CHAPTER VIII. REFORMERS AND CONSERVATIVES
THE TWO EXTREMES
Though Gordon was the most distinguished, he was not the only representative of the anti-Rabbinic school in the neo-Hebrew literature. The decline of liberalism in official state circles, and the frustration of every hope of equality, had their effect in reshaping the policy pursued by educated Jews. Up to this time they had cherished no desire except for external emancipation and to assimilate with their neighbors of other faiths. Liberty and justice suddenly removed from their horizon, they could not but transfer their ambition and their activity to the inner chambers of Judaism. Other circumstances contributed to the result. The economic changes affecting the bourgeoisie and the influence exercised by the realism and the utilitarian tendencies of the Russian literature of the time had not a little to do with the modified aims cherished in the camp of the Maskilim. Jews of education living in Galicia or in the small towns of Russia, who had the best opportunity of penetrating to the intimate life of the people and knowing its day by day misery, could and did make clear, how helpless the masses of the Jews were in the face of the moral and economic ruin that menaced them, and how serious an obstacle religious restrictions and ignorance placed in the way of any change in their condition. And therefore they made it their object to extol practical, thoroughgoing reforms.
In religion, they demanded, with Gordon, the abolition of all restrictions weighing upon the people, and a radical reform of Jewish education.
In practical life, they were desirous of turning the attention of their brethren to the manual trades, to the technical professions, and to agriculture. Besides, it was their purpose to extend modern primary instruction and bring it within the reach of considerably larger circles.
The government viewed these efforts with a favorable eye, and under its protection the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews in Russia was formed, with headquarters at St. Petersburg. Thus supported, the educated could carry on their propaganda in the open, and throw light into the remotest corners of the country. The Hebrew press, though still in its infancy, co-operated with them zealously in furthering their beneficent purposes.
The most determined group of the anti-religious propagandists was at Brody in Galicia. Thence emanated the influences that operated in Russia, and thence He-Haluz (“The Pioneer"), founded by Erter and Schorr in 1853, and published at Lemberg, carried on a brilliant campaign against religious superstitions, shrinking not even from attacks upon the Biblical tradition itself. The boldest of the contributors to He-Haluz, not counting its valiant editor, was Abraham Krochmal, the son of the philosopher. A scholar and subtle thinker, he introduced Biblical criticism into Hebrew literature. In his books as well as in his articles in He-Haluz and in Ha-Kol, the latter edited by Rodkinson, he goes so far as to dispute the Divine character of the Bible, and he demands radical reforms in Judaism. [Footnote: Ha-Ketab weha-Miktab (“Writing and the Scriptures"), Lemberg, 1875; 'lyyun Tefillah (“Reflections on Prayer"), Lemberg, 1885, etc.] His writings gave the signal for a considerable stir and expression of opinion. Even the most moderate among the orthodox could not remain tranquil in the presence of such blasphemous views. They put Krochmal outside of the pale of Judaism, together with all scholars occupied with Bible criticism, among them Geiger, who had exerted great influence upon the school of reformers writing in Hebrew.
In Lithuania things did not go so far. The hard conditions of existence there were not propitious to the rise of a purely scholarly school or to theoretic discussion. Scientific centres were entirely wanting, and the censor permitted no trifling with the subject of religion. A new movement, realistic and utilitarian in the main, began to take shape, first in the form of a protest against the unsubstantial ideals of the Hebrew press and Hebrew literature. In 1867, Abraham Kowner, an ardent controversialist, published his Heker Dabar (“A Word of Criticism"), and his Zeror Perahim (“A Bouquet of Flowers"), in which he takes the press and the writers severely to task for indulging in rhetoric and futile scintillations, instead of occupying themselves with the real exigencies of life. In the same year, Abraham Jacob Paperna published his essay in literary criticism, and the young Smolenskin, in an article appearing at Odessa, attacked Letteris for his artificial, insincere translation of Goethe's Faust into Hebrew. On all sides there blew a fresh breath of realism, and the critical spirit was abroad.
The most characteristic exponent of this reforming movement was Moses Löb Lilienblum, a native of the Government of Kowno. Endowed with a temperate, logical mind, untroubled by an excess of sentimentality, Lilienblum, one of those deliberate, puritanic scholars that constitute the glory of Lithuanian Talmudism, was at once hero and actor in the intense drama performed in the Russian ghetto, which he himself described as the “Jewish tragi-comedy”.
He began his literary career with an article entitled Orhot ha-Talmud (“The Paths of the Talmud"), and published in Ha-Meliz in 1868. Here, as well as in the articles following it, he does not depart from established tradition. In the very name of the spirit of the Talmud, he demands religious reforms and the abolition of the restrictions that make daily life burdensome. These excessive requirements, he urges, were heaped up by the Rabbis subsequent to the full development of the Law, and in opposition to its spirit. The young scholar showed himself to be a zealous admirer of the Talmud, and with clinching logic he proves that the Rabbis of later times, in asserting its immutability, had distinctly deviated from the principles of the Law, the fundamental idea of which was the harmonizing of “Law and Life”. The wrath aroused by such articles can easily be imagined. Lilienblum was an Apikoros, the “heretic” par excellence of the Lithuanian ghetto. The young writer had to undergo a series of outrageous persecutions and acts of vengeance inflicted by the fanatics, especially the Hasidim, of his town. He tells the story in detail in his autobiography, Hattot Neurim (“The Sins of Youth"), published at Vienna, in 1876, one of the most noteworthy productions of modern Hebrew literature. With the logical directness of a Mitnagged , and the cruel, sarcastic candor of a wasted existence, Lilienblum probes and exposes the depths of his tortured conscience, at the same time following up inexorably the steps which remove the free-thinker from the faithful believer, without, however, reaching a real or positive result— in the spirit at once of Rousseau and Voltaire. [Footnote 1: Literally, “one who is opposed” [to the mystical system of Hasidism]; a protestant, a Puritan.] As he himself says:
“It is a drama essentially Jewish, because it is a life without
dramatic effect, without extraordinary adventure. It is made up
of torment and suffering, all the more grievous as they are kept
hidden in the recesses of one's heart....”
Better than any one else he knows the cause of these ills. Like Gordon, he holds that the Book has killed the Man, the dead letter has been substituted for feeling.
“You ask me, O reader", he says with bitterness, “who I am, and
what my name is?—Well, then, I am a living being, not a Job who
has never existed. Nor am I one of the dead in the valley of
bones brought back to life by the prophet Ezekiel, which is only
a tale that is told. But I am one of the living dead of the
Babylonian Talmud, revived by the new Hebrew literature, itself a
dead literature, powerless to bring the dead to life with its
dew, scarcely able to transport us into a state between life and
death. I am a Talmudist, a believer aforetimes, now become an
unbeliever, no longer clinging to the dreams and the hopes which
my ancestors bequeathed to me. I am a wreck, a miserable wretch,
hopeless unto despair....”
And he narrates the incidents of his childhood, the period of the Tohu, of chaos and confusion, the days of study, misery, superstition. He recalls the years of adolescence, his premature marriage, his struggle for a bare existence, his wretched life as a teacher of the Talmud, panting under the double yoke of a mother-in-law and a rigid ceremonial. Then comes his introduction to Hebrew literature. His conscience long refuses assent, but stern logic triumphs, and the result is that all the ideas that have been his guiding principles crumble into dust one by one. Negation replaces faith. The terrible conflict begins with a whole town of formalists, who declare him outside of the community of Israel,—a pitiless conflict, in which he is supported half-heartedly by two or three of the strong- minded. The publication of his first article, on the necessity of reforms in religion, increases the fury of the people against him, and his ruin is determined. Had there not been intervention from the outside, he would have been delivered to the authorities to serve in the army, or denounced as a dangerous heretic. And yet the so-called heretic cursed by every mouth had proceeded so short a distance on the path of heterodoxy that he still entertained scruples about carrying a book from one house to another on the Sabbath!
This naïve soul, in which all sorts of feelings had long before begun to stir obscurely, was aroused to full consciousness by the reading of Mapu's works. Casual acquaintance with an intelligent woman made his heart vibrate with notes unknown until then. Life in his native town became intolerable, and he left it for Odessa, the El Dorado of all ghetto dreamers. Again disillusionment was his lot. He who was ready to undergo martyrdom for his ideas, this champion of the Haskalah, his heart famishing for knowledge and justice, was not long in discerning, with his penetrating, perspicacious mind, that he had not yet reached the best of modern worlds. With bitterness he notes that the Jews of the south of Russia, “where the Talmud is cut out of practical life, if they are more liberal than the others, are yet not exempt from stupid superstitions.” He notes that the Hebrew literature so dear to his heart is excluded from the circles of the intellectual. He sees that egotistic materialism has superseded the ideal aspirations of the ghetto. He discovers that feeling has no place in modern life, and tolerance, the loudly vaunted, is but a sound. When he ventures to put his complaints into words, he is treated as a “religious fanatic" by people who have no interest beyond their own selfish pleasures and the satisfaction of their material cravings. He is deeply affected by what he observes and notes. In the presence of the egotistic indifference of the emancipated Jews, he is shaken in his firmest convictions, and he admits with anguish that the ideal for which he has fought and sacrificed his life is but a phantom. Under the stress of such disappointment he writes these lines:
“In very truth, I tell you, never will the Jewish religion be in
accord with life. It will sink, or, at best, it will remain the
cherished possession of the limited few, as it is now in the
Western countries of Europe.... Practical reality is in
opposition to religion. Now I know that we have no public on our
side; and actual life with its great movements produces its
results without the aid of literature, which even in our people
is an effective influence only with the simple spirits of the
country districts. The desire for life and liberty, the
prevalence of charlatanism on the one side, and on the other the
abandoning of religious studies in favor of secular studies, will
have baleful consequences for the Jewish youth, even in
This whole period of our author's life is characterized by similar regrets—he mourns over days spent in barren struggles and over the follies of youth.
“To-day I finished writing my autobiography, which I call 'The
Sins of Youth'. I have drawn up the balance-sheet of my life of
thirty years and one month, and I am deeply grieved to see that
the sum total is a cipher. How heavily the hand of fortune has
lain upon me! The education I received was the reverse of
everything I had need of later. I was raised with the idea of
becoming a distinguished Rabbinical authority, and here I am a
business man; I was raised in an imaginary world, to be a
faithful observer of the Law, shrinking back from whatever has
the odor of sin, and the very things I was taught crush me to
earth now that the imaginary man has disappeared in me; I was
raised to live in the atmosphere of the dead, and here I am cast
among people who lead a real life, in which I am unable to take
my part; I was raised in a world of dreams and pure theory, and I
find myself now in the midst of the chaos of practical life, to
which I am driven by my needs to apply myself, though my brain
refuses to leave the old ruts and substitute practice for
speculation. I am not even equipped to carry on a discussion with
business men discussing nothing but business. I was raised to be
the father of a family, in the sphere chosen for me by my father
in his wisdom.... How far removed my heart is from all such
“I weep over my shattered little world which I cannot restore!”
The regrets of Lilienblum over the useless work attempted by Hebrew literature betray themselves also in his pamphlet in verse, Kehal Refaïm (“The Assembly of the Dead"). The dead are impersonated by the Hebrew periodicals and reviews.
Later, a novelist of talent, Reuben Asher Braudes, resumed the attempt to harmonize theory and practice, in his great novel, “Religion and Life”. The hero, the young Rabbi Samuel, is the picture of Lilienblum. From the point of view of art, it is one of the best novels in Hebrew literature. Life in the rural districts, the austere idealism of the enlightened, the superstitions of the crowd, are depicted with extraordinary clearness of outline. [Footnote: Ha-Dat weha- Hayyim, Lemberg, 1880. Another long novel by Braudes is called Shete ha-Kezawot (“The Two Extremes"), published in 1886, wherein he extols the national revival and religious romanticism.] The novel ran in Ha-Boker Or (1877-1880), and was never completed—a counterpart of its hero. Had not Lilienblum, too, stopped in the middle of the road?
The crisis that occurred in the life of Lilienblum, torn from his ideal speculations in a provincial town, and forced into contact with an actuality that was as far as possible away from solving the problem of harmonizing religion and life, was the typical fate of all the educated Jews of the period. Lilienblum and his followers gave themselves up to regrets over the futile work of three generations of humanists, who, instead of restoring the ghetto to health, had but hastened its utter ruin. The ideal aspirations of the Maskilim had been succeeded by a gross utilitarianism without an ideal. What disquieted the soul of the Maskil in the decade from 1870 to 1880 is expressed in the concluding words of “The Sins of Youth”:
“The young people are to work at nothing and think of nothing but
how to prepare for their own life. All is forbidden, wherefrom
they cannot derive direct profit—they are permitted only the
study of sciences and languages, or apprenticeship to a trade.
“The youth who break away from the laborious study of the Talmud,
throw themselves with avidity into the study of modern
literature. This headlong course has been in vogue with us about
a century. One generation disappears, to make place for the next,
and each generation is pushed forward by a blind force, no one
“It is high time for us to throw a glance backward—to stop a
moment and ask ourselves: Whither are we hastening, and why do we
However, the gods did not forsake the ghetto. If Gordon and, with more emphasis, Lilienblum predicted the ruin of all the dreams of the ghetto, it was because, having been wrenched from the life of the masses and out of traditional surroundings, they judged things from a distance, and permitted themselves to be influenced by appearances. Blinded by their bias, they saw only two well-defined camps in Judaism—the moderns, indifferent to all that constitutes Judaism, and the bigots, opposed to what savors of knowledge, free-thinking, and worldly pleasure. They made their reckoning without the Jewish people. The humanist propaganda was not so empty and vain as its later promoters were pleased to consider it. The conservative romanticism of a Samuel David Luzzatto and the Zionist sentiments of a Mapu had planted a germinating seed in the heart of traditional Judaism itself. It is conceded that we cannot resort for evidence to such old romanticists as Schulman, who in the serenity of their souls gave little heed to the campaign of the reformers, though it is nevertheless a fact that they contributed to the diffusion of humanism and of Hebrew literature by their works, which were well received in orthodox circles. Our contention is better proved by Rabbis reputed orthodox, who devoted themselves with enthusiasm to the cultivation of Hebrew literature. Without renouncing religion, they found a way of effecting the harmonization of religion and life. In point of fact, humanism of a conservative stripe reached its zenith at the precise moment when the realists, deceived by superficial appearances, were predicting the complete breaking up of traditional Judaism.
The chief representatives of the reform press were He-Haluz, Ha-Meliz, and later on Ha-Kol (“The Voice"), and by their side the views of the conservatives were defended in Ha-Maggid, Ha-Habazzelet(“The Lily"), published at Jerusalem, and especially Ha-Lebanon, appearing first at Paris and then at Mayence. In Ha-Maggid, beginning with the year 1871, the editor, David Gordon, supported by the assenting opinion of his readers, carried on an ardent campaign for the colonization of Palestine as the necessary forerunner of the political revival of Israel.
A Galician thinker, Fabius Mises, published, in 1869, an article in Ha-Meliz, entitled Milhemet ha-Dat (“The Wars of the Faith"), in which he wards off the attacks upon the Jewish religion by the anti-Rabbinical school. He proves it to be a reasonable religion, and a national religion par excellence. In his poems, Mises assails Geiger for the religious reforms urged by him, and he opposes also the school ofHe-Haluz in the name of the national tradition. Later on Mises published an important history of modern philosophy in Hebrew.
Michael Pines, a writer in Ha-Lebanon, and the opponent of Lilienblum, was the protagonist of the conservative party in Lithuania. His chief work, Yalde Ruhi (“The Children of My Spirit"), appeared in 1872 at Mayence. It may be considered the literary masterpiece on the conservative side, the counterstroke to Lilienblum's “Sins of Youth”. It is a defense of traditional Judaism, and is instinct with an intuitive philosophy and with deep faith. Pines makes a closely reasoned claim for the right of the Jewish religion to exist in its integrity. Without being a fanatic, he believes, with Samuel David Luzzatto, that the religion of the Jew on its poetic side is the peculiar product of the Jewish national genius—that the religion, and not the artificial legal system engrafted upon it, is the essential part of Judaism. The ceremonies and the religious practices are necessary for the purpose of maintaining the harmony of the faith, “as the wick is necessary for the lamp”. This harmony, reacting at once upon feeling and morality, cannot be undone by the results of science, and therefore the Jewish religion is eternal in its essence. The religious reforms introduced by the German Rabbis have but had the effect of drying up the springs of poetry in the religion, and as for the compromise between faith and life, extolled and urged by Lilienblum, it is only a futile phrase. Of what use is it, seeing that the religious feel no need of it, but on the contrary take delight in the religion as it stands, which fills the void in their soul?
Pines did not share the pessimistic fears of the realists of his time. A true conservative, he believed in the national rebirth of the people of Israel, and, a romantic Jew, he dreamed of the realization of the humanitarian predictions of the prophets. Judaism to him is the pure idea of justice, “and every just idea ends by conquering the whole of humanity”.
Extremes meet. There is one point in common between Lilienblum, the last of the humanists, the disillusioned skeptic, and Pines, the optimist of the ghetto. Both maintained that the action of the humanists was inefficacious, and the compromise between religion and life a vain expedient. Nevertheless, there was no possibility of bringing the two to stand upon the same platform. While the humanists, in abandoning the perennial dreams of the people, had separated themselves from its moral and religious life, and thus cut away the ground from under their own feet, the romantic conservatives paid no attention to the demands of modern life, the currents of which had loosed the foundations of the old world, and were threatening to carry away the last national breastwork.
A synthesis was needed to merge the two currents, the humanist and the romantic, and lead the languishing Haskalah back to the living sources of national Judaism. This was the task accomplished by Perez Smolenskin, the leader of the national progressive movement.
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