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The Zemach Zedek and the Haskalah Movement

Chapter 8
The Petersburg Rabbinical Conference

In September 1847, Chaikin of the Petersburg Vaad learned that the Ministry of the Interior had appointed a special committee to prepare a Rabbinical conference, to be conducted along lines different from the Commission of 1843. Previously, the Government had chosen delegates, but now the Jews were to elect a number of nominees from the country at large, from whom the Government would select delegates. The final choice would be made by a joint committee of the Ministries of Culture and the Interior. Those selected, plus representatives of the Government, would, constitute the conference. The Minister of the Interior assigned the special committee the following tasks:

  1. preparing the necessary material for the agenda
    1. questions and suggestions on religion
    2. questions on Jewish customs
    3. relations between Jews and their Gentile neighbors
    4. business and economic matters related to religion
    5. business and economic matters related to ethics
  2. specification of the number of nominees
    1. according to population within and outside the Pale of Settlement
    2. according to categories of electors
      1. merchants paying high, medium, and low taxes
      2. householders and storekeepers
      3. artisans and laborers
      4. Rabbis and religious functionaries
      5. professionals, doctors, etc.
  3. list of nominees not to exceed thirty-five
  4. number of chosen delegates not to exceed six
  5. appointment of three officials of the two Ministries, one to be chairman with two votes, the others, his assistants, with one vote each
  6. three delegates to be Academicians, two prominent  Rabbis, one prominent merchant
  7. conference to be held in March or May 1848.

Chaim Massayev, a member of the Petersburg Vaad, visited Count Galitzin with regard to the accusation against one, Berkowitz of Galubovka.1 During their conversation the Count told Massayev that Dr. Neuman and two students of the Academy, Bernstein and Guravitz, sons of wealthy Odessa families, were friendly with Prince Sheremetiev the younger, and had thus been received by Sheremetiev's nephew, Nicolai Grigorevitch Pavlov, the assistant Minister of Culture. They presented Pavlov with a charge, in the name of the Jews of Vohlyn and Lithuania, that the Honored Citizen Tzadik Mendel Shachnovitch Schneersohn and his followers violate His Majesty's order in regard to the law of public school education for Jews, and they circulate the vile rumor that conversion is the intent of the Government.2

1 Galubovka was one of Galitzin's estates in the Brisk region. Berkovitz dwelt in the village where he had a garden and a large vineyard. His priest neighbor coveted this property. Berkovitz offered several times to sell at any price determined by the villagers; but his neighbor insisted on receiving the land as an outright gift. For two years he constantly slandered Berkovitz and his family, but the villagers invariably defended him. When the Count learned of the affair, he warned the priest to desist in the future, or the Archbishop would be informed. It happened that some shoes and clothing were stolen from the military arsenal in Brisk. The priest conspired with the thieves to bury part of the loot in Berkovitz's garden, and then he accused the Jew of the robbery. Berkovitz and his sons, Yerucham and Elia Nachum, were arrested. Massayev persuaded the Count to conduct a secret investigation. In three months Berkovitz was cleared.

2 In fact, Sheremetiev, Uvarov's successor as Minister of Culture, did disclose Uvarov's intentions of eradicating the Jewish religion and customs. - Trans.

When the Rabbi learned of these developments, he called his trusted workers to confer on:

  1. preparations for the impending Rabbinical Conference
  2. the charges of Dr. Neuman and the students
  3. developing a clandestine and systematic program of action throughout the country.

The meeting took place shortly afterward, and a program was developed:

  1. with the announcement of election of nominees, start a vigorous and relentless campaign against choosing Maskilim and irreligious people: elect laymen rather than Rabbis
  2. circulate letters and pamphlets exposing the nature of the Maskilim as informers clamoring at the doors of the -- Ministry of the Interior, to abolish Jewish religious customs and to impose special taxes on observant Jews; they urge the Ministry of Culture to inaugurate compulsory public school training for Jewish children; they are preparing an abridged Chumash and translated Siddur
  3. prepare centers throughout the land for communal workers who will conduct the campaign in all its phases, and espionage work among the Maskilim.

By mid-winter such centers were established in Vitebsk, Mogilev, Minsk, Chernigov, Poltava, and Kherson. At the Rabbi's urging Rabbi Luria established centers in Bichov, Vilna, Brisk, and Kovno. All the centers maintained contact with the Rabbi, but because of the necessity for absolute secrecy, five addresses were used -- two in Babinovitch, one in Dobromisla, and two in Lubavitch. The directors of the centers reported that the Maskilim were conducting a ramified campaign, even in small towns, on behalf of public schools, and claiming that public school pupils would be exempt from military service until they reached the age to be prescribed for students.

At the Rabbi's orders the centers proceeded energetically to:

  1. distribute literature describing the Maskilim
  2. send emissaries to all towns and villages to expose  the Maskilim's plans
  3. emphasize that the schools would be supported by  a special tax on Jews
  4. announce the translation of the Siddur into German, with the idea of thus preparing children to read heretical Haskalah literature.

A month later, a police officer, Ivan Petrovitch Nabakin,1presented the Rabbi with an order from the provincial Governor that, "His Excellency, the Provincial Governor, gives notice of His Majesty's decree of September 20, 1847, to arrange, during 1848, a conference of Rabbis and scholars to discuss Jewish matters. By this order a joint committee of officials of the Ministries of Culture and the Interior was formed to arrange the conference. The Jewish citizens of Russia will effect thirty-two candidates, six of whom will be chosen by officials of the Ministries, with the approval of the Provincial Governors, to serve in the Conference.

1 Since the first accusation against the Rabbi, the police officers were outstandingly brutal. Nabakin was notorious even among that select circle.

"The election is to be well publicized in advance, by orders of the Minister of the Interior. The elected candidates will be received on March 15, 1848, in the office of the special committee in the Bureau of Religions, Ministry of the Interior.

"The Ministry hereby notifies Honored Citizen Tzadik Mendel Shachnovitch of Lubavitch that he will be a candidate from Mogilev Province, and, no doubt, one of the six delegates."

The Rabbi wrote the Minister that he found it impossible even to verify his candidacy at the provincial capital as required by law, and by no means could he be a delegate. A month later the Rabbi received a vehement note from the Governor, that the Minister rejected the Rabbi's request to be excused, and insisted that the Rabbi be a delegate from Mogilev. However, he need not appear in the capital -- a special concession -- but must submit a written acceptance of candidacy. The Rabbi then submitted an affidavit from the noted physician and Academician, Heibenthal, that his health demanded complete rest, and he dared not do anything liable to excite him.

All the while the campaign was being vigorously carried on by the centers. The election results in most cities -- except Vilna, Zhitomer, Bessarabia, and Odessa -- were gratifying to the religious elements. In all, twenty-six religious lay nominees were chosen, and only six irreligious ones. The joint committee chose as the six actual delegates: one Rabbi Eliezer Lifschitz, Werbel and Eichenbaum as scholars, and the merchants Bernstein of Odessa, Goldberg of Bialystok, and Bashkovitch of Vitebsk. Dr. Mandelstam suggested that Dr. Stern and Dr. Simcha Pinsker, a teacher in the Odessa school, serve in an advisory capacity. They were to substantiate the claims of instructors in the Rabbinical Seminaries of Vilna and Zhitomer, based on explicit Talmudic proof that certain Jewish customs not only lack any religious foundation, but are actually proscribed by Torah law on the grounds of sorcery and superstition.

The Petersburg Vaad closely followed the conference proceedings, the stands of the delegates, the advisors, and their personal conduct. Werbel, Eichenbaum, and Bernstein, in addition to their complete ignorance of Torah, were thoroughly irreligious, publicly addicted to trefa food and desecration of the Shabbos, in brazen disregard of the sensibilities of observant Jews. Lifschitz, a native of Stuttgart and a graduate of the Rabbinical Seminary of Metz, was a gifted Torah scholar but was, nonetheless, irreligious and self-indulgent. He was the special instructor of Rabbinic law in the Vilna Seminary.1 Goldberg and Bashkovitch had only an ordinary knowledge of Torah but were pious and resolute men.

1 The Seminary was dedicated, late in 1847, in the presence of a special representative of the Ministry of Culture. The founding of the Seminary caused consternation in Vilna's religious community. (The head of the Seminary was an apostate Jew, and the staff was rich in retired policemen and soldiers. - Trans.)

Dr. Stern, though an ardent Maskil entirely dedicated to the Haskalah and to his students,1 was still under the impressions of the Commission of 1843. His own participation in the Commission, the explanations of the questions he posed the Rabbi, and the Rabbi's determination and self-sacrifice, led him to more careful mitzvah observance. Pinsker, fluent in Russian and French, was an authority on Karaism, its history, literature, and practices. An outspoken free-thinker, he persistently mocked Jewish customs.

1 Dr. Stern was an assiduous scholar, well versed in philosophy. In addition to his regular students in the school, he tutored individual pupils, the indigent without fee. During school vacations he often went to Bessarabia to preach the doctrines of Haskalah. If on his trips he discovered a poor but promising lad, Stern would take him to Odessa to study, and arrange for all his needs. Stern often remarked that he would forego his portion in the Hereafter if he could find gifted youths and persuade them to engage in intellectual pursuits.

Dr. Mandelstam had an acquaintance, Schwalbach,1 a senior official in the Ministry of Culture, an intimate of Uvarov. Schwalbach could easily influence the Minister on Jewish matters, since Uvarov bitterly hated Judaism. Through Schwalbach, Mandelstam persuaded Uvarov to have the German translated Siddur and abridged Chumash made obligatory in the cheder schools, with punishments for recalcitrant teachers.

1 The elder Schwalbach, a Swedish noble, had Uvarov as his annual summer guest at his seaside estate. Schwalbach the younger provided Uvarov with considerable sums of money.

The Vaad followed the progress of the conference through Goldberg and Bashkovitch, and exploited connections in the Bureau of Religions, the site of the conference, for more particulars. All information on the conference, delegates, advisors, proposals, speeches, mockery of religions, Pinsker's s derision of Jewish customs -- all was promptly transmitted to the centers for public dissemination.

After every session, Goldberg and Bashkovitch attended the synagogue, where they described all developments pertinent to the Jewish religion. They stated that the Government regarded the verdicts of Lifschitz -- they used an epithet, refusing to utter his name -- as authoritative as a Rabbi's, since he had been ordained in Metz. Their own opposition was totally ignored, the irreligious nominees being in the majority. Several times the two merchants lodged sharp protests and attacked Werbel and Eichenbaum (Bernstein, having no mind of his own, simply parroted the others) as being worse than the Spanish Inquisition: the Inquisitors were frankly opposed to the religion of Moshe and Israel, while these men claimed to speak in the name of Judaism.

Once, when Eichenbaum's words were especially galling to the two merchants, they said to the chairman, a Christian, "It is disgraceful for an intelligent person to listen to someone revile religion, to say nothing of reckoning with his opinions. These men are determined to deprive us of our rights as delegates to this conference, while they make decisions with four votes, on the grounds of majority. But the power of the elected is proportionate to the power of the electors, and no doubt the officials of the Government are aware that these four represent only 5 % of the electorate, while we two represent the 95 % of the Jews who observe the Torah and religion of Israel."

Lifshitz, Eichenbaum, and Werbel sprang up in excitement, and demanded that the insults be recorded and punishments be meted out to Goldberg and Bashkovitch.

"Besides," pointed out Mandelstam, chief secretary of the conference, "they cast aspersions on the Government, charging that the elections are invalid, since a minority of the electorate has majority representation."

"It is not true?" retorted Bashkovitch. "Not only are 95% of the Jews Torah-observant, but 90% of the questions on the agenda, to be resolved by this conference, are related to the very religion all of you deny. There are nine questions on shechita, and five on the synagogue. You, who eat trefa and desecrate the Shabbos and holidays, what do you care about shechita and shochtim, or the sanctity of the synagogue? Even the four questions on marriage have nothing to do with you. Only two questions have any connection with you: 1) Is an uncircumcised person considered a Jew? and 2) The problem of a disowned apostate. What tragic irony! Of the twenty questions the Ministries were urged to call a conference to settle, eighteen are held in contempt by the majority of the delegates, convened to give these questions their earnest consideration! "

The chairman was angry, but silent. Then Goldberg took the floor, saying: "About two weeks ago, when we told the Jews in the synagogue about the proceedings and the attitudes of the delegates to religion and their mockery of custom, the people demanded that we publicize these facts in all Jewish cities. If the chairman and officials consider only the opinions of the mockers of Judaism,. then we -- Bashkovitch and I must submit a written protest and our resignations. Under these conditions, namely, that the decisions on religious matters lie in the hands of profaners of religion, we are unable to discharge our duties, and must reject any responsibility."

"You disclose in public the proceedings of the conference!" cried Mandelstam. "You intend to inspire contempt among the Jews for the conduct of Government officials who are fulfilling, by command of His Majesty, their duties regarding the Jewish citizens. You deserve to be punished for subversion!"

"Is the synagogue worse than the restaurant of Nicholas Charitonov?" demanded Goldberg. "You concoct your little plots there. Tell me, is the time ripe yet to propose the abolition of chalitza and yibbum? . . . Eichenbaum is of the opinion that the question should be brought up for vote . . . Should we not then be permitted to divulge your opinions and proposals publicly? We have been receiving letters of instructions and warnings from some forty communities, all written in the same vein:

"We have learned that the majority of the delegates to the conference deny the Torah and jeer at mitzvos, and that Eliezer Lifshitz, denounced by the gaonim of Israel, was crowned with the title Rav, to adjudicate and interpret the questions presented by the Government. We Jews, observant of Torah and mitzvos, selected you to defend our Torah and faith. However, considering the fact that you are in the minority, we request you to express the protest of observant Jewry to the opinions and proposals of the delegates Mr. Lifshitz, Mr. Werbel, Mr. Eichenbaum, and Mr. Bernstein, in view of their flagrant violation of Jewish law. Therefore you are to submit your resignations to the Bureau of Religions.'

"On this basis," continued Goldberg, as he and Bashkovitch rose, "we have the honor to submit to His Excellency, the Chairman, our protest, at the behest of the observant Jews whom we represent here, and with this protest, our resignations as delegates to this conference."

As they handed the note to the chairman, the other delegates were too dumbfounded to speak. The chairman, though angered -- these bearded Jews with ear locks, dressed in the Jewish garb of the Pale of Settlement, dared to speak out so sharply against scholars and officials! -- restrained himself and said smilingly, "I never realized there are such sincere Jews who desire to fulfill their obligations to their electors with such honesty and truth."

"That is precisely the misfortune of Israel," replied Bashkovitch. "The officials are not acquainted with the observant Jews who sacrifice their lives and treasure for Torah and mitzvos. Jews can tolerate injury to their property, and perhaps even bodily harm, but whatever affects religion and Torah, Jews can never tolerate. The affliction of our people is that Government officials are familiar only with those who are merely of Jewish descent, but have severed all contact with Torah, and are degenerates and libertines. These are, unfortunately, considered by officials as being representative of the Jews." Ignoring all pleas and arguments, the two men left.

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