Haskalah in Russia and Galicia

The development and expansion of the Jewish Enlightenment.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Krochmal and Rapoport Carry the Torch in Galicia

From Germany the Haskalah spread to Galicia [a region of Southwest Poland that was annexed to Austria in 1795] and later to Russia. In these countries the Jews were far more deeply immersed in the traditional Jewish learning and far more ob­servant of Jewish practices than their German co-religionists, and had little reason to feel culturally inferior to their Polish or Russian neighbours.

 

Nevertheless, the Haskalah ideal proved extremely attractive to a number of thoughtful Jews in the Galician towns of Lemberg and Brody. Nahman Krochmal, the foremost exponent of Haskalah ideas, was born in Brody in 1785, a year after the death of Mendelssohn, but lived for most of his life in Zolkiew, where, like Mendelssohn in Berlin but less overtly, he gathered around him a small group of young “seekers of light.” Krochmal was also a pioneer of the Judische Wissenschaft [Science of Judaism] movement, the movement in which Jewish history was studied not as mere chronology but as a discipline pursued by the critical method developed in modern studies. Krochmal's Guide for the Perplexed of Our Time is an interpreta­tion of Judaism in philosophical and rationalis­tic terms.

Another historian in the critical vein in Galicia was Solomon Judah Rapoport, whose biographical studies of the luminaries of the past display the keenest scholarly acumen. Both Krochmal and Rapoport were strictly observant Jews. Rapaport served, in fact, as a traditional Rabbi in Tarnopol and Krochmal as the head of the Jewish community in Zolkiew. The special foe of the Galician Haskalah was Hasidism, against which the maskilim Isaac Erter and Joseph Pert published works of satire. The Hasidim retaliated by dubbing the maskilim heretics and free‑thinkers whose sole aim was to cast off the yoke of the Torah and the precepts.

In Lithuania and Russia, Jewish Culture Was the Focus

As in Galicia, the Haskalah in Russia took root in a very learned and traditional Jewish society. Especially in sober, rationalistic Lithua­nia, with its great tradition of Talmudic learn­ing, the Haskalah was attractive to many in that it opened up exciting new intellectual vistas, but the Lithuanian Jews saw nothing anti-­intellectual in the traditional scheme of studies. On the contrary, the profound study of the Talmud provided ample stimulus of the mind and had the advantage of being a sublime religious activity, which could be supplemented but not superseded by the Haskalah. Thus the Lithuanian Haskalah was much more a move­ment within Judaism than the Berlin version of the movement.

Although the early Russian maskilim saw signs that the Czarist govern­ment might eventually grant Jews equal rights and their strivings were directed to the achieve­ment of this aim, disillusionment soon set in and the maskilim themselves became increas­ingly suspected of being no more than lackeys of the Russian government whose real intention was to persuade Jews to adopt Christianity. The result was a greater emphasis on Hebrew; and to some extent Yiddish, too, far from being scorned as in the Berlin Haskalah as an uncouth jargon, was welcomed as a truly “Jewish” lan­guage. Final disillusionment with the Haskalah's confidence in the Russian government set in with the Russian pogroms in 1881‑2. The thrust of the Haskalah became even more Jew­ishly pronounced with an emphasis on Zion­ism as the solution to the problem of the Jew in a hostile environment.

Max Lilienthal (1815‑82), believing the Czarist government to be serious in wishing to grant equal rights to the Jews if only they would abandon their outlandish ways, devoted much effort to spreading the ideas of Haskalahin public meetings and discussions, but he eventually felt that he was being used by the Russians and left for the United States. An­other leading figure in the Russian Haskalah was Isaac Baer Levinson (1788-1860), the “Russian Mendelssohn” as he was called. Levinson’s Te'udah BeYisrael (Testimony in Israel) is an appeal for the Haskalah ideal based on passages in the writings of past sages who favored the pursuit of general knowledge and the learning of foreign languages in addition to the traditional scheme of studies.

The Russian maskilim published a number of journals with revealing titles such as Hamelitz (The Defender) and Hashahar (The Daybreak) to which gifted Hebraists contributed essays and new items of what was going on in the Jewish world. Seminaries were established by the maskilim with governmental approval in Vilna and Zhitomir for the training of modern rabbis, in which aim they met with scanty success. The novels of Abraham Mapu and the poems of Judah Lieb Gordon exercised powerful influence on Hebrew readers. In this way the Haskalah idea gathered momentum throughout Russia. Even at the great Yeshiva of Volhozhyn, the fortress of traditional Talmudism, it was far from unknown for the students to read surreptitiously the “little books” of the Haskalah. It has been noted that in the great Vilna publishing house of Romm, authors could be seen reading proofs of their works in the traditional mode side by side with the authors of Haskalah works.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.