between two competing and hateful powers: one side was a lost, impoverished empire after the Third Partition of Poland, the former feudal Polish prince who had lived only on Jewish energy and agility in trading everything that the prince had gotten from his slaves' free labor on the broad market. That Jewish function was shredded when that same prince reoriented himself and became the trader for his estates; and on the other side was the disoriented czarist reign over the type of creature that is called Jew, for which they invented all kinds of ruses for how to swallow him up. Those factors, which had an antagonistic effect on Jewish life, demanded a special talent to perceive and immerse oneself in the problematic in order to provide an answer to it. Such an immense and substantial problem demanded not only organized, communitywide energy of a literally governmental scope, but also a penetrating look at how to direct Jewish life economically, administratively, politically, educationally, intellectually, and culturally.
Then that drew the large Jewish masses to flow from two mighty streams and strive to become national. For the Enlightened elements who were drawn to the strange light, the only remedy for the plague, the national ill, was voluntary assimilation. Furthermore, the oppression of the masses needed to be able to sustain the pressure of all kinds of decrees from the czarist authorities, which enticed the masses with supposed concern to provide them with land but really meant forced assimilation.
One of those who understood these signs of disaster was RYBL. Driven by the impetus of Jewish eternity and worthiness, laden with worldly information and knowledge, he tirelessly risked being in every dangerous position as a real guide to the way to improve the Jewish situation. He was the first to formulate the minimum program for the reorientation of life, both economically and culturally, thus at the same time protecting Jewish cultural historic treasures.
That great historic, colossally significant service was raised so high by RYBL that it pounded on the doors of the government in Petersburg in full earnestness. People listened to his sincere words. If the wealthy philanthropist Moshe Montefiore was able to gain the favor of the English crown, earn a knighthood by the Jewish masses for a respite in a time of trouble, then RYBL truly bought a piece in the world to come in Jewish historical life.
In almost all areas of the rising modern Jewish directions among us in the past 80 years, there is everywhere a bit of intellectual property from RYBL's visionary new school of thought in the furtherance of the life process for Jews to this day.
RYBL's works are: Testimony in Israel [Teuda BeYisrael], House of Judah [Bet Yehuda], Zrubavel, Righteous Right [Yamin Tsedki], Lebanon's Roots [Shorshei Levanon], Chronology of Shem [Toldot Shem], Shem's Tents [Oheli Shem], Beer Yitschak, Jezreel [Yizrael], Soaring Scroll [Megilat Eyfo], Open Seal [Ptuchei Chotam], RYBL's Fruits [Bikurey RYBL], The Author's Scholarly Collection [Eshkol HaSofer], Book of Words [Sefer Hamilim], Topsy-Turvy World [Hefker Velt], Filling Stones [Avnei Miluim]an addition to the Bible; Ghost Valley [Emek Refaim]a satire about fanatics.
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