CHAPTER IV. IN LITHUANIA
HUMANISM IN RUSSIA
We are in the Jewish country, perhaps the only Jewish country in the world. [Footnote: See Slouschz, Massa' be-Lita (“Journey through Lithuania"), Jerusalem, 1899.]
The last to participate in the intellectual movement of European Judaism, the Lithuanian Jews start into view, in the second half of the seventeenth century, as a peculiar social organism, clearly marked as such from its first appearance. The Rabbis and scholars of Lithuania acquired fame without a struggle, and its Rabbinical schools quickly became the busy centres of Talmudic research.
The destinies of the Jewish population of Lithuania, so different in character from that of Poland proper, were ruled absolutely by the “Synod of the Four Countries", with Brest, and afterwards Wilna, as headquarters.
The revolutions and upheavals to which is due the social and religious decadence of the Polish Jews during the eighteenth century, barely touched this forsaken corner of the earth. Even the Cossack invasion dealt leniently with Lithuania, if the city of Wilna is excepted, and its early annexation by Russia saved the province from the anarchy and excitement which agitated Poland during its latter days.
Left to their fate, neglected by the authorities, and forming almost the whole of the urban population, the Jews of Lithuania, in the full glare of the eighteenth century, were in all essentials an autonomous community with Jewish national and theocratic features. The Talmud did service as their civil and religious code. The court of final appeal was a Rabbinical expert, supported by the central synod and the localKahal, and exercising absolute authority over the moral and material interests of those subordinated to his jurisdiction. The study of the Law was carried to the extreme of devotion. To have an illiterate, an 'Am ha-Arez, a “rustic", in one's family, was considered a pitiable fate.
Lithuania, in fine, was the promised land of Rabbinism, in which everything favored the development of a national Jewish centre.
The natural poverty of the country, its barren soil, dense forests, and lack of populous centres of civilization, all tended to keep the Polish lords aloof. Poland offered them a more inviting sojourn. There was nothing to hinder the pious scholars who had escaped from religious persecution in the countries of Europe, especially France and Germany, from devoting themselves, with all their heart and energy, to the study of the Talmud and the ceremonials of their religion. No infusion of aliens disturbed them. The inhospitable skies, the absence of diversions, little troubled the refugees of the ghetto, for whom the Book and the dead letter were all-sufficing. They were not affected, their dignity was hardly wounded, by the haughty and arbitrary treatment which the nobleman accorded to the Jewish “factor” and steward, and by the many humiliations which were the price paid in return for the right to live, for without the protection of the lords they would not have been able to hold out against the wretched orthodox peasants. In morality and in race, however, they considered themselves the superior of the “Poriz", the Polish nobleman, with his extravagance and folly.
In the villages, the Jews had the upper hand, either as the actual owners of the estates, or as the overseers, and in the rude cities with their wooden buildings, they constituted the bulk of the merchants, the middlemen, the artisans, even the workmen. They all led a sordid life. Mere existence required a bitter struggle. Destitute of all pleasures save the intimate joys of family life, fostering no ambition except such as was connected with the study of the Law, disciplined by religious authority, and chastened by austere and rigid principles of morality, the Jewish masses had a peculiar stamp impressed upon their character by their life of subjection and misery. The mind was constantly kept alert by the dialectics of the Talmud and the ingenious efforts needed to secure one's daily bread. Even the Messianic dreams, inspired by a belief in Divine justice and in the moral and religious superiority of Israel, rather than by a mystic conception of life, gave but a faint touch of beauty and glamour to an existence so mournful, so abjectly sad.
Such was, and such in part is still, the manner in which they live—a sober, energetic, melancholy, and subtle people, the mass of the two millions of Jews who reside in Lithuania and White Russia, and send forth, to the great capitals of Europe and to the countries beyond seas, a stream of industrious immigrants, resourceful intellectually and morally.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, thanks to the peace with which Lithuania was blessed after its subjection by Russia, Rabbinical studies reached their zenith. The high schools, the Yeshibot, became the centres of attraction for the best of the young men. The number of writers and scholars increased considerably, and the Hebrew printing presses were kept in full blast. The ideal of every Lithuanian Jew was, if not to marry his daughter to a scholar, at least to have a Bahur at his table, a student of the Talmud, a prospective Rabbi. “The Torah is the best Sehorah“ (“merchandise"), every Lithuanian mother croons at the cradle of her child.
In those days a Rabbinic authority arose like unto whom none had been known among Jews in the later centuries, and his earnest, independent genius, as well as his moral grandeur, conferred a consecration upon the peculiar spiritual tendencies prevailing in Lithuanian Judaism, which he personified at its loftiest. Elijah of Wilna, surnamed “the Gaon", “his Excellency", succeeded in resisting the assaults of Hasidism, which threatened to overwhelm, if not the learned among them, certainly the Lithuanian masses. To parry the dangers of mysticism, which exercised so powerful an attraction that the dry and subtle casuistry of Rabbinic learning could not damp its ardor, he broke with scholastic methods, and took up a comparatively rational interpretation of texts and the laws. He went to the extreme of asserting the value of profane and practical knowledge, the pursuit of which could not but bring advantage to the study of the Law—a position unheard of at his day, and excusable only in so popular a man as he was. He himself wrote a treatise on mathematics, and philologic research was a favorite occupation with him. His pupils followed his example; they translated several scientific works into Hebrew, and founded schools and centres of puritanism, not only in Lithuania, but also as far away as Palestine. From this time on the Yeshibah of Wolosin became the chief seat of traditional Talmud study and Rabbinic rationalism.
One of the contemporaries of “the Gaon” was the physician Judah Hurwitz, of Wilna, who opposed Hasidism in his pamphlet Megillat Sedarim (“A Book of Essays"), and in his ethical work Ammude Bet-Yehudah (“The Pillars of the House of Judah “, Prague, 1793), he pleads the cause of internationalism and the equality of men and races!
It would be rash to suppose that an echo of the studies of the Encyclopedists had reached a province double-barred and double-locked by politics and religion. The European languages were unknown in the Lithuanian Jewries of the Gaon's day, and his pupils sought their mental pabulum in the writings of the Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages, Maimonides, and Albo, and their compeers. The result was an odd, whimsical science. False, antiquated notions and theories were introduced through the medium of the Hebrew, and they attained no slight vogue. At the end of the eighteenth century, a certain Elias, a Rabbi, also of Wilna, undertook to gather all the facts of science into one collection. He compiled a curious encyclopedia, the Sefer ha-Berit (“The Book of the Covenant"). By the side of geographic details of the most fantastic sort, he set down chemical discoveries and physical laws in the form of magical formulas. This book, by no means the only one of its kind, was reprinted many a time, and in our own day it still affords delight to orthodox readers.
A long time passed before the Russian government took note of the intellectual condition of its Jewish subjects, who, in turn, asked nothing better than to be left undisturbed. Nevertheless, the treatment accorded them by the government was not calculated to inspire them with great confidence in it. As for a Russification of the Jewish masses, there could be no question of that, at a time when Russian civilization and language were themselves in an embryonic state.
It was only when the first Alexander came to the throne that the reforms planned by the government began to make an impression upon the distant ghetto. A special commission was instituted for the purpose of studying the conditions under which the Jews were living, and how to ameliorate them materially and intellectually. The first close contact between Jews and Russians took place in the little town of Shklow, inhabited almost entirely by Jews. It was an important station on the route from the capital to Western Europe, and the Jews were afforded an opportunity of entering into relations with men of mark, both Russians and strangers, who passed through on their way to St. Petersburg. [Footnote: As early as 1780 a Hebrew ode was published on the occasion of Empress Catherine II's passing through Shklow. A printing press was set up there about 1777, and it was at Shklow that a litterateur, N. H. Schulmann, made the first attempt to found a weekly political journal in Hebrew, announcing it in his edition of theZeker Rab.] A circle of literary men under the influence of the Meassefim was founded there, and a curious literary document issued thence testifies to the hopes aroused by the reform projects planned in the reign of Alexander I for the improvement of the condition of the Jews. It is a pamphlet bearing the title Kol Shaw'at Bat-Yehudah, or Sinat ha-Dat (“The Loud Voice of the Daughter of Judah", or “Religious Hatred"), and published, in Shklow in 1803, in Hebrew and Russian. The author, whose name was Löb Nevakhovich, protests energetically, in behalf of truth and humanity, against the contemptuous treatment accorded the Jews. [Footnote: Grandfather of the well-known scholar E. Metchnikoff, of the Pasteur Institute.]
“Ah, ye Christians, men of the newer faith, who vaunt your mercy
and lovingkindness! Exercise your mercy upon us, turn your loving
hearts toward us. Why do you scorn the Jew? If he forsakes his
faith, how doth it profit you? Have you not heard the voice of
Moses Mendelssohn, the celebrated writer of our people, who asked
your co-religionists, 'Of what avail that you should continue to
attach men lacking faith and religion to yourselves'? Can you
not understand that the Jew, too, loves righteousness and justice
like unto yourselves? Why do you constantly scrutinize the
man to find the Jew in him? Seek but the man in the
Jew, and you will surely find him!”
Like so many that have followed, this first appeal awakened no answering echo in Russian hearts. A century has passed since then, and Russia still fails to find the man in the unconverted Jew!
The hopes aroused in the Jews of Lithuania by the Napoleonic wars were disappointed. An iron hand held them down, and they continued to vegetate miserably in their gloomy, abandoned corner.
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The story goes that when Napoleon at the head of the grande armée entered Wilna, the exclamation was forced from him, “Why, this is the Jerusalem of Lithuania!” Whether the story is true or not, it is a fact that no other city was more deserving of the epithet. The residence of the Gaon was a Jewish metropolis as early as the eighteenth century, and during the whole of the nineteenth century Wilna was the Jewish city par excellence, a distinction to which it was helped by several facts—by the systematic and intentional elimination of the Polish element, especially since the insurrection of 1831, by the prohibition of the Polish language, the closing of the university, and the absence of a Lithuanian population. The dethroned capital of a people betrayed by its nobility became, after its abandonment by the native inhabitants, the centre of a Jewry independent of its surroundings and undisturbed in its internal development. Without in the least deviating from Rabbinic traditions, its constitutional platform, Jewish society in Wilna was gradually penetrated by modern ideas.
The humanism of the German Jews, the Haskalah, met with no effective resistance in a comparatively enlightened world, prepared for it by the school of the Gaon. The Rabbinical students themselves were the first representatives of humanism in Lithuania. They became as ambitious in cultivating the Hebrew language and studying the secular sciences presented in it, as in searching out and examining the Talmud. Sprung from the people, living its life and sharing in its miseries, separated from Christian society by a barrier of prescriptions that seemed insuperable to them, the earliest of the Lithuanian litterateurs vitalized their young love for science and Hebrew letters with the disinterested devotion that characterizes the idealists of the ghetto in general.
A literary circle, known as the “Berliners", was formed in Wilna, about 1830. It was the pattern after which a large number were modelled a little later, all of them pursuing Hebrew literature with zeal and ardor.
Two writers of worth, both from Wilna, the one a poet, the other a prose writer, headed the literary procession in Lithuania.
Abraham Bär Lebensohn (Adam ha-Kohen, 1794-1880), surnamed the “father of poetry", was born at Wilna. He spent a sad childhood. Left motherless early, he was deprived of the love and the care that are the only consolations known to a child of the ghetto. At the age of three, he was sent to the Heder, at seven he was a student of the Talmud, then casuistry occupied his mind, and, finally, the Kabbalah. The last had but feeble attractions for the future poet. His mental mould was determined by his thorough study of the Bible and Hebrew grammar, which was good form in Wilna as early as his day, and the works of Wessely, for whom he always professed warm admiration, had a decided influence upon his poetic bias.
In his first attempts at poetry, Lebensohn did not depart greatly from the achievements of the many Rabbinical students whose favorite pastime was to discuss the events of the day in Hebrew verse. An elegy to the memory of a Rabbi, an ode celebrating the equivocal glory of a Polish nobleman, and similar subjects, were the natural choice of the muse of the era, and the early flights of our author were not different. There was nothing in them to betray the future poet of merit. A little later he took up the study of German, but his knowledge of the language was never more than superficial. Haunted by the fame of Schiller, he devoted himself to poetry, and imitated the German poets, or tried to imitate them, for he never succeeded in grasping the true meaning of German poetry, nor in understanding erotic literature. To the Rabbinical student, with his puritanic spirit and austere manners, it was a collocation of poetic figures of speech and symbolic expressions.
His life differed in no wise from that of the poor Jews of the ghetto. Given in marriage early by his father, he suddenly found himself deep in the bitter struggle for existence, before he had known the transport of living, or youth, or the passions, or love, or the inner doubts and beliefs that contend with one another in the heart of man. Feeling for nature, aesthetic delights, were strange provinces to this son of the ghetto. A conception of art that is destitute of a moral aim would have passed his understanding and his puritanic horizon. Too much of a free- thinker to follow the Rabbinical profession, he taught Hebrew to children—an unremunerative occupation, and little respected in a society in which the most ignorant are not uninstructed, and in which, the choice of vocations being restricted, the unsuccessful and the unskilled naturally drop into teaching. Ten years of it, daily from eight in the morning until nine at night, undermined his health. He fell sick, and was compelled to give up his hap-hazard calling, to the great gain of Hebrew poetry. He went into the brokerage business, and his small leisure he devoted to his muse. Harassed by petty, sordid cares, this broker was yet a genuine idealist, though it cannot be maintained that Lebensohn was of the stuff of which dreamers are made and great poets. But in his mind, rationalistic and logical to the point of dryness, there was a secluded recess pervaded with melancholy and real feeling. The Hebrew language he cherished with ardent and exalted love. Is it not a beautiful language and admirable? Is it not the last relic saved from the shipwreck in which all the national possessions of our people were lost? And is not he, Lebensohn himself, the heir to the prophets, the poet laureate and high priest to the holy language? With what pride he unveils the state of his soul to us:
“I am seated at the table of God, and with my hand I guide His
pen; and my hand writes the language holy unto Him, the language
of His Law, the language of His people, Selah! O God, arouse,
awake my spirit, for is it not Thy holy language wherein I sing
unto Thee?” [Footnote: Shire Sefat Kodesh, II, i.]
A creature of his surroundings, and a disciple of the Rabbis, as he was, the dialectics of a logician were in him joined to native simplicity of spirit, yet he never reached the point of understanding the inner world of struggles and passions that agitate the individual lives of men. For a love song or a poem in praise of nature, he thought it necessary only to copy the German authors and link together a series of pointed verses. The poem “David and Bath-sheba” is a failure. His descriptions of nature are dry and artificial. He was never able to account for what was happening under his eyes and around him. Events produced an effect upon him out of all proportion to their importance. The military and civic reforms of Nicholas I, he celebrated in an ode, in which he applied the enthusiastic praise “Henceforth Israel will see only good!” to regulations that were wholly prejudicial to Jewish interests. When some Jewish banker or other was appointed consul-general in the Orient, he welcomed the occurrence in dithyrambic verses, dedicated to the poor fellow in the name of the Jews of Lithuania and White Russia. But whenever the heart of our poet beats in unison with the sentiments of his Jewish brethren, whenever he surrenders himself to the sadness, the peculiar melancholy, that pervades Jewish relations, then he attains to moral heights and lyric vigor unsurpassed. In his three volumes of poetry, by the side of numerous worthless pieces, we meet many gems of style and thought. The distressed cry of humanity against the wretchedness under which it staggers, the sorrowful protest man makes against the lack of compassion he encounters in his fellow, his obstinate refusal to understand the implacable cruelty of nature when she snatches his dearest from him, and his impotence in the presence of death—these are the subjects that have inspired Lebensohn's best efforts. He insists constantly, Is not pity the daughter of heaven? Do we not find her among beasts even, and among reptiles? Man alone is a stranger to her, and he makes himself the tyrant of his neighbor.
But it is not man alone who refuses to know this daughter of heaven, Nature denies pity, too, and shows herself relentless:
“O world! House of mourning, valley of weeping! Thy rivers are
tears, and thy soil ashes. Upon thy surface thou bearest men that
mourn, and in thy bowels the corpses of the dead.... From out of
the mountains covered with snow and ice comes forth a chariot
with none to guide. Within sits man and the wife of his bosom,
beautiful as a flower, and at their knees play sweet children.
Alas! a caravan of the dead simulating life! They journey on, and
they go astray, and perish on the icy fields.”
Distress round about, and all hopes collapsed, death hovers apart, yet near, remorseless, threatening, and in the end victorious.
In another poem, entitled “The Weeping Woman", his subject is pity again. He cries out:
“Thy enemy [cruelty] is stronger than thou. If thou art a burning
fire, she is a current of icy water!... Alas for thee, O pity!
Where is he that will have pity upon thee?”
With a few vigorous strokes, the Hebrew poet describes the nothingness of man in the face of the vast world. The lot of the Hamlets and of the Renés is more enviable than that of the “Mourner” of the ghetto. They at least taste of life before becoming a prey to melancholy and delivering themselves up to pessimism. They know the charms of living and its vexations. The disappointed son of the ghetto lays no stress on gratifications and pleasures. In the name of the supreme moral law he sets himself up for a pessimistic philosopher.
“Our life is a breath, light as a floating bark. The grave is at
the very threshold of life, it awaits us not far from the womb of
“Since the beginnings of the earth, we have been here, and she
changes us like the grass of her soil. She stands firm, unshaken.
We alone are changeable, and help there is none for us, no
refuge, nor may we decline to come hither. Like an angler of
fish, the world brings us up on a hook. Before it has finished
devouring one generation, the next is ready for its fate. One is
swallowed up, the other snatched away. Whence cometh our help?”
To this general destruction, this wildness of the elements, which the “Mourner” fails to comprehend, permeated as he is with belief in Divine justice, is superadded the malice of man.
“And thou also, thou becomest a scourge unto thy brother! The
heavenly host is joined by thy fellow-man. From the wrath of man,
O man, thou wilt never escape. His jealousy of thee will last for
aye, until thou art no more!”
And with all this, does life offer aught substantial, aught that is lasting?
“Where are they, the forgotten generations? Their very name and
memory have disappeared. And in the generation to come, we, too,
shall be forgotten. And who escapes his lot? Not a single one of
us all. None is secure from death. Wealth, wisdom, strength,
beauty, all are nothing, nothing....”
In a burst of revolt, our poet exclaims:
“If I knew that my voice with its reverberations sufficed to
destroy the earth and the fulness thereof, and all the hosts of
heaven, I would cry with a thundering noise: Cease! Myself I
would return to nothing with the rest of mankind. Know not the
living that the grave will swallow them up after a life of
sadness and cruel misery? See they not that the whole of human
life is like the flash that goes before the fatal thunderbolt?”
The same train of thought is not met with again until we come down to our own time, and Maupassant himself does not present it with greater vigor in Sur l'eau.
And the end of the matter is that “man has nothing but the consciousness of sorrow; he is naked and starved, feeble and without energy. His soul desires all that he has not, and so he longs and languishes day and night.”
The uncertainty caused by the certainty of death, the terror inspired by the fatal end, the aching regrets over the parting with dear ones, these feelings, which possess even the devoutest Jew, are expressed in one of Lebensohn's most beautiful poems, “The Death Agony", and in “Knowledge and Death” the skepticism of the Maskil prevails over the optimism of the Jew.
Sometimes he permits himself to sing of the misery of his people as such. In “The Wail of the Daughter of Judah” (Naäkat Bat- Yehudah ), it would not be too much to say that there is an echo of the best of the Psalms. The weakest of his verses are, nevertheless, those in which he expresses longing for Jerusalem.
A great misfortune befell Lebensohn. The premature death of his son, the young poet Micah Joseph, the centre of many and legitimate hopes, extorted cries of distress and despair from him.
“Who, alas! hath driven my bird from my nest? Who is it that hath
banished my lyre from my abode? Who hath shattered my heart, and
brought me lamentation?... Who hath with one blow blasted my
There is enough in his writings to make the fortune of a great poet, in spite of their ballast of mediocre and tiresome verses, which the reader should disregard as he goes along. Between him and his contemporary, the haughty recluse Alfred de Vigny, there is not a little resemblance. Needless to say that Lebensohn had no acquaintance whatsoever with the works of the French poet.
Lebensohn's poems, published at Wilna, in 1852, under the title “Poems in the Holy Language” (Shire Sefat Kodesh), were greeted with enthusiasm. The author was hailed as the “father of poetry”. Besides, he published several works treating of grammar and exegesis.
When the celebrated philanthropist Montefiore went to Russia, in 1848, to induce the Czar's government to ameliorate the civil condition of the Jews and grant reforms in the conduct of the schools, Lebensohn ranged himself publicly on the side of the reformers. According to him, the degradation of the Jews was due to three main causes:
1. Absence of Haskalah, that is, a rational education, founded upon instruction in the language of the land, the ordinary branches of knowledge, and a handicraft.
2. The ignorance of the Rabbis and preachers on all subjects outside of religion.
3. Indulgence in luxuries, especially of the table and of dress.
If the first two causes are more or less just, the third displays a ludicrously naïve conception of life. Lebensohn was speaking of a famished people, the majority of whom ate meat only once a week, on the Sabbath, and he reproaches them with gastronomic excesses and extravagance in dress. We shall see that his simple outlook was shared by most of the Russian Maskilim.
In 1867, at the time when the struggle for the emancipation of the Jews and internal reforms in general was at its highest point, Lebensohn published his drama “Truth and Faith” (Emet we-Emunah, Wilna), which he had written all of twenty years earlier. It is a purely didactic work, blameless of any trace of poetic ardor. It must be conceded that the style is clear and fluent, and the ethical problem is stated with precision. But it lacks every attempt at analysis of character, and is destitute of all psychologic motivation. These being of the very essence of dramatic composition, his drama reduces itself to a moral treatise, wearisome at once and worthless. The plan is simple enough. Sheker (Falsehood) seeks to seduce and win over Hamon (the Crowd). He offers to give him his daughter Emunah (Faith) in marriage, but she is wooed by two lovers, Emet (Truth) and Sekel (Reason).
The influence of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto is direct and manifest. Like the older author, Lebensohn, skeptic though he is, does not go to the length of casting doubt upon faith. He rises up against falsehood, hypocrisy, and mock piety, the piety that persecutes others, and steeps its votaries in ignorance. “Pure reason is not opposed to a pure religion", was the device adopted by the Wilna school.
Belief in God being set aside as a basic principle, the reason invoked by the dramatist is positive reason, the reason of science, of justice, of rational logic. In verbose monologues, he combats the superstitions and fanaticism of the orthodox. The whole force of the Maskil's hatred against obscurantism is expressed through the character named Zibeon, Jewish hypocrite and chief adjutant in the camp of Sheker (Falsehood). This Jewish Tartufe is very different in his complexity from the character created by Moliere. Zibeon is a wonderworking Rabbi, a subtle sophist, a crafty dialectician. The waves of the Talmud, the casuistry of more than a millennium of scholasticism, have left their traces in his mind and personality. In his hatred of the adversaries of the Haskalah, Lebensohn depicts him, besides, as a hypocrite, a lover of the good things of this world, and given to lewdness, which are not the usual traits of these Rabbis. The alleged Tartufe of the ghetto cannot be called a hypocrite. He is a believer, and hence sincere. What leads him to commit the worst excesses, is his fanaticism, his blind piety.
On the other hand, the dramatist is full of admiration for Sekel (Reason), Hokmah (Knowledge), Emet (Truth), and even Emunah (Faith).
On the background of the prosiness of this work by Lebensohn, there stands out one passage of remarkable beauty, the prayer of Sekel beseeching God to liberate Emet. The triumph of Truth closes the drama.
One characteristic feature should be pointed out: Neither Regesh (Sentiment), a prominent Jewish quality, nor Taawah (Passion), appears in this gallery of allegorical characters personifying the moral attributes. For Lebensohn, as for the whole school of the humanists of his time, the only thing that mattered was reason, and reason had to be shown all-sufficing to ensure the triumph of truth.
In its day Lebensohn's drama excited the wrath of the orthodox. A Rabbi with literary pretensions, Malbim (Meir Lob ben Jehiel Michael), considered it his duty to intervene, and to the accusations launched by Lebensohn he replied in another drama, called Mashal u-Melizah (“Allegory and Interpretation"), wherein he undertakes the defense of the orthodox against the charges of ill-disposed Maskilim.
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If Abraham Bär Lebensohn is considered the father of poetry, his no less celebrated contemporary and compatriot, Mordecai Aaron Ginzburg, has an equally good claim to be called the foremost master of modern Hebrew prose. Ginzburg is the creator of a realistic Hebrew prose style, though he was permeated to the end with the style and the spirit of the Bible. Whenever the Biblical style can render modern thoughts only by torturing and twisting it, or by resorting to cumbersome circumlocutions, Ginzburg does not hesitate to levy contributions from Talmudic literature and even the modern languages. These linguistic additions made by him are always excellent, and in no way prejudicial to the elegance of Hebrew style. For it should be reiterated, in season and out of season, that it is a mistake to believe the neo-Hebrew to be essentially different from the language of the Bible, analogous to the difference between the modern and the classic Greek. The modern Hebrew is nothing more than an adaptation of the ancient Hebrew, conformable to the modern spirit and new ideas. The extreme innovators, who at best are few in number, cannot but confirm this statement of the case.
Ginzburg was a fertile writer; he has left us fifteen volumes, and more, on various subjects. Endowed with good common sense, and equipped with a more solid modern education than the majority of the writers of the time, he exercised a very great influence upon his readers and upon the development of Hebrew literature. His “Abiezer", a sort of autobiography, very realistic, presents a striking picture of the defective education and backward ways of the ghetto, which the critic denounces, with remarkable subtlety, in the name of civilization and progress. Besides, he published two volumes on the Napoleonic wars; one volume, under the title Hamat Damesek (1840), on the ritual murder accusation at Damascus; a history of Russia; a translation of the Alexandrian Philo's account of his mission to Rome; and a treatise on style (Debir). He was very successful with his works, and all of them were published during his lifetime, at Wilna, Prague, and Leipsic, and have been republished since. One of his achievements is that he helped to create a public of Hebrew readers. It must be admitted that the great mass of the people were at first somewhat repelled by his realism and by his terse and accurate way of writing. Their taste was not sufficiently refined to appreciate these qualities, and their primitive sensibilities could not derive pleasure from a description of things as they actually are. This is the difficulty which the second generation of Lithuanian writers took account of, and overcame, when they introduced romanticism into Hebrew literature.
Though it was the first, Wilna was not the only centre of Hebrew literature in Russia. In the south, and quite independent of the Wilna school, literary circles were formed under the influence of the Galician writers and workers.
At Odessa, a European window opening on the Empire of the Czar, we see the first enlightened Jewish community come into existence. The educated flocked thither from all parts, especially from Galicia. Simhah Pinsker and B. Stern are the representatives of the Science of Judaism in Russia, and the contributions of the Karaite Abraham Firkovich in the same field were most valuable, while Eichenbaum, Gottlober, and others distinguished themselves as poets and writers.
Isaac Eichenbaum (1796-1861) was a graceful poet. Besides his prose writings and his remarkable treatise on the game of chess, we have a collection in verse by him, entitled Kol Zimrah (“The Voice of Song", Leipsic, 1836). His sweetness and tenderness, his elegant and clear style, often recall Heine. The following quotation is from his poem “The Four Seasons”.
“Winter has passed, the cold has fled, the ice melts under the
fiery darts of the sun. A stream of melted snow sends its limpid
waters flowing down the declivity of the rock. My beloved alone
is unmoved, and all the fires of my love cannot melt her icy
“The hills are clothed with festive mirth, the face of the
valleys smiles joyously. The cedar beams, the vine is jubilant,
and the pine tree finds a nest in the recesses of the jagged
mountain. But in me sighs increase, they bring me low—my friend
will not yet hearken unto me.
“All sings that lives in the woodland. The beasts of the earth
rejoice, and in the branches of the trees the winged creatures
warble, each to his mate. My well-beloved alone turns her steps
away from me, and under the shadow of my roof I am left in
“The plants spring from the soil, the grass glitters in the
splendor of the sun, and the earth is covered with verdure. Upon
the meadows, the lilies and the roses bloom. Thus my hopes
blossom, too, and I am filled with joyous expectation—my friend
will come back and in her arms enfold me.”
The acknowledged master of the humanists in southern Russia was Isaac Bär Levinsohn, of Kremenetz, in Wolhynia (1788-1860). His proper place is in a history of the emancipation of the Russian Jews, rather than in a history of literature. Levinsohn was born in the country of Hasidism. A happy chance carried him to Brody when he was very young. He attached himself there to the humanist circle, and made the acquaintance of the Galician masters. On his return to his own country, he was actuated by the desire to work for the emancipation and promote the culture of the Russian Jews.
Like Wessely, Levinsohn remained on strictly orthodox ground in his writings, and in the name of traditional religion itself he attacks superstition, and urges the obligatory study of the Hebrew language, the pursuit of the various branches of knowledge, and the learning of trades. His profound scholarship, the gentleness and sincerity of his writings, earned for him the respect of even the most orthodox. His Bet-Yehudah (“The House of Judah") and Te'udah be-Yisraël (“Testimony in Israel") are pleas in favor of modern schooling. In “Zerubbabel” he treats of questions of Hebrew philology, and with the help of documents he annihilates the legend of the ritual murder in his Efes-Dammim (“No Blood!”). Ahijah ha-Shiloni is a defense of Talmudic Judaism against its Christian detractors. Besides, Levinsohn wrote a number of other things, epigrams, articles, and essays. [Footnote: We owe a new edition of all his works to Nathansohn, Warsaw, 1880-1900.]
The contemporaries of Levinsohn exaggerated the importance of the literary part of his work. Not much of it, outside of his philologic studies, deserves to be called literary, and even they often fall below the mark on account of the simplicity of his views, and especially on account of his prolixity and his awkward diction and style. Also the direct influence which he has exerted upon Jews is less considerable than once was thought. Upon Hasidism he made no impression whatsoever. In Lithuania, to be sure, his works were widely read by the Jews, but in that home of the Hebrew language the subject-matter and arguments of an author play but little part in giving vogue to what is written in the Biblical language.
By his self-abnegation and his wretched fortunes, his isolated life in a remote town, weak in body yet working for the elevation of his co-religionists, he won the admiration of his contemporaries without exception.
The fame of the solitary idealist of Kremenetz spread until it reached government circles. Levinsohn was the first of the Jewish humanists who maintained direct relations with the Russian authorities. Czar Nicholas I gave him a personal audience, and several times sought his advice on problems connected with the endeavor to ameliorate the social condition of the Jews. The founding of Jewish elementary schools, the opening of two Rabbinical seminaries, one at Wilna and one at Zhitomir, the establishment of numerous agricultural colonies, the improvements effected in the political condition of the Jews and in the censorship of Hebrew books—all these progressive measures are in great part, if not entirely, due to the influence of Levinsohn. And the educated men of his time paid the tribute of veneration to a compeer who enjoyed the esteem of the governing classes to so high a degree.
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