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The Zemach Zedek and the Haskalah Movement

Chapter 6
The Rebbe Defends Jewish Education

For some ten years, 1828-1838, the Maskilim of Poland, Vohlyn, and Lithuania endeavored to spread the idea of secular learning among Russian Jews. The last three years, 1835-1838, were especially active ones for the Riga Maskilim, led by Dr. Lilienthal. The simple and sincere Jews of Courland and Lifland were in close touch with the generally irreligious Riga Jews, and for them the Haskalah soon became quite modish.

A group of young and "enlightened" Maskilim in Petersburg, adherents of Dr. Lilienthal, attempted with great vigor and lavish gifts, to gain access for their mentor into the Ministry of Culture. They organized groups of young intellectuals under the name of "Ehrer der Weltliche Wissenschaft"1 that met in a fashionable hotel, and invited Dr. Lilienthal to lecture for them. His erudition put him at the forefront of the group. Since many officials of the Ministry were members, Dr. Lilienthal became acquainted with them. These friendships and his letters of introduction opened Ministry doors for him.

1 German was popular at the time. See fn. 19.

At that time Chassidic communal efforts in Petersburg were directed toward alleviating the pressing economic hardships crushing Russian Jewry. They concentrated on the appropriate Ministry, Interior, and neglected to cultivate the Ministry of .Culture. As soon as the Chassidim learned of the young Maskilim's efforts to gain entry into the Ministry for Lilienthal, they notified Lubavitch. At the Rabbi's instructions they sought and found means of counteracting the Maskilim in the Ministry, and cooling official relations with Lilienthal.

The vaad members explained to the officials the attitudes of devout Jews, the opponents of religious laxity, and their contention that wide secular education was not important to the indiscriminate masses, but rather to selected individuals. The education every Russian citizen needed to fulfill his civil duties and for commercial activities, they declared, was routine for every Jew.1 During 1837-1838 the vaad succeeded in rendering less cordial the officials' reception of the Maskilim's demands, including Lilienthal's proposal to require Jewish children to attend public schools for secular training.

1 Educational standards in Russia at that time may be charitably described as dismal. Russia had attained almost universal illiteracy, certainly among the masses, and no system of compulsory public education existed. Official distress at the lack of formal secular learning among Jews was most touching. - Trans.

An incident had recently occurred that the Maskilim exploited for their own ends. The Government had closed all Jewish publishing houses" except the one in Vilna, and another in the Vohlyn-Kiev region. The Maskilim proclaimed this as a move by the Government to prohibit the printing of Chassidic and Kabala literature, and simultaneously announced the intentions of the ever benevolent Government, of admitting Jewish children into secular schools. They waged an energetic campaign among the Jewish populace, in favor of secular education. Many Jews, aware of the Czar's animosity to Torah, and toward Chassidus and Kabala in particular, accepted these claims and signed petitions distributed by the Maskilim, pleading for facilities for their children to acquire a secular education.

Lilienthal was summoned by the Minister of Culture and requested to prepare a comprehensive report on organizing secular education for Russian Jewish children.1 Lilienthal accepted the assignment and requested, in turn, that he complete and perfect the report by personal familiarity with cultural conditions prevalent among Russian Jewry. He wished to make an extended journey through Vohlyn, Reisen, and White Russia, and visit the influential Jewish scholars.

1 His collaborator on this report was Nissan Rosenthal (see p. 29) . This is the meeting described on p. 17.

His travels convinced Lilienthal that most Jews were intransigent in their opposition to Haskalah, and despite the intensive persuasion campaign of the Maskilim, were firm in their adherence to the religion and practices of Israel. He also verified the reports on the influence wielded by the Torah scholars. Lilienthal therefore recommended that the Minister call a conference of three representative Jews -- a Maskil, a merchant, and a Rabbi -- to deliberate on a new regime for the education of the youth. This recommendation was accepted.

Uvarov wrote about the proposal to the Minister of the Interior,1 to make the necessary arrangements for the Commission of Rabbis, as the conference was to be known. After a year of preparation the Commission met with four members: Rabbi Menachem Mendel for the Chassidim; the Gaon Rabbi Isaac, son of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim, of Volozhin, representing the Misnagdim; Israel Halperin, a noted Berditchev financier; and Bezalel Stern of Odessa, a scholar. Mandelstam was appointed official translator.

1 Official documents cited here and later, covering May 7, 1842, until November 30, 1844, are in the Archives of the Ministry of Culture, #80575/K 3697.

At the first meeting, May 6, 1843, the Rabbi expressed his opinion that the purpose of the Commission could only be to encourage religious observance among Jews, and the reiteration of the indefensibility of tampering even with Jewish customs, since customs are also considered Torah. He then expressed his wonder that the Government had failed to correct the baseless rumor, spread by detractors of Torah, that publication of Chassidic and Kabala literature had been prohibited. He demanded that the Government publicize the truth about the closing of the publishing houses, and affirm the permissibility of printing these books.

The chairman of the session, an assistant Minister of Culture, retorted angrily, glaring at the Rabbi, "The Government has already prepared a detailed agenda for discussion at this meeting. I have no doubt that the Jewish Rabbis are aware of the purpose of this conclave, for they proclaim and affirm the Talmudic edict that 'The law of the land is law.' "

"Talmudic edicts," replied the Rabbi, "do not require our affirmation. The meaning of the statement, 'The law of the land is law,' is that all taxes, assessments, and laws promulgated for the welfare of the land and its economy, are law, and enjoy the authority of Torah. This concerns only economic and civil law1 but has no bearing on the religion and practices of Israel, the least consequential of which are Torah, according to the Jerusalem Talmud.2 If the intention of these who deprecate religious customs is to affect our religion, then we are enjoined to observe those customs selflessly, as explicit in another verdict, `Suffer death, but do not transgress.' "3

1 Choshen Mishpat 368, 8; Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, Gezela Ugeneva 19, etc.

2 Pesachim chapter 4, # 5. Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn in the Sicha of Pesach 5703, p. 63, adds this interesting vignette:
Rabbi Menachem Mendel staunchly defended every slightest Torah point from Uvarov's assaults. At the first session Uvarov instructed the secretary to present the program -- prepared by the Minister and his assistants -- for the education of Jewish children. He ordered the four participants to sign the document. Realizing the dangers implicit in the situation, Rabbi Menachem Mendel protested. "The Government summoned us to hear our opinions, not for us to affirm what others decided." He refused to sign, and resigned from the Commission.
Lilienthal, who was at Uvarov's side, whispered to him. Uvarov sprang up in anger and demanded, "Is not the law of the land law?"
Rabbi Menachem Mendel answered, "That principle applies only to material considerations, not to spiritual affairs. It applies only to financial matters like taxation. Even Jewish custom is Torah, and no one has the right to tamper with it."
Uvarov asked, "There is a custom that Jewish women cover their faces with their hands when kindling Sabbath candles. Is that law, too?"
"It is," the Rabbi replied. "The Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 4, # 1) states that the usage of women is Torah."

3 Yoreh Deah 157 for sources.

This reply infuriated the chairman still more, and he threatened the Rabbi with harsh punishment for contempt of the law. However, considering that this was a first offence, the chairman graciously contented himself at the time with a sharp warning to be more careful in the future, and to cooperate in fulfilling his duties as a citizen, in helping to bring to fruition the laws of the Government for the welfare of his fellow Jewish citizens. The meeting was then adjourned, and the Rabbi was shortly after informed that he was under house arrest for three days, in a building of the Ministry of Culture.

He was to see no one but his personal attendant, Israel Chaikin. He was then led to his place of confinement by a detail of gendarmes, who remained on twenty-four hour guard at his door.

The threats and warnings did not upset the Rabbi. According to Chaikin, who attended the Rabbi throughout his stay in Petersburg, the Rabbi was under house arrest no less that twenty-two different times for periods of one, two, and three days. Incidentally, this is why the Commission lasted longer than planned (May 6 to August 27) .

The issues of marriage, divorce, chalitza, desertion, circumcision, apostates, synagogues, mikvah, and cemeteries, were settled with little controversy. The storm broke with the question of education for children and youths. The Rabbi maintained a firm stand, refusing to countenance changing the most minute custom, for example the alef-bais method of teaching Hebrew, the text of the morning Shema, the blessing for tzitzith as recited by small children, etc.

Though Lilienthal had no deciding voice in the proceedings, he carried on a vigorous and crafty campaign to destroy traditional procedures in education and prayer, and substitute the innovations of the Maskilim. In this he was unsuccessful. Stern, a recognized scholar and scion of a family of ardent Maskilim, was an earnest and sympathetic individual. Despite his opinions, which were diametrically opposed to the stands of Rabbi Isaac and Halperin, to say nothing, of the Rabbi, Stern was moved by the Rabbi's unwavering determination to protect and insure the observance of even the least significant Jewish custom. He frequently agreed with the Rabbi, and his votes with the religious group often decided issues in their favor, a development most frustrating to Dr. Lilienthal.

Once, when the problem was a proposal to abridge prayers, the chairman, a Ministry official, announced that the decision would be in accord with the Torah principle of majority rule. "Dr. Stern and I say 'abridge.' Rabbi Schneersohn and Mr. Halperin vote 'no change.' Rabbi Isaac abstains. His silence denotes consent, so we constitute the majority." With that he instructed the secretary to record the decision to abridge the prayers.

The Rabbi interrupted. "Do not rush to record this 'decision.' I have already been punished several times for insisting that the Ministry of Culture invited these selected Jewish citizens to hear them out on Jewish law and custom. The Ministry desired to hear their opinions, and did not summon them to inform them of the Ministry's opinion on these matters. These matters are not known to the Ministry from their authentic sources, but through the corrupted wellsprings of atheists and Torah illiterates. The information on the Jewish religion given the Ministry by these atheists is erroneous and confused, and ridiculous to any Jew learned in Torah. I must repeat my earlier statement: the Ministry of Culture has no authority over Jewish law and custom. If the Ministry usurps the prerogative to cast the deciding vote, I hereby -- as I have warned you before -- resign from this Commission, and request permission to leave.

"The principle of majority rule is irrelevant here. This is simply another ridiculous distortion by ignorant free-thinkers. We were not summoned to legislate; we are here to clarify statutes previously decided in the laws of the Mosaic faith. We are here to clarify, too, the customs of Israel, to protect both the commandments of G-d and Jewish usage from tampering. Even, conceding the false interpretation of majority rule, we must consider the number of electors rather than the number of representatives. Rabbi Isaac, Mr. Halperin, and I, represent the 99 % of the Jewish population who cherish the Torah and sincerely observe the laws of G-d. As a matter of fact, Mr. Halperin and I could just as easily interpret Rabbi Isaac's silence as affirmation of our stand not to alter a single word of the liturgy."

"Certainly," replied Rabbi Isaac, "I subscribe to the opinions of Rabbi Schneersohn and Mr. Halperin to make no alterations in the liturgy."

The chairman, short-tempered and easily provoked anyway, replied furiously that he would report the Rabbi's derogatory remarks about the Ministry to his superiors, and would inform the Minister of the Interior that it was evident from the Rabbi's statements that he was a revolutionist, thereby placing the Rabbi in grave peril. "And you," he snapped to the secretaries, "will sign my reports."

The Rabbi made no reply, and the other delegates, including Stern, were disturbed by the official's angry threats, since he had a reputation for harshness. Three days later, a Friday, the Rabbi was requested to appear before the Minister of Culture at three o'clock that afternoon.

In view of the gravity of the situation, Stern offered his services as interpreter to the Rabbi. (The two Rabbis used Yiddish throughout the Commission, with the assistance of translators. Rabbi Isaac used Dr. Stern, and the Rabbi had either Israel Chaikin or Shmarya Feitelsohn.) The Rabbi thanked Stern for his thoughtfulness, but preferred Chaikin. However, the Rabbi told Stern, he had no objections to Stern's presence at the meeting, if official permission would be obtained.

In the presence of representatives of the Third Section, police officials, and subordinate officials of the Ministry of Justice, Uvarov ordered a reading of the report of the Commission chairman.

"Regarding the Tzadik Mendel Schneersohn. He deliberately disturbs the progress of the sessions; he disparages the law of the State by claiming that the Government may levy taxes but dare not interfere with the least custom of the Jews; to every logical and legal proposal to improve the lot of the Jews, proposals offered or approved by Jewish scholars, the Tzadik Rabbi Mendel Schachnovitch Schneersohn imperiously expresses his adamant view that they ( the delegates) were summoned to voice their own opinions, not to hear the opinions of others. He has been punished often, but remains recalcitrant."

Attached to this report were some brief and general observations on "the biography of the Tzadik Schneersohn of Lubavitch, his way of life, his Rabbinical and communal work, his influence over Jews living in Russia and its neighboring countries.

"Rabbi Mendel Shachnovitch Schneersohn was born in Lyozna, Vitebsk province. He was educated by his grandfather, Rabbi Schneur Zalman Baruchovitch, who, in 1798, was imprisoned by Czar Paul in the Petropavlovsk fortress in Petersburg as a revolutionary.

"Because of the Tzadik Baruchovitch's hatred for the French, he behaved like a loyal and patriotic citizen on behalf of his native land during the French War, in recognition of which the Government expressed its gratitude to his son, the Tzadik Rabbi Ber Schneuri. Rabbi Schneuri was later suspected, with Berlin and Zeitlin, of the murder of the Christian child for ritual purposes"1 in Velizh, Vitebsk, in 1823. Only the intervention of Count Galitzin, a friend of Rabbi Schneuri and his father, saved him from his just punishment. In 1826 he was convicted of treason for sending, large sums of money to Turkey. Though Governor Chavanski insisted on punishing him severely, he was again shielded, this time by the Academician, Dr. Heibenthal.

1 These vicious libels recurred frequently, exacting a terrible toll of innocent Jewish blood at the hands of gullible and infuriated mobs. Of course the accusation here was utterly baseless, as usual; and was a frightening but transitory experience. - Trans.

"Rabbi Schneersohn, on assuming the Rabbinate in Lubavitch in 1827, promptly organized an opposition group to obstruct the conscription of Jews." The report continued with a list of the Rabbi's sins and transgressions over a period of twelve years, the frequent house-searches, the assignment of a gendarme officer in Lubavitch to observe the Rabbi and the hundreds of visitors who daily sought his counsel and attended his lectures, the Rabbi's incessant urgings to ignore the law of public school education . . .

"It would be worthwhile to examine the report of Dr. Lilienthal on his journeys of 1841-1842. Wherever he came to speak on the benefits the Government intends for the Jews, its plans to teach Jewish children the national tongue, no one would hear him. His book Magid Yeshuah (Herald of Salvation) that announces well-founded aspirations for the Jewish people, and urges the communities to heed the Government, and which he distributed by the thousands, was destroyed by the Jews at the instruction of Rabbi Schneersohn."

As the secretary read the report and the added note, the police officials grew more and more enraged. The Rabbi's unperturbed expression infuriated them, since they knew that he understood Russian, the language of the report. When the secretary concluded the report -- or "accusation," as Stern dubbed it -- Uvarov addressed the Rabbi with barely restrained fury. "I should like to know what Rabbi Schneersohn has to say about this."

Before the Rabbi could answer, Stern rose and said in fluent German, "For the sake of the purity of culture, of which the Minister is a patron, I feel impelled to state that the report abused the truth in condemning Rabbi Schneersohn for contempt of the law of the land, obstructing the .proceedings of the Commission, and so forth. The report paints an entirely different picture of the Rabbi's conduct, which was, in fact quite proper, although he does not deny his personal views and is quite articulate in expressing them."

Uvarov turned sharply to Stern, "Are you another defender of Rabbi Schneersohn, the who vilifies of the Government and its laws?"

"No doubt," interposed a representative of the Ministry of justice, "the Rabbi is ignorant of the laws concerning contempt. I would suggest that the laws be translated and the Rabbi informed of the punishments involved."

"Rabbi Schneersohn knows the law and the punishments for offenders," Lilienthal broke in. "He also knows of the Czar's desire to benefit his Jewish subjects by extricating them from their ignorance and superstitions of demons, sorcery, evil-eye, and reincarnation, to make them citizens useful to themselves and the country. Still, Rabbi Schneersohn endeavored, through his personal emissaries, to arouse public opinion against me. Though it was well known that I traveled on an official mission to announce His Majesty's intentions for his subjects, no one appeared at the meetings I called. When I entered a Synagogue on the Sabbath day, a Synagogue filled with worshipers, as I would ascend the pulpit, before I could utter a single word, voices would call, 'The apostate from Riga is here to convert Jews! Leave the Synagogue!' Scores of arms would be raised against me in mortal anger. Someone would shout, `Don't touch the filthy German apostate! Out of the Synagogue!' And in a moment the Synagogue would be emptied. When I walked in the street people pointed to me as to a leper. In many cities I could not even walk in the streets because of gangs of urchins chasing me and shouting, 'Here is the German apostate! Here is the builder of shmad houses (missions) for Jewish children!'"

At Lilienthal's words Uvarov turned livid. "All the reports of Dr. Lilienthal have been verified by the Secret Police, and appended to the report of the Commission chairman. The matter will be referred to the Minister of justice to decide on the appropriate punishment, to be carried out by the Third Section, Ministry of the Interior. I extend permission to Rabbi Schneersohn to extenuate his past actions, and give assurances as to his future conduct, as is customary with all accused people. A full report of this meeting will be added to the documents accusing Rabbi Schneersohn of contempt of the Government and the law."

The Rabbi replied, "I make no admissions to any accusations of guilt of insulting the Government or its laws. Throughout my service I always taught my people what is permitted and what is forbidden by Torah and usage, as practiced over the centuries. I have done so, I do so now, and I will continue to do so with no regard for malicious slander intended to do me harm. In the knowledge that I have sincerely fulfilled my duty, I am not frightened by the most severe punishments."

The meeting lasted some five hours. When they left they found scores of people in the street waiting for the Rabbi. The Rabbi hurried to his lodgings, and before long everyone knew what had transpired at the meeting. The religious homes were shrouded in sorrow.

The Rabbi's resoluteness and selflessness throughout the meeting impressed Stern greatly. He declared that he had never seen or believed that someone could place himself in a position of certain peril with such perfect equanimity, without the least hesitation, as though he were entirely unaffected. "The venerable Zalman Baruch Kalarasher once related that, when Shlomoleh Shtadlan would intercede with officials on behalf of Jewish village folk, he took his burial shrouds with him, being prepared for any eventuality. No doubt those who intercede on Jews' behalf today take their shrouds along too, but leave their mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) at home. The Lubavitcher Rebbe left his shrouds, but brought his mesiras nefesh," Stern observed.

After this Friday meeting the members of the Rabbinical Commission were informed by the Ministry of Culture that, due to unforeseen circumstances, the sessions scheduled for Monday and later, were indefinitely postponed. The members were requested to remain in Petersburg for information about a new date.

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