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The Zemach Zedek and the Haskalah Movement

Chapter 7
Traditional Jewish Education Prevails Over the Reform Program

The older Count Galitzin, though retired from his position as chief counselor to the Minister of Culture, still wielded considerable influence in the higher echelons of the Government. His affection for scholarship and his personal integrity were esteemed, and he was remembered as the personal advisor and confidant of Czar Alexander I. The Rabbinical Commission reminded him of the discussions with Rabbi Moshe Schneuri, son of Rabbi Schneur Zalman and uncle of the contemporary Lubavitcher Rabbi, some forty-two years earlier. He vividly recalled the impression the Rabbi made on him and everyone else then present. He called on Czar Nicholas and explained that as far as he was acquainted with the character of the Jews in regard to their religion, they were perfectly capable of accepting martyrdom rather than retreat in the slightest or waver from their faith. The welfare of their great Rabbis was as precious as life itself. Therefore he concluded, this affair might have undesirable consequences.

By its own means Lubavitch learned that the Friday meeting had favorably impressed officials of the Ministries of Justice, Culture, and the Interior, and that on the Tuesday, following, the Czar had requested the minutes of the meeting. It was also learned that the person who sat at Uvarov's right during the meeting was the special representative of the Czar's office.

Uvarov instructed his executive assistants to fulfill the Rabbi's request made at the outset of the Commission. They promptly announced that the suspension of publication of Chassidic and Kabala literature in 1836 was not, as irresponsible rumor had it, a ban on the publication and sale of such works. It was due, simply, to a paucity of Jewish printing facilities. Permission was still granted to print these works and to import them under the same regulations governing all Jewish literature, for example, censorship. Even before the announcement was official, it became common knowledge. The Chassidim gleefully greeted the news, especially when local officials formally notified the Jewish communities. Within the month thousands of volumes of Chassidus and Kabala were imported into Russia.

The proclamation shattered the strongest argument of the "Berliners," as the Maskilim were dubbed in honor of their ideological birthplace. Ever since the revisions in the publication laws in 1836, they publicly gloated that the Government had banned the printing and sale of Chassidic and Kabala books. They threatened the Chassidim with dire punishments as revolutionaries, and in many small communities, had craftily enlisted the aid of local police to prevent public study of Chassidus. In some cities, notably in Vohlyn, "the Maskilim bribed police to search Chassidic homes and confiscate Chassidic literature. It went so far, that police actually threatened prison should they find any such books in another search.

A week after the postponement of the sessions, the Commission was reconvened. They were charged with establishing a curriculum for the Hebrew schools (cheder) during weekly sessions, over a period of four weeks. The Government provided the Rabbi with quarters, with facilities for a regular minyan, for the duration of the Commission. The Chassidim had trepidations about visiting the Rabbi for the first month, but later came in growing numbers.

Jewish troops, sailors and infantry stationed at Kronstadt, requested permission of their officers to invite the Rabbi of Lubavitch to address them.1 The commanding general promptly agreed, and asked the Minister of the Interior to inform the Rabbi of the invitation, and with the Rabbi's consent, to arrange the trip to the base. The officials apparently hoped that the signal honor accorded the Rabbi would soften him and induce him to accede to their demands. The Rabbi accepted the invitation for any convenient weekday. On the designated day the men assembled, sailors and infantry joined by cavalry. The Rabbi came to Kronstadt accompanied by fifty Chassidim. In his address he spoke on the text mochisi cho'ov pscho'echo, retold a number of passages from Midrash Eichah (the visit took place in the early part of Av)2 and translated the passages into Yiddish. He dwelt on the self-sacrifice of Jews for Torah and Judaism, and encouraged them in Torah observance.

1 Official copies of the request and permit, dated July 29 and 30, 1843, Archives of the Ministry of Culture, 80642/K 1101.

2 The month of Av is the climax of the mourning period for the destruction of the Jerusalem. Temples. Eichah (Lamentations ) is read then, and the Midrash commentaries are appropriate to the season.

At the conclusion of the Rabbinical Commission, the Rabbi submitted a report to the Minister of the Interior, describing economic conditions prevalent among Jews living in the Pale of Settlement, and demanded an extension of the borders of the Pale. In the report, he noted the frequent occasions that estate owners and farmers petitioned provincial and district officials to permit Jews to settle on the farms and in villages, to improve business there. He pointed out the steady deterioration of commerce since the 1824 expulsion of Jews from estates and villages. The Minister was pleased with the report, and advised by an assistant, Vassilev the nephew of Prince Varantzov Datkov, invited the Rabbi and his translators, Chaikin and Feitelson, for an interview to clarify the suggestions. The Rabbi was most respectfully received and the Minister promised to sponsor the report at the next meeting of the Council of Ministers.

A few days later, an assistant Minister of the Interior announced that "Rabbi Schneersohn of Lubavitch, through his report to the Minister of the Interior on the material welfare of the Jews in the provinces of Vitebsk, Mogilev, and Minsk, did not secure for the Jews settlement rights in the villages and estates, but did effect a prohibition on expulsion, i.e. if Jews resettle there they will not be expelled." The deliberately circuitous wording, "prohibition on expulsion," gained rapid circulation, and hundreds of families immediately moved into villages and hamlets.

As the Rabbi prepared to return to Lubavitch he was informed by the Chief Police Officer that three groups of servicemen -- sailors, infantry, and cavalry, over 600 men in all wished to call on him the next day, Monday, to express their gratitude to the Rabbi for his visit, talk, and blessings. But, the Rabbi was cautioned, his address in Kronstadt had created a furor among the men, and government officials would note his every word. This was an explicit warning. The next day the Rabbi addressed the men on Shema Yisrael, in the courtyard of the Petropavli fortress.

On Tuesday, 26 AV 5603 (1843), the Rabbi left Petersburg and lodged in Pskov. Because of his ill health and the great numbers of people who greeted him, he was required to rest frequently on the journey. On Thursday, 5 Elul, he arrived in Lubavitch. He told of the Commission, called at the instigation of the Maskilim of Berlin, Vohlyn, Poland, and Riga, and the efforts of the Maskilim for Government schools for Jewish children, to cool their religious devotion and have them assimilate with their Gentile neighbors.

During the second week after the Rabbi's return to Lubavitch, he was visited by the eminent Rabbis David Luria of Bichov, Shlomo Lifschitz of Minsk, and Yehezkel Beininson of Slutsk, to discuss the Petersburg conference and measures to be taken to stem the plague of Haskalah. The Rabbi explained the situation and his opinion that it was imperative to strengthen Hebrew schools, increase the number of yeshivos, and publicize the intentions of the "Berlintchikes" to poison Jewish youth with the venom of heresy. It must also be made plain that Jews could still nullify the public school edict since it was not government policy, but merely the result of the Berlintchikes' activities through Dr. Lilienthal. In addition, the Rabbi emphasized that all expenses of these schools would devolve on the Jews through a new tax imposed upon the kehillos. Under present conditions, with the economic hardships of the people, and the kehillos being in arrears with overdue taxes, it would be impossible to assume any new obligations. If the money would not be collected, the Communal treasuries would be required to make up the deficit.

The aforementioned three Rabbis were the foremost communal workers among the Misnagdim of White Russia, and enjoyed the respect of the Lithuanian scholar-leaders. After leaving Lubavitch they met with the Rabbis of Vilna, Kovno, and Brisk, and outlined the steps to be taken in the struggle against the public school decree. Rabbi Luria personally visited Vilna, and at the invitation of the local scholars addressed a mass meeting on the subject of the Petersburg Commission and the school edict designed to assimilate Jewish children all at the instigation of the Maskilim.

"Yimach sh'mom!" he exclaimed bitterly. The audience was shocked, Rabbi Luria being noted for his mildness and temperate language. If this Gaon could exclaim yimach sh'mom in a holy place, then the Maskilim must deserve the imprecation. The speech was circulated throughout Lithuania.

With the passage of the Expulsion law of 1824 which barred Jews from the villages, many estate holders in Vitebsk and Mogilev could find no, lessors for their mills and buildings, and appealed to the Ministry of the Interior to permit Jewish residents on the estates and in crossroads' inns. In many villages the farmers signed petitions for the return of their erstwhile Jewish neighbors, all to no avail. When the estate holders realized that their estates were deteriorating through neglect, some used devious means of circumventing the law, but their number was small. Most landlords found themselves in precarious circumstances. For some twenty years they complained constantly to provincial officials and the Ministry, that with the departure of the Jews their own incomes decreased, but in vain.

Suddenly, in the winter of 1844 several landowners of Vitebsk, Mogilev, and Minsk received notifications from the provincial government saying, "The Minister of the Interior at his last meeting (no date) decided to grant your petition (no date) regarding the settling of the Jew . . . and his family, who have resided on your estate. This decision was given to the provincial office with instructions to inform you of it."

The immigrating Jews were cordially received by the landowners and farmers, who aided them in settling. Throughout that summer - 1844 - hundreds of families settled in the villages and hamlets, and earned comfortable livelihoods. Because of the emigration from the cities, those who remained in the cities benefited, too. It was commonly known that permission for the settling was granted through the Rabbi's intercession with the Minister of the Interior, and the Rabbi's influence became even stronger.

In 1844 he was presented with the certificate of Honored Citizenship, signed by the Czar, in recognition of his contributions to the Commission of 1843.1 All Russia was impressed by this honor, and all communal problems in Russia, Vohlyn, and Poland were referred to him for advice or intervention with the government.

1 Official transcripts, May 18, 1844-April 19, 1845, Archives of the Ministry of Culture in Petersburg, #80671/K 1101.

For two years, 1844-1845, the Rabbi expanded his yeshiva in Lubavitch, and founded branches in Dobrovna, Rasasna, Dobromisla, Rudnya, Lyozna, Kalishk, and Yanovitch. A total of six hundred students attended these institutions. He also reorganized his two renowned seminaries -- the Gomel seminary under Rabbi Isaac Epstein, and the Bobroisk seminary under Rabbi Hillel, that had some sixty students. The Rabbi added thirty students, and assumed half of the seminary expenses to be covered by his regular tzedakah fund.

He founded seminaries in Polotzk under R. Nisson, Denenburg under R. Leib Batlan, Dribin under R. Elia Yosef author of Oholei Yosef, Kurenitz under R. Ziskind, Azaritch under R. Bezalel, Kaidan under R. Yaakov (publisher of Sipurim Nifloim on the lives of the Rabbis, and a lengthy manuscript commentary on Tanya), Kapust under R. Zadok, Piriatin under R. Nachum Tovya, Disna under R. Schneur Zalman, Kremenchug under R. Yosef, Borisov under R. Elia Tzvi (a descendant of Rabbi Eliahu, Gaon of Vilna), Nikolayev under R. Avraham David Lavut (author of Kav v'Noki, Bais Aharon, N'siv Hachaim, and Shaar Hakolel, publisher of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's Siddur Torah Or), Jassy under R. Moshe Yitzhak, Velizh under R. Avraham Abba, Beshenkovitch under R. Moshe Dov, Horodok under R. Shlomo Chaim, Smilian under R. Yisroel Moshe, Minsk under R. Yosef Moshe, and Smilovitch under R. Moshe Elia.

These seminaries served youths from their respective cities and neighboring communities. The young men assiduously studied Talmud, its related works, and Chassidus, under the deans chosen by the Rabbi. The deans submitted reports to the Rabbi on the students -- their abilities, previous education in Talmud and Chassidus, character, habits; and conduct. On the basis of these reports the Rabbi outlined curricula and programs for the individual schools. Some of the deans were authorities on Talmud and Chassidus; others were primarily Chassidic scholars, so the Rabbi appointed an associate, subordinate dean, to supervise Talmudic studies. All these seminaries, excepting Gomel and Bobroisk, were limited to a maximum enrollment of fifteen, and a minimum of ten students. Most of the expenses were defrayed by the Rabbi's Central Fund, and one fourth by the community or students.

The religious staffs of most Chassidic communities consisted of Rabbis, shochtim, teachers (who were also charged by the Rabbi with organizing public study groups for Mishnah, Talmud, halachah, agadah, and Chassidus), and a mashpi'ya. The mashpi'ya was a Chassid chosen by the Rabbi to be responsible for Chassidic training, especially of young men and boys. In addition to establishing the seminaries, the Rabbi now instructed the mashpi'im to exert themselves more in the training of young Chassidim, to urge their pupils to greater devotion to their studies, and to persuade them to enter seminaries or yeshivos. The Rabbi then issued a Public, letter of an urgent nature:

"To all Rabbis, especially in Chassidic communities: organize a yeshiva with a rosh yeshiva wherever there is a sizable group of lads requiring instruction; where the number does not warrant a yeshiva, engage a capable melamed, or preferably, send the youths to a yeshiva elsewhere.

"To all Chassidic melamdim: endeavor to enroll every single child and youth in a cheder, leaving no one without instruction; enlarge cheder schools; refrain, when possible, from sending children to Talmud Torah.

"To all shochtim and melamdim in all Chassidic communities, charged with conducting public Torah study groups for adults in the synagogues: explain clearly to your groups the reason for the Petersburg Commission, that, at the instigation of the Berlintchikes -- corrupters of Israel and notorious atheists -- in order to uproot from the hearts of Jewish children any vestige of faith and religion and to assimilate them with Gentiles, Rabbis were called to agree to an abridgement of the Siddur and Chumash, to organize public schools for secular studies to wean Jewish children from their faith. It is to be made clear that the first victims would be children receiving no education, and that pupils of private melamdim would be more secure than Talmud Torah pupils."

The Rabbi's systematic campaign aroused all elements of Jewry. Heartening results of the campaign were soon evident in all Chassidic cities and settlements, also in Misnagdic communities. Disregarding the perils attendant on such work, the Rabbi waged a spirited campaign to have the communities avoid finding sources of revenue for the maintenance of the public schools. In fact four years elapsed before sources were found, and by that time the law was much less stringent and evasion was relatively simple.

During the course of five years, the Rabbi was slandered three times. After the first accusation, the Mogilev police conducted searches in the homes of his children; the Rabbi, as Honored Citizen was immune to a search warrant, except under specific orders of the Minister of the Interior, so the police simply made polite inquiries instead of molesting his privacy. The other two accusations were made after he had been titled "Honored Citizen for Generations" in 1845, extending his privileges to his family, so the police merely interrogated his family.

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